The virtuoso with the pen Rizia Rahman has ended her terrestrial sojourn on 16th August, just a few months shy of entering her octogenarian phase. A prolific writer treading most of the domains of creative writing, she has left an indelible personal mark on our literary landscape.
Ms Rahman was born to be a litterateur, starting her creative journey at the age of eight to wind up at (nearly) eighty. She was at her duodecimal year when her first write-up was published. She was gifted and fortunate enough to get her maiden book published when she was still pursuing her tertiary level degree at the University of Dhaka.
The journey that was started at her pre-teen period, was well-continued with maestro-like dexterity and finesse to produce more than fifty titles cutting across many genres. Among the major works of this masterful artist are Rokter Okshor (Letters of Blood, 1978), Bong Theke Bangla (Bangla from Bong, 1987), Uttar Purush (The Successors, 1977), Olikhito Upakhyan (An Unwritten Story,1980), Shilay Shilay Aagun (Stones in Fire, 1980), Ghar Bhanga Ghar (A House-Breaking House, 1984), Ekal Chirokal (Now and Eternity, 1984), Prem Aamar Prem (Love, My Love, 1985), and Jharer Mukhomukhi (Facing the Storm, 1986).
Rizia Rahman was an iconoclastic novelist – she is among the pioneering writers in our language who treated the lives of the sex workers in minutest details. Her masterpiece Rokter Okshor centres around a trinity of major characters with a considerable retinue of other people connected with the oldest profession of the world. The protagonists Jahanara, a seasoned prostitute, Kusum, the pre-teen new kid on the block and last but not the least Yasmin, the rape survivor of 1971 (Officially declared as Birangana) were free members of this society before being forced to settle in Golapipatti, the Red Light District of Dhaka. It is very surprising to know that the writer herself could not manage to visit any brothel personally; she collected information about brothels, their inmates and other stakeholders from a journalist and yet how incredibly she has depicted the excruciating pangs and pains of these marginalized human beings! How full of the milk of human kindness she was is manifest in her almost videographic portrayal of the ostracized characters from the periphery of the society. We internally bleed at the sight of Rohimon who all through her life provided carnal pleasures to many people and now she is inflicted with venereal disease which has rendered her noseless with a gaping hole at her mouth. What a blood-chilling toll prostitution has taken on her physique! She is, it seems, a grave-yard Halloween character in flesh and blood let loose to haunt and lurk in the alleys of Golapipara.
No less gripping are the stories of her fellow sex workers – all of them were coerced into this stigmatized profession. Some were trafficked, some were picked up by hooligans and after satisfying their needs were sold and some were duped. The backstories of two characters, however, are noticeably different from the whole lot – those of the Birangana Yasmin and the ambitious Momota. The tale of Yasmin here, is directly connected with our War of Liberation. In the war, her brother embraced martyrhood and the Pakistan Army raided her house to punish Kamal, a freedom fighter who took shelter in the house. The raid resulted in her rape and the brutal killing of herfamily members. After the blood-bathed birth of Bangladesh, she was sheltered in a government house from where the poor soul was taken as a wife by a young man. Being miserably treated by the relatives and abused by her husband who married her only to grab her paternal property, she trod the filthy path of Golapipatti. Momota’s odyssey also activates our lachrymal gland. The star-crossed Momota who hailed from an affluent background was lured into the dark profession by her boyfriend who promised to make her a heroine in the film industry of Dhaka. Sarazeen Saif has aptly commented on this book –‘This is a book for us. For every man, for every woman, for every single member of our society. Sex workers are, first and foremost, people. They have emotions, wants, needs. They are human and yet, they are the bitterest dregs of our cities, the darkest corners, the most feared secret. Rizia Rahman upturns the earth burying them, exposing the worms, the filth, the nightmare’.
Ms Rahman makes the subaltern speak not only in Rokter Okshor. In her Shilay Shilay Agun (Stones in Fire), we see Lalu, like the Birangana Yasmin, revolts against the powerful segment of the society. Rahman’s treatment of the Baluchistan issue in this novel almost four decades back once again proves that powerful writers are endowed with some prophetic attributes.Her other major works like Surjo Sobuj Rokto (Sun-Green Blood) and Ghar Bhanga Ghar also powerfully chronicle the struggles of the downtrodden people from two different strata of the society – the workers of the tea gardens and the people rendered homeless by river erosion and other natural catastrophes. Precisely speaking, Razia has squeezed the macrocosm around her spanning from Bangladesh to Baluchistan within the microcosmic realm of her creations.
Rizia through her works always tried to make the voice of the muted insiders audible, yet paradoxically in some mysterious ways, her own voice remained almost muted in our mainstream media. Though this artist of the wretched did not receive the kind of attention from the media that she well-deserved, she was fortunate enough to be laurelled with many accolades including the prestigious Bangla Academy Literary Award (1978) and the Ekushey Padak (2019).
In her slim autobiographical piece, Obhibasi Ami, she declares herself as the “eternal migrant”. Winding up her terrestrial chapter, this perpetual adventurer has started her new transcendental exploration at the cosmic level. Bon voyage, our literary Marco Polo!
Sarwar Morshed is an Associate Professor at the Department of English, University of Chittagong. His works have appeared in The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Bosphorus Review of Books, Contemporary Literary Review India, Ashvamegh, among others.