A singular woman's tale | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 30, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, May 30, 2016

A singular woman's tale

Author: Hasan Azizul Huq || The Firebird, translated from the Bengali novel Aagunpakhi by Ali Ahmed, Akkhar-Patra Prokashoni.

The Firebird is a story told by a woman (who is nameless) about herself and her life in a village in what is now Poshchimbongo in India. But it is more than just a story; it touches on issues beyond her personal life from childhood to advanced years, mostly in British India to its partition in 1947 and a few years after that. Written by Hasan Azizul Huq, Aagunpakhi has been translated by Ali Ahmed and published in English as The Firebird. Not having read the original, it would not be possible on my part to compare and assess the translated version, but, on its own, The Firebird is an easy and pleasant read. 

The narrator was born, from what could be discerned from events mentioned in the novel, around the beginning of the twentieth century to a quite affluent Muslim family of respectable lineage. In the early part of the book, she provides a glimpse of life in a Bengali village during the Edwardian period. While the emphasis is on the well-off, reputable families like hers, indications may be had of the lives led by the poorer sections of the society. It is a portrait of timeless rural Bengal, which, even in this age of globalization and information technology, may still be glimpsed in the village life of Bangladesh, even if the pace has quickened up a little.

The narrator lost her mother at a very young age, and was saddled with raising her one-and-a-half-year-old brother (“…he was, as though, always a bundle at my waist”). Her father remarried, and, although “there is no getting back the mother once one's own mother departs from this earth”, she got a step-mother who was not only a worthy substitute, but also a friend. Her father “was by nature…very taciturn, and would not much care for anybody.  Nor would he go badger anyone even if he were in grave danger. But he was not…a hot-tempered man…. He would rarely laugh or even smile, but had a subtle wit….”  The author offers this memorable image of life's philosophy of the village people in those days: “People in those days did not know their own age.  Nobody had any worry about death.”

Huq draws several pictures of the slow-moving life of rural Bengal of the Edwardian era, replete with its superstitions, conservatism, patriarchy, rituals, religious harmony, marriage rites of the upper class (“…marriages were from one house to another --- girls were not married outside the extended family --- and girls from outside were not generally brought into the family.  That was the way among the Muslim aristocracy”), and dress codes, to mention a few.  Even the narrator, who develops into a strong, independent-minded woman while faithfully observing the social customs of the day, betrays a visual belief in the uncanny (“I observed on many days…two shakchunnis…perching on top of the wood apple tree”).

Hers is, to a fair extent, an account of rituals in the passage of time, including her marriage in her early teens (common, and expected, in those days for females) to a man matching her family background who “throughout his entire life, slighted me, verbally abused me excessively, and attempted to drag me by my arms out of the house, yet, rightly do I know in my heart how he adored me.”  Yet, her portrayal of his character throughout their long conjugal life depicts a strong man who held together the joint family he belonged to, provided amply for his wife and children, was an upright person given to the pursuit of education, including strongly cajoling his wife to get self-educated at home, indulged in honest and conscientious politics, and was wise, if stern and implacable.

She got married following the end of the First World War, followed the rituals of married life, and duly gave birth to several children, including a couple who died of the prevalent diseases of those days.  Cholera, small pox, and tuberculosis used to devastate villages periodically, especially with no, or only the odd, qualified doctor practicing in the rural areas.  In the narrator's words, “Diseases and ailments are a daily occurrence, some of the afflicted get automatically cured while many others also die.”  Since there was no family planning or birth control methods to speak of practiced, or available, like several decades later, many families had numerous children, thereby appreciably extending the joint families. The narrator gives a medley of vivid accounts of living in joint families, of the good times and bad, and of the benefits and drawbacks. 

Hasan Azizul Huq dwells at some length on the peaceful coexistence of, including much camaraderie between, the Hindus and Muslims of that era.  They united against the British during the Khilafat Movement, but once Kemal Ataturk himself did away with the Caliphate in Turkey, the two communities “begun quarrels and bickerings between themselves for realizing their own partisan demands.” Eventually, this schism contributed to the partition of India, an eventuality that Huq has reservations about.  The narrator's husband's experience, who ran for the presidency of the union council and won from an area that was predominantly peopled by Hindus, attested to the secular thinking of the people at that point in time.  However, the second time around, as the demand for Pakistan as a separate state grew, and communal tensions manifested in the great Kolkata riots, he was defeated by communal voting. 

As the narrator grew older, she started becoming more assertive, more independent in thinking.  She also took effective charge of the joint family.  Referring to her getting self-educated at her husband's insistence, she comments, “The alphabets and all the others related to it have gone down into the earthen hearth while I have been cooking to fill the stomachs of no less than thirty-two members of the clan.” When the matriarch of the family (the narrator's mother-in-law) died, tensions and fissures eventually ended the joint family, incidentally as the Second World War was raging. That war adversely affected the people of the village, which is very perceptively portrayed by the author. Misfortune followed misfortune during the waning years of the British Raj. First there was a severe drought, to be followed the next year by unusually heavy rainfall leading to severe flooding. The hardships endured affected all, and contributed to the breakup of many joint families.   

The natural disasters coincided with the agitation for Pakistan, and then the Hindu-Muslim riots followed.  The author trenchantly observes regarding those people who have the leisure to listen to the woes of the victims of the disasters (what and how much effective action they would take is another matter):  “Those having no worries of their own for food and clothing, or of any other thing could surely sit in their comfortable drawing rooms and think of great ideas to benefit the poor!” Huq has other general observations on human life (some assuredly will draw protestations!) that are articulated through the narrator: “I can realize, seeing you, what ornaments mean to women!  They won't part with their jewellery even if their children die.” And, “This is the go in men's families, you go up, up and up to touch the sky with your head, and, often that, you must come down, down and down to take shelter on earth. This is a must --- it happens to every family. No one can stop the trajectory of destiny.”

Eventually, the denouement of the story is rather poignant, with the narrator, now a grandmother, displaying her strong independence of character and will.  Reflecting Huq's misgivings about the partition of India, she speaks out:  “Can it even be that a country, yes, one country inhabited by the same people and speaking the same language but having differences in religion, and having all along been together, will, at one point, split and turn into a different country?... Don't speak only of religion…. People would not then be able to live in any country in the world.” A few mistakes have crept in that more careful editing could have corrected. Then there is this confusing translation:  “I knew that if any danger came, Hola Bagdi would not care for his own life, and none would be able to so much as cut a scratch on me or on my sons before killing him.” One could be confused about who would be killed by whom: the assailant or Hola Bagdi. Minor irritants aside, The Firebird is an agreeable translation of a thoughtful novel.

The reviewer is actor, Professor and Head, Media and Communication department, IUB.

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