For Selina Hossain, the year 2018 has been a wonderful one so far. For one, she recently won the prestigious Independence Day Award, better known as the Shwadhinata Padak, for her contribution to literature. The Independence Day Award is the highest state award given by the government of Bangladesh. “I was of course delighted and also very surprised,” says the famous novelist, Selina Hossain. “However, I felt ecstatic when my friend Ms Rowshan exclaimed that I had actually won this award for all the women in Bangladesh.” The women who are achievers, the positive changemakers and the women who are forever on a journey to change society for good.
For decades now, Selina Hossain's novels have been eye openers for many. Her strong-willed female characters have been breaking barriers, much to the shock of readers in Bangladesh. Be it a mother who is secretly a dreamer or the young student who announces her love for the young muktijoddha— Selina Hossain's books have played a huge role in making an impact on an otherwise rigid mind-set in the country. She believes in developing changes, no matter how small they might be.
On a personal level, however, Hossain believes that these changes are slow and much work is left to be done. “Every year on International Women's Day, I find individuals and organisations dedicating a whole week researching on women achievers, health, nutrition, women's rights and so much more,” she says. “Personally, I don't think we will witness a massive change overnight upon celebrating the day. For a few years now, we have been dedicating a week to it, instead of a day. But I do believe that the week-long seminars, events and other programmes that are organised because of International Women's Day, in Bangladesh, are creating positive changes within the minds of men. We talk about empowerment of women but unfortunately, we have not achieved that as yet. Women's Day should be more of a celebration for men, than women. This yearly observation creates an opportunity for many to ask questions—maybe the younger men or even the rickshaw puller by the street. In addition, this also creates a space for both men and women to work together for social change.”
According to Selina Hossain, traditionally, the woman in the house is usually deprived of care and nutrition. “The women are usually doing all the cooking, preparing and feeding the family members and the guests,” she says. “But they are left with almost nothing to eat. On many such occasions, I myself have seen that after a feast, when it is time for the women to eat, they are usually left with no meat or vegetables. Instead, they are seen heating up spices to add taste to their plates of rice and daal. But now, we see a wave of change within villages, where men share their food with women or enquire after them, only because they are now more aware of health and nutrition for women, especially in the case of pregnant mothers.”
Compared to the earlier decades, women today are financially independent. Many do not see a need to depend on the men financially. “However, the mental change is still very slow,” says Selina Hossain. “Despite the fact that now they earn, they are still not the key decision makers. The women are still deprived of a voice when it comes to deciding for their children, health, finance, home, etc. This is why I believe that days like International Women's Day actually help spread awareness among the men. They watch, read and learn about what's happening around them on the particular day and at least conceive an idea of changing an element or two within their society for the betterment of their counterparts.”
Just like Selina Hossain herself, the characters that she creates in her novels carry the same fire within to change the old and move to the new and make all the sacrifices necessary to achieve it. The famous scene in her novel Hangor Nodi Grenade, where the mother gives away her autistic son to the Pakistani soldiers, in turn saving the lives of muktijoddhas, had shocked everyone. While some were echoing their sentiments along with the mother, who dreamed of a new Bangladesh, many were appalled at the fact that Hossain could actually conceive the idea of murdering an autistic teenager. “I would get letters every other week about this back then!” she exclaims. “In fact, the novel touched so many hearts, the famous filmmaker Satyajit Ray wanted to turn it into a film. I still have the three letters that he had sent me. However, after Bangabandhu died, circumstances had changed and the film was never made by Ray.”
The film was eventually made by the famous Bangladeshi filmmaker and producer Chashi Nazrul Islam. The film was shown at a festival in Delhi. “In this particular festival, a group of students approached me after watching the film,” remembers Selina Hossain. “They were appalled by the fact that the autistic teenager was sacrificed for the sake of the muktijoddhas and also explained to me about how this was a violation of human rights. I had to explain to them that things were not so simple and easy during the war. The Pakistani army was ready to loot the village, rape women, murder children and destroy everything if the hidden muktijoddhas were not given up. The mother was crying and hurting inside while giving away her son, but at the same time, she was saving the lives of hundreds and thousands.”
Selina Hossain's philosophy of survival is to observe and learn without a shred of doubt within—like a sponge—absorbing everything around. Only then can we make positive changes for people and society, she says. Her latest best-seller at the recent Ekushey Boi Mela, Shaati Marcher Bikel (The evening of March 7), echoes the same philosophy, as Renu, the main character, watches one of the major events in the history of Bangladesh unfold right in front of her. “I myself was around 22-23 years old and I remember listening to Bangabandhu speaking at the Race Course field with my friends,” she says. “I had just joined Bangla Academy and was getting a grasp of everything that was happening around me. There was a revolution happening and we were all a part of it! Not only the intellectuals and soldiers, but also the common people had become a part of this massive movement. There was a badam-wallah (street vendor selling peanuts) at the Race Course field who was screaming in glee, “muicha geche, muicha geche, Purbo Pakistan!" (East Pakistan is no more!) On that fateful day, Selina Hossain remembers Bangabandhu stressing on the words “Bangla” “Purbo Bangla” and “Bangladesh”. “Not once did he mention 'Purbo Pakistan',” she says. The book, published by Bengal Publications, is a reflection of the thoughts, ideas, observations and also the revolution as seen by Selina Hossain and young people her age back in 1971.
As the old saying goes, changes begin at home—“and that is the only way one can bring about social changes,” says Selina Hossain. It will take months and years but the only way to work towards a stronger and united country is to make small changes, which would ultimately play massive roles in the bigger picture.
Elita Karim is the editor of Star Youth. Follow her on Twitter: @elitakarim