Under the shine of Rabi
In Delhi for the last one week, Bengali writers and artists from India, Bangladesh, the Bengali diaspora worldwide, as well as leading foreign translators and scholars of Rabindranath Tagore have gathered for a 'Tagore Utsav'.
Therefore, revisiting Tagore's 'last poems' is perhaps a good point of departure for this group review on writings from Bangladesh. Tagore's Final Poems (George Braziller, $22.50, pp 72) is sparingly translated by American poet Wendy Barker and Saranindranath Tagore, the great-grandson of the painter Abanindranath Tagore and nephew of Rabindranath.
This excellent book of final poems - from his last four volumes, Sickbed, Recovery, On My Birthday and Last Poems - reveals hitherto-hidden aspects of his writing: introspection and quietude articulated through minimalism, and sadness that accompanies someone's dying days.
The poems are made vivid and alive by these new translations that are deft, sensitive, tightly wrought, lucid and idiomatically very modern. It is a superbly contemporary collection. A few lines from the December 4, 1940 poem, Sickbed 37:
One day, I saw, in an ashen moment of dusk,
death's right hand entangling lift's throat
tied with offered threads of blood;
I recognised you both.
I saw the wedding gift:
the groom's final offering to the bride,
streaming from the right hand to the end of age.
Unlike Indian writing, Bangladeshi writing rarely gets a fair showing in India and the world press. If Bangladeshi writing in English is at all known, it is perhaps best known outside the country through Monica Ali's Brick Lane - and perhaps to an extent through Adib Khan's novels, Syed Manzurul lslam's fiction, and most recently through Tahmima Anam's A Golden Age.
But all these authors live outside Bangladesh, though few of them visit tured through poetry and short stories, and the non-fiction is represented by articles and book reviews. Some of the fine pieces that stand out for me are: Kaiser Haq's The Mona Lisa of Bengali Poetry: Jibanananda's Banalata Sen, Fakrul Alam's The Old USIS Library: Searching for a Different America, Syed Manzoorul Islam's An Evening's Tale, poetry by Buddhadev Bose, Shaheed Quaderi, and Belal Chowdhury But in general, the non-fiction section in this anthology is far superior to the fiction and poetry sections.
This anthology is an important book that will serve as a general repository of contemporary writing from Bangladesh for some time to come. Galpa: Short Stories by Women in Bangladesh (Rave Media, Rs 250, pp 280), adopts a more traditional approach to anthology-making.
Selecting the more tried and tested authors (including some younger writers like Shaheen Akhtar, Audity Falguni, Papree Rahman and Jharna Rahman) - ensures quality control and evenness of standard.
Themes such as domesticity, inequality gender prejudice and dreaming of liberation dominate the volume. Some of my favourite pieces include Purabi Basu's Radha WE Not Cook Today, Selina Hossain's Motijan's Daughters, and Niaz Zaman's The Daily Woman.
This particular volume is carefully edited by seasoned translators and writers Firdous Azim and Niaz Zaman. Me, Borishailla (Rupa, Rs 295, pp 508) by Mahua Maji, translated from Hindiby Rajesh Kumar, is an "epic saga of the rise of Bangladesh" spanning 58 chapters and 508 pages with a rather humourous glossary that highlights the Urdu-Bangla linguistic bipolarity Set in the period between 1943 and 1992, the nove1recreates the rural and urban East Bengal and the history of the country's independence.
The narrative is told in a fairly straight-forward uncomplicated style, almost documentary-like, and the reader often wonders where the border between fiction and non-fiction lies.
I only wish that the dialogue writing was better and more convincing. That would have, in one instant, lifted the book. But the author gets away with this 'sociological reportage writing style' as an important historica1terrain is mapped and fleshed out in the novel with a dedicated sense of sincerity.
Sudeep Sen is a poet, essayist and editor of Atlas. His books include Postmarked India and Postcards From Bangladesh.