After keeping the bouquet on the altar of the Shaheed Minar, as I gradually stood up, I could not say the words despite trying several times that ‘I could not do it, Baba. I could not keep my words that I gave to you’.Rizwan bit his lower lips. His son also kept his hand on his while keeping down the bouquet. One day, Rizwan also kept his hand on his father’s hand and ensured him that he will never leave his country. And tomorrow is 22nd February; his flight will take off before the crack of dawn.
Hriddho was standing straight from before. He was wearing a red colored panjabi and pajama; a head full of long and clustering hair. Rizwan wanted to trim his hair. But it was Shurovi who denied, saying, “We are going to a cold region. It is now winter over there. Hriddho can cut his hair in the summer.”
When it comes to Hriddho, Shurovi’s affection knows no bound. She comes up with new different names for Hriddho every single day. She used to call him Gablu-Dablu, Guchku-Fuchku, Chinkta-Pinkta, and many more day and night when he was very small mainly because of his chubby and round figure. Rizwan one day told her that, “What kind of names do you give him! Strange!’
In reply Shurovi said, “You could not even find a better name for him till now. What type of writer are you!”
Really, at that time she became restless for finding a name for Hriddho. She could not find a name of her choice. She kept on searching for a perfect name in several dictionaries. It was an irony that she could not find a suitable name for her own son, whereas he was the one who selected names for the children of all his cousins. However, after several days when their son had his first tooth growing, and had the tendency to vomit daily, the name Hriddho came to her mind. After Hriddho’s birth, Shurovi felt that her life had turned over a new leaf where she came out from her comfort zone and entered into the race of life.
It has been two years since Hriddho has been going to a kindergarten school. He is now in playgroup. He just comes and goes really – learning while playing and playing while learning. Literally, it was one of Shurovi’s friends who convinced them to get Hriddho admitted to that school.
After conceiving Shurovi began to worry that in which school she will send her child to; there are no good schools in Dhaka, there is nothing left about good schooling, all are coaching centers in the name of school. There is no existence of learning and knowing left now. Coaching centers have popped up everywhere in the name of schools to get good grades in SSC and HSC. There is no school, no playing ground, there is no hygienic food – how can one raise their children in this country! There has not been a single day since Hriddho’s birth that Shurovi did not talk about these things. She browsed the internet day and night only to find out different ways to go to different countries. And at last she found out a way. She collected loads of papers and documents. She said, “The main thing is to collect the papers”. Shurovi did her Masters in Economics and now wanted to work in education. Few days back, their visa for Canada had been confirmed. From that time onward her complaints came to a halt for the time being.
The other day while making Hriddho ready for school, as Shurovi was tucking in his shirt inside the trousers, Hriddho said, “Maa I am not feeling well. I don’t want to go to school today.”
“You don’t need to go to this school after a few days”
“Do you know that we are going to a beautiful country?”
“For staying. After a few days we will be living in that country.”
Rizwan just sat with his cup of tea, his face hidden behind the newspaper he was holding in his hands.
“Which country, Maa?”
“Canada is beside America, right Maa?”
“Wow, Hriddho, you even know about this!”
“Oh, Maa. You know about the game of maps that we play at school. We find countries in a map that is as large as a mat. And we get points for that. No one ever beast me in that game.” Hriddho finally finished getting dressed properly.
“Maa, in which language will we speak in that country?”
“What type of question is this? We will obviously speak in our language. Bangla!”
“Do Bangla words float in the air of that country?”
“What do you mean by Bangla words floating in the air?”
“That day while playing the game of Maps, I asked my teacher that in what language the people in America speak. My teacher said that they speak in English. And when I asked about the Chinese people,she said, in Mandarin. Is it in Mandarin, Maa?”
“Yes, that’s right, in Mandarin.”
“I asked, Miss why do people in different countries speak different languages? That time my teacher said about the story of the Tower of Babel. Don’t you know about the story Maa?”
“I knew about it before. But I forgot. You tell me now.”
Hriddho with much excitement started to narrate the story of the Tower of Babel to his mother. After he finished telling the story, Shurovi gently messed up her son’s hair and caressed him.
“Maa, do you know what else Miss told us?”
“She said that, we cannot live without language. Maa, is language like oxygen?
“You don’t need to know about these things now. After you grow up, you will know more.”
That afternoon Rizwan asked Hriddho to tell the story of Tower of Babel again. Hriddho with much excitement narrated the whole story again to his father. Rizwan tried to find out how much changes Hriddho brought to the story when he was telling it to him and earlier when he was telling it to Shurovi. He saw that Hriddho did not bring any major changes while telling the story to him. After finishing the story, Hriddho kept silent for some time and then asked his father, “Baba, is language like air?”
“Language saves us. Even air saves us. So there is some connection son.”
“Miss also told us that we cannot live without air and we also cannot survive that much without our language. There’s a boy named Srijon in our class, he said that the people in different countries speak in different languages and the words of those languages float in the air of their countries. When people need to speak anything, the alphabets that are required to make up those words are invisible which people inhale with the air and when those alphabets reach our hearts they form the words that we want to speak. And then we arrange those words and speak what we want to.”
“Miss asked Srijon, who told you these things?”
“Srijon said that his father told him.”
“Miss asked him, what does your father do?”
“Srijon said that he is a painter.”
Hriddho asked, “Baba, what is a painter?”
Rizwan replied, “A painter is a person who makes drawings with a paintbrush.”
Rizwan knows that all children remain the same till the age of five. After that, they grow up adjusting to the traditions and customs of the countries in which they live. Thus, if they take Hriddho at this age to Canada, then they would not face any problem in his adjustment with the new environment. That is why Shurovi does not want to make anymore delay in leaving the country. Rizwan was not convinced in leaving the country, something was holding him back. But, it was Rizwan himself who at one time wanted to go abroad and thought about it day and night. After their marriage, when they were not having a child for a long time, Rizwan decided that he will go abroad. Shurovi did not pressure him regarding the issue of remaining childless. She did not even take him to a doctor. However, Rizwan knew that Shurovi herself went to the doctor. The doctor said that Shurovi had no problems. Shurovi found some peace in her restless mind when she found that she did not have any problems and she was not responsible for them not having any child. Rizwan was always disinterested in such things. Rizwan was never interested in having children. So it did not make any difference to him. Or at least that was what Shurovi thought about him when she saw his expressions from outside. At that time he used to remain at home after his office, he used to remain busy with his study. At that time he was a rising writer. His poems, stories and articles were being published here and there. He was taking preparations to write novels, though somehow could not start writing one. One day a strikingly beautiful lady in a Chinese restaurant asked Rizwan, “Are you Rizwan Ashraf?”
“I liked your story ‘The Meaning of Life’ very much.”
That night, while in bed, Shurovi said to Rizwan that, “I want to hear these types of things, you know Rizwan. I felt so happy when that girl complimented your story today.”
When Rizwan took the final decision of leaving the country, Shurovi asked him, “And what will happen to your writing?”
“This is the era of internet. I can write in any place in the world and can send it to anywhere.”
“I know that. But, still… It’s difficult to understand writers like you.”
At that time Rizwan thought, along with many things, that there was nothing left to read in Bengali literature. It is not possible to read the Divine Comedy by Dante and The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet whenever one wants. Rizwan could have got them at the British Council or UCS but he enjoyed reading by collecting the books and finishing them within a given time, not by sitting in big libraries and reading them. He finished reading the books what needed to be read – starting from Rabindranath to Syed Haque-Mahmudul Haque-Hasan-Elias-Kayes to Selim-al-Din. In his University life, Rizwan’s English teacher poet Mohammed Rafiq said, “Firstly, before anything else, read the Mahabharat-Ramayan. We have been enthusiastic in the modern literature of the 60’s. If we had shown interest in Mahabharat at that time then we would not have regretted now. There is still time, read Veda Vyas-Valmiki. And then move on to the writings of other great writers. There is an inherent similarity in the writings of Rabindranath-Jibonanondo, Tolstoy-Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann-Franz Kafka. Understand these things first, and then decide whether you want to write or not.”
Rizwan only said that, “What should I do sir?”
“What do your senses say? It’s not like that I will say something and that thing will happen!”
Salehin also used to tell him that, “First of all, one needs to be clear in front of himself/herself – whether I will write or not, whether I need to write or not?”
Salehin now lives in the UK. He came to visit the country few years back. That time Rizwan told him, “You know what. I want to go abroad only for reading good books and nothing else.”
In reply Salehin told that, “There are many books to read abroad but immigrants like us don’t have any time to read. But here, in our country, we have abundant time but don’t have books to read.”
“But still I want to go outside the country.”
“Come and see what the hell is going on.” Salehin paused for a second and then again continued, “Once upon a time you were strictly against going outside the country. And then you were so mad to go abroad. That madness later went away and now again you are mad for going outside! …. Don’t you remember that adda we had where you took the side of Sudhir Da in the argument between Sudhir Da and Sadman Bhai. Sudhir Da said that, if a poet remained outside the country then it will not be a problem for him in writing poems but it was necessary for a novelist and a story-writer to remain at home. The difference between writers who stay at home and abroad lies in the pressure that the former experiences while living inside the country and the latter remains unaware of what is happening during his absence that creates a knowledge gap leading to ‘ignorance’. Do you remember what Sudhir Da told about Kundera?”
“I do remember. But I will not be Kundera. I will be Rizwan Ashraf. Whatever I will be, be that good or be that bad, I will be by remaining myself.”
“Look at what are you saying! It’s your path of life. It’s your call. However you walk, whichever way you walk it will only be yours. No one can walk the path of your life. You have to do that by yourself. Same as that, your writing will always be yours.”
Whenever I met with Arif Bhai he wanted to know after talking a few words that, “So Rizwan Ashraf, what is the news of Bengali literature?”
“I don’t know about any such news. There is no news. There may not be any writings by me anymore.”
“Wow, this is good news.”
“It’s not about good news but simply no news.”
“You are giving up writing – this is obviously a news”
“It would have been news if it was my own wish to give up writing.”
“I am being forced to give up writing.”
“For what reason?”
“The reason is so straight.”
“And what is that?”
There was restlessness in Arif Bhai’s voice.
Rizwan said that, “There will be no such improvements in Bengali literature if I write and there will not be any losses either if I don’t write. And I would have been happy if I could say like the French that if my writing would exist then it would be for its own quality and if it does not then automatically it will subside. However, I think that, if I continue writing, then it would mean nothing rather than a waste of time.”
“Are you frustrated for any other reason?”
“You know that I never get frustrated over anything. However, I am sure about one thing.”
Arif Bhai did not utter any word. He kept silent and waited for Rizwan to continue speaking.
Rizwan said that, “I could not find any quality in my writing that would help to keep my literary works to remain forever. Thus it’s better to give up writing.”
In the meantime, Rizwan had said this thing to a lot of people. But though he keeps on saying such things, deep inside him he knows that he has no existence without writing. He feels this more when he sees Hriddho. If Hriddho was not born then writing would have been his only support.
“So what if one does not have a child? Son and piss comes out from the same hole.”Arif Bhai used to talk like this whenever such topics arose. He used to say, “Whatever writing may it be, be it bad or that one with no meaning, these are only words printed on paper. In many cases, the words in the writing are not actually words but utter rubbish. Don’t you know? Those writings in which there is no honesty, courage, beauty, celebration of joy and sorrow are not deemed as writings. Love-hatred-lust, whatever it might be, if the writer cannot bring them together and celebrate them in his writing then, his writing should be torn to pieces.” After pausing for some time, he used to say that, “You have to understand the difference between Kkhar (ejaculation) and Akkhar (education). The best writers in the world are the real Akkahrpurush (writer). Do you know why the word is referred to the Brahma (Creator)? All professional writers cannot be classic writers.”
One day Arif Bhai told him a lot of things while saying about the good and bad of his writing. After reaching home Rizwan tried to find out the meanings of the different words in the dictionary- Kkhar, Akkhar, Akkharjibi. He sat silently for a long time. The word Akkharpurush (writer) kept ringing in his ears – he could not find the word in the dictionary.
Rizwan could not tell anyone, but he wanted to be an Akkharpurush. But he thought that he was getting incapable (Akkhampurush) day by day. Leaving the country does not mean leaving a place only. Rather, it means the leaving behind of a language, several habits, and leaving literally a whole lifetime and entering into the shell of a new life. Will the new shell ever be his own? And is it possible to create something new where there is nothing where he can demand as his own? Rizwan still knows that one cannot tell from before that what he/she can do or cannot do. Though he could not keep one of his promises he made to his father he will definitely try to keep the other thing he said to his father– he will never give up writing. No matter what the situation might be. Though he did not make any promise to his father, but these words were ringing in his ears that day.
His father got involved in politics after leaving his government job before the Liberation War. Later, he went to participate in the war. His father said to his mother that, “I am going to the war. I will come back if the country becomes independent, otherwise not.” His mother knew the habit of his father. He was stubborn. Whatever he said was his final decision. He never moved away from the decisions he took in his life. Thus there was nothing left to say. His grandfather who was a sub inspector of police at that time disowned his father during the language movement. The hearsay about his father’s story during the language movement in Rangpur is still alive in the area. Whatever his father did was due to his own determination and attempts. He left his college job and joined politics before the independence of the country and then went to take part in the war. After returning back from war, he again joined the college.He then passed his life by teaching in a college in a remote locality. He was already an expert in Bengali and English and beside these he learnt two more languages –Farsi and French. He read the Shahnama of Ferdousi in Farsi. He read the writings of the writers in their original languages starting from Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant to Sartre-Camus, Alain Robbe-Grillet. He read Descartes in original French. At a later stage he thought that it would have been better if he would have learnt Sanskrit. He was very happy when he learnt that his son had started the practice of writing. Rizwan never told anyone when his writing got published anywhere. But he did not know how his father came to know about it whenever his writing got published. Rizwan once told his father that, “You study a lot and you know a lot of things. You could have written something. At least you could have written a book on the memories of the War of Independence.”In reply, he said that, “Writing is not the placing of word after word. Writing is something different. It takes a lot of hard work to produce a good writing. But one needs to have the minimum capability to write. If one cannot attain his/her existence then they cannot be a writer. The writing needs to be within oneself, within one’s existence and spirit. At least not the plant but the seed of passion should be inbuilt within oneself.
No one becomes a big writer at the start. It takes time for a big genius to express his/her talent. Ferdousi started writing the Shahnama at the age of fifty and completed it at the age of eighty. A writer is a carrier of writing. He does not attain inner peace without writing. My existence is not the existence of a writer – this is something that I am sure about. There are so many people who keep on writing for many years but they don’t realize that they are not meant for writing. Similarly, there are people who are mad for performing in dramas in their whole life. They gave up their whole life for drama but did not realize that they were not meant for this thing. I named this disease – Gora Syndrome. Gora was mad for Hinduism but never knew that he was not a Hindu and he was not even an Indian. However, he was later informed about this. But, there are many people in our country to whom we cannot even whisper that you are not a writer, actor or a leader. You are not meant to be one.Why do you write? Why do you act? Why are you in politics? We cannot even say these things to them. So! Let them suffer in Gora Syndrome”.
“There is something like a burning matchstick within you. If you want to be a writer then you must transform it to a wildfire. The writings of Shakespeare-Tolstoy- Dostoevsky are all wildfires. Aren’t they? I told you several times to read the books of Jean Genet, did you read them? If you had read them then you would have understood the meaning of wildfire.”
He also added, “Don’t let the fire die inside you”.
After hearing this, when Rizwan put his step forward to go out of the room, his father called him and said, “Listen”.
Rizwan came close to stand beside his father as his father moved his hands forward towards him.
“If you decide to write then never leave the country. However, if you go out for visiting then it’s another thing”.
Rizwan did not say anything. He could not say anything. His father held his hand tightly. Rizwan slightly pressed his father’s hand with his hand that he was holding on tight and brought his left hand to keep it over his father’s hand.
The window was behind his father. It was a very bright day outside. So I could not see his face as it was dark due to being opposite of the light. An emotional day like this never came before in his life. Do the emotional faces of fathers give their children peace?
All the light fell on Rizwan’s face. He did not know that whether any expression of his face was enough to make his father convinced at the moment. After a long time, Rizwan realized that he never made any promises to anyone in his life. Thus the question of not keeping promises ever arose. That day even when he was not talking, he felt the sudden surge in himself to make a promise to his father. This is why, he put his other hand automatically on his father’s hand in his strong desire to give words to his father. And what was more surprising was that, Rizwan at the same time realized that he might not be able to keep this promise.
Three years back, Baba died on 21st February at 3:10 am.Rizwan after so many days was shocked to see the death anniversary of Rafik, a language martyr, in the newspaper right at this time. His father’s name was Rafiq. Rafiqul Ashraf.Rizwan was literally surprised to find the strange similarity in the date and time of death of his father and also the martyr. Suddenly, he remembered that, people like his father in the earlier times were the real Akkharpurush not the writers and poets of today – they were real as they could keep the words which they gave and worked according to what they said and never drifted away from the decisions what they took once.
His father asked him to stay in the country. After going to Canada when Hriddho would grow up to his age as he is now, can Rizwan tell him that, “Go back to your country”.
And when Hriddho asks in what language will he speak in that country, can he speak in another language in a country where new invisible words belonging to that country float in the air? After a long time Rizwan remembered about Hriddho’s class, what his teacher said in the class, forever your sky, your air set my heart in tune as if it were a flute.
Several thoughts keep roaming in Rizwan’s mind – why did poet like Madhusudhan, writers like Bankim and Rabindranath write so much in Bangla? And then starting from Bibhuti, Tarashankar and Manik to Syed Waliullah- all wrote in Bangla. Then many writers wrote hundred thousand pages in Bangla, why? Was the only reason to write? Nothing else? Are there no consequences? How many people speak in Czech, that the writings of Czech writers Milan Kundera and Carole Chapke have spread all over the world? He heard that Bangla ranks the fourth among the languages in the world. He wonders why Bengali literature has not been able to raise interest among the people in the world. Hundreds of languages have died in the last century. No, Bangla language will not fade so easily. But it is not spreading across the whole world as it was supposed to. Then are the writings in Bangla being continued only for Bangla writers themselves? Whom are they writing for? Why are they writing? In what belief are they writing? Few days back, Rizwan came to know after reading an interview of a writer that one day will come when all the main writings of all the main writers in the world will be available on the internet. Moreover, there will be options for translation in the computer. Software will be available within a short time with which writings of every language can be translated into any other language according to the needs of the reader. So that the writers can write in their own native languages and can focus on the proper development. Thus, if the writing is good then people from all over the world will search for it and read on the internet. Like this, they can search and read the writings of Jagdish Gupta, Thomas Woolf, Jean Genet, and even Kayes Ahmed. At that time one can easily think about literature independently after breaking down all the barriers. However, will the age old gap between reality and literature ever subside? Shurovi tells for Hriddho that, “I wanna give him a big life”. This big life of Shurovi can be achieved if we go to a big country! Shurovi says, “People in small countries have small minds. Even small house restricts the broad mentality of people. By the way, our uncles are over there. They have a big business. You will not have any problem. And you don’t need to do odd jobs like the others. This is why we are going, right? And you will not have any problem with your writing”.
“Baba, can we speak in Bangla in that country?”
“Bangla alphabets don’t float in the air of that country. So the air that we will breathe will not contain Bangla words. What will happen at that time”?
Hriddho was saying this in the car before entering the airport. Rizwan wanted to see with his eyes, Bangladesh in its time of dawn, for the last time. Hriddho looked up at his father and said, “Baba, can I inhale the air so that I can fill up my heart”?
“So that I can take the Bangla alphabets with me which are now floating in the air and speak in Bangla over there for a long time”.
“Okay, Son. Take a deep breath”.
Hriddho started to inhale the air as much as he could as his father said and Rizwan kept looking at his son.
(Tranalsted by Nishat Afroze Ahmed)
About the Author
Hamim Kamrul Haque was born in 1973. His childhood was spent at Patanga in Chittagong. He studied Bengali Literature in Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka. In 2007 he won ‘Ajker Kagoj Tarun Katahshahittaya Purashkar’ for manuscript of his novel ‘Rattree Akhana Youbane’(The Night is Still Young) which was published in 2008. He has published a number of short stories, essays and novels. His second novel ‘Gapaniyoter Malikana’ (The Ownership of Secrecy), was published in 2010. His first collection of short stories ‘Shunnayaparan O Annannaya Galpa’(The Empty Soul and Other stories), has been published in 2013. His second collection of short stories ‘Akkharapurusa O Annannaya Galpa’(The Writer and Other stories), has been published in this year. He lives in Dhaka.
About the Translator
Nishat Afroze Ahmed,student of International Relations in Chittagong University, is a bookworm, translator and also loves to pet animal and birds.