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Book Review | Sketches from Bangladesh on the slow death of ideals

Deccan Chronicle.| Shashi Warrier

Published on: April 2, 2022 | Updated on: April 2, 2022

Shahidul Zahir tells of the horrors that came before the creation of Bangladesh and of why their shadows will never leave the land

Cover Image of the book 'Life and Political Reality: Two Novellas' by Shahidul Zahir. (By Arrangement)

Cover Image of the book 'Life and Political Reality: Two Novellas' by Shahidul Zahir. (By Arrangement)

In a single 82-page paragraph that’s occasionally frenetic, sometimes disjoint, frequently intense, and often insightful, Shahidul Zahir tells of the horrors that came before the creation of Bangladesh and of why their shadows will never leave the land. It’s easy to see why Zahir was such a star, for his Life and Political Reality, though narrated in a uniquely Bengali fashion, brings to mind Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

On a humid afternoon in 1985, while one Abul Khayer broadcasts a thank-you message to the public for joining in a general strike declared by some of Bangladesh’s political parties, a strap on one of Abdul Mojed’s sandals snaps. That fracture extends from the strap to space time itself, a fracture through which he is transported to a time 14 years earlier, to 1971, when the then West Pakistan Army, described here as Punjabis, led by one Captain Imran, moved in to Lakshmi Bazar to kill, rape, and pillage.

Then flow grisly scenes and bloody memories, of body parts found on streets where they've been dropped by crows. One of the body parts is a toe with a painted nail, indicating that it belonged to a woman, but it has a tuft of hair indicating that it came from a man… It came from a hijra, a trans person. Another is a penis, cut from a youngster, picked up by a young girl who, not knowing what it is, gives it to her mother, who does know. And there is the tale of a muezzin’s corpse found on the roof of a mosque after a particularly mellifluous azaan, which he ended with four repetitions of "Allahu Akbar" instead of the usual two, of the drops of blood staining his white beard.

Thus begins the tale of horrors, of genocide, of Abul Khayer’s father, Moulana Bodruddin, known as Moulana Bodu, who is rumoured to be feeding human body parts to the swarms of crows that inhabited the skies in those gruesome days.

Abdul Mojed feels the first flames of hatred when Moulana Bodu calls his elder sister a whore because she sings — with Christians — and calls his Ma audacious. Mojed remembers Jomir Adhikari, whom Moulana Bodu slapped publicly at the time, Jomir who was wise enough to leave, and escape the death from bayonets that caught his Ma and sister.

Following the hatred comes fear, which leaves him helpless. From this point on, the rest is inevitable: the return of Moulana Bodu to power in the new nation, and the rise of his son, Abul Khayer, and the eventual departure of Mojed from Lakshmi Bazar, where he has spent his entire life.

Abu Ibrahim’s Death is in an entirely different narrative style, more deliberate, but as universal. The protagonist, Abu Ibrahim, is an upright civil servant married to the corpulent and cranky Mamata, by whom he has two children, a son and a daughter whom he adores. He is also imbued with a certain integrity, some inconvenient leftist ideals, and a love for sarus cranes, all of which bring much suffering into his life because of Mamata’s constant carping. But he cannot get along without her, for when she leaves with the children for her father’s house, he waits a weeks and then fetches her back.

Into his life come Helen, an old flame, and with her the faint possibility of rekindling an old romance. There is also Khalid Jamil, a businessman, offering him a "commission" on a tender. Jamil is persuasive: the commission won’t hurt the country, because it’s budgeted for, and if Abu turns it down, it’ll merely go to someone else. There is a plot of land in Dhaka that occupies Abu’s mind… And thus the birth of avarice.

In the conflict between his values and his desires, he accepts a fat envelope of cash — thirty thousand taka, no small amount — but back at work he turns down the tender. It’s a turning point. When Jamil asks him if he intends to return the cash, he asks, "What cash?"

A few days later, Abu Ibrahim changes his mind and sets up a meet to return the money. In the process, he meets his death, a death that comes swiftly and without warning. And in his death is also the death of ideals and justice for all.

"Abdul Mojed realised that even after stepping into adulthood, he was a weak sort of man, he was fearful and always somewhat anxious; but despite all that, he could not forget about the hate, and when he gazed at Yasmin’s face, his hatred turned to rage. Perhaps Moulana Bodu had glimpsed this rage, which burned like cold fire, perhaps he still did. Abdul Mojed realised that this audacious hatred had somehow turned his timid life topsy-turvy." (Excerpted from p. 12, Life and Political Reality)

Life and Political Reality: Two Novellas

By Shahidul Zahir

Translated by V. Ramasamy and Shahroza Nahrin

HarperCollins (HarperPerennial)

pp. 192, Rs.399

About The Author

Shashi Warrier has written fairy tales, thrillers, a semi-fictional biography, satires, and a love story. Besides writing, he teaches strategic communication at a business school.

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