Across a landscape of memory and timeless poetry | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 19, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, July 19, 2008

Across a landscape of memory and timeless poetry

Syed Badrul Ahsan glides through two works, feeling quite happy

AIDE-Memoire is quite a few strands of thought coming together. And with Hasnat Abdul Hye's telling of the tale, or tales as the case may be, there is a feeling that readers will get to enjoy vicariously the experiences he relates in these accounts of his life. Ah, but then the writer, or perhaps a reader, might protest. Whoever said these accounts relate to Hye's life as he lived them between 1943 and 1954? There is --- isn't there? --- a narrator here, one who speaks impersonally, in third person singular? You do not get to spot Hye anywhere. It is always a 'he', always 'his' world of experience. And there lies the charm in the tale.
The charm, to be specific, comes in the conscious doing away of the self-seeking, or even the self-aggrandising 'I' that many weavers of autobiographical yarns are wont to use. In Hasnat Abdul Hye's instance (and these are episodes from his life he once enlightened readers of a national English language daily with on a weekly basis), this willing dissociation from the 'I' in favour of the impersonal 'he' leaves him free to travel all across geography and history, of a varied sort. He was a mere child in 1943, that time of Indian life when the process of decolonisation was beginning to set in in this part of the world. It was not a time Hye ought to be remembering in vivid form. Similar are his reflections on the riots of 1946, when he was a seven year-old. And seven year-olds are not particularly adept in recording the moments of historical significance they stumble into. So why should the writer be so keen about reminding his readers of that part of his life, when life was yet in its childlike innocence for him?
A good question, that. But Hye has his answers ready too and you cannot have him trip over himself. His accounts, he makes clear, are more than his own. They have in fact been embellished with his readings, those he made in subsequent years. And the readings have touched upon a whole range of subjects. Notwithstanding the fact that Hye has been a civil servant who rose to the heights of his career, he has been a master craftsman of the human story. His fiction, his literary and art criticism have given him a niche of his own. His recent talk at a discussion on Rabindranath Tagore's tourist instincts revealed yet once more the sense of humour he often brings into his study of human character. And it is the humorous as well as the serious you tend to get in Aide-Memoire. Politics is an issue he mulls over, politics as he saw shaping up in his boyhood or as he came in touch with through his exhaustive reading in later times. And then there is the commonplace and yet those extraordinary facets of life, those we live through in the days of our innocence. Remember something called Boma Ghuddi? Or a kite with a snake tail known as Hapa Ghuddi? These are images that you associate with your childhood, in your little village or with the small district town you lived in. And they are images Hye recreates through his stories. The danger is, you might fall prey to nostalgia --- and deservedly too.
Clear streams of history mingle with stories of childhood passing inexorably into boyhood. The writer expends good time in relating the genesis of the royal family of Tripura, a conglomeration of facts that not many readers are aware of. And then, of course, there are those timeless descriptions of Calcutta, those we cannot do without. Jhautala, where stood the home once inhabited by Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Huq, comes into the picture. Move on, to Dacca as it was in 1947, that disastrously seminal year in the long tortuous tale of undivided and yet fractured India. It is nearly a pristine Dacca you recall, with its historical streets and its monkeys swaying from the branches of trees.
Aide-Memoire is travelogue. It is history and a peek into the ideas that go into narrative prose. It is, finally, the shaping of sensibilities in a child whose interest in the world around him is as large as the huge canvas he forges his tales on.
SOMETHING is invariably lost in translation. That is the conventional wisdom you have been suffused with for years together. And that, just so you do not fail to recall, is also the truth. But then translations sometimes are a huge improvement on the original. Maybe Selim Sarwar would not agree. The fact remains, though, that these Bengali translations of Shakespeare's sonnets appear to have attained their objective.
And they have because of the strenuous work Sarwar, an academic engaged in teaching English literature for more than three decades, has put into it. In conditions where Shakespeare remains a difficult proposition even in terms of a comprehension of his works in modern English, a rendition of the sonnets in Bengali should sound like foolhardy business at best and futility at worst. Sarwar has made sure it is neither. His hold on the English language, never less than impeccable, has consistently exercised a hold on the imagination of those he has taught, as also those he has not. And now all those individuals will be in for a pleasant surprise with the scholarly, particularly apt Bengali he brings to bear in transforming the sonnets into a field the Bengali young (and not so young) can relate to. There is charm in the translations; and it comes in the modernity of language Sarwar employs in the exercise.
An especially delightful aspect of the work is the detailed social and historical background Selim Sarwar provides to the sonnets, at the beginning of the translations. A reader who misses reading it or chooses to ignore it will have precious little comprehension of the ethos involved in the poetry. And the ethos relates to Shakespearean times. But then again, being Shakespeare is also being modern. It is that modernity, or call it the timeless, that defines his worldview. Sarwar moves that modernity from an English ambience to a new, Bengali one. These 154 sonnets should cheer the soul. If they do not, Shakespeare will have been a pointless term of historical reference. But that he surely cannot be, as Selim Sarwar tells us.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.

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