Beyond a river's lament
Reviewed By Shahid Alam
SO many writers in the field of literature (particularly poetry) from any country have associated (or tried to) nature with human emotion that it would be superfluous to single out most literary works for special treatment for having made just such a link. Cry, River, Cry by Syed Waliullah contains this attribute in abundance, but there is more, much more. Cry, River, Cry has been translated from the original Bangla novel Kando Nadi Kando (first published in 1968) by Osman Jamil. Waliullah, of course, is probably best known for his first novel, Lal Shalu (1948), which he himself had translated into English as Tree Without Roots (1967), but has been generally appreciated by readers of his other, if small in number, Bangla literary output (including short stories and plays). As the old adage goes, something gets lost in the translation, and those who have, or will have, read both the Bangla and English versions of Cry, River, Cry may find that something has, but will also likely agree that, on the whole, Osman Jamil has done a competent job.
The story of Cry, River, Cry is simple enough, although, some of the chapters appear to be disjointed in terms of the progression of the other chapters, causing the reader to pause and go back to find some missing link or to make sense of what he/she is reading. The novel begins with an unnamed narrator, a cousin of one of the principal protagonists of the story, Muhammad Mustafa, observing a fellow passenger on a river steamer observing other passengers of the third-class deck. At this point we are introduced to two narrators: the cousin, and the person he was observing, Tabarak Bhuiyan, who "was about forty, his hair grey above the ears. His skin had probably been fair once but had now been burnt dark in the sun. Yet there was in his face an air of youthful amicability." Such vivid imagery of people and places occur throughout the book, adding to its quality. The curious thing about the two narratives is that, as Bhuiyan is telling a story about an outlying district town called Kumurdanga, some of its inhabitants, Chandbaranghat, a steamer stoppage station, and the river Bakal, the unnamed narrator believes that he is narrating the story of Mustafa. Yet, till the end, Bhuiya never mentions Mustafa's name, but through juxtaposing his narrative and the story told by the unnamed narrator, we get the tale. The dual narration has, on occasion, led to certain chapters possibly being considered by some readers as being incoherent in terms of the other chapters, till the final two are read.
The story revolves around several characters, prominent among whom are Mustafa and fifteen-year old Khodija, both of whom eventually commit suicide, the girl ostensibly for having been jilted by the young magistrate Mustafa, who later took his own life primarily based on a guilt trip that he was somehow responsible for her death (although he never recalled ever having expressed any romantic feelings for her to her or anyone else). These, and other mishaps to people and places, including the shutting down of the steamer service of Kumurdanga are mystically tied to the moribund river Bakal, which was getting shallow, and one day became inaccessible to the steamer. Waliullah suggests a mystic explanation for the river's condition, tying it to a supposed malediction that Kumurdanga was bearing: "Surely the town could take pride in its courts, a small hospital, even a minor school for girls, but it was deprived of the mysterious benediction which kept a place alive and assured its progress…." The novel contains heavy doses of prose depicting nature in the metaphysical sense and how people's lives are tied to, and affected by it.
The imagery crafted by the author to depict nature and its connection to humans is vivid as he segues from the opening lines spoken by Bhuiyan to the river's flow: "…the current of words had turned into the flow of a river, a flow which murmured on but neither raised angry waves nor rushed furiously, a stream that flowed over unknown fields and habitations, up hills and down valleys." And, in another such portrayal, he ruminates, wondering at the river's magic and its hold on the human psyche: "Perhaps such a river never dies. So when the great river of one's childhood gradually becomes narrower and turns into a small tributary, no contradiction is noticed between the two rivers." The novel comes up with a depiction of not only nature and its mystical attachment to mankind, but also superstition and the falling back on religion during times of crises by people in general.
From the day the steamer ghat was dismantled, various people of the town, beginning with Sakina Khatun, were hearing an eerie cry emanating from seemingly all around them. And what was the townspeople's reaction when it had gone on for some time, with the last straw being reached with the revelation that the deeply conservative Zainab Khatun had heard it too in the middle of the night and had started walking towards the river (like a siren enticing victims towards it)? "Now truly frightened, the mullahs delayed no more. They arranged for the azan to be given from various parts of the town so it could reach the ear of everyone in town. They also arranged for a milad, sacrifices and food offerings. One night they arranged a special prayer until late night. Believing that taking part in it would stop the cry, many people gathered in the mosque." Waliullah delves deep into the average human's primal fears to find an explanation for man's taking recourse to superstition to clear up apparently incomprehensible phenomena: "Perhaps, against all reason, a hope remains concealed in man's heart that one day he will see or hear something supernatural." Such resort to superstition is manifested in the townspeople throwing their valuable possessions in the river as if to appease the river god and save them from the catastrophe staring them in the face from the dying river. The author looks at such behaviour from a very pragmatic outlook through the words of one of the narrators: "'The already poor became even poorer as their valuable and valueless objects, necessary and unnecessary, found refuge in the dying river forever, meaninglessly.'"
The mystical undertone prevails strongly all through the novel. By this time the reader has probably realized that the eerie sound heard or imagined is that of the wind sweeping across the dying river (although the author never tells it this way), and that it is symbolic of the moribund waterway's dying wail. The townspeople crave for the return of its health and even the senior judge of the town court declares, "If the river gets well, everything will return." They had slowly come to the realization of the reality: that not only had the Bakal river become unfit for the steamer, but it was also dying. The mystical bond existing between the river and the townspeople is further explored when the people realized that although they had used the river to their heart's content, feared it in flood and storm, but they had never loved it. Waliullah takes this point to a higher plane: "Perhaps the townsfolk hadn't felt any love for the river, but the thought of its death disturbed them because it reminded them of their own mortality. The river was dying like a human being."
The author has a number of observations on human nature. "Human beings fear hell, fear ghosts and robbers, disease and physical pain, death, poverty, unsatisfied hunger," he remarks. "They are afraid because they cannot understand why they are afraid, and, most of all, they are afraid why they cannot find a reason." Furthermore, "…when hope reaches a certain level, human beings hardly care for right or reason." These are profound thoughts deserving of cogitation over at least some time. There are also these reflections on religion and its practice. Having noticed that, although people observed the various religious rituals, "…there was in everything a sort of skepticism, an ever-wakeful fear. It was as if they feared not God but His creation, not hell but this mortal life! Is it possible for one who fears this transient life to have peace of mind? And can those who have no peace in their souls conduct their personal, familial or social lives with intelligence and right conscientiousness?" Cry, River, Cry is an important novel that explores issues of human belief systems, values, and character beyond the boundaries of the story of a dying river and a town by which it flows.
The reviewer is an educationist and actor.