The Bangla Novel lives on
An old man walks along a winding brick road seeking the bewildering odor of dust. This smell of dust has pervaded the nostrils of his forefathers, from the reign of the Mughals, the heyday of the people traversing the pages of Boyon -- weavers. The odor of dust harbingers death for Sobed Ali. He smelled dust before the deaths of his father and daughter. But dust also denotes the dry season -- when the busy hands of the jolas are stilled, for the dry air is detrimental to the fineness of the fabric that they weave.
In her second novel Boyon (Publishers, Dhaka), Papri Rahman presents a tale of love in its various forms and guises. Set in a community of jamdaani weavers, Boyon gives readers the unforgettable tales of Sobed Ali, his first wife Poiron Bibi and their descendants, Atimuni his second wife, the mystic madman Mulukchan and his much younger wife Kamala Sundari. But the love that comes through above all, is the love of the craft -- the obsession with colour, fabric and design which holds the weavers in thrall despite the miniscule returns from the business.
The human relationships depicted astound in their beauty as well as their unconventionality -- both characteristics emphatic in the women of Boyon. There's the prideful Atimuni, who slapped and left Sobed Ali because he had hidden from her his marriage to Poiron Bibi. Yet even as Atimuni lives out her life as the wife of the bad-tempered Alauddin Mia, she yearns for the ember-black Sobed Ali. There's Kamala Sundari -- abandoned for being banja, barren, she knots her fate with Mulukchan. Who in turn is plagued by mysterious flocks of nighttime birds and is constantly haunted by his dead first wife. There's the adolescent Jhumpari -- who falls in love with, gets pregnant and is betrayed by the cowardly Akailla, apprentice to a rival weaving house. Yet Jhumpari is given the strength to stand straight once more by marriage to Faizu Mia who tells her, "People only remember one's deeds…The real thing is to have affection for people. If you don't have affection, who do you think'll remember you?"
Sex is present in all its earthy and love-filled glory. The tender urgency of the first sexual encounter between Jhumpari and Akailla takes place in the presence of Poiron Bibi, Jumpari's blind grandmother, the sounds of their lovemaking drowned out by pouring rain. The sensual dark beauty of Kamala Sundari is enhanced by the old man Mulukchan's yearning for her, his enraptured recall of the deep brown of her breasts and aroused nipples. Beauty departs from the usual Bangali fascination with the fair as kaalo skin is celebrated in the "cloud-black" yet "touched by water" beauty of Atimuni, the "smooth, shiny aura" like a rooster's feather of Akailla's skin, the black stone features of Kamala.
Love and death are the two constants in Boyon. Mulukchan, incessantly tormented by his struck-by-lightning dead wife, himself dies in the same way. The novel starts off with the dust-smell, foreshadowing the death of Shadhu, the ethereal child of Sobed Ali's later years. Through Shadhu is introduced the myth of the Chiluni Koinna, the Hawk Maiden, the ritualistic storytelling of the jamdaani weavers that is so essentially part of their craft.
Yet in the deaths of both Shadhu and Mulukchan lay the seeds of regeneration. After Mulukchan's death, Kamala feels something move inside her womb, "That damn old man can't leave me alone even after death! Now he's taken root right inside my belly!" Yet that accusation is also love; she knows that the old man has done this to absolve her of the shame of her barrenness. Echoing the Chiluni Koinna's flight, Shadhu takes a nosedive out of a shupari tree straight to death. Only to return as Jhumpari's baby -- born of Akailla's loins, but to the generous heart of Foizu Mia.
There are a number of story-threads running parallel throughout the novel that only serve to enhance the complexity, and are satisfactorily linked and resolved by the end. The detailing of the weaving itself, the presentation of the historical context of the craft, the relationships between the rival master-weavers, their families are well-crafted and credible. The changing times within the jola community are also documented. The beauteous young Chand Bibi (who Akailla ends up marrying instead of Jhumpari) has been given secret colour recipes by her nani. These recipes, as well as the techniques of design, were not usually given to females of the family, since they would eventually be married off to other houses. The final lines of Boyon, indicate that Tara Bibi, younger sister of Chand, succeeds where Chand Bibi failed even with all her prowess in design and weaving, where the gifted Mulukchan had failed, where Akailla had failed. She creates an original design and thus seems set to become a master herself, a position hitherto gained only by men.
I have only two critiques of Boyon. The first is the lack of build-up of the character Foizu Mia. He emerges in the final chapters as the saviour of the unwed and pregnant Jhumpari with his homespun wisdom and faith in the rightness of human effort as well as his role in organizing the weavers. Yet the only significance that he has been accorded hitherto is his capacity to down four ladles of polao unaccompanied by any gravy or meat -- a skill that does not endear him to Jhumpari's father.
The second issue is the language of Boyon, which draws heavily on dialect; certain words, expressions are thus slightly inaccessible to readers. Coupled with certain terminologies of the weavers, this makes the first couple of chapters of the book somewhat heavy going. The text is also interspersed with the songs of the weavers; again, the unfamiliarity of the rhythms proves to be a stumbling block, only to be assuaged by occasional sheer poetry. However, once the initial resistance to the unfamiliarity of this language is overcome, Boyon becomes a delight to the linguistic sensibilities.
Boyon easily ranks among the best of fiction published this year, testament to the fact that the form of the novel still lives in Bangla. In the face of the dearth of fine fiction in Bangladesh, Boyon is a must read.