Translated from the Bengali by Manjish Roy
Shaheen Akhtar is the author of five collections of short stories and three novels—Palabar Path Nei [No Escape Route]; Talaash [The Search]; and Shokhi Rongomala. Talaash won the Best Book of the Year Award for 2004 from Prothom Alo, the largest-circulation daily newspaper in Bangladesh. The English translation of the novel was published last year by Zubaan Books, Delhi, India. Akhtar has also edited the three-volume Soti O Swotontora: Bangla Shahitye Nari, about the portrayal of women in Bengali literature. She currently works for Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), a human rights/legal aid organization in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Shaheen Akhtar recently won the 3rd Asian Literary Award for her novel Talaash (The Search). The award was announced on November 1 at the Asian Literature Festival 2020. While speaking about Talaash, Kim Nam-il, novelist and the award committee chair, said, ‘Imperialism and colonialism, war and violence, the deceptions of war criminals, mistreatment of freedom fighters, and ongoing ill-treatment of Biranganas are all interwoven in the narrative of the novel.’
Nahar Trina from The Antonym caught up with the writer recently and engaged her with a wide ranging conversations about her inspiration, craft, and general take on literature while delving deep into some of her characters in Talaash and beyond.
Nahar Trina – Please, tell me something about the beginning of your writing. Does an author always need a source of inspiration to write something? Is the author motivated from within his/her inner self or do you think that friends, near and dear ones, media, awards motivate the author?
Shaheen Akhtar – There is no such remarkable story about the beginning of my writing. I grew up in a literary environment. My mother was a bookworm. My elder brothers, younger maternal uncle, maternal aunts used to write. I began to write more or less when I was still at school. Those days, I used to fill the pages of my notebook with odd and nonsensical things which came into my mind, just as if uttering soliloquy. I never thought about publishing my work. It was an unrealizable longing. My first story got published in the Amode magazine of Comilla when I was studying at the intermediate level.
I believe that there is no such driving force behind a pen which is universally applicable. It varies from person to person. Doris Lessing said in an interview that “distressed adolescence” had tempted her to write. After my adolescence, I passed through a bleak phase in my life which tempted me to write with newfound spirit. Now I have a writing desk, a computer- they call me. I pray- Let some words gush out of my pen today.
NT – ‘Talaash’ is quite distinctive from the other novels. “Talaash” (The Search) does not conform to the prevailing format of Bangladeshi novel. Had you planned to write a novel in such a way or did it just happen by chance while you had been working on it?
Shaheen Akhtar – Yes. The format of Talaash is different from the prevailing format. Before writing Talaash, I wrote a short novel and some short stories. I was still a novice. Such a huge plot! I was out of breath. The form had undergone several changes. Thus, you can say that the present form came into being while I was writing.
NT– Which incident tempted you to write Talaash? Had there been any such incident? How did you decide to write such a novel?
Shaheen Akhtar – There were certain incidents behind Talaash. For instance, the Oral History Project of 71 introduced me to some brave women. Not only did they narrate the torture they went through in 1971, but also what they faced afterwards. Sometimes, that overshadowed the ghoulish experiences of war. It was something which was indeed miserable, which inspired me to write Talaash.
NT– How much political awareness should an author have, to write an outstanding novel? Talaash doesn’t have politics, but the side effects and impacts of politics are visible here. What is your assumption about your political obligation as an author?
Shaheen Akhtar – Patches of politics can be automatically found in my novels. I don’t feel that I have any such obligation in a specific way. I don’t impose politics on my work. If I can express my thoughts in my writing, that’s a big challenge for me. If we look at widely acclaimed historical novels, we would well understand ‘how much political obligation should an author have’ or whether she should have such an obligation at all.
NT – Readers have to undergo a severe mental agony while reading this novel. It’s indeed difficult for a reader to read this novel continuously. How much wounds did the novel inflict on the author?
Shaheen Akhtar – I think that my agony was the same as that of the reader. I found it extremely difficult to proceed. But, I didn’t want my readers to be distressed.
NT -Your novels are few in number, but they are very much laborious. Each and every novel demonstrates the author’s tireless efforts. For which novel did you burn the most of your midnight oil?
Shaheen Akhtar – It’s so sad to find the impression of toil in my novels. I am an effortless author. If I feel uneasy after writing a few lines, I leave it there and wait, and resume when I feel like writing again. I think that those authors, who write one or more books in a year, are indeed workaholic. The writer’s journey is a pleasant journey- I love to think this way. I move around here and there, read books, hum a tune on the pretext of writing and I go into a trance. A bulk of my time is spent this way. This is the ‘secret’ behind my works, being lesser in number. Four of my novels, including Talaash took more or less the same time to complete. I love to say relaxing instead of toiling- all the same.
NT– Talaash fetched you most of your awards. As your debut novel, it would perhaps occupy the foremost position in the list of your favourite works. But, at the same time an author always nurtures the longing to surpass himself/herself. Which of your later works enabled you to surpass yourself?
Shaheen Akhtar – I was awarded twice for the novel ‘Mayur Singhasan’, even though both of these awards are from within the national boundary. I don’t know whether I could surpass ‘Talaash,’ but each of my novels is independent in subject matter and form. But, I could not simply stick to Talaash- assuming it to be my best work.
NT– The most interesting character of Talaash, namely Ramiz Sheikh is full of contradictory traits. Is this character a product of your imagination, or drawn from the real life?
Shaheen Akhtar – While scanning a magazine – I found that in the month of February or March, 1971, some prisoners broke open and fled from Dhaka Central Jail. The people, who went behind bars during the birth of Pakistan were confined within the prison cells during the restless days of Bengali nationalism. They would naturally be shocked when they would come out and face the terrible scene of March. Their nationalist mindset can well be assumed. Before Ramiz Sheikh could understand anything, the sound of the battle cries echoed everywhere. His closest and most helpful confidante was a Pakistani agent. He was wounded by the bullets of the Pakistani army due to this delusion. War is never going to spare you, whether you understand politics or not. In the meantime, he identified himself with the nationalism of the Sirajudaullah jatra (play) which he watched as a child. He thought himself to be the Nawab of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa who sacrificed his life for the love of his country, at the hands of foreign enemies.
NT -Sixteen years had been passed since the publication of Talaash. At the present moment, if you were asked to rewrite a particular part of Talaash, which part would you like to change?
Shaheen Akhtar – I think I would not like to change any particular part of the novel at the present time. The edition, which is currently available on the market is its 2016 edition.
NT – The international publicity and publication of Bengali novels is very scarce. Many famous novels could not reach foreign readers. Talaash had received international publicity and awards. How much satisfaction does this achievement give you?
Shaheen Akhtar – This achievement of Talaash has given me happiness, if not satisfaction.
International publicity does not determine the greatness of literature. Talaash had not been awarded as the best Bengali novel, that the brilliance of other Bengali novels would be diminished. The testimonial statement of the jury board never mentioned such a thing. And the question of such a comparison does not arise at all. They awarded the book with Asian literary award, as they stated, ‘We believe that it is one of the best feminist and antiwar documentary novels by an Asian writer of our times. It is an evidential document of suffering and courage of our times’ Talaash had been compared to war novels like ‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ by Alexievich, “Still Alive” by Ruth Clogger and “A Woman in Berlin” by Martha Hiller.
NT – I have heard a lot of eulogistic words being uttered about Talaash. Talaash has almost become a significant name in Bengali literature. In spite of that, I would like to know whether you want to comment on some parts of the novel as an author.
Shaheen Akhtar – The plot could have been more compact, and I could have been more careful about sentence framing. But, the looseness of its structure and simplicity enable it to retain the emotions of agony and sorrow, which could have been lost in the act of editing.
NT – You always resort to certain symbolism in your novels. The symbolism is also present in Talaash. Particularly, at the end of the story, during the journey of Mariam Tuki by river, the novel ended up beautifully through the use of symbolism. How would you explain this use of symbolism at the end of the novel?
Shaheen Akhtar – Actually, I have no explanation. This part of the novel came from my dreams. Even if I had to rewrite Talaash several times, I would write the last part of the novel in the same way.
NT – The first award you received for Talaash was Prothom Alo Best Novel of the year 2004. How did it motivate Shaheen Akhtar as an author? Please tell something about that.
Shaheen Akhtar – I was so happy. But, I don’t understand anything regarding the matter of motivation. Thereafter, I got involved in editing ‘Sati o Swatantara,’ a literary collection. Six years after ‘Talaash’, ‘Sakhi Rangamala’ came up in the year 2010.
NT -The trial of the war convicts seemed to be almost impossible as in ‘Talaash’. But we have now witnessed something as impossible as the trial of the war convicts. While facing such a historical truth, how did you think the characters of ‘Talaash’ would have reacted?
Shaheen Akhtar – Yes, it seemed to be impossible at that time. Mariam appeared in disguise, for the trial of the war criminals organized by the efforts of Jahanara Imam, just like the filmstars appearing before the public in the sunglasses. She was thinking whether she could find any of those brave women that she knew.
I think that they would be partially delighted to witness the trial of the war criminals. The Pakistan Army has faced no trial for the rape –murder-torture of those nine months.
NT – ‘Talaash’ has given you a strong platform as a litterateur. In the Daily Star (November 2020), you have said Talaash has receded farther from you. You have also wanted such a thing to happen. Is it because of ‘Asukhi Din’ (The Unhappy Days)? Is the idea of Charaibeti (Move On) necessary for an author?
Shaheen Akhtar – Oh! It has provided me a strong platform. Is it so? I think that there is nothing like an even platform, but only thorns under my feet, even after 16 years of ‘Talaash.’ I have said at Daily Star, “Talaash has receded farther away from me. The book was published 16 years back, in 2004. I completed it even before. I think I had wanted this distance from the core of my heart. I have written nothing on liberation war since 2004. I had to undergo a trauma while writing Talaash. I wanted to erase it from my mind.
I wrote ‘Sakhi Rangamala’ and ‘Mayur Singhasan’ (The Peacock Throne) between ‘Talaash’ and ‘Asukhi Din’. No matter how grave the subject matter is, it is not possible to write another novel with the hangover of that novel, considering the fact that my novels are independent of each other in style and form.
The word successful reminds me of the business world, the world of stars/public figures…
I don’t know how applicable it is for the litterateurs who are always caught up in turmoil! At least in my case, this is very true. My entity as an author is so delicate and crumbling. Even at the end of the novel I felt as if I would never be able to complete it.
NT– Most of your novels are based on historical events. You have aroused the historical awareness of the historically disinclined readers through your novels. How did you develop such a historical consciousness?
Shaheen Akhtar – It’s because of my mother. Right from my tender age, when she used to swing me on her legs and lull me, till the present day, she always narrates the tales from history.
NT – Is the character of Mukti in ‘Talaash’ responsible for the creation of the character of Sabina in ‘Asukhi Din?’ There are a lot of differences, but both the characters have certain similarities regarding their inquisitive minds.
Shaheen Akhtar – I think they do not influence each other. Mukti is almost an invisible character who looks for brave women. Sabina tries to find her identity, her history in the name of ‘Paribarik Sonali Itihas’(The Golden Family History). Her presence is vocal and explicit.
NT – Is the character of Moazzem Haque woven out of the author’s imagination, or is it based on any historical fact?
Shaheen Akhtar – Moazzem Haque, his village, his neighbours, Jahar Bakshi, Jahar Bakshi’s family- everything is very much factual. These tales can still be heard from the local villagers. They feel the pain of losing their neighbours during partition. Though there was a time when they used to be scared of their neighbour. They remember them with love, and not out of revenge. The village suffers from severe nostalgia. Moazzem Haque’s joining in the Azad Hind, you can say ‘has its basis on historical facts.’
NT– I have heard that while writing ‘Sakhi Rangamala,’ you had to do a lot of investigation. Please tell us about that experience.
Shaheen Akhtar – It was not possible to do much fact finding now, as the story is set in the initial days of the East India Company. I found a Palaagaan named ‘Chowdhurir Larai’ in Dinesh Chandra Sen’s Purbabanga Geetika, It has two more parts, which had been used as a means to write this novel. I have already said that I travel to different places on the pretext of my writing. My trip to Noakhali and Laxmipur had been such an excuse to escape from writing. But, I did not return empty handed. Once, while on my way back from Chowdhury Bhita, I was passing through the cobbled paths on the banks of a large pond. It was a shady path, echoing with the warbling voice of birds. The land was somewhat moist. All of a sudden I recalled the unhappy wife of the palace, who used to tame the birds. She is absent from all the tales and narratives. ‘Haus Kori Koraichi Biya Fuleswari Rai’– only this much can be found in Zamindar Rajendra Narayan’s statement from Purbabanga Geetika. The Character of Fuleshwari Rai was created and developed because of this incidental trip.
NT -The real life experiences of the author generally find their reflection in a story or novel. Do you believe that?
Shaheen Akhtar – Not only do we find the reflection of real life experiences, I think that the entity of the author is also present in some way or another. The author’s entity is intermingled with that of the character, at least to some extent, if not fully. The author’s conscious or unconscious existence can be found even in the characters, which are 400 years old. This is evident in the case of some of the characters in my ‘Mayur Sinhasan.’
NT – One should write something daily as we did in our childhood to enhance the quality of our handwriting! Do you write daily?
Shaheen Akhtar – I come across the interviews of many celebrated litterateurs, who write daily. But, no, I can’t write daily.
NT – It is true that e-books have become acceptable for the readers and writers. What would you opine about the trend of e-books?
Shaheen Akhtar – I think it has become more acceptable for the readers and writers living abroad. This is because the Bengali books are not easily available to them and secondly, they are more comfortable with technology. I feel comfortable with hard copy. At times I use Kindle. I don’t prefer to read in computer or mobile phone due to the problems with my eyes.
NT – Have you come across the stories and novels of the new generation? Do you like to read other’s works?
Shaheen Akhtar – I enjoy the artistry of language in the stories and novels penned by the new generation.
NT – Many authors in Bangladesh are writing stories and novels at the present time. What kind of diversity do you notice in their stories, novels and poems?
Shaheen Akhtar – When I come to find the anarchy of the present day – its cruelty, absurdity, complexity – being reflected in the works of the modern writers, I find them rich in diversity.
NT – How much freedom do you enjoy in the domain of writing?
Shaheen Akhtar – There are certain subject matters which hinder the free flow of my pen. In some cases, I feel like a free bird while writing.
NT – Is literature religion oriented? Or is it that religion steps in to besiege literature? Tell us about the presence of God in the world of art and literature
Shaheen Akhtar – Art, Literature and Festivals, roughly, have religious orientation. All these are rooted in religion. The shadow of religion remains within the act of abandoning it. And if you want it to be besieged by religion, then it’s a matter of a few seconds. It depends on whether you want to monger riots by writing about religion and secularism, or whether you want to present an internal beauty. The latter is done by writers like Orhan Pamuk. I support this and sometimes I have tried this out too. My story on Kaptai Bandh (dam) has a scene where the flood water goes on rising and the settlements are submerged, which finds resemblance to the flood at the time of Nooh Nabi, described in Koran Sharif and the Bible. It had to be omitted, as the character of Dibakar in the story is not a bearer of religious culture. This imagery does not play in the minds of such a person. It would seem to be like imposing these qualities on him forcibly. In the same story, there is a mention of rebirth elsewhere.
NT – At the present moment, are you working on a new novel? If yes, then is it going to be a historical novel too?
Shaheen Akhtar – I started writing in 2019. Then, came the dreariest moment in my life- My younger brother was diagnosed with cancer and then he passed away. I couldn’t carry on with my writing in 2020.
The novel is very much relevant to the present time. But, certain aspects of the present seem to be a replay of the past. It is just like the fashion of clothing, which returns in a cycle.
At The Antonym, we believe that writing is an important tool for women to voice their experiences of identity, sexuality, marriage, love, family, and life. Our magazine is taking a measured look at the Bengali women who have contributed to contemporary Bengali literature. They are all borne out of different life experiences and have created a distinct storytelling style that not only differentiates them from men writers but also from women. Their distinct approaches have made us believe that we could bring a new focus on Bengali women writers and explore and expand our scope in the form of translating their contributions to Bengali literature. To read about the different Bengali women writers that we have translated, please visit the following page of The Antonym magazine: