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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Fire-bird

Book review: Aagun Pakhi (The Firebird), by Hasan Azizul Huq

Dey’s Publishing, Calcutta, 2008

Price: Rs. 150, pp. 252

Language: Bangla

ISBN: 978-81-295-0820-1

winner of Ananda Puroshkar 2008


A very ‘common’ woman in rural Bengal, who grew up just before World War II, and lived through the weird kind of independence-followed by communal war-followed by partition that destroyed millions of lives and twisted and broke millions of others forever out of shape, narrates her own story. There was joy galore, and peace, and fun and tumult and horror and savagery and sorrow in huge dollops with disconcerting frequency: she has seen it all. In the simplest of rural patois, without the slightest affectation (which is a wonder, considering that the writer himself is a highly-literate male urban scholar) she tells it poignantly, and unforgettably. She has remained quiet, uncomplaining, wondering, half-comprehending, living the life of endless, backbreaking yet strangely-sweet drudgery that is the lot of daughters/wives/mothers in all so-called male-dominated and backward societies of the world, but because she has never stopped observing, thinking and feeling, she has continued to mature lifelong, and though she remains near-illiterate and in a sense simple forever, she simultaneously becomes far more of a sophisticate than most urban, educated, well-off and ‘liberated’ young women can even comprehend today (I am reminded of the quip: “Twenty million Englishwomen stood up and said ‘We’ll no longer be dictated to!’ and promptly went out and became stenographers.” Today we should read BPO workers). And in the end she does something awful – she chooses, in her habitual quiet way, to be free to live and die absolutely on her own. Her teenage far behind her, she decides to find out who she is. It is time now at last, she believes, and she can handle it, all by herself. Having done so much for so many for so long, she owes the rest of her life solely to herself: not even her husband, whom she has served and obeyed without question all her life may have a share in it against her will, leave alone children and grandchildren and surviving siblings.

In the last page, she says she made that decision to give up all she ever had for the sake of the land she had always known to be hers, because no one could convince her that there was any meaning in carving out Pakistan from India when she had grown up happily Muslim among Hindus all her life till they were told to turn upon one another, and when those two countries still harboured both Muslims and Hindus, after all the horrifying bloodletting. I am sure no man alive is wise enough to convince her that she was wrong. But the mulish determination – despite all her self-questioning – that compelled her to give up even on her family is beyond explanation, and almost beyond belief. In Raja Rao’s short story called Javni, the last line says about the central character that she seemed ‘recedingly real. Who was she?’ That was the question that arose in my mind as I closed the book. But of course, it is an author’s privilege to create alternative realities, and still truth remains stranger than fiction of the most fanciful kind…

Since Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and Bhishm Sahni’s Tamas I cannot think of any other Indian book that has portrayed the mindless trauma of the Partition of India so searchingly, hauntingly, with such disarming yet searing condemnation (if I am missing something, readers, do remind me). Few authors anywhere in the world have depicted the subtly nuanced interdependence of the marital relationship so well either, even where it is outwardly so heavily gender-biased. Since the great Banerjee-s stopped writing, I haven’t known any other who was able to see life so intently and so well in both its glorious highs and its abysmal lows. And the book confirms my deeply held belief (which is echoed not only in the most hoary Hindu shastras but in sources as diverse as Shakespeare and D. H. Lawrence) that woman anywhere, at all times, is inferior only insofar as she yields willingly, or under the weight of unendurable restriction, deprivation and oppression, and even then she retains a core of fierce strength and independence which men cannot fathom nor crush, though they might destroy her only too easily. My respect for women is greatly restored: only, my heart aches that I can see so few of the type in my contemporary urban milieu, least of all among the smart set who talk of ‘happening’ lives.

I have long been lamenting the decline of great literature in Bengali, and I hadn’t read Azizul Huq before. I am sorry I hadn’t, and I want to put it on record that my heart is full. I didn’t know that such powerful, wonderful writing is being done in Bengali still. In various ways I was reminded of Tagore’s Strir Patra, and Ashapurna Debi’s Pratham Pratishruti, and Gorky’s Mother, and Llewellyn’s How Green was my valley, and many more profound and beautiful novels which have permanently enriched my life. I wish Aagun Pakhi could be translated by able hands into the ten most widely spoken languages in the world. Professor Huq would then most certainly, even in this grossly deluded and superficial age, be hailed as one of the great authors among us today.

[My earnest thanks to Subhadipta Mukherjee for persuading me to read this book]

14 comments:

Ranajoy said...

Suvro-da,

Very nicely summarized!!(The journalist in you is always growing).Looks like a very colorful book....with a very good deal of intensity.Now that I have got into a peripatetic profile flying back every week to Chicago from all corners of USA,I have plenty of time to read at airports and inside the plane.I will definitely try to get hold of this book and read it.It reminded me of the protagonist named "Mariam" who had a a great deal of travails in life("Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini).
Thank you.

ginger candy said...

Sir,

At a time when the quality of Bengali literature has reached an all-time nadir, it is heart warming to know that there are still authors like Azizul Huq out there. I am deeply interested in reading the book- it's a pity that we don't get Bengali books in Bangalore easily. I have long been regretting that Bengali literature has declined abysmally. Leave alone legends (like Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Tarashankar Banerjee, Ashapoorna Devi, Bimal Mitra and lots of others), the current crop of Bengali authors have failed miserably in producing another Moti Nandi or Pathik Guha. Sunil Gangopadhyay is well past his prime. Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay is still ticking on slowly. Relative newcomers like Suchitra Bhattyacharya and Mandakranta Sen are largely unreadable. After the demise of Satyajit Ray, Bengali Kishore Sahitya has taken a backstage (the only exception being Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, who still writes wonderful novels for youths). Notice how the Pujabarshiki editions of AnandaMela and Desh have declined in quality. When hordes of people decide that aping American culture is the best thing to do, and anything remotely connected to Bengali is 'uncool' and boring, Bengali literature doesn't have much hope to revive.

Thanks,
Joydeep

Sourav Roy said...

I love this quote: "Twenty million Englishwomen stood up and said ‘We’ll no longer be dictated to!’ and promptly went out and became stenographers." Where is it from?

Suvro Chatterjee said...

It was either Shaw or Chesterton, Sourav: I can't for the life of me remember who. This is the price you pay for growing old...!

By the way, you didn't say anything about the review itself.

Sourav Roy said...

I loved parts of it. But overall liked the 'Nine Lives' review better.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

That's all right, Sourav. Maybe the other book itself was more to your taste, or maybe it's simply because one does not write equally well every time (lucky for me, I guess, that you folks liked the very first thing I wrote for you!)

I shall be happy, though, if some people like Ranajoy tell me my review has enthused them to find and read the book. They can judge for themselves and get back to me...

Shilpi said...

This review is magnificent. I don’t know whether any of your other reviews (even the ones yet-to-be-written, and I hope there are many more) can outdo this one (it’s the same way I felt about one of your short stories the first time I read it…). I’ve been slow to respond because a) I always feel slightly pompous commenting on a review (especially of a book that I haven’t read), and b) I was re-reading all of your old reviews wondering why it is that I find this one the most unusual of the lot (apart from ‘Gran Torino’, which short as it is delivers its shock and ache and then leaves).

You’ve written a review but it reads more of a tribute to the woman from the book, and it seems to me that it's a part of you and your self that emerges through your reflections about the woman, her life and of her final decision. Your sense of wonder emerges alongwith your incredulity, respect, and awe, and something else that I can’t pin down. I re-read your tribute to Abigail Adams and the review of ‘Those who Love’ – and while that in a sense could be compared to this – there is something about that which does not jolt the senses. This review does, and I don’t know whether you intended for it to have such an effect. And while being so utterly calm and seemingly matter-of-fact and unsentimental – there is something terribly haunting, mesmerizing and screamingly poignant about your review itself (or is this just me who’s being batty?). And now I’ve used more adjectives than I think you’ve used and not transmitted enough in my comment...

I’ll read the book when I can (although I’m vaguely worried about reading it). I’m wondering whether you could write a review on ‘Shabnam’ at some point in time when you have the time and feel so inclined. I haven’t read the book but I remember the couple of lines that you wrote about it and I remember that Rajdeep once told me some years ago that you’d asked him to read the book when he was in school.

I’m still wondering about the title of the book.
Take care. Love,
Shilpi

Rajdeep said...

Wonderful review again! Made me want to read the book as soon as I can.

Dwai Banerjee said...

This review is magnificient!!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thank you, Dwai. Every kind word of appreciation is welcome. May I know your full name and email i.d.? You can send it privately to me by email if you like...

Suvro Chatterjee said...

... and Shilpi, I normally review only new books/movies. Besides, I think going back to Shabnam would hurt me too much now: I do not want to feel that kind of adolescent angst again!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

It hurts me to see that so few of my readers are interested enough in reading to tell me they have liked reading a review like this, or to ask questions about it.

Rajdeep said...

Started reading this book finally. Thanks for introducing such a wonderful book.

Rajdeep said...

I recently read The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh. The second part of the book was gripping and I remembered Agun Pakhi while reading it.