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Men and women of lost legends: Shaheen Akhtar's 'Beloved Rongomala', translated by Shabnam Nadiya

  • Published at 10:42 am February 9th, 2019
Shokhi Rongomala

Book review

Once, in the southern Samatata region, during medieval times, stood a cottage on stilts, in the middle of a pond. The woman who lived there, a “kept woman” in a zamindar’s sprawling household, wanted to live a life that would be worth remembering. All she wanted was to be remembered after her death. Rongomala, a woman who defied conventions, wanted to rise above caste and prescribed gender roles in a world where only the fittest survived through cunning, selfishness and greed. There are other women in Shaheen Akhtar’s second novel, Shokhi Rongomala, some of them strong, some of them too hapless to command any respect but all of them grow as rich characters, with Rongomala remaining at the center. This is an exquisite work of fiction, seeking to portray a quintessentially male-centric world through women’s eyes. 

Shabnam Nadiya, who has taken on the task of translating this subtly woven narrative, seems to have effortlessly captured the essence of the story and all the other nuances in terms of characterization and linguistic excellence.

Bangladesh’s literary tradition is brimming with feminist narratives, where illustrious women writers are giving voice to women of different realities. While marginalized women of the working class found a voice in the works of Rizia Rahman and Selina Hossain, Razia Khan Amin and Nasreen Jahan have explored the realities of urban, educated women. What makes Shaheen Akhtar’s Shokhi Rongomala unique, yet a continuation of the feminist tradition, is that the author travels back in time to create characters out of their unique struggles as women, both from upper and lower castes, spanning religion, race and ethnicities. Shaheen Akhtar has, in her debut novel Talaash, shown her mastery over combining history and fiction. The angles she picks to tell her stories of 1971 and post-independence Bangladesh are authentic and unique. The Biranganas she portrays in Talash are fighters, not just victims of war. 

One can well imagine how the author had to redouble her efforts for another piece of historical fiction of this stature. Unlike Talaash, which deals with more immediate history, Rongomala’s world is set more than two hundred years ago, during the zamindari era. One of the most difficult tasks in such a novel is definitely to bring the past alive with dialogue, with dialect. Shokhi Rongomala, therefore, can be located within the Bengali literary tradition as a uniquely crafted feminist historical fiction. 

In its translated form, the book has been titled Beloved Rongomala, and published as part of Dhaka Translation Centre and Bengal Lights Books’ ambitious, much needed project, the Library of Bangladesh series.

In the novel, we meet Rongi, who is the center of attention and the eye of every storm in Raj Chandra Chowdhury’s zamindari. Raj Chandra himself does not control what goes on in his land; he has entrusted Rajendra Narayan with that responsibility. The novel sees a tension fomenting between the two—one incompetent, excessively indulging himself in luxuries, and the other a frugal and cowardly man. Rongomala’s presence turns many lives upside down, including Raj Chandra’s bride Phuleshwari Rai, Rajendra’s right-hand man Chanda Bir and Phuleshwari’s maid, Heera, among others. The novel, at times, shifts points of view mid-paragraph, mid-sentence, and yet does so flawlessly. In fact, both the point of view and the gaze shift frequently, yet they never interrupt the silky-smooth flow of the story. Shabnam Nadiya’s translation portrays these subtle changes in narration in perfect sync with the original.

In Shaheen Akhtar’s original novel, what first catches the eye is the use of dialect which gives life to the speeches of our predecessors from hundreds of years ago. In Shabnam Nadiya’s translated version, Beloved Rongomala, we miss the effect that dialect creates in fiction because it is impossible to find a corresponding dialect in the target language. However, she fully compensates with the quality of her translation. As a reader, I was particularly impressed with how the translator captures the essence of traditional Bengali idioms and phrases. Even verses from famous musical genres, shyama-sangeet or shloks, have been translated flawlessly from Bengali, or Sanskrit. Consider the following lines from the Nimai Sanyas musical play, capturing the true essence of the text—

“Nimai do not become an ascetic, do not renounce this life

Stay home and call this wretched one, myself, ‘mother’.”

Beloved Rongomala’s most well-protected gem is its rich, lush history of the Samatata region, consisting of Bhulua, Sindurkait, Babupur, Dewanganj and other surrounding areas. The region is riverine, marshy, mysterious and home to various communities, from Hindu Brahmins to the most marginalized Mog people, who are the lake-diggers of the region, from Muslim zamindars to outsiders as diverse as Portuguese and Harmad pirates. The novel relies a lot on the history of history—how kingdoms were founded and how they got their names. The incompetent Raj Chandra Chowdury’s ancestor, Bishwambhar Shoor’s legacy is often alluded to. The name of his kingdom, Bhulua, has originated from ‘Bhul hua’, meaning the result of a mistake. Legends such as this are the driving force of both the story and the characters’ motivations. Even though the Bhulua monarchs’ estates are in ruin, they survive by living in their past glory. Raj Chandra, at one point, tries to look for an African eunuch as a bodyguard for Rongomala in the same fashion as Muslim emperors used them to guard their harems, which becomes financially impossible for him. Same is the story of the Muslim zamindars of Dewanganj, the brothers Inga and Bhelu Chowdhury, who indulge in excesses even though their estates have almost been lost to the East India Company. 

In the midst of such excesses and badly taken decisions of the men, the women appear victorious in their struggle for survival. The servant Heera’s grandmother, for example, had single-handedly escaped from vicious pirates and earned her own place in society. The women of Beloved Rongomala are characters worth admiring and remembering. A unique feature of Rongomala alias Rongi’s persona is that many characters revolve around her. Her own personality is full of charms, and fickle yet laden with maturity. She in no way is delusional about the fact that Raj Chandra will not be by her side forever. Yet, she is ambitious, she has the will to rise above fate and circumstances. Those directly affected by her, the zamindar Raj Chandra, his mother, his lawfully wedded wife and others muse about her and express bereavement, jealousy and irritation, and even imagine themselves in her position. Shaheen Akhtar takes a bold step of keeping the woman in a subject position while discussing sexual experiences. However, most of it is about what is done to a woman, rather than what she herself does in an act of passion. 

Beloved Rongomala draws a reader in with its rich history and experiences, paints vivid pictures of daring women escaping Harmad pirates, gives them the gift of calculated, tongue-in-cheek humor, even slapstick comedy when the zamindar-regent, the estate-owner’s uncle, publicly beats him up in front of all. The novel makes the reader fall in love with the eccentric Phuleshwari Rai: one’s heart cries out for her misfortune, her fall from grace and her devaluation overnight. It even irritates one to no end with characters like Shyam Priya the vaishnavi. The reader cannot help but mutter, “Why doesn’t this woman get lost?” under their breath. When characters create such an effect in the reader, it is definitely a success on the part of the author. When the reader gets the same effect reading it in another language: the same heart-wrenching moments, the same urges to laugh at and with the characters, the credit, definitely, goes to the translator. 

In Shabnam Nadiya’s able hands, Beloved Rongomala has become a standalone work of art, doing justice to the original as well as displaying its own brilliant character. It is a lesson in history, a journey within the depths of the characters’ psyche, a bold feminist statement and a book that truly makes one laugh and cry with its inflections. Beloved Rongomala accomplishes a lot as a translated work, and is definitely a much needed addition to Bangladesh’s literature in translation. 

Qazi Mustabeen Noor works with Arts & Letters. Her works of fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Dhaka Tribune, The Daily Star, Monsoonletters, Six Seasons Review and Himal Southasian Magazine. 

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