In conversation with Mashrur Arefin, winner of Gemcon Sahitya Puroshkar 2020
Around the beginning of this century, Mashrur Arefin embarked on the literary scene as a poet with the collection Tale of Iswardi, Mayor and the Mule. Then after a long gap that spanned a decade, he emerged again in 2013 as a translator of Frantz Kafka’s Complete Stories, which was followed in 2015 by a scholarly translation of Homer’s Iliad. It was in 2019 that he published his debut novel, August Abchaya, to critical acclaim. His second novel, Althusser, was published in 2020. In this interview, Mashrur talks at some length about August Abchaya for which he won the Gemcon Sahitya Puroshkar 2020.
How would you put in a nutshell your novel which is based on the darkest chapter of Bangladesh’s post-independence history?
Mashrur Arefin: This is not a historical novel per se. But of course, it “obliquely” deals with the darkest chapter of our nation.
You see, writing fiction, at its core, is a tricky business. Because through your writing you intrude into other people’s lives. The issue naturally becomes more complicated when you base your work on the brutal killing of some famous historical figure.
I intrude into Bangabandhu’s life on that fateful night in 1975, in terms of imagining, for example, what he, then president of the republic, was thinking when he found intruders at his residence at that hour. I find this whole act somewhat ethically objectionable. People generally believe that it is okay to talk about the traumas and emotional shocks of others. They tend to think that finding or establishing a common thread of traumas running across the universe is a valid, writerly vocation. But when you cause memories of dead people to reappear or resurface, you essentially violate a pact with the dead who ever silently keeps telling you one simple thing: “Spare me, let me sleep.”
It becomes a bigger ethical issue when you are dealing with some larger-than-life figure such as Bangabandhu. You disturb and torture him by imagining his agonies in a way as if those belong to the public domain. And he, being dead, can’t defend, can’t say a thing. You try to make it more emotionally effective on your readers by making the prose lyrical. That lyricism itself is a violation of what in the truest sense is sacred about a human “soul”. We are talking about someone who died helplessly, got murdered, while you on your part start to describe the event with some shiny prose like how the moon was behind the clouds at that moment. Oh! it’s bound to be a vainglorious act.
So, what approach did you adopt to narrate those gruesome events concerning the assassination of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman?
MA: As I said, writing about the most fateful night of our nation’s history is doomed to be fraught with vanity. My plan, therefore, was to present the whole thing in a way that intrusion of any gross nature could be avoided. But what happened in the third chapter of the book (from page 201 to 245) totally defeated my initial plan. You will say, it’s creative writing; however, if Bangabandhu emerged from his grave, he’d say, “It’s all fake. I was not at all feeling what this writer has shown me to have felt.”
When you imagine things on someone else’s behalf, you kind of enter a self-created vortex. Dealing with the death of a man who had died, let alone the deaths of all his family members within the same hour, can’t be done with honesty unless you yourself don’t have some extra sensory obsession about the passing of time. Time saves you here, and you feel, in the end, somewhat redeemed by the time’s passage.
That’s why writers can still write about killings. They start obliquely. But they can’t stay that way for long. Rather, it all tends to become just the opposite—which is, direct. Of course, so many good things can be said about the so-called direct approach, but the fact remains that there are dark sides to such an enterprise.
Would you call August Abchhaya a historical novel at some level?
MA: All I can say is, August Abchhaya is touted as a historical novel. But is it really so? It definitely isn’t one that gives its own version of why things happened the way they did.
I believe that due to the convenience of putting books in certain categories, we call August Abchhaya a historical novel just because that killing business is the pivot of the novel.
But a pivot is only a pivot. A lot more actually happens in the outer, larger perimeters or the circumference of any center. Actually, the pivot, if you look at it closely, is just an archeological matter—it does not allow any emotion, any judgement; it only says that Homo Sapiens are prone to commit many acts of violence. That’s it. But in fiction you want more than that—you want human lives to be recreated around the pivot. So, here is the irony—in order to achieve that, you must go beyond the pivot, to the outer perimeters of action.
Fiction emerges there, around the borders of the circumference of things. I say all this just to highlight that a writer’s passion for dealing with a chapter as dark as this particular one has its own darker, egotistical and —politically speaking—“ideological” sides.
What inspired you to write a novel about the carnage in which almost the entire family of a country’s sitting President was brutally assassinated?
MA: I wanted to stand face to face with memory. Not the collective memory of the nation, but my personal memory about the 15th of August in 1975, which is forever lodged in my brain. I was only a boy of six at that time. I recall a somewhat hazy, foggy Barishal morning when my father, who resembled Bangabandhu, was trembling in fear and crying in front of a friend of his. I also remember running back to our house from that place. I remember it was too much to bear for me—my father crying and all that, and it has remained too much to bear for me ever since.
You see, physical pain has a limit because you will lose your consciousness. But mental pain has no end to it. The protagonist of the novel consumes sleeping pills, alprazolam, just to deal with his pain which causes him prolonged insomnia. Fact is, people usually suffer in silence. The hero in the novel is very much aware from start to finish that everyone is suffering—that there is no Christ who succeeded in taking away our sufferings, no religion which can replace aspirin.
You get the sense in the novel that everyone of us is living in some mental hospitals, because, I mean, we are a species always in pain, in despair. The hero in the book, hence, is out of his depth all the time. He lives in the borderline between the normal natural world and the abnormally ghoulish world of ‘violent’ books, all of which sing the sad songs of our perennial death march.
The fault line runs right through our physical and mental states. Physical state tells us—carry on, man. Mental state says—memory is a heavy burden, relieve me. The tectonic plates collide against each other at a point where memory stands as the source of pain between your two states. You can subdue it, but you cannot escape it.
My inspiration was of course a pure and simple love for Bangabandhu who asked the Pakistanis to leave this land. But think about it—Bangabandhu himself then became a not-so-popular ruler. Such a Machiavellian notion of history gives you a fuzzy feeling about human history as created by us. I was never interested in that.
All I cared about was to take a deep-dive into how memory comes in between the tectonic plates of physical and mental sufferings. In my book, I tried to find a common cause of that suffering, which, in this case, was the killing of Bangabandhu as imagined and suffered in the process of remembering by the protagonist. The protagonist then turns it into a phenomenon of sufferings, which is applicable for all, irrespective of who cares for Bangabandhu and who does not. Creating such a paradigm or a phenomenon out of the 1975 carnage in a new post-modernist language and fictional form was my core inspiration.
The brutalities unleashed upon Bangabandhu and his family are at the heart of the novel. Yet it is replete with references to books in subjects ranging from literature to science to philosophy. Why take this tortuous route to history instead of dealing directly with it? Was it a stylistic choice to defy realism?
MA: Joseph Conrad, perhaps in Lord Jim, said that the true history is the history which is imagined by a fiction writer, that the history based on documents are mere documents, not history. I am not a historian, I am a fiction writer. So, I must approach the main road by traversing through many other highways and byways. Otherwise the violence perpetrated upon the dead will be too much—it will be an act of blasphemy and sacrilege. So, I had to describe it obliquely, with off-kilter pen angles. The route is not as tortuous as you say; it is rather aslant.
Another reason was that I wanted to arrest the time. That’s why the protagonist enters into that fateful day as if everything is happening in the Present. The thing is, fiction as an art form always moves in time. It is always inclined towards the end of time and it works on a negative gradient and it is very difficult to arrest the passage of time. When I revisited the killing scene as part of my research, which is the house at Dhanmondi 32, I looked at the staircase and felt that I am taken out of time. Same thing happens when you look at, say, a Monet painting at an art gallery—you travel to Monet’s time. This offers you a sense of redemption because you feel released from the passage of time.
Looking at the bullet holes in that house offered me a similar sense, and I instantly realised that the only way to approach it is to travel in time in a literal sense, and since that action has to be direct in its nature, I must first travel the world of books to balance it out.
I also wanted to make use of symbols which will portray violence, like the Asian water buffaloes in the novel. I wanted the same symbols, also, to portray the unhindered course of nature which the death of a human being cannot puncture. All this made it necessary for me to make the story aslant. Hence the travel into some particular books of literature or science, all of which you will see deal with human cruelty and nature’s indifference.
You translated Homer’s Iliad and Kafka’s oeuvre into Bengali. The narrator of this novel, a history professor at a private university, has also translated these same writers into Bengali. Many elements of self-reflexivity in this way are evident from the very first chapter, which appear in later chapters as a thread. Was this a conscious choice or something that you worked out while writing the novel?
MA: I don’t trust the third person omniscience narration, which always appears to be fake to me. The whole thing of writing fiction is fake, I agree, but still first-person narration lends some extra authenticity; it creates more heightened sensations than what can be created in the Tolstoian mode of narration. That other mode kills the hunger for fiction because the all-powerful, the all-seeing narrator makes it all too obvious, too real.
The notion of mimesis is an important one. In fiction you are trying to create a mirror image of the real life. But interestingly the real life can never be real because you as somebody else is creating it through imagining what is real. So, your narration is bound to be unreliable to a great extent, no matter which mode of narration you choose. Still, I feel when I am talking as “I” in my novel, I am playing this deceptive mimesis-game more cleverly, as if I am reserving the personal right of lying and truth-telling because it’s an everyday “I” talking.
“I”, additionally, can see things in a much more limited way than “he”. “I” cannot narrate the scene of House 32, Dhanmondi when the “I” is physically present at, say, Balur Maath where the briefing to the jawans started at 8:00pm on the 14th of August. This limited vison of “I” is a truer vision than the all-seeing vision of the “he”.
Also, for the purpose of narrating a story as personal as this, which is the killing of a few helpless individuals by a strong 400-man army, I needed to avoid fiction-making as much as possible, I needed to close the gap between the author and the readers. First-person narration helped me there, too.
Referring to so many books and delving into so many literary, archaeological and philosophical discussions often runs the risk of losing the thread of the fictional form. How did you tackle this challenge?
MA: I learnt the art of keeping close to the main thread from masters like Conrad, W G Sebald, Amiya Bhushan, Marguerite Yourcenar, V S Naipaul, and Joseph Roth. All six of them come to the core of their plot only after some wanderings in the woods, which you can call the perimeters. To do that, all I needed was a graphically detailed note-book with jottings sub-sectioned into characters and events. My note-book runs like 100 pages for this 455-page-long handwritten manuscript.
Do you prefer fiction writing to translation? Or you enjoy them equally?
At my age, writing my own fiction is a better investment in terms of time and energy. You see, Homer contains it all, while Kafka recreates the same Homeric tragic world with different sensibility and hue. I needed to translate the works of those two masters to learn the art of writing good, non-baroque Bangla prose. I don’t think I need another painful experience of engaging in a secondary or inferior act, which we call translation.
Would you care to share any word of advice for aspiring fiction writers?
MA: A new writer must ask this question to himself—why would someone be interested in reading my book? The answer lies in your ability or inability to connect the personal stories of people you narrate with the history of a time and place. I mean, unless a personal story has a historicity to it, why would people read my story when they can see enough of human lives just at the Mohakhali rail-crossing?
To that, I would also add: be attentive to the embracing of the trivia and the inconsequentiality of our daily existence, to the dimming consciousness as one mood gives way to another, to the unpredictability of our life-stories, and finally, to the “ending” that resolves nothing, that offers no solution in the traditional sense but that which truly depicts the “problem”.