On October 9, 1965—a day before the World Children's Day celebrations—the Engineering Institute of Dhaka rang with the melody of young voices, their footfalls and bright costumes. Children from across the two Pakistans had been invited to take part in a competition of musical performances. Among them, 20-year-old Farida Hossain had always been drawn to the tale of Hans Christian Andersen's "Snow White". Born on January 19, 1945 in Kolkata, Farida had grown up a quiet child amidst five other siblings, moving first to Narayanganj, West Pakistan and finally to Dhaka to attend her schooling. It was a quiet child still who grew up in this new city, always away from the ruckus of her household, away from the siblings and cousins and other children playing in their neighbourhood. Her silence guarded a fiercely imaginative world that lived inside her mind, where the pain of flowers could be heard when their petals were torn, where magic prevailed and emotions reigned. This ability to be self-sufficient, especially when one doesn't fit in with others around her, helped Snow White resonate with young Farida—Kochi to her loved ones.
And so she adapted the fairytale to Bangla, adding lyrics, music, the clang of churis and the friendship of mayurs and horin, writing and directing the screenplay and designing the costumes for the actors aged five to 15. The play won first prize at the International Children's Day event at the engineering institute. Radio Pakistan, Dhaka held a special reception, asking Farida to begin working on some of their shows. Soon, she was reciting her poetry and short stories on air, reading the news, hosting shows for women and children, voicing female characters alongside senior artists including Khan Ataur Rahman, Golam Mostafa, and many others.
Today—17 years since winning the Ekushey Padak national award for her short stories, novels, poetry, and plays, retired from her position as President of the Bangladesh chapter of the international writers' organization, PEN—on her 76th birthday, my grandmother tells me with a heavy voice, "Eto kichu korechi, Sarah, bole shesh korte parbo nah." "The stories of all that I've done are endless."
Over the years, Farida Hossain has written close to 60 books, devoted always to reciting poetry when she's not writing, and has written, directed, and composed the music for her TV shows for children and adults aired on BTV. Her short story "Shari"—a personal favourite—awaits republication in a book on 50 years of Bangladeshi writing forthcoming from Writers Ink.
Writing in a collection of anecdotes on her work titled Farida Hossain: The One (Ankur Prokashoni, 2016), poet Al Mahmud once shared, "I doubt any other writer can write such clean short stories." Dr Niaz Zaman, who has translated several of the author's stories, similarly shared, "Farida Hossain has the quality to make very valuable statements within limited space in very simple, straightforward Bangla." I couldn't agree more, and over the years, I've come to realise that this ability to say more with less is fueled by that same idea that drew Farida Hossain to the tale of Snow White. In her short stories, as in her own life, Nanu has always believed fiercely in an inner life that overpowers the outer world. All of her characters contain dreams, disappointments, traumas, and resolve that roil within them even as they maintain a certain silence outwardly—a kind of aloofness that feels more like strength than docility—and her prose is richest when a monologue flows across the page. This same economy with words allows her to infuse irony and snark into the voices of her mostly female protagonists, and the end result is consistently one of elegance. Anyone who has known Farida Hossain would say the same of her personality in real life.
Something else that appears recurrently in her fiction is the background of her female characters. They're either good students, or devoted to the arts, or nurture an explosive passion for pointing out the hypocrisies around them. What prevents this oeuvre from becoming repetitive is the author's meandering focus—now on a rickshaw puller, now on a freedom fighter, now on a cloth salesman—on which the late Dr Razia Khan Amin commented in Farida Hossain: The One, "I have been overwhelmed by her compassion for the working class and the poverty stricken people of society. The hypocrisies of the upper class people of urban societies are clearly portrayed in her stories." Rightly so. But what especially sets them apart is not the characters, but the unique and otherwise unexplored relationships which abound in life in this country. In my favourite short story, "Shari", a cloth salesman who saves the most colourful of his wares for a favourite customer grapples with the shock of seeing her experience a tragedy, which is marked by the change in her clothes.
Reading from 2021, I don't always agree with the things Nanu's characters say or feel, least of all what they have to face, in their worlds set in the early decades of Bangladesh. Even as I bristle with indignation, I realise that these works have always been about snidely, gently, gracefully baring the injustices prevalent in their time, and that their author has evolved for the better with the times, which is more than we can say for many. This, I write objectively, as a writer and critic trying to make her own way in the world of books.
Less objectively—and with more love—I'd say that the best of Farida Hossain's stories were those that she wrote for her greatest love, children; stories concocted over bedtime, bath time, hours on the rooftop and balcony, and for each (individual) spoonful of bhaat fed to me over the years.
Sarah Anjum Bari is editor of Daily Star Books. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and @wordsinteal on Instagram and Twitter.