Black Ice, by Mahmudul Haque, Translated by Mahmud Rahman, Harper Perennial, Rs 199, pp. 123+ PS section.
‘Everything becomes a story one day.’ So begins the PS section of this Bangladeshi contemporary classic. Its writer, Mahmudul Haque, is credited with fashioning a new idiom and a distinctly modern sensibility in the post-1947 writing coming out from what was once East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. Haque (1941-2008) belonged to the ‘twice-born generation’, those, that is, who experienced the trauma of birthing a new nation not once but twice over. Moving from Barasat on the outskirts of Calcutta to Dhaka as a small boy, he was assailed by not only new sights and sounds, but an altogether new sensibility. Being slapped by a school teacher for failing to wear the Jinnah cap, he struggled to find meaning in an irrevocably changed world. Later, during the siege and fall of Dhaka in March 1971, he witnessed the looting, killing and destruction that preceded the birth of a new nation that was expected to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the old. Each event, each new phase in his life and his country’s, each new milestone spurred him to write. Everything became a story one day.
Black Ice, first published as Kalo Borof in 1977, is quite evidently the work of a child of the partition. It carries the scars of leaving behind people and places once so dear and familiar but now accessible only in dreams. The relentless nostalgia of its protagonist, Abdul Khaleq, brings to mind another young man, Zakir, who too had to leave his home in India in search of a new one across the border in Intizar Husain’s seminal work, Basti (written in 1979 but set in 1971 when the war clouds loomed large over the sub-continent). But Mahmudul Haque is not Intizar Husain and Black Ice is not Basti. Despite the detachment of the protagonists, the tone of quiet aloofness of the narrator, the dream-like motifs, the ceaseless journeying into the past, the invoking of an innocent childhood free from bias and fear and the sullying of that innocence, Basti and Black Ice are as unalike as apples and oranges. Black Ice has none of the allegorical richness that leavens Intezar Hussains narrative, nor the directness but haunting simplicity of Husain’s elegant prose. Possibly, there is something about Husain’s prose itself that remains intact and unharmed by translation. Not having read Haque in Bangla, I cannot tell, but I am struck by the comparison and the fact that it is an unfavourable one.
Vanished days never come back and time past is passed forever. While Khaleq, and perhaps Mahmudul Haque himself might acknowledge this, everywhere in Black Ice, the past hangs heavy, threatening to overwhelm the present. Why is this so? The answer is provided partly by Mahmudul Haque himself in an interview with the young Bangladeshi writer, Ahmad Mostofa Kamal, appended at the end of the novel in the PS section. The writer’s mother, he confesses, had not wanted to leave her home outside Calcutta to come to Pakistan; she had, in fact, even begun to build a new house in West Bengal. Her (two previous) visits to Dhaka had led her to conclude that only barbarians lived there, for she had seen no women moving about in public and, in her opinion, a place where women were not allowed to move freely could only be inhabited by barbarians. Yet, the communal tensions grew to such an extent and it became difficult to even step out of her home that she was forced to move to the new Muslim homeland with her children, leaving a part of their being behind. Decades later, while ostensibly claiming that there can be no love for ‘a birthplace that forces its children to leave’, Haque breaks down and his voice ‘cracks with anguish’. The hurt, evidently, is too deep. In Intezar Hussain, there is no hurt; just a bewilderment that something as grotesque as the partition happened. Round and round, like a kite with a cut string, Husain’s story drifts and soars, backwards and forwards, flitting between then and now but with no trace of bitterness.
Khaleq, a teacher in a mofussil town, finds time hanging heavy on his hands as he copes with the ennui of living in the backwaters and coping with the harangues of a demanding wife. He sits down to write about his life, especially his childhood. He remembers Puti, the girl who spoke to fish and birds, his friends Jhumi and Pachu, the vendors who came by selling shonpapri and dalpapri, the Hindu neighbor who bought him roshmonjori and pantua, his elder brother Moni Bhaijaan who loved Chhobi Di and had left, taking with him her ribbon as a keepsake, promising to return but never did. Khaleq remembers, also, leaving his home in West Bengal, taking a ferry, setting off on a hijrat to a new land when life became impossibly fraught in the old one.
Years later, travelling with his wife deep into the countryside, he revisits Louhojong, the spot where he had boarded the ferry and is reminded yet again of that fateful night of migration:
Everything becomes a story one day. Louhojong, Louhojong! For the first time in his life, that cry had pierced his ears in the deep of the night. Beside him stood Moni Bhaijaan, in his pocket a ribbon, on the ribbon the fragrance of hair, in the fragrance such sorrow, in the sorrow so much love, in the love so much of their childhood.
In the PS section, Haque recalls how Bikrampur, beside the Buriganga, fascinated him. When the monsoons flooded the low-lying plains and the river became a vast expanse of glimmering water, he would take long boat trips down the river, exploring nooks and corners of the lush countryside. His friendship with boatmen, sharing their simple but delicious meals, meeting people who travelled from one house to another by boat, as well as the lush green forested hamlets beside the river soon became a recurring motif in his novels. In Black Ice, the area around Ichapura appears as a fantasy world, an escape from the rigours of a humdrum meaningless life. The doctor with whom he took some of these boat trips, appears as Doctor Narhari, the conscientious, hard-working country doctor, an idealized yet human figure.
Khaleq is able to find intellectual companionship in his adult life;the emotional connection with people and places, however, seems to be missing. The generosity and wisdom, the freedom and innocence, the pluralism and syncretism of his childhood was destroyed, forever, by the partition. What came in its place – aloofness and rootlessness – is the only legacy for these midnight’s children. Boat rides on the river allow an occasional escape but not a return; there is no going back, at least not for ever. The only certainty, Black Ice seems to be suggesting, is hopelessness and alienation.