“Life And Political Reality: Two Novellas” by Shahidul Zahir

Life And Political Reality: Two Novellas, Shahidul Zahir, V Ramaswamy (trans), Shahroza Nahrin (trans) (Harper Perennial  India, January 2021) Life And Political Reality: Two Novellas, Shahidul Zahir, V Ramaswamy (trans), Shahroza Nahrin (trans) (Harper Perennial India, January 2021)

Bangladeshi writer Shahidul Zahir’s “Life and Political Reality”, the first of two novellas in this collection and more aptly described as a long paragraph, is a breathless account mostly of two days fifteen years apart—and to some extent a few days in between. The first day is the day the then-West Pakistani army enters Lakshmi Bazar, a small neighbourhood in East Pakistan in 1971.

The book opens on a day that takes Abdul Mojid takes back to the bitter memory of the massacre:


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. Actually, if the theory of the life of matter had been scientifically established, perhaps it could have been said that the strap of the sponge sandal on his right foot snapped not because of the failure of matter, but rather, on account of that inner reason for which, soon after this, his very being sought to fall part all over again. The strap of his sandal snapped while he was on the way to Raysha Bazar; he had just reached Nawabpur Road after emerging from Karkunbari Lane, and so he stopped and stood there.


The trivial snapping of a sandal gradually inches towards the second character, Abul Khayer, via ominous cues: it’s a strategy that nudges readers from past to present, from one locale to another, or one character to another quite unnoticeably:


That was when, within the noise and chaos of the crowds and vehicles of Nawabpur Road, he perceived something more. Going beyond the sounds that men and vehicles make, to which men are not always alert, he entered the sphere of a tinnitus. He observed that the lacklustre afternoon sky above Nawabpur was clouded by termites, and that there were countless crows gambolling behind the fleeing termites. It occurred to him that because of the screeches of the crows and the soundless striving of the termites to escape, a kind of silent panic pervaded the melancholy afternoon at Nawabpur Road. His senses then became alert to something else; he heard the sound of a loudspeaker close by. Like every other person present at that moment on Nawabpur Road, he looked towards the source of the sound, and there, in front of him, across the road, next to the Police Club, he spotted Abul Khayer with a microphone in his hand.


The sandal strap is omnipresent in the story, hovering around the two characters and the neighborhood in the narration. Abdul Mojid recalls Abul Khayer and his father Moulana Bodu’s involvement in helping the razakars, the Pakistani paramilitary volunteer force, kill those who try to resist them. Among those brutally killed was Mojid’s sister. Spotting Abul Khayer with a microphone in hand, assuming the authority of a local leader in addressing people in the moholla (neighborhood), Mojid realizes the horror of living so closely with people who are so evil they can never be friends, well-wishers, or simple decent fellow beings. The ending of the novella reads:


Abdul Mojid … wanted to save himself first, and he could do that even in the absence of any collective endeavour — by leaving the moholla right away. As a result of such thinking and his final decision, an advertisement regarding the sale of Abdul Mojid’s house was published in The Daily Ittefaq on the 7th of January 1986. And it can be assumed that if their house was sold, their names were obliterated from the neighbourhood of Lakshmi Bazar. The people of the moholla might have initially been surprised at this conduct on their part; but after a time they could perhaps fathom why Abdul Mojid had left the moholla and gone away, or it could also be said that perhaps no one at all in the moholla and in the country understood the nature of Abdul Mojid’s crisis any more.


From the snap in the opening lines to the advertisement in the ending, the long paragraph spreads like a creeper holding onto different memories around the day—picking them up one by one, examining them and exploring different details: a small love story, a detail about basil leaves, or an exchange between the razakars and Moulana Bodu in Urdu. The creeping force behind these memories is the organic voice of the people of the moholla. Every page is peppered with phrases “people could later recall” or “people remembered” making the story memories of a massacre recalled.


Interestingly, it is the second novella “Abu Ibrahim’s Death” that is associated with García Marquez’s Chronicles of a Death Foretold, as one commentator quoted by the translator in the Afterword notes. The story is that of Abu Ibrahim’s murder as ordered by a businessman who is unable to bribe him. The story opens with the death and goes back into the life he lived as a family man, a love story, and his office affairs. Set in times when Bangladesh is shown to be living in the uncertainty of falling under martial law, it’s a piece that makes the public/private or personal/political connections emerge as stronger. Like the moholla in “Life and Political Reality”, there is a very clear collective invoked here as well: it is the voice of the readers or perhaps the voice of the narrator in the plural:


And thus was Abu Ibrahim devoured by a death that was lighter and more insignificant than a goose feather; and thus we have no further interest in him, but we are surprised by that… And thus do we forget about the grave in the cemetery; the moon smiled down on it from the cloudless sky, the air resounded with the shrieks of the mole, and the owl flapped its wings and flew around all night long.


Together, the novellas translated by V Ramaswamy and Shahroza Nahrin make for a hard-hitting exposure to the literature of Bangladesh, a South Asian locale generally under-represented relative to India or Pakistan.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.