People At Large

Photo of Shamsuddin Abul Kalam Shamsuddin Abul Kalam's Novels

Epitomization of Southern Bangla Life
Subrata Kumar Das

Shamsuddin Abul Kalam (1926-1997) deserves to be treated as one of the major novelists of contemporary Bangla literature, though it is true that he is neither widely read nor well known. At the outset of his career he was able to draw attention as a fiction writer of many readers for his Shaher Banu (1945) which was a collection of short stories and his first book also. Later, his first novel Kashboner Konya (The Girl in the Reeds, written in 1947 and published in 1954) credited him much along with the previous book. But his next 40-year stay on a foreign land took him completely out of our minds, though he never stopped writing and the quality of his novels never degraded. His epic novel Kanchongram (The Golden Village) can easily guarantee him as one of our prominent novelists.

Before the publication of his first novel, he wrote some volumes of short stories like Path Jana Nai (1948), Anek Diner Asha (1949), Dheu (1953), etc. The other books of short stories by him are Dui Hridayer Teer (1955), Pui Dalimer Kabyo and Moja Ganger Gaan (both published in the 1980). Immediately after the publication of Kashboner Konya, his another novel Dui Mahol (Two Mansions, later renamed as Alamnagorer Upokatha) came out. The other novels written by him are Kanchonmala (1956), Jibonkando (The Parts of Life, 1956), Jaijongol (The Wilderness, 1978) and, in the eighties, novels like Somudrobasor (Coastal House, 1986), Nobanno (The Nobanno Ceremony, 1987), Jar Sathe Jar (Who Suits Whom, 1986) and Moner Moto Thain (A Suitable Place, 1985).

After the partition of India when the then East Pakistan began to create a new literaty trend in Bangla language, the name of Shamsuddin Abul Kalam, hugely appreciated by both East and West Bengal literary, emerged as an important literary figure for his distinctive novel Kashboner Konya. The novel, set in the southern part of Bangladesh, could not draw due evaluation from the orthodox Muslim section of the society, but it was a tremendous beginning for the incorporation of lower professional people and their dialect in Bangla fiction. The fact is most of the novels of Shamsuddin Abul Kalam are set in the same region with mostly similar linguistic approach. It seems that from his debut novel, he was eager to present the land and its people, their culture and language and their belief and disbeliefs of the southern districts of Bangladesh. Even the novels like Jaijongol, Somudra Bashor, Jar Sathe Jar and Nobanno take similar themes like the history of those landscapes and the revolutionary mind of the people, though everywhere in different story lines.

Critics may fail to discover firm correlation between the two episodes of Kashboner Konya, but no one will deny that it is a true depiction of agrarian village life in their own language. Sikder and Hossain are the two main characters who have been denied by their beloved ladies because of their poverty. Jobeda does not agree to marry Sikder because the proposed bridegroom is a well-to-do person. On the other hand Sakhina does not hesitate to accept the proposal from Baro Mian’s brother on the same ground. The story proceeds with the ongoing tragic life of Sikder and Hossain but till the end they do not succeed to meet their fiancees. Sikder once gets when Jobeda leaves her husband’s house being manhandled by her mother-in-law and her husband and returnes to Sikder’s but Sikder cannot arrange everything to keep her at his home. The case of Hossain runs in a different way as he gets involved in another poor family where he finds himself entangled with the married and driven but not divorced daughter of that family. No doubt, Shamsuddin Abul Kalam could not draw a satisfactory conclusion of the stories of Sikder and Hossain, but his narration of their story touched a huge number of Bangla speaking readers.

In Kashboner Konya, we have got a character called Ghat Master i.e. the ticket collector of the Steamer Station who poses as a revolutionary conscience in the novel. He inspires Sikder to compose and give tune to new songs, which will change the society. Regarding the famine of 1943 he comments:

    They’re saying it’s Allah’s punishment to human being for their misdeeds – aren’t they? They’ll say in the same voice always – what I said, they always help the clever people snatch other’s possession. Sikder, open your eyes and see. Cheating thousands of millions of simpleminded people those clever persons along with the Peershahibs are looting from the commoners. (Translation)

The rebellious attitude may be observed in Alamgir of Dui Mahol , Lalu Khan of Jaijongol, Sujat Ali of Somudra Bashor, Hashem Mridha of Jar Shathe Jar and Doyal Chowkidar of Nobanno. Their rebellious attitudes are against the oppressors who take off undue possession and push others to hunger and poverty and death.

The second novel of Shamsuddin Abul Kalam, Dui Mahol is a more successful attempt from plot and character points of view. He has set the story of the people of Alam Nagar, previously known as Ksheersayore, in a partly historical and partly legendary context, which dates back some two hundred years ago with Peer Hazrat Jamaluddin who came from the Mughal-Darbar to Ksheersayore. The Peer conquered all the nearby feudal lords and created a new dynasty, which the present Nawab belongs to. The Baiji i.e. the royal dancer Gahar bai is also a vital character. The story of Dui Mahol runs through them to Alamgir, the Nawab’s son and Roshonbai, the Baiji’s daughter. The novelist has examined the oppression by the royal people over the common folk as well as the emergence of the new mercantile society who suck the blood of the people to live a more luxurious life. The representative of the later section of people is Meer Khan.

Any reader will certainly feel attracted to the story line of the novel Dui Mohol and probably Shamsuddin Abul Kalam is the most successful in this book in this regard. No other books of him contains so colourful a story, rather his later novels possess a sort of indifference in their narratology and plot, in which regard Jaijongol is the best example. Certainly it elucidates the landscape of the southern coastal area and its people in a very meticulous way, but like other novels of popular trend it does not possess a very effusive plot and development. The novelist seems more interested in penetrating the everyday life of the inhabitants of those areas. Somudro Bashor is also a novel of the similar trend, though it does not lack story so much, possibly it is because this novel was originally written in 1947-48 and later on takes a revise for publication. In Somudro Bashore, Sujat Ali takes the possession of a new Char [land mass emerging from under water], dreams to cultivate it and finally he makes it habitable for him and his fellow men. For long they pass their life there, but as it is natural, time again comes when the river grabs the whole char demolishing everything there. The pen-portrayal of ups and downs of the Char life has been the focal idea in Somudro Bashore. Not a tense story line, rather every detail of the landscape and the life pattern of its people are the novelist’s concern.

In almost all the novels, Shamsuddin Abul Kalam has portrayed the life of the down-trodden people residing in the riverine areas of the southern districts, excepting Moner Moto Thain, set in Italy, where he passed the largest part of his life and Kanchongram, set in Sonargaon, very near to Dhaka. The story of Jar Sathe Jar revolves around Nimu Hawladar, his wife Jorina, daughter Ayesha, neighbour Hashem Mridha, Mirdha’s son Jamal etc. who all come out of that social class which always takes portrayal in Shamsuddin Abul Kalam’s novels. The conflict arises from the possession of the beel [highly fertile and resourceful marshland] which, for generations, is everyone’s property. But when Jalil Miah, the villainous rich man wants to grab it solely, the crisis sharpens. To reach the climax, many other components contribute among which the marriage of Ayesha is the most poignant. Nimu Hawladar arranges his daughter marriage with Gafur, son of Modhu, a dependent on Jalil Mian to take advantage of the beel. But later on all his dreams and hopes end in smoke, because immediately after the marriage it is exposed that Jalal Mian himself violates the new bride forcefully. The novelist has told us the story of the uprising united voice of the depressed. At the end of the novel we see all people united to protest against Jalil Mian, his supporter Hingul Dofadar and defeat them.

Next we look at his novel Nobanno, which Shamsuddin Abul Kalam himself Translationlated into English under the title The Garden of Cain Fruirts. The novelist was mostly successful to draw an English publisher for this voluminous book, but he could not succeed finally. ‘Set against the back drop of the long and painful struggle for independence, this novel tells the story of a community of peasants struggling to survive in the coastal regions of the now young country of Bangladesh’ - the novelist himself wrote it in the synopsis of the English version. A thin volume in original Bangla, Nobanno tell of a coastal village Rupar Jhore, the mention of which village we got in his first novel Kashboner Konya. Doyal Chowkidar, the protagonist of the novel, is dead against the idea of rushing to city life, rather he dreams to develop the condition of the village people as a whole. This dislike to town life is also one of the major themes of Shamsuddin Abul Kalam’s novels. Moreover, the author has intermingled the essence of history and legends in Nobanno in his own way as he has done in his other novels. It is assumed that the novelist wanted to incorporate all his related ideas in the English version The Garden of Cain fruits.

Shamsuddin Abul Kalam’s last novel Kanchongram, however, should be ranked as one of the best novels of present-day Bangla literature. There is a long story behind the completion of this voluminous novel of 582 pages. The first draft of the novel was written in 1972. Its screenplay was written, in both English and Bangla, in the same year. Around the years 1986-87, he rewrote the novel and did not manage to get a publisher before 1997. The author narrates a story of the human habitation and life in this land in the book. Memory, legend and imagination are the real protagonists in it. Human characters and stories about them are merely the means to illuminate the culture, heritage, tradition and customs of the country.

As we stated above, Kanchongram is not merely a novel having an attractive story. Rather it stretches beyond the present to touch the very distant past of our history. The whole time-span of the Buddhist period to the pre-liberation time gets gradually illuminated in the novel live through the last years of the Pakistan regime. The days of the near past around the later British days in the subcontinent, the creation of Pakistan and the conception of Bangladesh liberation are more prominently presented. What does Shamsuddin Abul Kalam himself say about the subject of his novel? ‘I have tried to relate the big or small incidents of the life struggle of the people of my homeland. Gradually I felt a deep inspiration to demonstrate that in the context of huge experience and consciousness (Abdul Matin quotes from Shamsuddin Abul Kalam in relation to the manuscript of Kanchongram. Translationlated by the present author). Shamsuddin Abul Kalam relates this long history of one thousand years of Bangladesh by creating some characters. These characters are not mere characters in the ordinary sense - they are tools to demonstrate the grand theme of the novel.

While talking about Ulysses (1922) of James Joyce (1882-1941) J. Arthur Honeywell comments ‘Novelists lost interest in constructing logical or rational sequences and turned to the third possibility, that of structuring the events of a novel so as to present a coherent world or vision of reality. (‘Plot in the Modern Novel’, Essentials of the Theory of Fiction, Ed. by Michael J. Hoffman and Patrick D. Murphy, USA, 1993, P-242). Kanchongram is also such a vision of reality which has incorporated all the beliefs and heritage of the Bangali nation starting in the remote past till the pre-liberation period. The conscience of the whole populace of this soil takes a picture here. No individual, rather a totality is in the design of the author. Consequently the person who emerges as the protagonist of this novel is not a person, rather he is the region itself which is great in its own history and glory. All these make Kanchongram a great one as ‘great literature is great because its characters are great, and characters are great when they are memorable’ (William H. Grass, ‘The Concept of Characters in Fiction, ibid, p-269).

Let us examine how Shamsuddin Abul Kalam introduces his novel to his readers. First comes an excerpt from Bodhisattwadan Kalpolota. Then there is a line from Marcel Proust (1871-1922), the French writer and philosopher, where he tells about the reality in our memory. These two are given before the title page. After that come the forewords from the writer, Abdul Matin, and the publisher. Then again an excerpt from Bertrand Russel after which comes Mangalik. Later on Shamsuddin Abul Kalam begins his story. Upacromonika and Abotoronika, both of 25 pages each, help the writer last of all to formulate the foreground for his plot.

The most prominent person of the novel is Jalal Mian. Illiterate but not ignorant, Jalal Mian is rather an embodiment of long and diverse experiences. Inheriting a deeper root, he beholds everything from a unique viewpoint. He thinks that the fact that people began to leave off their birthplace for individual interest caused damage to our glorious past. Jalal Mian dreams, if all these people throng back again, our village i.e. our country will again be embellished with happiness and beauty.

Along with Jalal Mian, there is Abdul Master, a learned school teacher who illustrates the good souls of the youths. Moreover, Abdul Master represents the whole young generation of his time who after much thought and careful analysis, took active part in the Liberation War. He represents all our people who wanted to liberate our nation from all shackles.

Through the interactions between the past and the present by Jalal Mian and Abdul Master, the long past of our nation becomes evident. Janardan Karmakar, Hedayetullah or Rupa are the other persons who by this way or that help them perform their duties. The other characters around them are Kadabanu (daughter to Rupa), Kanu (son to Rupa), Kalur Ma, Dabiraddi, Shyamoli or Shimuly, who among a lot of other persons, prove themselves more essential. There is Makbul Khadem who is a moulovi but not a fanatic. Regarding the foundation of Pakistan in the name of Islam he says ‘There is irreligious activities in religion everywhere in the world’.

In Kanchongram there are many things on which people may controvert. The controversy is more possible regarding the recent past incidents, as they are possible about some political personalities. And the success of Shamsuddin Abul Kalam lies in the fact that he has given forth the truth only, no biased opinion. With the passage of fictional time there emerge historical characters like Jinnah, Fazlul Huq, Sheikh Mujib and others. In this discourse opinion and counter opinions please the readers. Makbul Khadem’s thought about Sheikh Mujib or Jalal Mian’s opinion on Fazlul Huq’s activities prove how Shamsuddin Abul Kalam has presented the different views in his story.

If we say all the major characters of Kanchongram are mere symbols, it will not be very untrue. The short familial story around Jalal Mian, Rupa and Abdul Master is undoubtedly a metaphorical demonstration, which also contributes to the main manipulation by the writer himself.

Jalal Mian hails from such a family which, though by now are completely deprived from all their land properties, inherits the Budhist linkage. Later, Persian tradition also influenced their family. Rupa is a bereaved woman having two grown-up children - Kadabanu and Kanu. She, with her two children, took a shelter at Jalal Mian’s family since her husband went missing. Kadabanu and Kanu are brought up no less as Jalal Mian’s own children. At the end of the novel when the people become rowdy during the last years of Pakistan, Jalal Mian decides to marry Rupa because he thinks evil people who previously talked nonsense about Rupa, would not let her stay at his house. It is Rupa who discovered the ancient icons at Jalal Mian’s house and thus the Persian linkage of the family gets exposed. On the other hand, Janardan Kamakar presents that Hindu temperament which takes enough care and sincerity to make a rehel (a bookstand) for the nearby mosque where Makbul Kahdem serves as the Imam. Through these characters, the writer thus draws the patient amity between the Hindu and Muslim communities of this region.

Kanchongram ends where the Liberation War begins, though the untidy social environment right before the Independence War has been illustrated very minutely and precisely. We get different views and opinions regarding the forthcoming war in the book. Mass people’s stand against the Pakistan army and their collaborators have also been delineated at the end of the book. It should be remembered here that the other name of Shamsuddin Abul Kalam was Kanchan alias Kanchu. The novel Kanchongram also sketches the inner mind and dreams of the author himself.

Shamsuddin Abul Kalam was one of the four pioneers who steered the novel of Bangladesh. The other three were Shaukat Osman (Janani, written before and during partition of India but published in 1961) Abu Ishaque (Surya-Dighal Bari, 1955), and Syed Waliullah (Lalshalu, 1948). From the very early days of his authorial life Shamsuddin Abul Kalam had to struggle with his surrounding world, even with his name. As there was an eminent journalist named Abul Kalam Shamsuddin, he changed his name into the present form. This sort of defeat never ended in his life.

We should not forget that even by now we haven’t been able to make a complete list of all works of Shamsuddin Abul Kalam. From his letters to Abdul Matin and Debaprasad Das we know that his books entitled Natyamandap, Pal Tola Nodi, Dheu Bhara Nodi, Sagar Thikana, Kalyaniyashu and Kameliake Chithi are yet to come into light. His English books The Garden of Cane Fruits, the English version of Nobanno and The Battle of Bangladesh are also to be published.

We all know that Shamsuddin Abul Kalam left his motherland due to some unwanted affairs in his family. Later on, the reality was that he even stopped all correspondence with known figures of our literary arena. We should not keep ourselves in dark any more about him. If we ignore an author like him, the posterity will not forgive us.

About the author:

    Subrata Kumar Das was born at Kamarkhali in the district of Faridpur in Bangladesh in 1964. Subrata took his postgraduation degree from Rajshahi University in 1990. He started writing since the year 1992. His fields of interest are critiquing literature and analyzing education system. His books are: Nazruler 'Bandhonhara' (2000) and Bangla Kathasahitya:Jadubastabata Ebong Onyanyo(2002).His Selected Essays, Letters and Speeches of Kazi Nazrul Islam(translation) is going to be published soon. He is now working on: A Glimpse of the Novels of Bangladesh; Prosongo:Engregi Shiksha; Sabitry Ray:Jibon O Sahitya; and Nazrul: Koyekti Prosongo. Subrata lectures at Bangladesh Rifles College, Peelkhana, Dhaka, Bangladesh. His e-mail contact is here.