Minds and hearts meet as writers from both sides of the border get ready to bond over literature.
Syed Manzoorul Islam is a Bangladeshi academic, writer, novelist, translator, columnist and critic. He teaches English at the University of Dhaka and has published several novels and collections of short stories. He has received the Bangla Academy Award and the Prothom Alo "Book of the Year" Award. Excerpts from an interview with the author, who is participating in the Maitree Bandhan Literary Festival in Kolkata:
You have penned short stories, essays and novels but refuse to be tagged as an author of multifarious genres? I agree that these are multifarious genres, but I value my fictional work more than my other writings, which I broadly group under 'academic' writings. In writing a short story, I feel that I am creating something new and original; and I invest a great deal of myself in it. I try to live the life of my characters, see the world through their eyes and feel their pain and happiness. This does not happen in my academic writing where I am objective, critical and probing.
Your writings often has surrealistic experiences. How did you get drawn to such a style of writing? As a writer, I owe a great deal to two individuals of my childhood who not only introduced me to the world of fairy tales, but also shaped me as a storyteller. One was our domestic help, Habib bhai, a sturdy and kind man in his 30s; and the other an old Hindu widow known for her temper and her mania for cleanliness, whom we called Dadu. In their fairy tales, which were always open-ended, surrealistic elements were an integral part. In my childhood I never questioned whatever surreal or supernatural their stories contained. I still believe that the surreal is the flip side of reality - it is what gives meaning to our everydayness.
Being an author yourself, how easy or difficult is it for you to also shoulder the role of a critic? I am a critic by training and a writer by compulsion. These are two different engagements that do not clash with each other.
Your style has also been compared to that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Is that flattering? What more do you aspire for in life? That is flattering, but I do not consider myself worthy of such a comparison. Like Garcia Marquez , I too belong to a rich tradition of storytelling. In our tradition a storyteller performs the same function as an hablador - storyteller - in the Latin American tradition, and the stories we tell have many similarities - a strong presence of the surreal, an element of strangeness that undermines narrational and other hierarchies, and so on.
What are your plans for the Maitree Bandhan Literary Festival in Kolkata? I'll take a few works with me, and will read one or two, depending on the time allotted. These are She, The Story of an Afternoon, The Living Dead, The Merman's Prayer and a couple more. I will decide by tomorrow.
Have you ever set any of your works in India in general and Kolkata in particular? Not many. One of my short story collections was published from Kolkata by Proma about 20 years ago. I have a short story set in Kolkata.
PDG Discard literary borders Deblina Chakravorty Namita Gokhale is an author and the founder-organizer of the Jaipur Literary Festival. A chat with Bangladeshi authors Anisul Hoque and Syed Manzoorul Islam, as part of the Maitree Bandhan Literary Festival, presented by The Times of India, brings her to Kolkata. Her latest book, The Habit of Love, is a collection of short stories and was published earlier this year.
You are yourself an organizer of a literary fest. What's the best thing about them that strikes you? As a writer and as a reader and as someone associated with literary fests, I have been struck by how porous literary borders are, especially when it comes to fests that aim to bring two countries together. We may live in a country divided by political borders but it wouldn't be wrong to say that literary borders can be totally done away with. For instance, languages like Urdu and Bangla are are spoken in Pakistan and Bangladesh but are common to India as well.
Literary works in these languages are not as easily available to readers of English in India... Exactly. That's the second most interesting aspects of lit fests. For someone like me, access to Urdu and Bangla literature is only through translations. But at literary meets, one can interact first hand with authors. Ideas are exchanges and cultural barriers are broken.
You would be interacting with Bangladeshi writers Syed Manzoorul Islam and Anisul Hoque at the Maitree Bandhan Literary Festival. What do you have to say about that? I have begun reading Anisul's book, Freedom's Mother and I'm delighted. It tells the story of the mother of a freedom fighter who refused to have boiled rice for 14 years because when her son, who was arrested by the Pakistani army, asked for some boiled rice, she was asked not to feed him. It's got strains of the 1971 Bangladesh was of liberation. I also interested in Syed Manzoorul Islam's works since he writes a lot about art. Interestingly, the bookshop in Delhi where I source my books from, informed me that books of both these authors have been sold out. That just goes on to highlight the popularity of Bangladeshi authors with us Indians.
But most of them are in translations... I hate the fact that Indian literature depends on the English language to be represented on the global map. It's important to realize that regional literature has resonances in South Asia - Tamil literature finds resonance in Sri Lanka, Bangla literature finds resonance in Bangladesh and Urdu in Pakistan. It's easy to meet writers of the English trove as they're most easily and most well-represented. In that way, literary fests provide great opportunities for melting political borders.
What are your expectations out of the Maitree Bandhan Literary Festival? Bengal is probably the only state, except, of course, Kerala, that celebrates regional culture and literature unabashedly. There's so much passion about books, literature, good writing in Kolkata. I think this fest will only add more value to the cultural quotient of the state and the city. I wish I could read, speak and write Bengali. I've been struck by Michael Madhusudan Dutt's works.Incidentally, the versions I read had been translated into English by a Bangladeshi author.