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Why Bangladeshi writer Shahidul Zahir's voice is a rare gift

Life And Political Reality by Bangladeshi writer Shahidul Zahir reveals the interlocking strands of idealism and compromise in society and politics

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returning to his homeland on being released from jail in Pakistan. Dhaka, Bangladesh, 10 January 1972.  (Majority World)

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Life And Political Reality, the best-known novella by the Bangladeshi writer Shahidul Zahir (1953-2008), begins with a moment of rupture: “One day in 1985, the sandal on the foot of Abdul Mojid, a young man from Lakshmi Bazar’s Shyama Prosad Chowdhury Lane, lost conformity with circumstances and went phot and snapped.” Thus flows the opening sentence, transporting the reader to a crowded road in Dhaka, in the evocative and inspired translation from the Bengali original by V. Ramaswamy and Shahroza Nahrin.

The sudden tear in the strap of his footwear, in the middle of a busy day, opens a hole in the fabric of time, taking Abdul Mojid back to the bloody days of 1971, when Bangladesh was born out of a brutal war with Pakistan. With that ominous snap, the floodgates of memory are opened. It’s as if a spell of black magic is cast, and vivid scenes of horror come crowding back into his consciousness. As Abdul Mojid looks up, he witnesses a fantastical dance of evil: “the lacklustre afternoon sky above Nawabpur was clouded by termites, and that there were countless crows gambolling behind the fleeing termites.”

A Kafkaesque tale laced with gothic horror, Life And Political Reality unfolds over a single, long, uninterrupted paragraph. Its breathless, yet emotionally calibrated, pace is testimony to Zahir’s expertise in language, narrative and form. Like his august contemporary Akhteruzzaman Elias, an outstanding name in the literary history of Bangladesh, Zahir synthesises hard-hitting social realism with a surge of surrealist paranoia to forge a style that keeps the reader on tenterhooks. Instead of following an unwavering arc or steady plotline, the stories these writers tell move restlessly through the slippery terrains of time and space. Meandering streams of prose wade through the silt of history, thick with the detritus of unspeakable menace, navigating eddies of crises, and setting off flash floods of collective remembrance.

Writers like Zahir and Elias are rare gifts to any nation. Theirs are the voices that refuse to consign their people’s trauma to the grave of forgetting even when the wheels of politics have moved on. For them, war and peace were two sides of the coin that is politics. In Life And Political Reality, as Abdul Mojid looks around him 14 years after the carnage of 1971, he feels the past still breathing heavily around him. He remembers the face of his elder sister Momena, brutalised by a bayonet, and the antics of Maulana Bodu—the local cleric who joined hands with the razakars (traitors) and behaved obsequiously with the Pakistani army. He recalls Allaudin, a 13-year-old Muslim boy who was the first casualty of the war in his mohalla, and the rumour that Maulana Bodu had fed human flesh to the swarms of crows that circled the skies in those apocalyptic days.

Life And Political Reality: Two Novellas, by Shahidul Zahir; translated by V Ramaswamy & Shahroza Nahrin; HarperCollins India, 204 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399
Life And Political Reality: Two Novellas, by Shahidul Zahir; translated by V Ramaswamy & Shahroza Nahrin; HarperCollins India, 204 pages, 399

But when he looks around in 1985, not even the vestiges of these tragedies remain palpable in the din of ordinary life. Instead, Abdul Mojid finds the nefarious Maulana Bodu and his son Abdul Khayer reinstated in society, wielding power over the hapless once again, exerting their slimy influence on the political life of independent Bangladesh. The crows are still feasting on the termites, who have not stopped running helter-skelter, seeking refuge.

Eventually, having undertaken a journey into the inferno of his past, Abdul Mojid stumbles on a profound and inescapable truth: “in politics there was no such thing as friends for life or enemies for life, and so, what else could people do but forget the past?” This is the epiphany that the title of the novella points to. Forgetting, like the laws of physics, is an immutable force that holds the fabric of human society and life together—it’s a truth that has been proven time and again through history.

Although starkly different in tone and scope, the accompanying novella, Abu Ibrahim’s Death, is like a thematic twin of Life And Political Reality. The protagonist, Abu Ibrahim, is a conscientious public servant who has been intellectually reared on Mao Tse-tung and other revolutionary thinkers. But the banal realities of life have led him astray from youthful idealism.

Abu Ibrahim’s marriage to Mamata, a corpulent and cantankerous woman, has yielded two children, including Bindu, a daughter he adores. As life goes on, plagued by marital squabbles and the self-same routine at work, two incidents turn Abu Ibrahim’s world upside down. Out of the blue, his ex-girlfriend, Helen, surfaces and decides to befriend his family. Around the same time, a businessman offers him a hefty bribe in exchange for a government deal his company is desperately seeking.

Despite the brevity of the story, Zahir creates a situation that is at once tense, alluring and claustrophobic. On the one hand, Abu Ibrahim is torn by pangs of conscience, being an upright government officer who has never acted out of self-interest. On the other hand, he is tormented by his festering domestic troubles, the increasing burden to sustain his petite-bourgeois existence by buying a piece of land and building a home for his family. Helen’s reappearance in the middle of this dilemma, kindling memories of his adventurous past, leads Abu Ibrahim to question his life’s choices. He might have been a failure as a romantic revolutionary hero but must he also fail as husband and father? In the end, Abu Ibrahim slips while trying out a dangerous balancing act, leading to his untimely and freakish demise.

It is tempting to read the fate of Zahir’s protagonist as a postmodern fable, wrought by greed and intemperance. But ultimately the reader is besieged with a sense of the absurd—the familiar bathos of a novel by French existentialist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus. Read together with Life And Political Reality, Abu Ibrahim’s Death reveals the interlocking strands of idealism and compromise in society and politics. Zahir’s novellas are epitaphs to broken dreams of justice and equality.

Somak Ghoshal is a writer based in Delhi

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