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Saturday, May 26, 2018

Nasreen Jahan: A Bangladeshi master novelist

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The Bangladeshi fiction writer who has been able to draw attention in the present decade from international readership is Nasreen Jahan (b. 1964). The reason of her being in the news is the translation of her novel 'Urukku' with the English title 'The Woman Who Flew' which was published by Penguin India in 2012.



It could be noteworthy to mention here that such an international publisher is not a common phenomenon for a Bangladeshi writer. The lucrative publication has made her well acquainted across borders. It can be expected that more reviews will come on her work in the forthcoming days.

The Bangla novel, the debut one from Nasreen, has portrayed the Muslim society of Bangladesh as the protagonist, a rural Muslim girl, tries to come out of her cocoon.Nasreen, a major writer in contemporary Bangla fiction, first revealed her literary appearance through some memorable short stories in the middle of the eighties.

After five volumes of short stories, her first novel 'Urukku' came out and fortunately it brought her an important literary award. Subsequently she had published a good number of novels in the last decade for which she received the Bangla Academy Award. Her later novels were 'Chondrer Prothom Kola' (The First Phase of the Moon, 1994), 'Jokhon Charpasher Batigulo Nive Ashchhe' (When All the Lamps Dim, 1995) 'Chondrolekhar Jaadubistar' (Magical Exposition of Chandrolekha, 1995) 'Sonali Mukhosh' (The Golden Mask 1996), 'Baidehi' (The Incorporeal, 1997), 'Li' (Titled after the last syllable of the name of the heroine Sonali,1997), 'Krus Kathe Konya' (The Daughter on the Cross, 1998), 'Ure Jai Nishipokshi' (The Nocturnal Bird Flies Away, 1999) etc.

The new century has also seen a good number of writings from her pen. In 2003 came 'ShongkhoNortoki', in 2006 'Mrityusokhigon', in 2010 'Sei Sap Jyanto', and in the present year 'Kobochkundol' which are the most worth mentioning works from her twenty odd novels.

Nasreen is fortunate enough that she has got aside the internationally reputed Bangladeshi academician and translator Kaiser Huq for her 'The Woman Who Flew'.The main feature in the novels of Nasreen Jahan is her use of magic realism. Before going to the heart of the magical elements in Nasreen Jahan's novels, let us take a view of the literary concept of magic realism.

About Gabriel Garcia Marquez (b 1927) whose 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' is regarded as 'a paradigm of magic realism', Larousse Dictionary of Writers (ed. Rosemary Goring, New York, 1994) comments: 'He is a master of magic realism, the practice of rendering possible events as if they were wonders and rendering impossible events as if they were commonplace, spinning from one fantastic, hyperbolic happening along in a torrent of narrative'.

Though magic realism got established in the eighties of the last century, it actually dates back to Jorge Luis Borges's (1899-1988) fiction. His 'Historia Universal de la infamia' is regarded by many as the first work of magic realism.

Another name worthy to be mentioned with Borges is Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980), a novelist from Cuba. The other internationally writers who practised magic realism with distinction are Italo Calvino (1923-1985), John Robert Fowles (b 1926), Gunter Wilheim Grass (b 1927), Milan Kundera (b 1929), Emma Christina Tennant (b 1937), Angela Olive Carter (1940-1992), Peter Carey (b 1943), Salman Rushdie (b 1947) and Graham Swift (b 1947) et al.

Nasreen Jahan's first novel 'Urukku' has Neena as the heroine. Neena is an outcome of an impotent and declining society. We get details of both the inner world and the outer life of Neena. The impure outer world is exposed in the book in a trustworthy manner.

Different phases of Neena's inner mind are also demonstrated in the novel. All the descriptions of 'Urukku' are outwardly very realistic but there are features of anti-realism as well. The story of 'Urukku' begins with Neena's divorce. The other incidents that take place in the book later on are also described with full sympathy.

When the novel ends we see Neena in a difficult situation since she is carrying a child from her romantic relation with Rezaul. Due to requests from her friends, Neena agrees to keep her child alive. She thus appears to be a rebellions female character. In her second novel 'Chondrer Prothom Kola', Nasreen shifted to a different sort of narration where dream takes the upper hand. In this novel we get the story of Amrita and a young man along with the juxtapositional presence of the writer of the story. In the novel, the writer Nasreen Jahan displays her new technique of story telling utilising allegory in fairy tale elements.

As we saw, in her first novel, she had used the element of shock very often but the whole delineation of the story as not that of the magic realist. In 'Chondrer Prothom Kola', she experimented this style, though she had to wait till her third novel 'Chondrolekhar Jaadubistar' to be successful.

The present as well as the past is intermingled in this novel very skillfully. The love affair of Nishi and Zahid is described vividly. For some social and familial context the love affair can not result in marriage. Later on, she becomes close to Shajidul who stays with Mamata, a well wisher of them. Showing a false excuse of secret marriage they live together as a married couple.

After about two years Shajidul gets sentence for a corruption charge. Within less than a year Nishi decides to marry Afzal, an acquaintance of seven days only. After about seven years of that marriage the story of 'Sonali Mukhosh' begins. Gradually the novel reveals every detail of the previous incidents of the lives of Nishi and Zahid. In the novel the other worthwhile characters are Nishi's husband Afzal, Nishi-Afzal's friends Reza-Swati, Nishi's sister Rini, and Osman whom Sajidul met in the jail and followed to come out of the jail.

After the detailed depiction of the impatience and frivolity of conjugal life in 'Sonali Mukhosh', Nasreen writes 'Kruskathe Kanya', a story of the middle-class city life where pain and agony are always present. Her 'Ure Jai Nishipakshi' is also very striking because of its use of magic realism. But the allegorical and dream-like fairy elements are not as evident in 'Ure Jai Nishipakshi' as they were in 'Chordrolekhar Jaadubistar'.

Through this description of 'Ure Jai Nishipokshi, we get three old women full of unreality. Approaching through this
supernatural episode in the next chapter we get Osman, a product of true reality but not bereft of unreality totally. Gradually we realize that thirty years back Osman left this village when enemies killed his parents. We can also realize his re-appearance in that village after thirty years is impossible to be real in a true sense.

Osman gets shelter after a boat wreck in the home of the influential Mannaf Khan of Nayanpur who killed Osman's parents with his associates and grasped all their wealth. After his entrance in that village the people there appear to Osman in a two-fold way - one from his memory, another from his present reality. 

Moreover, there are the legendary stories of the power of the three old women, the elder of who saved Osman at his birth with her miraculous power; the episode of Chandrani; and the episode of Fazlu-Raisuddin, mates from Osman's boyhood.

Along with them there is the story of the lake of bell metal, the story of the shore of birds. We can not but agree that while both 'Chandralekhar Jaadubistar' and 'Ure Jai Nishipakshi' are journeys through unreal worlds but 'Ure Jai Nishipakshi' does not expose the inner truths as effectively in 'Chandralekhar Jaadubistar'.

If we examine all the novels of Nasreen Jahan, we will observe that most of her novels are full of dreams, fairy tales and mythical elements. 'Elements of surprise or abrupt shock, the horrific and the inexplicable and arcane eruditions' are also very evident in most of her novels. 'Ure Jai Nishipokshi' and 'Sonali Mukhosh' can be cited as prominent in this regard. We also notice the 'mingling and juxtaposition of the realistic and the fantastic or bizarre' in the above two novels along with 'Chondrer Prothom Kola' and 'Chondrolekhar Jaadubistar'.

But we must agree that only in the last two novels of Nasreen we meet the quality that is called 'convoluted and even labyrinthine narration and plot' among which 'Chondrer Prothom Kola' is an experiment and 'Chondrolekhar Jaadubistar' is a success. Magic realism can be viewed mostly in the works of three novelists named Aktaruzzaman Elias (1943-1997), Shahidul Zahir (b 1953) and Nasreen Jahan.

If we look at the chronological development of magic realism in our literature, we will see that the first attempt in this arena is Shahidul Zahi's 'Jiban O Rajnaitic Bastabata' (Life and Political Reality, 1987). The next effort came from Nasreen Jahan. Her third novel 'Chondralekahar Jaadubistar' is a milestone in this regard. In the same year Shahidul Zahir's second novel 'She Rate Purnima Chhilo' (That was a Moonlit Night) came out.

The third novelist to have attempted successfully in this style is Akhtaruzzaman Elias. His second novel 'Khoabnama' (Dream Epic, 1996) is another major attempt. In this context, it will not be irrelevant if we mention the name of Syed Waliullah (1922-1970).

Among his three novels, the last two 'Chandrer Amabashya' (Black Moon, 1964) and 'Kando Nodi Kando' (Cry River Cry, 1968) have some features, which resemble magic realist novels. Actually no works by any of the above three novelists portray all aspects of magic realism. Shahidul Zahir manipulates 'skillful time shifts' and 'labyrinthine narratives and plots' well but in 'Khoabnama' these are absent.

On the other hand, Aktaruzzaman Elias is most successful in 'miscellaneous use of dreams, myths and fairy stories.' However traits like 'mingling and juxtaposition of the realistic and the fantastic or bizarre' and 'the element of surprise or abrupt shock' can be observed in the works of all three novelists.

'Boidehi' and 'Ure Jai Nishipokki' are great intermingling of nice stories though 'Shongkhonortoki' could not reach that height. But what enchants the readers is Nasreen Jahan's creation of dream-like situation that takes the readers to a height of lofty world where remains many things to brood over.

The best of all those may possibly be found in 'Kanamachhi, Kon Swopne Chhut' that has taken the writer to such an excellence that it may be expected to be hailed much for the writer's inconceivable imagination and high craftsmanship.


The writer is the initiator of Bangladeshi novel,lives in Toronto.

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