The art of recreating the past | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 28, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 28, 2012

The art of recreating the past

In conversation with Selina Hossain


Selina Hossain at a mass grave in Kasbah, Brahmanbaria. This burial ground near the border has 51 graves (including two unmarked ones) of people killed during the Liberation War.

Historians and fiction (in particular historical fiction) writers are strange bedfellows. Where does one draw the line? According to author Selina Hossain, "When you want hardcore facts, you should go for history or news reports. The purpose of historical fiction is to provide the reader with a feel of being present at a particular event through the perspective of characters. This is essentially an art of recreating the past, entirely dependent on the literary prowess of a writer."
Hossain, a recipient of numerous national and international honours (including a Bangla Academy Award in 1980), delves deep into Liberation War in Bengali literature. "The end of 'Hangor, Nodi, Grenade' is a true story," she says. The novel is considered an outstanding specimen of Bengali fiction on the theme of Liberation War. "One of my teachers told me the story of a woman who gave up her own son to Pakistani soldiers to save two freedom fighters. In the process of writing a novel, centring this incident, I had to give the protagonist a past which is obviously fiction," the author continues.
"Akhteruzzaman Elias' 'Chilekothar Sepai' gives accounts of the Mass Upsurge (1969) through perspectives of its protagonist. Literature can also address historic events through allusions or analogies. In the novel, 'Neel Mayur-er Jouban,' I've narrated the story of a poet from the Charjapad era whose hand is severed by the King as a punishment for writing in the language of the masses. This is a reference to our Language Movement," Hossain says.
In another novel, "Juddho," the author describes a mass slaughter of Bengalis by the Biharis in Syedpur during the war -- a true story. Apparently, the Biharis living in that area made announcements that they have arranged a special shuttle for Bengalis and Hindus that would carry them across the border. Many showed up and were mercilessly butchered.
"The depiction of the war in our TV plays and films, however, is often commercialised and incomplete. It seems this historic event has not been translated well on celluloid. I'd give Chashi Nazrul Islam credit for his sincere efforts in adapting 'Hangor, Nodi, Grenade' for the big screen but unfortunately the film didn't shine in its own merit; the essence was somewhat lost in translation. But these efforts are commendable nevertheless, as the core facts and values of the war have not been distorted. Besides this is an effective way to educate the illiterate portion of our populace on the national history," Hossain remarks.
"We need other perspectives on the war as well. I met Pakistani writer Atia Dawood at a writers' forum for SAARC countries. She gave moving accounts of the last days of the war. When the news broke that General Niazi has surrendered, Atia's parents cried. There was no resentment but a sense of loss -- the kind one endures when a relative is lost, that's how Atia put it," she says.
The author is hopeful that the post-Liberation War generation of writers will further enrich this genre of fiction with fresh, new ideas and viewpoints. She specifically mentions "A Golden Age" by Tahmima Anam. "Her (Tahmima's) debut novel has been translated in several languages and lauded internationally ('A Golden Age' won the 2008 regional Commonwealth Best First Book prize), thus drawing the attention of a wider, global readership to the Liberation War. From someone who has not experienced the war firsthand, this is a remarkable accomplishment.
"However, while writing on historical events, writers should be factually correct regarding dates and venues," Hossain says.
Selina Hossain is currently working on a novel on 'chhitmahal' (enclaves), which would address the Liberation War as well.

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