Tag Archives: Bengali literature

The Armenian Champa Tree

Mato, the protagonist in Mahasveta Devi’s story The Armenian Champa Tree, is a boy of about 10 years old who grows up in a village of the Buno people in West Bengal with his mother and several siblings. His mother is worried about him because he is so different from how Buno boys his age should be. He likes to keep to himself, spends a lot of time in nature, is interested in plants and animals, makes scarecrows and strange dolls and shows no sign to be willing to contribute to the family’s livelihood. He prefers to play with his little pet goat Arjun, whom he has taken to heart.

How different is his older brother Chhibilas, who leads a small gang of robbers who are targeting food and other necessities to supplement the family’s meager income. The resolute, vivacious Chhibilas and the dreamer Mato, who seems to be too soft for the life struggle ahead of him in a country that is often hit by floods and that also has to suffer under the burden of money- and land-hungry zamindars – the book leaves little doubt why the mother, herself a resolute woman with real leadership qualities, who often takes on difficult tasks and responsibilities in the village, is dissatisfied with Mato and very concerned about his future. The family’s own land holdings are tiny and the local landowner very devious and ruthless in order to keep the villagers completely dependent on him. (The zamindar system reduced most of the people to a kind of slavery from which they had no chance of ever getting out because of debt.) What will become of the boy?

One day, a kapalik, a mystic, appears in the village and prophesies that a severe flood is imminent that will destroy the entire village unless an animal sacrifice is made to the mother goddess: Mato’s goat! Mato decides to flee with Arjun. He wants to reach the Armenian Church in Baharampur. In the yard of the church is a rare Champa tree, and the boy is fascinated by its blossoms and scent. According to traditional belief, an animal that reaches the churchyard is unfit to be sacrificed.

What follows is the description of Mato’s and Arjun’s desperate escape from a growing pack of humans who are hunting them. The superstition that if Arjun cannot be slaughtered, the village will be destroyed by the flood is just too strong. There are also friends of Mato and his brother Chhibilas in the group of hunters, but they are increasingly wondering what they are actually doing here. Chhibilas has to admit that he misjudged Mato, who shows great courage, determination and physical strength during the escape, and now admires this brother for his daring and resistance.

Of course, I won’t reveal here how the story ends. This little book was apparently written for young readers, and it contains some important teachings for young people, delivered without a finger wagging. The author shows a lot of empathy in the description of the mother and also of the sensitive boy Mato himself. Mahasweta Devi, the prolific Bengali author, fought for decades as an activist for the social rights of the Indian rural population and especially the indigenous groups such as the Buno. Her literary attention was also devoted to the role of women. A combative feminism is present in many of her works.

In the description of the insidious behavior of the zamindar, who pretends to give food as a present to the villagers but later demands it back with interest – knowing full well that this will lead to the ruin of the people – as well as the sinister role of religion, which is described here as a mere superstition that is exploited against the villagers in the interest of the ruling class, Devi shows the roots of the social misery of many people on the Indian subcontinent. Although the story takes place more than two hundred years ago, surprisingly little has changed to this day for many people.

Seagull Books, the excellent publisher from Calcutta, must be commended for making many important books by Mahasweta Devi available in English. It’s worth getting to know this author!

Mahasweta Devi: The Armenian Champa Tree (tr. Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee), Seagull Books Calcutta London New York 2009

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-23. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.   

Contemporary Bangladeshi Poetry

Before I moved to Dhaka in Bangladesh for work-related reasons in October 2021, I knew almost nothing about the literature of the country, which has around 165 million inhabitants. Prose and poetry authors in Bangladesh publish mainly in Bengali and English, with a small number of authors writing in Urdu or other minority languages. Bengali / Bangla is also spoken in neighboring West Bengal. In India, Bengali is the most widely spoken language after Hindi.

Although Bengali is one of the ten languages in the world with the highest number of native speakers, the literature written in this language is hardly noticed outside of South Asia. This may be due to the fact that there are few translators who can translate Bengali texts into another language, but also because there is still little interest in the so-called western world in literature that does not repeat the orientalist cliché of the “exotic” India and its neighboring countries, a cliché that is so common in most English-language books or films coming from South Asia – even when there are of course positive exceptions. Even a Rabindranath Tagore was specifically awarded the Nobel Prize for his works written in English – his Bengali texts are far less well received to this day.

I would therefore like to take the opportunity to present works on my blog that were written in Bangla but are also available in English translation. The Bangladeshi or Bengali literature is diverse and there are interesting authors to discover. Today I would like to present an anthology on contemporary Bangladeshi poetry edited and translated by Hassanal Abdullah. Abdullah has lived in the United States for a long time and has long made a name for himself as a poet, translator and editor.

In this collection, 38 poets from Bangladesh are presented in the order of their date of birth, each with three to eight poems. The period extends from the partition of India in 1947 to the present. This large selection alone shows the diversity of modern poetry in Bangladesh. In addition to a foreword by Nicholas Birns, professor at New York University, there is a contribution by the translator and editor in which he goes into greater detail on the principles according to which he selected and translated the poems. He particularly points out that he has gone to great lengths to translate the tone and peculiarities of the style of the various authors into English. Numerous experts helped him polishing and improving the rough drafts, but also in some cases the authors themselves. The translator particularly emphasizes that each of these translation projects is, to a large extent, teamwork. In my opinion, the result turned out well!

The poetry collected in this anthology shows the poet as an individual, man or woman (there are some excellent female poets in Bangladesh), Muslim or Hindu, sophisticated Dhaka-based intellectual or poor poet from the rural area. Some poems are inspired by folk songs and poems, other clearly know modern world literature well and show the influence of modernist poetry. Universal topics as love, family life, loneliness, political struggle – many of the authors were involved in the 1952 Language Movement and the Liberation War 1971. Spirituality and the role of religion are also reflected in the poetry of this anthology. One example by Shamsur Rahman, probably the most prolific and popular poet in Bengal after Tagore and Kazi Nasrul Islam, the two founding fathers of modern Bengal poetry:

Five Travelers 

Roaming around a lot, they, five of them,
Finally, before dusk, came to sit under 
An age-old tree to alleviate their tiredness.

A bird from within the branches,
Asked, “Tell me, who are you?”

Answering the question, the travelers
Got deep into their conscience.
One of them said, “I do have a great 
Interest in Hinduism.”

The second one’s voice sounded
Like a flute, “I am a Buddhist monk.”

The third one said, “I am a devout Christian.”

Immediately, uttered the fourth one, 
“I submitted myself to the lord of the land 
And sky; I am a Muslim.”

But, the fifth traveler, smiled a bit,
Holding an insect in his hand
And showing great curiosity,
He replied, “I am nothing but a Human.”

(tr. Hassanal Abdullah) 

An overview with the short biographies of the authors and the references close this beautiful volume. Anyone who would like to get an overview of the diversity of contemporary poetry from Bangladesh will be well served with this anthology. The book was made possible by financial support by the Queens Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Well done!

Contemporary Bangladeshi Poetry (tr. Hassanal Abdullah), Cross Cultural Communications / New Feral Press, New York 2019

© Hassanal Abdullah and CrossCultural Communications / New Feral Press for the translation, 2019
© Shamsur Rahman, 2019
© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-22. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Forty Steps

The story of Forty Steps by the Bangladeshi author Kazi Anis Ahmed (a.k.a. K Anis Ahmed – the name is in this form on the book cover and title page) begins with an end: Mr. Shikdar, a respected citizen of the sleepy provincial town of Jamshedpur somewhere in Bengal after the partition of India in 1947, has just been buried. Now he is waiting for the angels Munkar and Nakir, who, according to Koranic tradition, question the deceased about their lives and register the good and bad deeds and then decide if the departed will go to heaven or to hell – but not before the mourners have moved at least forty paces from the grave . As Mr. Shikdar counts the slowly receding steps in his grave, he lets his life go by once more in his mind…

How is it possible that a dead person can have such thoughts? Well, maybe he’s not really dead and after a faint he was quickly buried without a prior medical examination of the corpse – but why? Or is he – like Schrödinger’s cat – both alive and dead in his grave, at least until he has counted the forty steps? Or maybe we readers are just victims of a literary joke by the author?

Be that as it may, the reader takes part in Shikdar’s life confession, in the course of which we not only witness the unrealized dreams and disappointments of his life, but also get to know the most important people who determine his fate.

There is the Englishman Dawson, an unsuccessful art student, whom Shikdar befriends during the latter’s studies at medical school. Dawson arouses Shikdar’s interest in art. Later, Dawson tries to gain a foothold in his home country for a while, but returns disappointed – rejected by English society as an outsider who has “gone native” – back to Bengal to open a furniture business.

Then there is Molla, the nominal religious leader of the small town, who is a quite enterprising fellow and who finds in Shikdar an unexpected business partner. Shikdar “knows” a lot about documents, i.e. how to falsify sales contracts from real estate transactions well, so that land goes smoothly from the hands of the real owners to those of more capable people (= Molla and Shikdar) – a practice still a common practice in contemporary Bangladesh. To Shikdar’s defense it has to be added that the person with the criminal energy here is Molla, with Shikdar giving in reluctantly – because he is weak and loves to have a bit luxury in his life.

Then there is the beautiful Begum Shikdar, significantly younger than her husband and not averse to erotic adventures. When she finally gets pregnant, her blond child unfortunately dies during birth and is buried hurriedly at night almost without witnesses – with the exception of Molla, Shikdar’s partner in this suspicious enterprise as well. Dawson, on the other hand, is spending more and more time in the neighboring town, where he allegedly has an illegitimate daughter…

And then of course there is Mr. Shikdar, a good-natured person with no outstanding talents or particular energy, whose leanings for comfort and lack of resolve often stand in his way during his life. Small and large events such as the hustle and bustle of the fish sellers or the occasional senseless violence that flares up between Muslims and Hindus in the community are accepted with the same devotion to fate as something that has not changed in living memory and will not change in the future.

All in all, a rather uneventful life that the people we meet are leading and which is shown to the reader with humor and gentle irony. An example: Mr. Shikdar comes home from the big city without a diploma. But since there is no medical assistance in town, he is still often visited as a healer and asked for advice. For all sorts of actual and imagined ailments, he usually administers harmless medication, the sale of which ensures his livelihood; He also promotes birth control – but only until he takes on the part-time job of the ninety-year-old midwife, who has gone completely blind. After that, the issue of birth control loses all appeal for him …

The ease with which the author jumps back and forth between realism and fantasy in this narrative is amazing. As relentlessly as the obvious weaknesses of their main characters are shown, however ridiculous they often appear – they are portrayed with sympathy and warmth. The trivial and the fantastic, the real and the sublime, in this masterful story they are interwoven in the most beautiful way.

It is also worth mentioning that the story was written in English. Bangladeshi writers write mainly in English and Bengali (Bangla); however, texts in English often differ from texts in Bengali in regards of their sociocultural context: texts written in English tend to deal more with the educated and relatively wealthy class – the common people and especially the rural population often only appear marginally. Kazi Anis Ahmed, together with several other authors, has made a significant contribution to breaking up this traditional dichotomy with his literary work.

In recent years there has been a flourishing of English-language literary publications in Bangladesh – both in the original and in translations from Bengali. Magazines such as Six Seasons Review, the literature pages of English-language daily newspapers such as The Daily Star and New Age and the publications of the publishers Bengal Lights Books, Bengal Publications and Daily Star Books, as well as Dhaka Lit Fest, an annual international literature festival, are an expression of this development.

A word about the author: Kazi Anis Ahmed was born in 1970 in Dhaka. Forty Steps was originally published in 2001 in Minnesota Review to great critical acclaim. The World In My Hands, a collection of stories, followed in 2013, and in 2014, he published his first novel, Good Night, Mr. Kissinger. Apart from regularly contributing to international media such as The Guardian, TIME or The New York Times, he co-curated also a special Granta edition on Bangladesh. Ahmed is the co-founder of the University of Liberal Arts in Dhaka, as well as the publisher of the newspaper Dhaka Tribune and other media outlets. He is the co-director of the annual Dhaka LitFest, as well as the director of Gemcom, a group of businesses founded by his father. He is to my knowledge the only writer who owns a successful organic tea estate – Kazi Tea is exported to many countries.

The book edition I used is bilingual. The English original text is followed by the Bengali translation by Manabendra Bandyopadhyay – the typeface of the Bangla version alone is a pleasure! A nice initiative by Bengal Lights Books to make this masterful narrative accessible to those Bengali speakers who do not speak good English.

In summary: this story is a small gem that I like very much!

K Anis Ahmed: Forty Steps, Bengal Lights Books, Dhaka 2014 (bi-lingual edition English/Bengali, tr. Manabendra Bandyopadhyay)    

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-22. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.