Their Lives Written with Blood
Letters of Blood: A Novel (ISBN 978-984-91722-7-7)
By Rizia Rahman
Translated by Arunava Sinha
114 pages, published by Bengal Lights Books
Reviewed by Sohana Manzoor
Published as early as 1978, Rizia Rahman's Rokter Okshor is an acclaimed fictionalization of prostitution in post-Liberation War Bangladesh and the hypocrisy of so-called civic society. It came out at a time when writing about brothels and prostitutes by a woman writer was simply unheard of. Though unexpected and frowned upon, it had caused a stir back then. As the author herself says, critical appreciation of the work came after people were done with asking "why" and "how."
When I first read the book in the late 1980s, I was a teen-ager, only dimly aware that a species called "prostitutes" existed somewhere out there. Having been brought up by conservative middle-class parents, I had been screened from the knowledge of "loose women."A friend of mine had lent me the novel and had advised me to read in secret, and I therefore perused it late at night when everyone had gone to sleep. A thin volume, but its contents are no thin matter.
Many years later one 2017 evening, I opened Arunava Sinha's translation of Rokter Okshor or Letters of Blood, a Novel. I read there the following line: "The morning lies here in an inert stupor like a drug addict…" (11). Time sprinted backward and I remembered, "Shokal ta ekhane okejo neshakhorer moto jhim dhoray poray acche." Translation is a difficult task and there are too many terrible translations. But Letters of Blood certainly does not fall in that category. It is beautifully crafted in lucid language that catches all the unexpected details, starting from the unkempt and dingy atmosphere of Golapipatti to the intricate and often disturbing exchanges among its inhabitants. The physical description of the two old and ex-prostitutes are uncannily astute: "The hag starts coughing before sunrise. She dumps herself just about anywhere these days. Today, she's a lump of flesh outside the door of Rupa, Amina and Moti's house, lying on the bricks where the cement has worn off" (11-12). This is a ludicrous and yet harrowing account of the station of a former prostitute that also foretells the future of all those who throw mouthful of vitriolic abuses at her. Sinha captures scenes from Rahman's novel in picturesque detail in his work.
Although presented by a third person narrator, Letters of Blood traces the voices and memoirs of various women in Golapipatti. There are young girls like Piru, snatched away from the safety of home, and Phulmoti, whose birthing of an illegitimate child draws caustic remarks from all quarters. Most of these women who have been either lured, or abducted from home, or worse, were left with no choice but to become prostitutes. And once anyone enters this awful world, there is no way she can return to her formerly known circle. This narrative is presented from the perspectives of women who mean very little to the world. It is a nightmarish portrayal of a prohibited domain we deliberately choose not to ponder over, even when fully aware of its existence. There have been other writers writing about prostitutes in Bengali fiction, but Rizia Rahman's novel and Arunava Sinha's translation of the work are surely among the most accurate and moving ones in its description of brothels and their occupants. The most commendable aspect about the narration is the perfect balance between neutral observation and emotional investment. The author often describes the sordid ambience through visitors like Delwar, and through Yasmin, the middle-class educated woman who ends up at the whorehouse after being betrayed by people she knew and society at large. A war-heroine, Yasmin might be a misfit in the brothel, but she is also very much an integral part of it. Her story is perhaps the most painful of all because she understands the agony and humiliation of her position every living moment, something others like Jahanara realize only on desperate occasions. She also puts the reader in an awkward position because she questions his or her very standing in society.
However, Letters of Blood is not merely about the pains of these fallen and abandoned women; the novel also shows their daily chores, struggles and aspirations. For some, the way out is to become famous, to be someone like Jahanara, who has customers among the rich and influential. Then there is Mamata, who acts and dresses like a movie star and still dreams of becoming one. There are accounts of girls leaving prostitution, but most of the time they also come back, either rejected by society, or forced back into the old occupation out of sheer necessity.
Many of us would like to believe that slavery belongs to the past, but this book will surely make you wonder about the different kinds of servitudes in the world. A real life horror story, Rokter Okshor offers glimpses into a world where women are bought and sold almost every other day. More interestingly, the profit-makers are not the pimps and bawds, but the so- called "respectable men" who would not even allow their wives, daughters and sisters to be near Golapipatti. The picture presented of a post-liberation nation here is very bleak indeed; reading it one can see why human trafficking in today's world has grown to be its second most lucrative illegal business, second only to drug trafficking.
So there is no escape from this slave coop; each outsider visiting this place is in for some gain. Even Delwar, who is a journalist, is here to pursue his idealistic notions. Such ideals might bring temporary solace for these fallen women and make them dream of becoming human once again, but they cannot be sustained. After all, this world is beyond normalcy and is condemned by the very society that propagates the ideals. The forces that operate here are brutal and ruthless; manipulation is the norm. A grotesque equilibrium is maintained to check anything subversive.
It is often said that the translation of any book means that the same book is written twice. I certainly had the same parched throat and stinging eye l had when I finished reading the original Bengali version around 30 years ago. Going through the translation, one aspect that one misses in the translation though is the use of local dialects, but these perhaps were not translatable, and Sinha that is why does not even attempt to do so. Hence Letters of Blood is strewn with words like "daalpuri," "maagi," "bilati maal," and "buji." This retaining of native words does bring the story close to the original, giving it thereby a distinct note At the same time, there are also translations of songs like "The new tree is blooming/ Don't break the branch…," that I immediately recognized as "Chara gaachhe phul phuitachhe/ Daal bhaingona…" Sinha's translation indeed does justice to the amazing documentation of Rizia Rahman's novel Rokter Okshor.
Sohana Manzoor is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh.