Blue Venom and Forbidden Incense | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 17, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:10 AM, June 17, 2017

Blue Venom and Forbidden Incense

Syed Shamsul Haq, Bengal Lights Books, 2015, ISBN 978 984 91722 5 3

Blue Venom and Forbidden Incense are translations of two novellas, Neel Dongshon and Nishidhho  Loban, by the eminent Bangladesh poet and writer Syed Shamsul Haq.  Published for the series, Library of Bangladesh, it is a laudable initiative by the Dhaka Translation Centre to introduce the literature of Bangladesh to the world. Through these translations by Saugata Bose, the novellas take us 45 years back to the liberation war of 1971, a war we cherish but also remember with fear. The horrific details with which the novellas recall the terrible days of 1971 and the sacrifice and brutal torture of innocent Bangladeshi people then become vivid in the translations. The readers are able to re-live and witness through them the barbarity of the Pakistani Army and the predicament of innocent bystanders. A winner of numerous literary awards, Syed Shamsul Haq is known for his versatile representations of liberation war through his powerful style, and these translations give readers a wonderful taste of his representational skills.

Inevitably, the intense emotions with which Syed Shamsul Haq writes the novellas gets blunted at least a little and are sometimes lost in the English translations. Also, the edginess with which Syed Haq describes his protagonist Nazrul in Blue Venom,  a namesake of our national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, is not as evident in the translated work as it is in the original work.  The novella opens with Nazrul in a torture cell after he is picked by the Pakistani Army men who mistook him for the poet and asked him to sign a statement to recall what they believe are foolish rebels who have gone astray from the right path. Or have they embarked on a “poem of progress” that will guide them to “the right path”? Nazrul, who has, in fact, never written a single line of verse is repeatedly called 'the poet', and cross-examined over and over again till he starts to believe in his altered identity.

Blue Venom is written primarily in the form of dialogue (between Nazrul and his captors) which makes the rendition very dramatic. But Huq also makes use of the stream of consciousness technique in the novella from time to time to indicate the past events of Nazrul's life. This technique allows readers to get an insight into his thoughts, his outlook on life, and above all, on how he, an ordinary citizen, viewed the war. At first, he is a mere onlooker of the horrifying events unfolding before and after 25 March 1971. After he is picked up by the Pakistani army, however, things become nightmarish for him. Captivity makes Nazrul construct an alternative reality where he seeks to resolve the mental crisis of his personal life and his love.

His consciousness makes him acutely aware of his surroundings, his responsibilities, and of his purpose in life, and it is aptly depicted through the stream of consciousness technique. The horrific graphic description of the daily torture inflicted on Nazrul make us cringe with disgust, but also fill us with compassion for those thousands of people who sacrificed themselves but did not yield to the heinous proposals of compromise offered by the Pakistani army.

This translation of Blue Venom is a laudable endeavor to inform readers of the wartime crimes committed by Pakistanis as well as to familiarize them with the micro-level impact of the war. And while the pace of the action and the connotations of the Bengali words become occasionally compromised when translated, the narrative techniques used by the translator to give a special effect to the different frames such as the capitalization of the whole dictated statement and the deployment of the stream of consciousness parts that are separated by italics from the dramatic parts, create a distinctive narrative. Even the translation of the much-loved Bengali revolutionary songs into English is done with vigor.  With stupefied horror one encounters the gruesome details of the physical and mental torture inflicted on Nazrul that culminated in him being buried alive.

The second novella translated in the book, Forbidden Incense, has a more revolutionary tone. In it the central characters, Bilkis and Shiraj, meet each other by sheer coincidence when the former arrives in her village to look for her family when the liberation war breaks out. Shiraj, barely seventeen or eighteen at the time of the war, follows Bilkis around and ultimately helps her to find the corpse of her brother, Khoka. The story takes a peek at the wartime events. In this novella, Huq focuses once again on common people and depicts their thoughts about the war. The intensity of Syed Shamsul Haq's writing can be felt in the translated version, which enables us to see the rebellious Bilkis and Shiraj working together to give a decent burial to the people killed in the genocide, though they eventually get caught for doing so. Though not connected by blood, Bilkis and Shiraj, come very close to each other. Transcending all barriers, they act like siblings caught up in a conflict which has taken a lot from both of them. The last rites of Shiraj or Pratap (as it is later revealed) is a kind of consolation for Bilkis and she acts like one possessed  to avenge the death of her brothers. A woman who has lost everything in the war, but is ultimately rejuvenated by it, Bilkis pits herself against a Pakistani army major and burns him in the very pyre in which her brother had been incarcerated.

The language of Forbidden Incense is more lucid and personal than that of Blue Venom. The strong inter-personal bonding that takes place in it becomes clear even in the translated version. The setting, the unnatural silence of a war-ravaged village, and the tireless dedication of the characters are represented faithfully in this work.

The translation of these two novellas will, hopefully, enable them to travel beyond linguistic borders and convey them to the wider world. The novellas of the series truly depict the spirit of Bangladeshi people during the Liberation War through characters like Nazrul, Bilkis, and Shiraj. They are representatives of the kind of ordinary people who did not hesitate to stand up to their oppressors  and take apt measure to liberate their country. The translations will also allow the readers of the English works to get a glimpse of Syed Shamsul Haq's fictional brilliance and discover his mastery of language.

Nadia Rahman is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh.

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