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FICTION: MEMORY AND FORGETTING

July 29, 2018

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An official letter arrives at a small house in a village in Bangladesh and shatters the lives of its inmates. The arrival of the letter is dramatic, as it announces the punishment of death by hanging of a young air force corporal, Joynul Abedin, accused of taking part in a coup. When the story opens, the letter has been stored in a polythene wrapper carried by Ayesha as she leaves home to either bring her husband back from uncertainty or get a confirmation of his death. So the action unfolds in The Ballad of Ayesha by Anisul Hoque, a small novel packed with larger questions which resonate with us. Hoque is considered to be one of the major literary voices from Bangladesh with numerous awards and over 60 books to his credit. The translator, Inam Ahmed, is a leading journalist and has come up with a highly readable version in English.

Ayesha’s journey evokes the folktale of Behula, a washerwoman cursed by the goddess Manasa, who remained determined not to let her husband die. The Bangla tale is closer in spirit to Orpheus, a character from Greek mythology, who succeeds in seizing his beloved from the jaws of death. However, Ayesha’s ballad in the novel is tragic as more than death she is struggling against a national act of forgetting. Did servicemen such as Joynul really die or was he languishing in some long-forgotten prison awaiting amnesty and clarification of his crime? As she struggles to manage her daily chores, she hopes against hope. Compounded by poverty and the poor status of women, she is a victim of a state unable or unwilling to share complete information as the turbulent period is hidden away, almost like a state secret, without any consideration for the people whose lives have been ripped and torn by brutal state action.

Narrated in simple — but not simplistic — terms, Ayesha’s life becomes a series of painful memories compounded with her sad condition as a village widow: mistreated and misunderstood, waiting for her husband’s return. She struggles to bring up her children and retain personal dignity till the time she is forced to move away from her in-laws to her parents’ village. Folded within her story is an account of the quick succession of coups and attempted coups the newly independent Bangladesh has to face and the nascent nation’s narrative forms a larger frame around Ayesha’s story. The young Joynul, happy in his newly married life, seems as much a victim of historical forces beyond his control as his nascent country; the couple’s life is an uncanny parallel of the high politics playing out.

A major literary voice from Bangladesh maturely handles the theme of missing persons against a political backdrop which is not unfamiliar to Pakistani readers

Given the locale of Bangladesh and the period of the turbulent 1970s, it is inevitable that Pakistan comes up for mention in interesting ways. Vultures hovering in the air are a grim reminder as a rickshaw-puller comments: “Lots of vultures were seen before the war started. And then the Pakistanis started killing us. No one was able to count how many had died. The jackals and the vultures had their feast. Why are the vultures flying again?”

In another instance, the comment is humorous but acquires an ironic twist: “They used to say ‘Pakistan Zindabad’. To their village idiot, Hamid, ‘Zinda’ sounded like Jinnah, the father of Pakistan. And ‘bad’ in Bangla means to leave out. So, to him, ‘Zindabad’ sounded like a call to drop off Jinnah. He would say, ‘Jinnah created Pakistan and now you want to drop Jinnah?’ After Independence, people invented the word ‘Mujibbad’ to hail Sheikh Mujib. Hamid was worried. ‘Mujib created Bangladesh, and now you want to drop him too?’” These are minor points in the novel, but a reminder of how relevant they are in our context.

Ayesha’s ballad in the novel is tragic as more than death she is struggling against a national act of forgetting. Did servicemen such as Joynul really die or was he languishing in some long-forgotten prison awaiting amnesty and clarification of his crime?

An entire chapter recounts an entry in the diary of Lieutenant Mostafizur Rahman who “served his master” by getting the soiled jacket of Gen Ayub Khan, who was visiting Dhaka, cleaned late at night as an emergency measure. He carries this out with a sense of duty. There is a second instance in which the president of Bangladesh invites him to a simple dinner. Difficult to say if this is true; it is nevertheless fascinating yet somehow does not blend with the development of the story or the denouement of the character. The relevance of the plot is deeper than such instances and goes much deeper as to how the issue of forcibly disappeared people resonates with Pakistan, and the issues of how the state constructs a narrative which airbrushes out any sense of people’s sufferings as if these never existed or were never worth any consideration. Deep within the story, the novelist uses his own voice to make a direct comment: “These incidents were all reported in newspapers. But a journalist has little space for imagination, much less any literary freedom. And so we can now return to the fictional narrative.”

Ayesha’s ballad in the novel is tragic as more than death she is struggling against a national act of forgetting. Did servicemen such as Joynul really die or was he languishing in some long-forgotten prison awaiting amnesty and clarification of his crime?

The best use of the author’s voice is in the conversation appended to the end of the novel in which the novelist and translator discuss various aspects of the book. A wide-ranging list of questions with informed responses emerges as Hoque describes the historical context of the events and the use of “facts” in a novel. He mentions Orhan Pamuk and Leo Tolstoy, observing that “a writer’s job is also to create and show the space and environment in which their characters move around.” He also notes that “a writer must discard more than he selects.” A brief article explains the legend of Behula and her husband Lakhinder in the folk tale of Manasamangal, This is the real ballad and The Ballad of Ayesha’s source, but it can be enjoyed as a story interesting in itself. The novel’s overall handling of missing or disappeared persons as a theme is mature and creative. The clash of individual destinies with overarching historical events also comes across powerfully. It left me wishing for somebody in Pakistan to tackle such a situation with this kind of literary imagination.

Another point which resonated with me was when the author described his years of growing up when everybody was expected to be a doctor or an engineer. He became an engineer to satisfy his future wife, but then gave it up to be a writer; however, not before having acquired a sense of proportion and precision. This also meant that since he was not a student of literature, he had greater freedom to divert from the norms. These are all important lessons which this gifted novelist can teach all those who encounter his invaluable novel.

The reviewer is a critic and fiction writer who teaches literature and humanities at Habib University, Karachi

The Ballad of Ayesha
By Anisul Hoque, translated by Inam Ahmed
Harper Perennial, India
ISBN: 978-9352778959
192pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 29th, 2018