Writer's World

Syed Shamsul Haq speaks to Gantha

Gantha is a creative writers' group that meets regularly at Bengal Shilpalaya in Dhanmondi. New Year 2010 was a happy start. On 4 January, Gantha welcomed Syed Shamsul Haq, an iconic writer of Bangladesh, to a discussion session on creative writing. He spoke to a rapt audience for an hour and ten minutes, sharing his experience of over a five-decade long career in writing. His works cover 27 volumes of poetry, 16 plays (including 7 verse plays), of which the most prominent is Payar Awaj Paowa Jaaye, 9 novels, 57 novellas, 6 collections of short stories, 5 books of essays and impressions and 6 books of poems and adventures for the young.
In terms of Bengali literary writing in Bangladesh, Syed Shamsul Haq stands out prominently in experimental techniques and form of writing. His 1973 novel Khelaram Khele Ja turned out to be greatly controversial for its open delineation of human sexual behaviour.
The most important theme of Haq's work is the War of Liberation, its consequences, the despair of human existence and analyses of the human mind and society. The theme is reflected in the novels Duratwa, 1981; Mahashunye Paran Master, 1982; and Ek Juboker Chhayapath, 1974. He is the recipient of three highly regarded literary awards in the country.
Syed Shamsul Haq has earned the reputation of being 'the most powerful, prolific and versatile writer of Bangladesh.' He describes writing as akin to a journey. It is the most difficult of all journeys. Climbing Mount Everest is easy, if a person has that kind of money for climbing it. Much of the rope linked to the mountain route is safe for tourist climbers. The journey from one's bed to the writing table, though, is the most difficult journey. Writing is a solitary journey where a person travels alone. She or he has to make sacrifices, through foregoing the temptation of socializing and being in the company of friends.
'Why does he write? To this query, Haq tells you that writing is a habit. It is a sort of discipline, a regime, a kind of spell that compels a person to write. The emotions, feelings, and sensibilities that are evoked in a person's heart give rise to a strong surge of desire for expression--- and writing is the only way to overcome the storm that rises within a person.
Writing is self-expression and self-discipline; for every man has two births. The biological being is born of the mother's womb and then there is the birth of the social being. Man is a symbolic being. The individual is a thinking creature. Thinking is an abstract process. It takes form in language. The individual thinks in the language into which he is born.
Therefore, writing concretises man's thoughts, feelings, emotions, agony, fear, love, death and dreams. There is no substitute to writing. As a craft, writing and the pursuit of literary activities in the East are 'guru mukhi shikkha.' One is at gurujee's feet in the same fashion as a cobbler mending the shoe on the foot placed before him. In the West, learning writing is mostly through workshops and course work. Generally, writing is judged as a supreme form of art. Man's desire for expression gives rise to writing. On the perverse side, writing is for purposes of exhibitionism, fame, glory and vanity.
It may be noted that in the 1990s when a Bangladeshi writer angered Islamic fundamentalists with allegedly blasphemous writing and earned the disfavour of progressive writers as well, Syed Shamsul Huq defended her. However, ironically enough, he had subsequently to confront defamation from the writer he had defended.
In all forms of writing, there is a point of reference. It sometimes may happen that a reader is not able to understand the writer. This happens when the reader's point of reference does not correspond to that of the writer.
Syed Shamsul Haq was born in Nilphamari. In his youth, he often heard his father, a practitioner of homeopathic medicine, narrating the story of the Prophet of Islam and the date palm trees of Arabia. Haq would listen to the story in rapt attention and visualise the date palm trees in Manikganj, the location of his maternal grandfather's house. As a multiplicity of examples highlighted the points at the discussion, it was easy to grasp what the speaker said. Even so, how does the imagination in a little boy illustrate the difference in point of reference between a particular adult reader and the writer? Owing to time constraints this was not discussed any further. It was noted, though, that in all forms of communication, wavelength and frequency are essential elements of connection between reader and writer.
Of this prolific writer's works, only a few have been translated into English. One such work is Neel Dongshon (The Blue Sting), which unfortunately was not to find a receptive readership. Some English translations of his works are by the writer himself. There are no regrets, for the writer is of the opinion that readership is manifold more for works in the root language than in translated versions. That much is lost in translation is the common concern, for language is more than grammar. Asian writers of the diaspora generation have been quite successful. However, there are many instances to show that faithful translations do enrich the original work, one such being Sunil Gangapadhaya's Shei Shomoy, translated by Aruna Chakravarti as Those Days. Both the writer and the translator are recipients of the Sahitya Academy Puroshkar.
Related to translation work was the elaborate discussion on kria-podh in the Bangla language. The use of tenses is more varied in Bangla than in English. The writer especially referred to Tagore's Khokababur Protyabartan and the poetry of Jibanananda Das. This is in sharp contrast to writing in English where usually most narratives are in the past tense. Modern Bangla writing is frequently loaded with the use of 'double kria.' Haq further clarified this point by suggesting a reading of the first four pages in the novels of Buddhadev Bose, Mahmudul Haq and Syed Waliullah. And poetry? There is a distinction between good poetry and great poetry, which is obvious in the poem Shah Jahan.
To be inspired to write a story based on one's reading another writer's short story, is this ethically acceptable? This happens consciously and unconsciously all the time with so many readers. A deep reading of any text leaves a mark of influence. However, acknowledging the impact of another writer on one's own writing depends on the latter's conscience. There are no better rules for ethical justification.
In Bangladesh today there is a huge proliferation, so to say, of prose and poetry writing. A lot of this writing, nearly eighty per cent, is unreadable. Yet there is a tremendous need for writing. Syed Shamsul Haq compares all writing to a fast flowing river, and to the writer travelling on the river. Good writing causes a bend in the river.
And so with so much said, the dialogue drew to an enthralling close on that descending winter evening.

Farida Shaikh is a critic and member, The Reading Circle .