Ocean of Sorrow
Mir Mosharraf Hossain, Dhaka: Bangla Academy 2016, ISBN 984-07-5586-2,
When I picked up Ocean of Sorrow, I didn't know what to expect. My father had bought the book from Bangla Academy in our recent trip to Dhaka. I started reading it after my return to Brisbane. The title suggests a tragedy, and the book does circulate around tragedies, but apart from this titular hint I didn't know what was going to happen. Which is a good thing because I feel that titles should encapsulate the general theme, but should remain ambivalent enough to keep the reader wondering.
Ocean of Sorrow was originally written in Bangla as Bishad-Sindhu by Mir Mosharraf Hossain in 1885. It is translated by Fakrul Alam, Professor of English, at the University of Dhaka. His work must be an important milestone in the field of literary translation in Bangladesh. The plot of Ocean of Sorrow is heavily centred on Islam, meaning that having knowledge of Islam and Islamic history will make the story easier to understand. However, this knowledge is not absolutely necessary.
Professor Alam mentions in the preface that there were certain limitations to translating such a text written in 19th century Bengali into English. However, I have not read the Bengali version, and thus cannot comment on the accuracy of the translation. What I can say though is that it is more than enjoyable when read in English. Surely some credit must thus go to the translator. As I read the work, I didn't feel the need to check with the original in Bangla, although I must admit I couldn't have done this anyway given my limited literacy in Bangla.
Ocean of Sorrow is a historical narrative based on the events of the Battle of Karbala. The story focuses on the conflict between the Muslims of Medina and the King of Damascus, Yazid. Yazid is a young king, only having recently succeeded his father Mu'awiyah, and when he sees a woman named Zayneb, and he is instantly love struck because of her beauty. He devises a strategy to separate Zayneb from her current husband, Abdul Jabbar, and succeeds in executing it. However, all does not go according to his plan. Yazid sends a proposal to Zayneb via a messenger, but this same messenger meets Hasan along the way. Hasan is one of the grandchildren of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and is the King of Medina, and as such, was very respected by the Muslim population of the world, and even by Mu'awiyah, before he passed away. Hasan also sends his proposal to Zayneb through this same messenger. Zayneb, being a very devoted Muslim, accepts Hasan's proposal over Yazid. This does not please Yazid, and he declares war on Medina.
I mentioned tragedy at the beginning, and I would like to talk about this issue a bit more now. Tragedy, I believe, is at the core of the whole story. Throughout the text, many terrible things occur to the protagonists. As I mentioned previously, the historical context of this book is the Battle of Karbala, and that is depicted vividly in this story. Husayn is travelling to Kufa, and his followers join him, but they are stranded without water in Karbala. Yazid's men have blocked off the only nearby water source, the River Furat, and the Muslims are left to die of thirst. It is a huge massacre. One by one, the champions of the Muslims go into battle, in an attempt to break through the blockade of enemy soldiers. One by one they perish, until finally Husayn is defeated. It is a terrible tragedy. The cries of "Alas! Alas!" are frequent, and eventually all are killed, or imprisoned. That is but one tragic event that takes place in the narrative; many more unfold as the tale unfolds.
A good book will make you think about it long after you have finished reading. Ocean of Sorrow meets this criterion. There are many parts in the book that I will remember because they are so unique or exciting. One aspect of the story that I particularly enjoyed is Mir Mosharraf Hossain's breaking the fourth wall several times. The term “breaking the fourth wall” means addressing the audience directly. It is not found often, especially in books, but I have encountered it in movies such as Deadpool. Typically, a character of the story will be found to break the fourth wall, but this was not the case with Hossain. He himself often provides his point of view on the events happening in the text. On some occasions he condemns the actions of characters such as Marwan, one of Yazid's generals; on others, he expresses his own grief for the death of the characters that he has orchestrated. This strategy creates a very memorable effect, something that is different and unusual that stays with the reader.
Another memorable aspect of Ocean of Sorrow is the language used. As someone growing up in Australia, I found the language at times sounding foreign, despite it being in English. Words such as 'Alas' are just not used in the English that I come across here. Mir Mosharraf Hossain wrote the story in 1885, 132 years ago, and since then the way people speak has changed. On top of that, there is the challenge of translation. Perhaps reading it in Bangla would have sounded less foreign. But, as I noted before, the language did not affect my enjoyment of the reading.
Mir Mosharraf Hossain created quite a masterpiece in Ocean of Sorrow; it makes for a gripping read and is on a topic rarely encountered in the Western world. Thanks to the translated work of Professor Alam, people from all around the world can now enjoy it. I believe it will be accessible to many people, even if they are not well versed in Islam. I recommend this book to both young people as well as adults; it will surely be a good read for both groups of readers.
Nazeef Hamid is a Year 9 Student at Brisbane State High School, Australia. The DS Literary Editor would like to stress that this review was an unsolicited one!