‘THE shadow of the ashwattha tree easily takes away the weariness of the scorching sun of the Bangla month of Chaitra (Chaitrer dabadahe ashwatthachhaya barai shrantiharak). The sentence begins Showkat Ali’s masterly crafted novel Pradoshe Prakritajan, a narration of miseries that low-cast groups suffered and of the revolt that the ‘untouchables’ did against their oppressors. I read the novel in my pre-university days in the late 1980s.
When we went to university, our teacher in the department of English in the University of Dhaka, in his lecture introducing us to the genre called fiction, said that the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice — It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife — which is one of the famous first lines in literature is also a good example of irony as the ending of the novel shows that the reverse is also true.
The opening sentence of Pradoshe Prakritajan still these days tempts me to believe that this is one of the famous first lines in the Bangla literature. It defines the novel. It sets the locale and the tone of the 12th-century Bengal under the Sena empire. It, ultimately, defines the novelist — a man, born in 1936 in formerly West Dinajpur in West Bengal, who migrated to Dinajpur in East Bengal in the early 1950s, took up editing job in a newspaper and teaching in school and colleges, worked as a gazetteer and finally headed a college. Along the way, he wrote more than 30 novels and yet all his works left him short of being satisfied as has been the case with all great writers.
Quite a few months before he had seriously fallen ill, I chanced on him giving an interview on a private television channel in the morning. He faltered yet he could enunciate his thoughts on his life and works quite well. He said that he could not be satisfied at what he did. He resented anyone not being able to write a novel set on a vast canvass, centring on the partition on the Indian sub-continent of 1947, the language movement of 1952 and Bangladesh’s independence war of 1971, which he said was too early for writers to write on.
He had for long been ill, even before he was taken to hospital in early January. He could not keep well. His memory failed. His second son, Asif Showkat, who had been a colleague of mine at New Age for quite some time, used to say that Showkat Ali tried to write something every day but could not move from one paragraph to the next, and later from one sentence to the next, as by the time he would need to write the second paragraph or sentence, he would forget when he wrote in the previous paragraph or sentence. His room used to remain littered with crumbled pieces of paper. It certainly put at pains the man, who has written so much, being no longer able to write in an organised way.
When I was in university, I bought a book, Three Plays of Shakespeare, at a used book shop at Nilkhet. The book was a bit moth-eaten, with the spine crumbling. I had to have it re-bound later for preservation. The book, down its title page, has the signature of Munier Chowdhury; in the upper half, there is a seal by the superintendent of police of Dinajpur, signed, with the text — examined and passed for Munier Chowdhury. I talked about the book with Asif Showkat and he said it to his father. Showkat Ali wanted to see the book. I gave it to him to have been attested by Showkat Ali that it was Munier Chowdhury’s signature, who had been in a cell next to Showkat Ali’s in the Dinajpur jail in the mid-1950s. I have preserved the book as a prize possession.
I also felt affinity of a kind to Showkat Ali as my family was from the same district as his, West Dinajpur in West Bengal which in 1992 was divided into the north and the south, with the places, Raiganj, where his family is from, and Kaliyaganj, where mine is from, falling into North Dinajpur.
I have always cherished a desire to meet him in person. I chatted with Asif Showkat about his father many times, but I could never tell him that I wanted to meet his father. Showkat Ali’s failing health stopped me from doing that.
I was, at one point, looking forward to something like an autobiographical sketch by Showkat Ali. I knew that it could not happen. In the past year, however, a magazine started serialising his autobiography, Abismrita Smritikatha (Unforgotten memories), in his thoughts in someone else’s writing. The writing has already run into 29 instalments. I do not know if the person who is writing the life has by now all the stories or it might end abruptly, unfinished, at one point. Still, we at least have some details of his life which have so far remained unknown.
Showkat Ali died in a hospital on Thursday morning. He was 81. After his prolonged illness, we all knew that his death was just a matter of days. He would die. He did. And he would live, forever, in the readers who readily grabbed what he could offer. But he would be sorely missed.
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.
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