Shahidullah Kaiser- A voice for the voice-less/ A literary genius

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by Tajnim Imami

Every year, the month of December brings about an unfathomable sense of joy and grief for the people of Bangladesh. The loss of some of our brightest stars was followed by the formation of a sovereign nation. The exhilarating sense of freedom was marred by this loss. Shahidullah Kaiser is one such bright star who was taken from us. This December, Trends makes a humble attempt to pay homage to some of his incredible literary work.

One of the greatest novelists of Bengali literature, Shahidullah Kaiser penned some remarkable work of fiction. His work depicted the struggle of the have-not’s, the corruption and brutality of the Pakistani government and its feudal treatment towards the common people and the horror of partition. He was involved with the provincial Communist Party of East Pakistan after the partition and played an active role during the Language Movement in 1952. He joined the weekly Ittefaq in 1949 and later joined Dainik Sangbad in 1962 where he worked until his death.

His fearless journalism, cultural and political activities, especially his vocal stance against the martial law imposed by the president of Pakistan Ayub Khan made him a target of the regime at the time. His multiple imprisonments by the Pakistani government led him down the path to his writing career. In fact, one of his most famous quotes is, ‘I became a novelist because Ayub Khan sent me to jail’.  Between 1952 till 1962, Kaiser spent a total of eight years in jail.  While behind bars, he wrote a number of plays, short stories and novels. His best literary works including Sareng Bou, Shangshaptak, and Rajbondir Rojnamcha were created in prison.

Shahidullah-Kaiser

Kaiser was a master of portraying strong characters with heartfelt convictions. His female characters, such as Nobitun, Rabu and Hurmoti are women of courage. Even within their soul-crushing limitations, these women keep moving through life. Nobitun from Sareng Bou is the epitome of dignity and perseverance. The novel looks into the ugly side of village politics and the oppressive feudal system where landowners are the ‘be all and end all’. Yet, all through this, the novel focuses on women’s fight to retain their identity when faced with systematic oppression and isolation compounded by the constant threat of assault.

Despite the struggle at sea, her husband Sareng Kodom stays faithful. However, he arrives home to an environment where people in the village make him turn against his wife. In spite of his treatment towards his wife, Nobitun’s fierce will to live turn things around even in the direst situation. However, unlike Rabu and Hurmoti of Shangshaptak, who are more vocal and aggressive, Nobitun is a quiet rebellion with a tenacity to push through all obstacles without ever giving up. In a way, Nobitun is a more commonly found woman in the villages, towns and cities of Bangladesh.

 

Kaiser’s Shangshaptak is unabashedly real about the state of the Bengali people under the Pakistani government. It goes into the heart of the political resistance that grew as the government ignored the democratic rights of the people of this region. The pain of partition pervades the story of Shangshaptak. Zahed’s imprisonment despite his commitment to the Muslim League to support the state of Pakistan speaks volumes of the relationship the people of East Pakistan had with the government. Just like in Sareng Bou, the cruelty of bureaucrats and landowners also become apparent in Shangshaptak as their power over the poor is strengthened and dedicated activists like Zahed with leftist sentiments are betrayed and cast aside.

Hurmoti and Rabu seethe in revolt against the tyranny they are subject to as women. Hurmoti’s public branding as an adulterer does nothing to squash her spirit while Rabu makes the decision to abandon her marriage with a much older man and devote her life in social and political work. Such bold depiction of women and the treatment of political activists were highly progressive and critical in the socio- political environment of East Pakistan.

sangshaptak-shahidullah-kaiser Sareng Bou by Shahidullah Kaisar

The only novel that Shahidullah Kaiser wrote out of prison is Kobey Pohabe Bibhabori. He began writing the story during the days of the Liberation War and was taken on December 14 before he could finish it. Kaiser wrote the novel at night time and buried the transcript underground at his Kayettuli residence at the break of dawn to dig it up again the next night. The novel depicts the slow descent into hell as the war broke out in the country. Kaiser aimed to paint an honest picture of the atrocities of war and therefore was not hesitant to portray a less than flattering image of Bengalis along with the horrific violence committed by the Pakistani army.

However, war is ugly, unfair and unforgiving. While some Bihari’s chose to conspire with the Pakistani army, many of this minority community chose not to. Knowing that many innocent Bihari’s were attacked by Bengalis, Kaiser did not shy away from creating the Bihari character of Iqbal Mirza whose plight to find the Bengali girl Koli is in stark contrast to how Bihari’s were largely portrayed as Pakistani collaborators.

 

Shahidullah Kaiser er Nirbachito Kolam: Unoshottur Theke Ekattor is a collection of the columns he wrote between 1969 to 1971 that reflect his passionate analysis of the nature of the struggle for the freedom of Bangladesh and the Pakistani government’s attitude towards East Pakistan. His style was lively, witty and often humorous with a keen awareness of class and identity. He chose light, unencumbered language to put forth his needle sharp arguments.

Even his novels are complex yet easy to read, especially Sareng Bou which was written with the idea to incorporate enough southern dialect without making it difficult to understand for the rest of the Bengali readers. He was noted for speaking up for the downtrodden and often wrote under pseudonyms Deshpremik and Bishwakarma. His resolve to communicate with people of all classes and have an intelligent dialogue through his writing was clear in his choice of style.

 

Shahidullah Kaiser excelled at bringing together politics, class, gender and other social issues to weave together stories that are ferocious and multifaceted. His passionate advocacy for the social and political rights of Bengalis and his intellectual contribution to our literature is what made him such a gem in the history of Bangladesh.

 

 

 

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