Abdul Khaleq is a professor in a debilitated rural college, in the newly-formed Bangladesh. Fired by a friend’s suggestion, Khaleq sets out to chronicle his childhood. His mind journeys to a time when he was still sucking his thumb, oblivious to the disappointments of the future. He recalls with sweet sadness his childhood home somewhere near Calcutta in undivided Bengal, his family, neighbours, the assortment of people who visited his house for various reasons, the exciting scenes on the streets and the events that seemed enchanting to a child’s eye.
While his wife Rekha detests his passive, alienated, unambitious lifestyle, especially his journaling habit, Khaleq grows more and more restless, as he struggles with painful memories of an accumulating sense of doom, of a time when his family flees from West to East Bengal. His recollection stops being a pleasure. Will Khaleq break down and meet the same fate as his beloved, happy brother? Will the confrontational boat ride he undertakes with his wife through the luscious pastures and snake-filled fields, salvage his marriage and life?
Partition literature can never go outdated in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh — the three countries that have lived its horrors. While many have attempted to document the slaughters and carnage generally associated with the event, some seek to delve into the lasting emotional wreckage. One amongst many such writers is the prolific Bangladeshi writer Mahmudul Haque, who died a few years ago. His book Black Ice (Kalo Borof, 1977) has recently been translated by Mahmud Rahman.
Black Ice is a subtle representation of a historic nightmare through the mind of a broken man trying to make sense of what he has by confronting all that he has lost. The book also contains Rahman’s tribute to the author and an interesting interview with Haque conducted by the Bangladeshi writer Ahmad Mostofa Kamal.
Through a rich interplay of words and imagery Haque infuses life and authenticity into the locale and his fascinating characters: the sensitive Ma, Moni Bhaijaan, Puti- the girl, who speaks to birds and fish, Ingelish-speaking Panu, pincer-toting Sadhu, the blind wise man, the creepy Iranian gypsy, the old hag Giribala, the good-hearted widow Madhuri and the insightful village physician, Dr Narhari. Also, his use of two distinct narrative forms and styles is
commendable. While delving into the past, the memory is more concrete, the present is almost abstract.
While translating, it seems that Rahman has remained sensitive and stayed too close to the original, following the line of the sentence and retaining the order of ideas and images. Sample this: “It’s my feeling that knowledge-toledge and wisdom-shisdom don’t mean much.” Of course, one should read the original to comment on how nuanced, balanced or successful this translation is. However, with some inventiveness, he could have replaced the extremely-glaring number of Bengali terms. After all, this is a translated work! Also, the book’s subtly constructed moral scaffolding, despite pulling us into the dark complexities of an afflicted mind, leaves us in a lurch. We keep waiting for some strong incident in the past, other than partition per se, that would justify the psychological portrait. But nothing is clearly said of it. This is when we regret not reading the original for semantic significance, if any. But it may be acknowledged that the book stands on its own merit.
Haque’s writing is bereft of ostentation like violence, cruelty, sarcasm or rhetorical antics. Largely autobiographical, it is emotional, yet, stands out for its brevity and concise prose despite the charged theme. Though a chunk of the book is about childhood, the work is more for a mature reader. Black Ice is a beautifully written, rueful reverie and a haunting reminder of the invisible scars that bleed for long ■