Rashid Askari’s Nineteen Seventy One
Rashid Askari's Nineteen Seventy One is a collection of 12 short stories in English published in 2019 by Rubric Publishing, Delhi, India. The book contains a dozen of mind-blowing stories mostly based on realistic events that took place either in faraway villages or the bustling metropolis in Bangladesh. However, the regional fictional representation does not evade universal significance. Bangladesh came into being as an independent nation in 1971 through a bloody war. The traumatic nine-month long war figures prominently in Bangladeshi literature, and this volume is special to capture some atrocities of the Pakistani occupation forces against the native civilians especially on the Hindu men and women. The naming of the volume, Nineteen Seventy One, has its implication for a focus on liberation war of Bangladesh as well as some post liberation crises and frustrations of the people of Bangladesh. Obviously, one can find Rashid Askari's mastery of story-telling in a mundane setting, in the narrative technique and in his brilliant use of English language.
The stories of the volume, however, may pose some difficulty to a non-Bangladeshi reader due to use of some words and phrases that carry special significance for local or cultural nuances, and these are kept italic. Another difficulty might be unfamiliarity of the history of the liberation war of Bangladesh, the post-liberation war-torn Bangladeshi society, women's condition in the rural communities, military rule, rise of religious fundamentalism after assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman etc. It can be said that Askari's fiction is not much stranger than facts. The fantastic and the weird that take place in these stories have their factual bases. In fact, these 12 stories sketch Bangladesh in a span of approximately forty years, from 1971 till 2010, especially in the social context. From the point of view of the central characters, from the omniscient and first-person narrative perspective the reader can easily pick up the writer's message for a Bangladesh which echoes the vision of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as well who wanted to build 'a Sonar Bangla' on a secular ideal of tolerance and fellow feeling.
Being born in the northern region of Bangladesh Askari had noticed the monga-stricken people very closely, and setting of most of his stories is this region of Bangladesh. Monga is a local term which refers to extreme poverty and scarcity of food. "The Human Cow" and the "The Proud Possessor" portray people's poverty in the region, the persecution of so-called microcredit givers and the ill motive of some rich people behind their offer of help. In both these stories Askari shows how women show greater fortitude and calmness than their husbands in fighting against adversity. In "The Human Cow" the microcredit officer took away one of Kasem's cows. Kasem goes to his rich neighbour, Keramot, whose land he is to plough as a condition. Keramot did not exempt Kasem from the condition. Rather he gave Kasem a proposal through which he plans to capture Kasem's only habitat. Ambia, Kasem's wife, ploughs and harrows the land of Keramot as the counterpart of their only cow. The cow, which recently had a new calf, had spit out strings of saliva out of tiredness. It was the sight that makes Ambia feel "much closer to the cow" as the narrator says, "This was the female province". "The Proud Possessor" also shows the fortitude of Saleha, wife of the day labourer Jainal after Jainal had become crippled out of an accidental smack of his spade on the leg. In this story the omniscient narrator describes Saleha's physical attraction which becomes an object of lust for the evil-minded neighbour Kasem and a Grameen Bank officer. Saleha remains resolute. The narrator builds her character this way: "Saleha knew it was time for an acid test of a good wife. She had to cure her crippled husband. She did not want him to come to a sticky end. She had to be the crutch for him. She would assume the role of Behula (a Bengali mythical woman who sailed her own yacht to an unknown destination with her dead husband with a view of bringing him back to life)"
The two stories "Circumcision" and "The Virgin Whore" are basically focused on the liberation war of Bangladesh. From the narrative it becomes evident how the Pakistani Army were carrying out their barbarous mission of killing, looting and raping women. Due to their ostentatious love for Islam, the Hindus were more in target after freedom fighters. In "Circumcision" the protagonist Haripada was lastly identified as a Hindu by drawing down his pant and seeing his penis whether it was circumcised or not. This identification was possible after all with the help of a man with a "Jinnah cap". The identity of "Jinnah cap" is not mentioned in the story. But obviously the reader knowledgeable about the native collaborators of the war will be able to identify him as a Razakar. In "The Virgin Whore" the reader can understand the hatred of the native people towards the Pakistan army. The whore girl Bashanti committed suicide throwing herself into the mighty river Jamuna in an attempt to avoid being raped by the Pakistani army. Although a whore she thought herself virgin mortifying the Pakistani army's lust. She was now happy to die as the narrator says: "She knew she was nearing the end of her life. But she felt happy to think that she was still a virgin. She had not been defiled by the alien beasts."
The story "Jihad" and "Virus" focus on the rise of fundamentalism when the country was heading towards opposite to the ideals of liberation war. However, in the story "Jihad" Askari has given a different philosophical treatment to the real Ramna batamul bomb attack on 14 April 2001 when the jubilant crowd was celebrating Pahela Baishakh, the first day of the Bangla New Year. In that attack ten people were dead and more than 50 people were severely injured, and though late the accused were given death sentences and life imprisonment according to gravity of their involvement in the crime. Askari has fictionalized this event through the central character Mujahid's dream. Mujahid was assigned to play his part in the Ramna botomul operation in next morning and at that night he has a dream. In the dream he completes his mission, is caught and is being hanged. He wakes up at this stage of dream: "Suddenly the wooden plank beneath his feet dropped and he felt the noose tightening around the neck. He started coughing hoarsely. His heart began thudding in his chest. His mouth got dry. He woke up in a sweat. The whole thing became clear in a few seconds. Mujahid was dreaming." In the story Mujahid changes his mind and realizes that it is not true Islam that permits killing human beings. His Jihad in life will be not to kill but to love people. The story "Virus" echoes the real incident of the 17 August 2005 when the Islamic terrorist group JMB blasted 459 bombs in all the districts of Bangladesh except one. The protagonist of "Virus" is Aftab Sahib who is suffering from a deadly virus and is supposed to die soon. When he heard the violent activities of JMB, he forgot his personal misery and the deadly virus he is suffering from. He began to contemplate on the disease of his country, the Militancy virus which will "eat up all the sublime achievements of our Liberation War."
"The Longest Jam" and "The Lottery" may seem to be comparatively lighthearted and entertaining but they also have their realistic importance. Askari has shown a journalistic picture of Dhaka's intolerable traffic jam situation and focuses on how perspectives on the issue of traffic jam differ from person to person. The writer's voice seems to echo with the professor's view regarding the jams that are more pressing than the traffic jam: "Session jams are killing the students' life and occupation jams their career. Long-jams of lawsuits awaiting trial are killing the families from generation. Even the Father of the Nation killing jam has been in the longest jam." "The Lottery" is purely entertaining but obviously the story makes us aware of the cyber scam. With the introduction of newer technology many novices become the victim of such scam. However, the readers of the story do not miss the feel of Mamun's tension of winning nine hundred thousand British pounds.
The story "Crossfire" reminds us the killing style through so called 'crossfire' by the RAB forces in Bangladesh and the condition of the person who faces it. The writer seems to be ambivalent regarding the justification of this extrajudicial killing which has become a reality in Bangladesh since the formation of RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) during the regime of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia in 2004. Askari's story "Crossfire" is the articulation of a forbidden underground party man's thought process when he is being caught and given to crossfire. For some time, the story really takes us in the psyche of a man who is going to be shot down and whose realization of getting back to normal social life could not be possible.
"The poet" is a first-person narrative of a man who could be identified with Gregor Samsa of Kafka's Metamorphosis. This Gragor is obviously a man from Bangladesh. He had a job in the newspaper office at Dhaka and things were going on pretty satisfactorily with his wife. But during a hartal day he had met with a terrible accident. He could remember that he had collided head-on with a speeding car. He got back life but he was "a mummified corpse in a supine posture." Like Gregor he can notice things around him and hear others but cannot utter any word. The tragedy for him intensified when his wife makes illicit relationship with the boss of his office whom she called "Javed Bhai" However, a little satisfaction came to the poet when his wife showed the manuscript of his poems and wanted to have them published. Within a few days the book was published. It was titled, Verses from the Alluvium! But the poet was surprised to see the name Alluvium who was none other than his boss Javed Karim. Thus, the story ends with utter hopelessness and frustration of a man who has no power to express himself. "The Poet" at large seems to suggest modern human predicament.
"A Slice and Sky" and "Co-wife" can be read with a feminist approach where both the female protagonists somehow take revenge on their husbands being cheated by them. In "A Slice of Sky" Selina, a girl from a poor family, leaves her rich husband whom she found impotent, cheat and smuggler though a member of Parliament in the Government. In "Co-wife" Bilquis takes revenge upon her husband developing a relationship with Bablu and having been impregnated by Bablu because her husband remarried on the ground that Bilquis cannot give him a child. However, the woman protagonists of these two characters may not be looked at positively in traditional male dominated society. The writer may also be criticized for creating some erotic situations. But sex is also a part of life. Besides, reading fiction means to know people more deeply than they reveal outwardly.
However, while reading the stories one may complain that some of Askari's protagonists are not memorable. Apart from a few most of his protagonists are not very well-rounded characters. The plots of some stories are not well-knit. All these might be true. There is no single way of looking at things in literature. Readings may also vary from person to person. It seems to me that Askari's narrators have provided more importance to narrate the background and other relevant detail like journalists and in a Hemingwayan lucidity of language. Askari's endevour, of course, is a welcome contribution in the realm of Bangladeshi literature in English.
Dr. Md. Abu Zafor, Professor and Chairman, Department of English, Jagannath University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.
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