Syed Waliullah: husband, artist, thinker, writer
Born on August 15, 1922 in Kolkata, Bangladeshi novelist Syed Waliullah would go on to spend nearly 20 years of his life away from home as a diplomat—posted first in Karachi, then New Delhi, then Sydney, Jakarta, London, and Paris. It would be his literary life that would allow room for connection to the self and to his roots. Lal Shalu (1948), his iconic novel, was translated to English as Tree without Roots (2005) and later to French as L'arbre sans racines, the latter done by his French wife Anne-Marie Thibaud. This journey of a single text through languages and borders reflects the journey the author experienced throughout his life, moored by a connection to home.
Syed Waliullah: My Husband As I Saw Him (Nymphea Publication, 2022), a photobook authored by Anne-Marie Thimbaud and edited by their children, Simine and Iraj Waliullah, attempts to record this life lived on the move, marked by the conversations and memories that lent it warmth.
Conversations, as Professor Shamsad Mortuza writes in his Preface to the book, played a vital role in the origin story of the Waliullah family. "One early morning in Sydney" is when it began—until recently a Fulbright scholar, Anne-Marie had just joined the French embassy in Sydney, and Syed Waliullah was serving as the press attaché at the Pakistan embassy. They met at a Christmas party, and discussions unfolded between the two about French writers, about God's existence and the purpose of life, about the Korean war and other political affairs. These conversations would pan out on hill tops, over white sand beaches.
Coffee table books are often thought of as devoid of real content, but the text and photographs in this book form a touching, insightful collage of a life built against a momentous time in history. There is vivid prose: "[the red earth, the grey thorny bushes, the lovely silvery gum trees with their smooth trunks and branching, their small leaves constantly trembling in the breeze". There is a poetic quality to the writing too, with each of the anecdotes beginning with "I remember", "I recall", "I was fascinated"—phrases that situate the author in the role of narrator and observer. And within the anecdotes there are reflections of how social norms dictated dynamics between Hindus and Muslims in the aftermath of the Partition. In a chapter titled "Our Meeting", Anne-Marie recalls the author's elder mama, Sirajul Islam, who would help Waliullah create Comrade Publishing and Contemporary magazine in Kolkata.
But it was the voracious reader and writer in Waliullah that led him through a vigorous literary life. The chapter titled "The Writer" includes excerpts from his diary, snapshots of his editorial for Contemporary magazine, and handwritten edits on his pieces for Shaogat magazine, among others. "While collecting my old stories for the book, [...] I came across in bound volumes, old, old stories that I had written ten years ago and had forgotten all about. They amazed me, their discovery. Some of them made me feel embarrassed", Waliullah wrote in a letter dated November 24, 1954.
What begins as light reading into a family's life thus transitions into fascinating material on how Waliullah's mind evolved over the years as a connoisseur of culture. Letters give way to photographs, which in turn make space for a comprehensive bibliography of the author's work and achievements.
Though brief, these stories all coalesce to form fascinating reading for fans of a Bangladeshi figure who held great passion for art in all its forms, be it painting, literature, or music.
Sarah Anjum Bari is editor of Daily Star Books. Reach her at [email protected] and @wordsinteal on Twitter and Instagram.