Khwabnama relies on the shared experience of people to tell its own

Book review: Set in the Bengal of the 1940s, Khwabnama is an epic in terms of its scope, the historical backdrop, the characters and their stories. It starts like a fable and slowly singes its way with a firm political voice: the despair of starvation, the oppression faced by landless peasants and farmers who work tirelessly in the fields in the hope of some relief only to be denied a fair share of the crop, people who do not count for much except for their labour, except for their votes and numbers in a crowd assembled for a political cause

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Ashutosh Kumar Thakur
is Bangalore based Management Consultant, Literary Critic and Co-director with Kalinga Literary Festival

Khwabnama by Akhtaruzzaman Elias, translated by Arunava Sinha is a beautiful mosaic of magical realism, lyrical poetry and prose that captures the politics of majoritarianism that wreaks havoc on the lives of the common men and women. Arunava Sinha’s translation of one of the greatest Bengali novels depicts the socio-political scene in rural pre-partition Bangladesh.

Akhtaruzzaman Elias was a Bangladeshi novelist and short-story writer who, despite writing only two novels, is regarded by most critics as being part of the pantheon of great Bengal authors. Chilekothar Sepai detailed the psychological journey of a man during the turbulent period just before Bangladeshi independence in 1971 and offered an unrivalled depiction of life in Puran Dhaka, an old town. ‘Khwabnama’ (1996) depicts the socio-political scene in the rural pre-partition of Bangladesh.

Told through the aspirations and anxieties of people who fall through the cracks, leaving them out from the larger narrative of a nation and its leaders, the narrative asks a profound question:

What are dreams made of and who gets the leisure of a dream?

Akhtaruzzaman Elias’s Khwabnama talks about the dream that the working class farmer’s nurture in their mind that one day they will become an independent farmer with their cultivable land and cattle. However, the suppression and the dream of being a solitary planter lead the working class people like Tamiz in unconditional misery. 

Set in the Bengal of the 1940s, Khwabnama is an epic in terms of its scope, the historical backdrop, the characters and their stories. It starts like a fable and slowly singes its way with a firm political voice: the despair of starvation, the oppression faced by landless peasants and farmers who work tirelessly in the fields in the hope of some relief only to be denied a fair share of the crop, people who do not count for much except for their labour, except for their votes and numbers in a crowd assembled for a political cause.

Work is scarce and wages are low. There is barely any food to be had. The proposal for the formation of Pakistan, the elections of 1946, and communal riots are rewriting the contours of history furiously. Amidst all this, in an unnamed village, a familiar corporeal spirit plunges into knee-deep mud. This is Tamiz’s father, the man in possession of Khwabnama. The book argues for the need to understand resistance as a process and anti-colonialism as a cry against forcible extraction of surplus value before it’s seen as a demand for national-political action.

Legendary author Akhtaruzzaman Elias writes in the book “The spot where Tamiz’s father stood with his feet planted in the mud, craning his neck as high as possible, stretching his nerves taut, and waving his jet-black arms to dispel the grey clouds, needs to be noted carefully. A long time ago, when, leave alone Tamiz’s father, even his father had not been born, when his grandfather Bhaghar Majhi the fisherman’s birth was still a long way in the future, when Bhaghar Majhi’s grandfather’s father—or was it his grandfather—had barely been born, or not, and even if he had, was only crawling about on the newly-laid earth in the home built by clearing a part of the forest, on one afternoon during those days, while he was speeding towards the Karatowa river in order to visit the Mahasthan Killa with several of Majnu Shah’s fakirs, Munshi Barkatullah Shah was flung from his horse after being shot dead by Taylor, the commander of British troops. The hole left in his neck by the bullet was never filled. After his death, with a chain around this neck and his body smeared with ash, and holding an iron pan with fish motifs carved on it, he perched on the fig tree on the northern side of the Katlahar Lake. Ever since then, he became the sunlight during the day and spread himself all over the lake, and reigned over the lake all night from the fig tree. Tamiz’s father waved his arms to get rid of the clouds in the sky in the hope of catching a glimpse of Munshi.

At first glance, Khwab Nama is the tale of a harmless young farmhand who becomes a sharecropper and dreams of a future that has everything to do with the land that he cultivates and the soil that he tills. Tamiz is compelled to migrate to town to work in the house of a leader of the Muslim league. He had to migrate there because of the police case is given by Kalam Majhi but we see that he has a nostalgic will to go back to his village to stay with his newly married wife and daughter and we see a very significant nostalgic dream of land and to be a full-time farmer (a dream of cultivable land and a pair of cows). The fabrics of his dreams, though, have as much to do with the history of the land as its future, and as much to do with memories as with hope. 

Tamiz will work in his land and his wife Phuljaan will help him in farming and together they harvest lots of crops and there will be no one to demand his percentage of the crops. He started dreaming this after his return from Joipurhat where the Tebhaga movement was going on and he had a great influence on the movement throughout the novel. For that reason, we see that when he was forcibly migrated from Bogra to Dhaka, he cannot control his dreaming and cannot stop him from joining Tebhaga. He left the train and caught another to meet with his dream Tebhaga. 

In this magnum opus, which documents the Tebhaga movement, wherein peasants demanded two-thirds of the harvest they produced on the land owned by zamindars, Akhtaruzzaman Elias has created an extraordinary tale of magical realism, blending memory with reality, a legend with history and the struggle of marginalized people with the stories of their ancestors.

Elias’ novel ‘Khwabnama’ falls within the perimeter of what Palestinian-American critic and activist Edward Said has described as “late style.” Khwabnama‘s maze-like narrative, its thematic structure, and, of course, its immensely creative as well as inaccessible prose point towards its radical stylistic organization that Said calls late style. However, late work or not, ‘Khwabnama’ remains Elias’ most challenging work and, in every sense, his finest as well. 

Elias writes in the book ‘But it didn’t turn out the same way every time. No, on some nights an unbroken sound woke Tamiz’s father up completely. Someone was speaking in a hoarse drawl far in the distance—where else but the fig tree…

Munshi lives in the fig tree to the north

 Beneath him swim all the fierce murrels

 Late at night, only on Munshi’s command

 All the murrels take the form of sheep.

But because Tamiz’s father started violently, the verses from afar did not remain audible, although they gave him a violent itch on his scalp before subsiding. It was possible that the tingling he had been feeling all over his body had been caused by the droning of these verses. No sooner had it acquired the form of words, however than Tamiz’s father woke up, by which time the sounds had returned to the fig tree. A violent gust of the same wind on which they had flown in now blew them away to the roof of the Mandals’ home in the south, which in turn awoke the flock of white storks on Sharafat Mandal’s silk cotton tree. These storks were favourites of Sharafat’s, whose influence in the area ensured that they survived. It was because of his strict instructions that, leave alone the villagers, not even the thousands of people who visited the village fair at Poradaho on the last Wednesday of the month of Maagh every year dared to throw rocks at the tree. Like Sharafat Mandal, the ancestors of the storks too had their original home in the village of Nijgiridanga.”

How the book of a dream, ‘Khwabnama’ changes hands and, from the custody of dreamers and poets, eventually ends up in the possession of the opportunistic nouveau riche (the national bourgeoisie) is what the novel describes by using intricate yet extremely creative narrative strategy. An in-depth discussion about how the novel deploys metaphors, symbols and magic realist techniques to create a myth-ridden and mysterious world is not possible here.

“But Sharafat himself became the owner of the land in this way. When the blacksmiths moved to the town, Mandal’s hired hands went over to plough their land, which was when the swarm of storks on the arjun tree flew across the lake to perch on the branches of Sharafat Mandal’s silk cotton tree. Sharafat offered shelter to the helpless birds with great tenderness. God is merciful, nothing escapes his eye, and so Sharafat had been rewarded plentifully for this act. His flourishing household kept swelling with children, women, cattle, ducks and hens, land, and hired hands. But a question—could birds from a Hindu village possibly turn anyone’s luck so much? “Akhtaruzzaman Elias writes further.

One distinctive feature of the novel comes into view right away, while most novels depend upon the development and struggles of individuals to tell their stories, Khwabnama relies on the shared experience of people to tell its own. Only a handful of novels written in the past century can measure up to Elias’ last work. It is a milestone in world literature.

At the heart of the novel’s thematic structure stand the dreams, struggles and baffles of the ordinary folks, mostly fishermen and landless farmers, who find their lives upended by Tebhaga Uprising on the one hand and the independence movement on the other. This work not only problematizes the way resistances have been shaped by an overarching national-liberation paradigm but also suggests the need to shift that paradigm now. The idiom of national liberation is important enough not to be rejected. But it is, at the same time, not so significant as to be fully embraced. 

However, instead of being the Subject, they become the ‘subject’ of capitalism; which makes people like Tamiz a ‘subaltern’ through remembering scholar, literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s argument “can the subaltern speak?” 

This book attempts to discover if Tamiz is the representation of the voiceless people of working-class society, in other words, to discover if Tamiz is a subaltern or not?

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Ashutosh Kumar Thakur
is Bangalore based Management Consultant, Literary Critic and Co-director with Kalinga Literary Festival

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