Book review: Aagun Pakhi (The Firebird), by Hasan Azizul Huq
Price: Rs. 150, pp. 252
Price: Rs. 150, pp. 252
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]