"One day everything becomes a story"
An abridged version of this article appeared The Daily Star on 2 August 2008.
Three years after partition, a ten-year-old boy nicknamed Botu moved from Barasat, now across a border, to Dhaka, settling with his family in the new flats built in Azimpur for government employees. At West End High School, the teacher slapped him. "That was my shopnobhongo." His crime, he learned later, was that he had gone to school in half pants and did not wear a Jinnah cap.
He also found the teacher hard to follow. To his ears, Dhaka rang with strange new dialects. Dialect could bewilder, though later he would learn that it could infuse richness in his own prose. In Mahmudul Haque’s writing you will thrill to the melodious voices of 24 Parganas, Bikrampur, and Dhakaiya.
If Pakistan meant such abuse, he wanted no part of it. Without any money, the boy set off all by himself to reverse the journey that had brought the family to Dhaka. Train to Narayanganj, steamer to Goalundo, train to Barasat.
In time Mahmudul Haque came back, returned to West End School and later he organized a campaign to oust the teacher.
He had already become a voracious reader. From the school library he read Shagorika, a translation of Jules Verne. Captain Nemo transfixed him. In later years he would himself write adventure stories, including one that involved a Gunter Grass impostor coming to Dhaka.
He admired the poet who lived next door, Mohammed Mahfuzullah. But the older man told him to stay away from a teacher in his school who was a communist. The dictate only sparked curiosity.
One day he finally met this teacher, Shahid Saber, who came to class as a substitute. He had the pupils read aloud. Impressed with the boy’s elocution, he asked him to drop by later. He solicited Mahmudul Haque’s help with a project. In prison Saber had done some translating — it might have been Howard Fast’s Freedom Road — but the writing was scattered in multiple scraps of paper. The teenager had to put the jigsaw puzzle together and copy them out in his own hand. From this labour he learned the syntax of writing prose, though in his own stories that followed, he purposely sought a different style — one more influenced by poetry. To me he praised Jibananda Das and recommended Kobi, the book about him by Sanjay Bhattacharya.
After the boy finished one of his first stories, Shahid Saber took him to the office of the Ittehad newspaper. The editor Ahsan Habib accepted the story for a special issue. Mahmudul Haque would return often to the office. He said he and others who were just starting to write were captivated by Ahsan Habib’s spoken Bangla.
Mahmudul Haque would write for the next twenty-five years, penning dozens of short stories and ten novels.
Having lived outside Bangladesh for decades, I discovered the author late, through an interview by Ahmed Mostofa Kamal published in Prothom Alo in November 2006. I was fascinated by both the man and author who surfaced in this conversation. I devoured his books. Each novel was unique, and I marvelled at the variety of voice. The lack of sentimentality in his 1971-based Jibon Amar Bon touched a chord. I was intrigued that many of his stories focused on a passive, alienated man, sometimes juxtaposed with another kind, men of bravado who can reveal delicacy of feeling.
I felt that his stories deserve a wider readership, and English being my writing language, I began to translate his fiction.
I also wanted to meet the man. I’d heard he was a terrific storyteller, but selective about whom he let near. When I phoned, he answered in a plain voice, "Come."
When I showed up, he didn’t let me leave for five hours. I would return nearly two-dozen times. When the gaps between visits were long, he said, "Don’t come measuring the time. Come more often."
The next visit, he said, "You’ll hear many stories about me. What have you heard?" I murmured something about him and a pir in Narsingdi. He looked disappointed, weary. He let out a long drag from his cigarette and said, "Not a pir." He didn’t care for the implication. "Baba was a spiritual man. We used to drink together. After meeting him I changed my life."
I only knew him for a year. Now with his passing on July 20, recalling his stories, I try to make sense of the man I got to know as a friend.
In the late 1950s while a student at Jagannath College, he heard that Mizanur Rahman was starting a magazine modelled after the Calcutta monthly Ultorroth that had created a stir by including a novel in each issue. A friend, Nizamuddin Yusuf, encouraged Mahmudul Haque to submit. The two walked around Sadarghat, stopped outside Ruplal House, and crossed the Buriganga, all the while the friend trying to help him whip up a story.
Draupudir Akashe Pakhi would come out in Mizan’s magazine Rupchaya, serialized in three parts, then discontinued. By this time Mahmudul Haque had become friends with Mizan but couldn’t work up the courage to ask why he had dropped his novel. He feared the question might undermine the friendship.
It was not until 1973 after his first book came out that he finally learned the reason. The new book was praised in Bichitra by Mohammed Mahfuzullah, and Mizan confessed that he’d stopped the earlier novel because he’d been hectored by the very same man, "Why are you publishing him? Why are you trying to ruin him at so young an age?" From this Mizan had concluded that the novel wasn’t very good. Now he realized he’d made a mistake.
Unfortunate for the rest of us, the full manuscript was lost.
When he was in Jagannath College, Mahmudul Haque briefly lodged with friends at the Baptist Mission. One night when he returned home — they now lived in the Mill Barracks section of Gandaria — his mother looked worried. His father had gone silent. When he asked his father, he was told it was none of his business. Pressed by his mother, he tried again. This time, with tears in his eyes, the father said, "What if I die, what will happen to all of you?" He made a good salary but he was afraid about what would happen if they lost that income. They had nothing to fall back on.
The son felt awful and wanted to help out. He couldn’t see a salaried job paying enough. Only a business could provide a decent income, but they didn’t know the first thing about commerce.
The same curiosity and keen eyes that fed his writing now looked about with a different purpose.
He heard about the dalals in the ball bearing shops on Nawabpur Road. These dalals hung out at the machine shops and shared in the tea and adda. When a customer came and the store didn’t stock a particular bearing, a dalal would say, I can get you one. He would get it from a different store and collect a commission. Mahmudul Haque tried hanging around those shops but no one would speak to him.
He had a Hindu friend whose family owned a jewellery shop in Islampur. He began to sit there sometimes to observe how the business operated.
His father agreed to set up a jewellery business. He named it after the initials of the sons, Tasmen Jewelers, ordering a signboard made with the font from a Qantas airline billboard. His father insisted Mahmudul Haque be the managing partner.
At first he refused, then gave in. A goldsmith tested him. It became clear that Mahmudul Haque had a good eye, a must for the jewellery trade. He was a swift learner. Later he would become an expert on stones, even writing newspaper articles about them.
It took three years to get the business going. He continued to write stories, and after the shop opened, he wrote them on the glass counter, standing up.
He was destined to return to the novel.
In 1967, he moved into a room in Shamibagh with Kajol, his new wife. They were ‘undercover’ from their families, though his mother knew and often sent money. They had two chairs and a table, two pots, two plates and two glasses. They slept on a mat on the floor. It was Muharram time and he asked Kajol to visit her family during the mela. With many people around, they could not do anything to her. Before she left, she made paratha, potatoes and eggs.
He sat down to write the novel Onur Pathshala. After they had moved here, he listened to a group of boys playing marbles on a strip of earth along the house. Their dialogue in Dhakaiya charmed him. An article on deja vu in the New Yorker had also buzzed his brain. And while walking around, he had observed the Rishi community of cobblers next to the English cemetery.
These elements entered the novel focusing on a middle-class boy caught between the unhappy marriage of his parents and the exciting world on the street, with boys at play and a mesmerizing Rishi girl named Sarudashi.
He wrote the novel through the afternoon and the night. He didn’t break to eat. Later, when his friend Sheikh Abdur Rahman visited, he read out the story. He copied it into better handwriting and handed it over to a magazine.
It would be the only novel he wrote in a single day, but he wrote most of his novels in a single stretch, taking one or two weeks. The only exception was Jibon Amar Bon that took three months.
The next year he wrote Nirapod Tondra when his infant son Tokon was gravely ill. The crisis had made him superstitious. He travelled on rickshaws and buses with his eyes on the ground, not looking up at anyone. While his wife and mother-in-law stayed in the hospital, he came home and wrote.
The book is set mostly in a bostee. He told me that a review had wondered, how rich the author’s life must have been. In reality, the narrative was imagined. The fictional slum was based on one across from Hardeo Glass Factory. In Gopibagh he had got on a train to Netrokona. Along the way, he caught a glimpse of an akhra, a circus or a jatra. A young girl was washing something on the water bank. The images stayed with him. Otherwise he did not know the lives of the people in the book.
Though it is the woman Hiron, passed around from man to man, who takes centre stage, the narrator is a typesetter. The details of his work life probably came from a print shop that Mahmudul Haque ran in the late 60s with Mizan and Pratapuddin of the ship workers union.
Mahmudul Haque belonged to a generation of writers who were learning the ropes of crafting their prose and poetry in the Pakistan period. Many of them gathered regularly in boisterous adda sessions.
One meeting spot was Beauty Boarding in Bangla Bazaar. Though initiated by others, the heart of these sessions became the poet Shahid Qadri. They became friends and Mahmudul Haque always recalled him with great affection.
Beauty Boarding was near the central square of old Dhaka, a space that included restaurants like Miranda and Riverview, the Mukul and Lion cinemas, Victoria Park, and the riverwalk in Sadarghat.
With the city’s growth, the centre of gravity shifted to the Gulistan area. Near the Fulbaria train station and a bus terminal, this became Dhaka’s unparalleled public square. Anchored by the Gulistan and Naz cinemas, bars, restaurants like Rex, Cho Chin Chow, and La Sani, the area drew poets and writers, journalists and activists, athletes and fans. People passed through here in their thousands, shopping, working, intersecting, or simply passing time.
Mahmudul Haque joined the addas often, especially after closing down the shop.
He recalled one night to me. A new issue of the police magazine Detective had just come out. Mizan had become its editor. It carried poems by Shahid Qadri and Al Mahmud and a story from Mahmudul Haque. At the Gulsitan restaurant, people talked about the poems but no one mentioned the story. As they walked out across the street to the Bibi Merium cannon, Mahmudul Haque asked Shahid Qadri, "How come you didn’t say anything about my story?"
Shahid replied, "Eto upoma keno?" Why so many similes? He then held out his arms and yanked them down. He shouted into the night, "Langta kore dey! Langta kore dey!" Strip it naked!
Later Mahmudul Haque looked at his story and agreed.
On 25 March 1971, those times — far more innocent in retrospect — came crashing down. He was then living on Road No 15 in Dhanmondi. Their daughter Molly had been with the in-laws. While bullets sprayed the street, they spent the night on the bathroom floor. When the curfew lifted for a few hours on the 27th, he rushed out. He came across his mother-in-law bringing their daughter back. They came home and he ran out again. Like a madman he rushed all the way to Sadarghat, witness to the carnage.
Stuck in occupied Dhaka, life became hard. The store was looted. Walking to work, he crossed three military checkpoints. With a timely loan from a benefactor, he operated a variety store, selling toiletries and odds and ends. They didn’t go hungry. The jewellery business did not revive until the mohajans returned from India two years later and lent gold again.
On 3 December, after the air war had begun, they joined thousands seeking safer refuge. Together with his wife and her sister, a baby and a toddler in their arms, and their dog, they set off for Gandaria. He carried a saucepan with sugar that his wife had saved. There had been shortages of sugar, and they needed it for the children. At Ramna Park, the dog ran off. He had to run and retrieve the dog. Once they reached his parents, they would hear bombs fall in Postogola and Sadarghat.
After the Pakistani surrender, he visited the killing field in Rayerbazar. There were big craters dug in the ground and dead bodies lay in them, hands tied behind their backs.
The events of 1971 dug new grooves in the writer’s mind. Over and over again, that year would appear in his writing. The first major creation was Jibon Amar Bon, a novel set entirely in March, stopping right at the crackdown. The title was a tribute to Pasternak’s poem "Sister My Life." When it first came out in a magazine, some denounced it, noting the aloofness of the protagonist from the upsurge. Even intelligence agencies took notice. Others were awed by its fresh language and its rejection of romanticism.
Later would come Khelaghar and Oshoriri, compact novels packed with life from that critical year.
Until the mid-70s, Mahmudul Haque set his fiction in the city. He recalled a conversation with Akhtaruzzaman Elias at the old rail gate between Nawabpur and Gulistan. Elias had joked, "My territory is from here to the river, yours is on the other side."
Mahmudul Haque felt the absence of a rural link. He had always lived in urban areas, but people around him had village ties. With the help of his friend Ahsanullah, then principal of Ichapura College, he embraced Bikrampur.
Whenever he could, he bolted there, crossing the Buriganga and travelling the rest of the way by bus and boat. He tramped the countryside, bewitched by the scenery. His favourite time was the monsoons when the low-lying land flooded and people travelled from house to house by boat. He made friends with a boatman and a doctor who took him along on house calls.
The boat trips would pop up as a motif in the novels and stories that came next, such as Kalo Borof, Matir Jahaj, and Khelaghar. In Kalo Borof he paid tribute to his doctor friend in the shape of Doctor Narhari. The entire landscape around Ichapura became a dominating character in the fiction of this period.
He heard of a village where every man, woman and child was massacred by neighbouring villagers during the war. The village had a reputation as a thieves’ village. This impelled the story Buro Obader Joma Khoroch. Mahmudul Haque was pained that no one felt that there had been anything wrong with the affair. To me he shared his distress over our capacity for brutality. "Is there any other country where so many people are killed every week through jobai?"
I think Bikrampur signified a deeper searching.
A child of partition, squeezed out of his childhood home, he remembered Barasat with both fondness and pain. He kept it in memory but never wanted to see it again. On his only trip to West Bengal around 1980, he went near, then turned around.
I believe he was searching for a new sense of belonging. In the years after the war, a time of chaos and great disillusion, he may have felt this need even more.
He stopped writing around forty. He became impatient with lament, how sad that his pen dried up so quickly. Writers and editors berated him, and he sometimes lost his temper. Everyone wanted to know why, but he wouldn’t answer them. Once he admitted to me, "It’s not like I intentionally stopped. That’s just how it turned out."
Several times he repeated that a person transforms after forty. He strongly believed creative output is associated with youth. I offered that this might not be true for all. Though I have written since my teenage years, I did not try fiction until I was forty myself. He asked if I wrote out my stories all at once. I said, a few times yes, but in many cases I worked on them over a long time. I think he gave me a sceptical look. Speaking from my own life, yes, one confronts change around forty. You begin to question old certainties, you look around for something you’re not sure of, you become both tired and restless, and even your body challenges you. Each person comes up with a different resolution.
When he approached such an age, Mahmudul Haque faced the mystery of life anew. He’d become disgusted by the Bangali elite that year after year could see no further than its own bhog. As a jeweller serving wealthy clients, he would have seen this first hand. Meanwhile, drafted into the group Padabali that organized poetry sessions, he found the hypocrisy and pettiness alienating him from the literary world.
It appears his searching led him to Narsingdi, to the man he called Baba. True, they drank and smoked together, but he also believed the man held some deeper wisdom that answered some of his questions. Or perhaps raised even more that he could never answer.
Mahmudul Haque’s spirituality did not imply a turn to conventional religion. On a recent visit I found him visibly agitated by what he had heard on an Islamic TV channel. A mullah had insisted that Allah was not the same thing as God. "This is just to create division." Then, with the opening, "I could never stand the mullahs," he went on to relate stories of distasteful encounters.
I cannot say what influence Narsingdi had on his writing. The subject came up only once. He had met an old bedey woman who also used to visit Narsingdi. She shared with him some of the hidden stories of their lives. He thought it could provide material for writing. "Baba asked me not to write about this. He said, ‘It is their livelihood, why do you want to disturb that?’" He had agreed, suppressing the voyeur that lurks inside our writing selves.
But this was only about a subject. In understanding why he stopped writing I come back to what he said linking his writing to the energy of youth. It was a retrospective theory, of course, convenient perhaps, but I do think in his case, his creative process was intimately connected to who he was when he was young. Then he had unbounded curiosity, he embraced spontaneity, and he wrote in a single flow. His inspiration came from some place in his being where a piece of work would gel, all together, and then gush forth. After forty, in the midst of the slower, aloof person he was becoming — in an uncanny sense, a mirror of his characters — he lost access to that space.
It is not that he did not try to write again. People pressed him, and despite his obstinacy, he tried. In the early 90s he produced the story Bonoful for Kaisul Haq’s Shoili. He said, "Writing it was agony."
Not one to have stored every scrap he wrote, he had lost copies of stories that had been published in varied places. He regretted that he couldn’t collect them. In his teens he had begun a long novel, inspired by reading somewhere that Goethe had finished Faust when he was very old, dying just after he had penned the last line. He had written more than 300 pages. The book he stored under his bed, but termites ate through the papers. He said, "The whole novel would not have worked, but I might have been able to salvage portions."
To me he never expressed a desire to try fiction again but he felt bad that he could not write about some people we have forgotten. He mentioned Shahid Saber who died when the Pakistanis set fire to the Sangbad office. But he said the words no longer came. He found it difficult even to read. "When I try, it seems everyone overdoes it. The twelve annas could be slashed to four."
Mahmudul Haque lost his wife in December. With the support of relatives and his daughter, who returned from Canada to take care of things, he rallied. But clearly something had broken inside. Like many other couples bound tightly to one another, he too flew away within months.
But what a life! And what gifts he left us.
Goodbye, Botu Bhai.