Saturday, June 15, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Dhaka and Akhtaruzzaman Elias

Update : 16 Jun 2022, 11:56 AM

There is a growing consensus among critics that the novels and stories written by Akhtaruzzaman Elias (1943–1997) mark a height that remains unsurpassed in the history of modern Bengali fiction. His novels, written on epic scale, are about watershed moments in history that culminated in a liberation war through which Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation in 1971. His stories, which also bear marks of dialogic narratives, are mostly set in post-independence Bangladesh. He displays a remarkable ability to write about both villages and cities with equal fluency and artistic flair. This article deals with how Dhaka is portrayed in his short fiction. 

Culture and History of Old Dhaka in Short Stories

Each and every urban story by Elias brings out the physical aspect of old Dhaka through meticulous description, which comes by way of recollections or through the workings of a probing mind. The narrow streets choked with vehicles, sweetmeat shops, cinema posters, and eateries serving biriyani attain a life of their own, which not only has its unique ties with every story but also has immense sociological significance.

“Dozokher Om,” the title story from the collection of the same name, revolves around Kamaluddin who, paralyzed on one side, spends his days and nights lying on his cot, half-dead. His ill-tempered wife and younger daughter died long ago; his youngest son had been martyred in the 1971 liberation war. They appear in his dreams to make his life more miserable. He soils the bed and cannot wash himself. He rightly compares his own life to the worst stage of hell.

While the external world goes on with its hellish realities, Kamaluddin dives deep into his own thoughts and digs out his past. His dream-like language brings out the bits of his homosexual encounter with a male friend in his youthful days of abandon, though he regards it, in retrospect, as a satanic incitement. On the one hand, he thinks about his personal losses and his emotions about his departed wife, son, and daughter, and on the other, he brings old Dhaka alive – its festivals (kite-flying to mark the end of spring), rituals, and local myths regarding its Nawabi past stretching back to the seventeenth century Mughal rule. He recalls his father who happened to be a follower of a saintly Muslim peer during the Nawabi days under the British Raj. Through this digressive recollection, charged with Arabic and Persian words, not only Kamaluddin’s own religious belief and practice become apparent but also the Islamic culture of the entire area of old Dhaka gets a vibrant expression. Religiosity, however, does not dictate personal space, as is manifest through his illicit interest in another woman, nor does it overpower popular culture, which is largely secular, as is manifest through the dominance of cinema culture. The ubiquity of cinema culture is best captured in “Jal Swopno” and “Ferari.” In “Ferari,” Hanif’s father Ibrahim Ostagor does not say his prayers at all. Younger people usually have other preoccupations than religion, unless one is an imam at a mosque, like Hanif’s brother-in-law.

Further, when expressing his anger, Kamaluddin uses curses profusely, which makes him more of a “Kutti” than a fervent Muslim, just like Ibrahim Ostagor, and Lal Mia in “Jal Swopno.” The same applies to Elias’s powerful female characters, especially Tara Bibi in “Tara Bibir Morod Pola” (The Adult Son of Tara Bibi) and Kamaluddin’s departed wife. The women use curses as decisively as they make raw expressions.

Critics have rightly pointed out an excess of physical details of places in Elias. Along with its unique linguistic trait, the fundamental cultural aspects of the communities living in old Dhaka become animated as a place that, though in the throes of modernity, is still dominated by its pre-modern values. In his introduction to the first part of Elias’s oeuvre, Khaliquazzaman Elias aptly remarks, “An avid reader of Joyce and Marquez, Elias describes a place in such meticulous way that a city, a community, an entire locality shakes off the debris of its past and comes alive – and this time around, it lives imperishably.”

The Subterranean World of Dreams

Just as Kamaluddin digresses to recollect the mythical, glorious days of his father’s time, Hanif digresses to recollect one of his father’s dreams. Dreams are integral to Elias’s stories but this particular dream of Ibrahim Ostagor is especially significant. Before he became a head mason by profession, he used to drive horse-drawn carriages, which are still seen in the crowded streets of old Dhaka, a link to its pre-modern Nawabi and Mughal past. While driving past Victoria Park one night, he saw a beautiful lady standing by who motioned him to stop and take her as a passenger. As soon as he got down from the carriage, he saw the lady being abducted by a headless torso of a soldier who then disappeared behind the palm trees lining the parks. Now that Ibrahim is in his death bed, he sees this ghost every few minutes and starts cursing him in the dirtiest language for taking the lady away. Hanif fails to make head or tail of this dream except that during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, several rebel soldiers were hanged by the British Raj from the palm trees lining the Park. According to local myth, some of them have afterwards turned into ghosts. So the headless torso is a rebel soldier turned into a ghost. This myth, along with Dhaka’s Nawabi and Mughal past, figures in Chilekotha, and the Sepoy Mutiny itself constitutes a powerful motif in Khwabnama through another local myth prevalent in the northern region of Bangladesh.

While Kamaluddin glorifies his father’s past to some extent, Hanif finds it difficult to do so and only vaguely realizes the demoralizing content of his father’s dream. Dhaka suffuses with history but its rich or vanquished or victorious past does not bring any relief for Hanif who is struggling to find a footing in the deteriorating political and economic situation of post-independence Bangladesh.

Dhaka’s Squalor and Existential Angst in Post-independence Bangladesh

Before the recollection of his father’s dream, Hanif went on a mugging expedition with Dumlaloo, a goon in his locality. As they position themselves to mug a rickshaw passenger, there appears in the scene a microbus with a bunch of people who foil their plans. Hanif wonders who they are. They are the greedy and rowdy sections of the newly risen middle class who want to grab everything around them, including abducting and raping women, explains Dumlaloo. One could, if only remotely, draw a parallel between the abducted lady in Ibrahim’s dream and the ravished women referred to by Dumlaloo.

This tension with history and widespread frustration over colossal corruption and lawlessness after the independence emerges as a recurring theme in Elias’s stories. In “Ferari,” along with “Jal Swopno,” this theme has been explored from the points of view of lower- and lower-middle class characters.

After the war ends, the squalor that defines Hanif’s life has only deteriorated. Hanif’s elder brother Hannan calls in a doctor to examine their father. “As the doctor left the mangy pariahs came out of the drains and in the darkening alleys and lane shook themselves dry” (Kaiser Haq’s translation). This description makes it clear that mangy strays rule the alleys in old Dhaka. When his father dies toward the end of the story, Hanif disappears into one of the many alleys that crisscross old Dhaka like stitches on a quilt. He keeps on walking. At a symbolic level, he wants to leave all the squalor behind and find a new life. But to his utter shock, he crosses one alley after another to end up in yet another set of alleys that lead him back to where he started. This labyrinth of alleys only heightens the squalor that defines his life and that he can never escape from.

This overriding sense of squalor constitutes the main theme in “Utsab” (Festival). Upon attending a marriage ceremony of a friend in a posh neighborhood, Anwar finds himself in a lighthearted mood. But he feels utterly disturbed the moment he enters the alley that leads to his house. The drain running along the alley flashes dirty, yellowish water and on the edge of it can be seen lumps of human and dog shit sitting side by side. He starts hating his filthy neighborhood and tacky, congested house, so much so that he withdraws from the nightly sexual ritual as he finds his wife thoroughly unattractive. But then there is this din out on the streets, raised by boys from the slums and shop-keepers, and taxi drivers. Stepping out on to the alley, he sees a band of boys and men cheering around two dogs that got stuck while mating. He walks back into his room and wastes no time to reach into his wife’s blouse.

The squalor portrayed in these two stories remind one of the “stinking mountains of shit that would appall even the most hardened Victorians,” referred to by Mike Davis in his Planet of Slums.

In “Jal Swopno,” we find a young man named Bullet, his martyred father Imamuddin, and opportunist Nazir Ali. In this story, Elias examines the slum-dwelling people’s response to the 1971 liberation war. Although the grubby slums are depicted, along with raw doses of wit and humor, this story underscores the defiance ingrained in the characters of Imamuddin and his son Bullet. In “Ferari” and “Utsab,” we have seen people from the lower strata of the middle class. But they do not represent the true proletariat. Among the urban stories, the true proletarian spirit is displayed by Imamuddin and his son Bullet, both of whom have obvious parallel with Khijir in Chilekotha. They live in slums close to old Dhaka and they spontaneously defy figures of authority who treat them unfairly. Most importantly, they are always drawn toward the streets, where people are gathering to protest despotism or any colossal injustice.

Bullet’s father Imamuddin, as recollected by Lal Mia, joins the Bangladesh Liberation Army and is killed while bombing a base of the Pakistan Occupation Army. Meanwhile, Nazir Ali, whose party Jamaat-e-Islami squarely opposed the Liberation Army, takes the Pakistan army to Imamuddin’s slum where they shoot indiscriminately at the dwellers before they set the slum on fire. But after independence, the slum-dwellers’ circumstances have remained unchanged, whereas Nazir Ali the Islamist – whose party collaborated with the occupation army and actively took part in the killing of hundreds of thousands of Bengalis – is rising as a powerful man in the locality. Bullet, a reincarnation of his father, defies in a symbolic gesture Ali’s divisive, Islamist project, which has joined hands with capitalism. In one sense, this story picks up the narrative where the novel Chilekotha has left off.

Rise of Nazir Ali the Jamaat-e-Islami collaborator is one of the main sociopolitical situations in post-independence Bangladesh. But both Hindu repression and post-independence angst have another dimension, explored in “Khoari,” “Protishodh,” and “Milir Haate Stengun” (A Sten Gun in Mili’s Hand). These three form a group in which the liberation war is seen from the points of view of middle-class characters who have reaped the benefits of the war.

In “Protishodh,” we see Osman who is redolent of a prominent character by the same name in Chilekotha. Through his monologue and revenge fantasies, we come to know that he wants to kill Abul Hasem, a famous leftist journalist and former husband of his departed sister. Hasem, who fled to Kolkata during the war and did not join the war, is now rising through the ranks thanks to his connection with the ruling party. In addition to the moral bankruptcy of a section of leftists and fake freedom fighters, the main theme in this story is Osman’s debilitating lack of agency, which forms a contrast to Imamuddin’s zeal to initiate action. This contrast as a theme is more elaborately and consistently explored in Chilekotha.


Elias’s fiction, on the whole, portrays old Dhaka uniquely, that is to say, every story, despite recurring thematic or representational motifs, outlines a new face of Dhaka and its people. He dispassionately portrays Dhaka’s squalor. Notwithstanding all the squalor and all the frustrating elements stemming from the socio-economic-political forces, Elias’s Dhaka throbs with life and pulsates with history. Seen from this angle, Elias’s Dhaka has a lot in common with the Dhaka that Bangladesh’s most celebrated poet Shamsur Rahman portrays in his Bengali poetry. The Dhaka that Kaiser Haq, Bangladesh’s preeminent English-language poet, presents to South Asia’s Anglophone readers is also redolent of this liveliness juxtaposed with squalor, humor, and history.

(A longer version of this article has been published in The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies, edited by Jeremy Tambling. All the references provided within the text as well as at the end are removed from this abridged and slightly edited version so as to make it readable for newspaper readers)


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