Versatile, detailed, descriptive and melodramatic

Rabeya Khatun, one of the leading female authors in Bangladesh turned 72 on December 27, 2007. Tapan Shahed revisits three of her famous novels to explore to range of her settings and powers of her description

Rabeya Khatun was born in 1935 at Bikrampur. Because her father was a civil servant, she constantly moved from town to town of the then undivided Bengal. She is versatile in her range of literary forms having written novels, short stories, plays, travelogues and memoirs. But her main identity as a writer is that of a novelist. Some of her major novels are Modhumoti, Ferari Shurjo and Ononto Onnesha. Some of her short stories are Muktijoddhar Shtri and Lal Chithi. Some travelogues include Hey Bideshi Bhor, Thames Theke Niagara, Kumari Matir Deshe, Himalaya theke Arab Shagore. She has also written some fine memoirs such as Ekattorer noy mash’ and ‘Shwapner Shohor Dhaka’.

Modhumoti (1963)

Modhumoti is Rabeya’s first published novel. The plot revolves around the changing life of the weavers dwelling in the Basin of Modhumoti River flowing through the Bikrampur region. Minara, the central character of the novel, is a soon-to-be graduate from a college in Dhaka and lives in a hostel at Nilkhet. She has lost her parents and has no siblings. At the beginning of the story, she is taken to a village named Karigarpara by the river Madhumati which is her maternal grandfather’s home. This home is the setting of the story.

Minara’s great grandfather was a simple weaver of muslin. But her grandfather abandoned his father’s profession and took up ‘kabiraji’. In time, the family gained prominence amongst other families in the village as the sons of the family migrated to the cities such as Karachi and Murshidabad, taking up prestigious professions. Yet, they were not respected as one of the elites of the village as they did not come from an aristocratic background. Thus, the family tried its best to marry off their daughters to aristocratic families to elevate their status. This created quite a bit of conflict within the family and the plot beautifully upholds such struggles.

Parallel to this storyline, the writer also weaves an interesting love story between Minara and her distant relative Anwar. Anwar, is a rebel and is greatly disliked by Minara’s family for his outlandish ideas. Anwar did not follow in the footsteps of other family members and defied them by taking up weaving. He promoted the craftsmanship of muslin and tried to do everything possible to keep the tradition going. Minara initially disliked Anwar as his family did not approve of him. But soon, she was mesmerised by his philosophy, and they fell in love. The novel ends on an optimistic note with a intonation towards self-respect and even to nationalism, in the context of the sixty’s political and cultural struggles of the country.

The most admirable power of Rabeya Khatun as a fiction-writer is the versatility of her characterisation. She observes and brings to life very many poeple. In her first novel Madhumoti, we get a detailed and believable description of the geography concerned.

The content of the novel is drawn from the personal experience of the writer. In that sense it is somewhat autobiographical. She describes the nature, the landscape, the life lived by people; quotes their rhymes and songs and even lets us know the name of various kinds of boats and other means of transportation used in a village which is on the bank of a river.

Ononto Onnesha (1967)

The story of this novel is set mainly in West Pakistan. In this fictional work the writer tries to capture the nature of human relations at that point in time.

The plot revolves around the love story between Wahid Murshed and Nargis. Wahid is a Bengali air steward of Pakistan International Airlines posted in Karachi. Nargis is also Bengali widower of a West Pakistani colonel and mother of a nine year old son who lives in Rawalpindi. Wahid also has family in Dhaka- a mother, widowed sister-in-law Jamila, and nephew Tutul. The two meet on the Mari highway as Wahid is waiting for a ride home after his scooter broke down while Nargis was returning home after dropping her son off at school. Gradually, the two become close and fall in love. But soon, their relationship is in danger because of Wahid’s mother.

Jamila who had lost her husband at a young age starts being pressurised by her family members to remarry. At this point in time, Wahid’s mother decides it would be best if she marries Wahid so that she can still be close to her grandchild. This creates a complexity which breaks up Wahid’s relationship with Nargis. Nargis is forced to marry someone else and Wahid loses his sanity. In the end though, they are united as Nargis, breaking all norms of society, returns to Wahid in Dhaka with her son.

From the amount of detail the story contained, it can be deduced that the writer meticulously researched her stories. The writer was able to build the life of an air steward with an immense amount of technical details. It is the sheer abundance of details which makes her stories so lifelike.

Neel Nishith

This novel is set on a background of the liberation war of Bangladesh and interestingly the narration is in first person. Nishith is the main protagonist of the story and Nilufar alias Neel is the main female character. Nishith narrates the story for us. The story illustrates the overwhelming destruction caused by the war that had affected everything in our country? from politics to human relationships.

During the war, the Pakistani army killed Nishith’s maternal aunt’s husband and raped his aunt. His maternal grandfather, grandmother, uncle were also killed. With the rest of his family Nishith fled to the countryside. Tahiti, Nishith’s cousin and her tortured mother were with them. Tahiti and Nishith fall in love.

In 1972, when Nishith and Tahiti were about to get married, they were rocked by the news that Nisith’s father had married Tahiti’s mother and they were brothers and sisters. In despair, Nisith returns to Dhaka and gets involved with a gang of organised criminals. The gang members were once freedom fighters but now they had taken up crime as they were frustrated with the improper leadership of the government. Nishith later leaves the gang and joins the engineering department in Dhaka University. But soon, he gets involved in its politics and a world of narcotics, gambling and womanising.

One day during a hijacking heist, Nishith meets Neel as she was conducting a survey. He is a bit awestruck by her presence and soon they fell in love again. Nishith inspired by Neel’s love leaves the world of crime behind to build a new world for him and his true love.

The strong descriptive power of the writer comes through in Neel Nishith. The writer is quite successfully able to narrate an entire story using a male character, even being a female writer. The writer, as a modern one, does not bother using slang where appropriate and thus can catch the inside of a male character. She is also naturally capable of revealing the psyche of the female characters. Unlike most of our female writers Rabeya Khatun does not see the world only from a female view of the world.

Even with all those features, Rabeya Khatun’s fiction is somewhat melodramatic. In the novel ‘Ononto Onnesha’ the union of the hero and the heroine is unnecessary and somewhat unrealistic and it may have harmed the novel’s aesthetic value. In all the three novels we read here, this tendency is seen in different degrees. Still, with her huge and ongoing literary activity, Rabeya Khatun is one of the notable female writers of Bangladesh.

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