Akhtaruzzaman Elias (1943-1997) wrote only two novels – Chilekothar Sepai (The Soldier in an Attic, 1986) and Khoabnama (Dream Epic, 1996) but he has created a permanent place in the history of Bangla novels. In the context of the novels of Bangladesh, he is possibly the second person highest acclaimed after Syed Waliullah (1922-1971) both of whom wrote the least (Waliullah wrote only there novels) and with their small numbers could win the majority readership of Bangla language with their creativity and their novelty.
Akhtaruzzaman Elias started his literary career with the volume of short stories Anya Ghore Anya Swar in 1976, though before it his Chilekothar Sepai began to be published serially in a national daily. By then he came in limelight as a serious and committed fiction writer. In 1982 his another volume of short stories Khoanri was published. His literary creation got an official acclamation when in the year 1983 he was honoured with the Bangla Academy Literary Award. After two years his third volume of short stories Dudh Bhate Utpat came into light in 1985. The year 1987 accorded Elias with the Alawol Literary Award. In 1989 his fourth volume of short stories Dhojokher Om was brought out. During the last months of 1995 he felt very sick which resulted the detection of cancer in the right leg. On March 20, 1996, he had to undergo an operation on his leg, which was later on cut off from his body. The authority of Ananda Award of Kolkata felt honoured to award Elias for his great novel Khoabnama in April of the same year. On January 04, 1997 Elias died. Jaal Swapno, Swapner Jaal, a collection of stories and Sanskritir Bhanga Setu, a collection of essays were published posthumously in the same year of his death.
It is worthy to mention that Chilekothar Sepai evolves from the time before the liberation – when the upsurge of the mass movement raged through the whole Bangali nation. Some ten years after the publication of Chilekothar Sepai, Khoabnama came out where the context of the time of the novel is set before the pre-partition period of the sub-continent. The center of Chilekothar Sepai is Dhaka, the then provincial capital, while Khoabnama takes its root near the places of Pabna-Poradaha, which is very near to Elias’ native district Bogra. It is known that before his death, he was wandering over a plot for another novel, that, he planned, would take the ancient Bogra i.e. Pundranagar as its set and the thousand-year-old history of Bogra as its theme. Elias could not be able to make his dream a reality, but we can realize his power to portray the reality in dream for which Khoabnama is an outstanding example.
Khoabnama is a novel about real history – history of the time of ‘Tebhaga’ that tormented and elevated the revolutionary Bangali nation during the second half of the forties of the twentieth century. But before its climax, the division of Pakistan and India, which was later on unanimously acknowledged as a result of political selfishness, shattered the long-felt dream of the mass people. The question of Pakistan-India division created a deep-rooted rift in the relationship of the Hindu-Muslim communal harmony. Like the other states of undivided India, Bangla also experienced a harsh time of communal riot – that commenced first in Kolkata and afterwards spread throughout all the parts of Bangla. Huge bloodshed and migration were the usual consequences of the whole incident. Akhtaruzzaman Elias has delineated this infamous time with his mighty pen. Through the story of different families and communities of the locality he has manipulated his ideals.
But it may be easily imagined that Elias does not narrate the story – though the existence of any story in Khoabnama is not beyond question. The novel opens with Tamijer Bap (Father of Tamij – his real name is never exposed) and in the very first paragraph the myths related to Tomijer Bap and Munshi Boytullah Shah and the nearly locality come forth. Tamijer Bap lives a mysterious life and socially he is believed to be a mysterious man also. When the story says that Hundreds of years before Boytullah Shah fought with British soldiers on his way to Mahasthan, the intermingle of history with the myth is created. In the inter-weaving of history and myth, the presence of reality is also felt. We get the description of the villages, their people and geography, their modes of life also. Throughout the whole novel this blending of myth, history and reality takes the upper hand.
In the novel Tamij may be considered as a significant character who shares most of the incidents of Khoabnama indirectly or directly, familially or socially. We have talked about the mythical inheritance of Tamij’s father earlier, but Tamij’s step mother Kulsum, at the same age of Tamij, does also inherit some uncommon heritage. Kulsum’s grand father Cherag Ali was believed to have some mysterious power. Cherag Ali’s main treasure was the traditional Puthi ‘Khoabnama’ that could tell the meaning of dreams. Cherag Ali passed away long before, and resultantly ‘Khoabnama’ is now in possession of Kulsum. Thus Tamij is the member of such a family tradition in which the other two members are never cent percent normal. With such an unreal and dream-like time the story opens when due to the Second World War prices of all commodities are going up rapidly and the effects of it are touching even the agrarian village life. Famine and massacre of hundreds of thousands of people are the two common results of that War. Before settling down in a peaceful situation the Tebhaga movement starts. Tamij and many of his fellow men are inspired by this movement but the unfortunate incidents like Hindu-Muslims riot and Separation of India cause meteoric change in their belief and deeds. And thus true dreams of the common people of this sail again get shattered. Thus Akhtaruzzaman Elias presents the shattering of dreams through his dream-like delineation.
The role of Hindu-Muslim riot deserves immense significant in the novel. The riot first started in August 1946 in Kolkata. The huge killing of Muslim people there by the Hindu miscreants enkindle similar heinous incidents on the Hindus by the Muslim people. Even the remote villages can not be saved from this flare. The Hindu-Muslim communal harmony for hundreds of years faces a irreparable havoc. Before Khoabnama Bangla novel had a very small number of instances in which the representation of Hindu-Muslim riot and the interpretation could satisfy the readership. Probably no Bangla novel has been written that can be a counterpart to Krishan Chandar’s Gaddar or Kushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan. Even Riot by Shahi Tharoor is also a worthwhile example in terms of communal disharmony. But the sorry saga is though hundreds of thousands of innocent people were killed in this part of Bangla only on religious dogmatism. Only a few writers came forth to write novels on this issue. Significant Bangla-language novels on riot are probably Manik Bandopadhyay’s (1908-1956) Swadhinatar Swad (1951) and Narayan Sanyal’s (1918-1970) Lalmati (1951), Abujafar Shamsuddin’s (1911-1989) Padma Meghna Jamuna (1974). Shaukat Osman’s (1917-1998) Janani (1958), Ashim Roy’s (1927-1978) Ekaler Kotha (1953) or Shahidulla Kaisar’s (1927-1971) Sangsaptak (1965) give only a flick of the whole incident.
While the movement and motivation for an independent nation like Pakistan is becoming widespread, the Anandabazar Patrika creates a great hue and cry in Mukunda Saha’s shop . The mischievous news tells that the Muslims are killing the Hindus in Kolkata. If also says that Suhrawardy himself has come out of his house with a pistol to kill the Hindus. But when Baikuntha, an employee at Mukunda Saha’s shop who was also a close one to Kader, the pro-Pakistan local leader, visits Kader’s shop hears the news of the death of Kader’s elder brother Aziz’s brother-in-law Ahsan Ali by the Hindus in Kolkata. Thus the incident of Kolkata spreads with manifold interpretation across the villages also. Meanwhile the agitated mob of Majhi Para (fishing community) try to attack the Kachhari (local office) of the Zamindar. Elias does not hesitate to explore the inner causes of such incidents. Leaders of the uprising middle class people instigate and lead the common folk. The common people get no return from these incidents but the provokers are benefited hugely. In such an occurrence Dasharath of Kamarpara succumbs death. After some days when Afsar Majhi, who set the house of Dasharath on fire, goes to Kamarpara secretly, he is attacked by them and killed inhumanly.
Refuge-problem is another consequence of the partition of India. Khoabnama also treats the sufferings and agonies of the refuges much meticulously. Abdul Aziz buys the house of Kartik Bhaduri in the town. The inscriptions of ‘Om’ or ‘Sree Sankaralaya’ on the house door declare its recent history very clearly but silently. In an event Niren Lahiri, among many of Babar’s (Aziz’s son) school teachers, was present. On the spur of the moment, we can know that Niren is a nephew of Kartik Bhaduri. When Niren sighs for his Pishima (paternal aunt), suddenly a loud cry is heard outside ‘the house of the Bose’s is being looted’, and at the same time we can hear the lamentations of Aziz’s mad wife, who has lost her normalcy after hearing her brother’s killing in Kolkata.
We must admit that Khoabnama is not a novel of Tebhaga movement, rather it has only the shade of that momentous event that occurred around the year 1946 and ended in 1950. We observe in the novel the appearance of the communist leaders of that movement in the village and bazaar areas of our novel as they appear again during the Hindu-Muslim riot. We know that Tamij i.e. the protagonist of the novel as well as his fellow mates had dreamt of Tebhaga but as is usual none of their dreams meet any success. In the last part of the book when Tamij is an absconder he leaves the company of the family of Abdul Aziz. Without any prior information he takes a train bound for Santahar from where he gets the train for Hilly or Jaydebpur or Takurgaon and thus the story of Tamij ends in dreams – the dreams of a family where he is an human being, more over where he is a husband of Fuljan, a father of his daughter. But we cannot but mention here that the bright hopes that we observe are only in Tamij’s dream, in the outward world there were only oppression by the police of the newly liberated country Pakistan. The same treatment of the police may be observed in the interior villages also where Tahsen and his cops are only the instruments of Kalam Majhi in trespassing Kulsum’s house, in acquiring other people’s possessions.
The uprising of the Muslim society is also an striking aspect of Khoabnama. Kader, or his brother Abdul Aziz or their father Sharafat Mandal is the representation of that sect of the society. On the other hand Kalam Majhi and his police officer-son Tahsen are also the pioneers of this change. But the characteristic feature of both the groups is they do show the same aggressive attitude towards the property left by the Hindus as well as the property possessed by the insolvent village people. The conflict is not only between Hindus and Muslims but also the haves and the have-nots. Due to these conflicts the nearby town is soon crowded with Muslim migrants flooding from India. They lost everything they had. The case of Tamij, though a Muslim and a settler of this region, is no better than those Muslim Mohazers. He also loses everything – his father loses his good fame as a religious person, and at last in dire hopelessness he dies, his stepmother Kulsum loses her security and homestead and later on losing her chastity she is killed. Tamij himself loses his right to live in his community. To grasp Tamij’s homestead and stepmother, Kalam Majhi traps different plots and last of all sues a case against Tamij which compels him to leave his home and even the village.
Regarding the techniques adapted in Khoabnama the term ‘magic realism’ is very often quoted. It is well known that this Latin American technique is a popular trend in the literatures of Europe and America. In Bangladesh, it has also been hailed as an unprecedented means. The main characteristic features that are related with magic realism are ‘mingling and juxtaposition of the realistic and the fantastic’, ‘skilful time shifts’, ‘labyrinthine narratives and plots’ and ‘miscellaneous use of dreams, myths and fairy stories’. ‘Expressionistic and surrealistic description’ is also considered as an inseparable element of this trend. If we look into the last two novels of Syed Waliullah we will feel the expressionistic and surrealistic description. Both in Chander Amabashya (1964) and Kando Nodi Kando (1968) Syed Waliullah has used this device and in the later one ‘skillful time shifting’ may also be observed. Later on in the eighties of the last century the Bangladeshi novelist who emerged with a tremendous authority over this narratology is Shahidul Zahir (b 1953). Shahidul Zahir’s Jibon O Rajnoitik Bastobota (1987) was his first but successful effort. His second and till now last novel She Rate Purnima Chhilo (1995) is also a worthwhile instance. Another novelist Nasreen Jahan (b 1964) is also a significant one in the trend. In her second novel Chandrer Prothom Kola (1994) she began to manipulate it but her third novel Chandralekhar Jaadubistar (1995) made her a significant writer in this arena. Akhtaruzzaman Elias, much senior to Shahidul Zahir and Nasreen Jahan, exercised magic realism is Khoabnama abundantly. Earlier we have talked about myths and history. Now we will try to locate the dream-elements in the novel and see how skillfully Elias has exercised them in Khoabnama.
From the very beginning of the novel, we observe the use of dreams in Khoabnama hugely and abruptly. Among all the characters Kulsum dreams most of the dreams. The first appearance of Kulsum is also in a dream. Dreams are very common in her nature. Her affinity to dreams is made usual by her possession of the mysterious book ‘Khoabnama’ that she inherited from her grandfather. Sometimes fairy elements are also intermingled with them. Stories about Kathlahar Bil, and the concerned people are no less indispensable than fairy elements. As they are fairy and dreamlike, the writer has integrated the impossible and the possible through them.
The most impossible incident in the novel is Tamij’s physical relation with Kulsum and that has happened right after the death of Tamij’s father. Their subdued passion got some tongue inwardly very often in previous time but after the death of Tamij’s father and after Tamij’s release from the jail, their subdued passion is gratified in a dream. There are other people also who possesses affinity towards Kulsum. Keramat Ali, the husband of Fuljan but who does not live with the family now and roams through the villages and composes and sings songs has a very deep-rooted liking for Kulsum. The origin of his desire is caused from the long heritage of Kulsum. Moreover the book of Cherag Ali is an attraction for him. Because he believes that book is the source of inspiration of all his songs. He thinks if he misses the blessing of Cherag Ali, he will lose his power to compose songs. The other person who relishes a carnival desire for Kulsum is Kalam Majhi. Kalam Majhi appears before her as a saviour but her real attitude is not unexposed to Kulsum to the end, though not to other people till the end.
The cruelest incident in which Kulsum was killed was also a dream, which occurred near the end of the novel. Kamal Majhi enters the house of Kulsum at noon, as at night he fails to come close to her because she stays at Kalam Majhi’s house at night where Kalam’s nephew Budha’s wife always remains near Kulsum’s bed. The pseudo-well-wisher Kalam has done this arrangement for Kulsum because how could Kulsum stay in her own house alone as her husband is dead and her son Tamij is an absconder. So Kalam enters her house at noon. He tries to rape Kulsum there and at last in a very mysterious series of incidents Kulsum is killed. At first Kalam sees Keramat Ali at the door and mistakenly recognises him as Tamij. When Kalam enters her house Kulsum is talking in her dream and thus the horrendous spectacle is displayed. Seeing Kalam Majhi at Kulsum’s house, Keramat retreats but he does not disappear forever. He feels some danger befalling on Kulsum and his appearance gets strengthened when Kulsum in her dream addresses Tamijer Bap and tells ‘What are you seeing? Don’t you see what Kalam Majhi is doing with me?’ – which is presented before Keramat as an appeal to himself. And thus the rape-scene takes a different robe – the boti (a domestic fish and vegetables cutter) comes up to Keramat’s hand which hits Kalam Majhi. But Kalam by then springs up from Kulsum’s reclining body. Though the boti hitting on the elbow of Kalam hits Kulsum’s breast and she succumbs death.
Breastless Kulsum denotes some more significance in the novel – the loss of beauty as well as the loss of completeness. Such an another incomplete one-breasted woman we meet in the refuge camp. The woman was raped and later on the Hindus in Bihar cut off one of her breasts. At the time of seeing her, Keramat visualizes one breasted Kulsum, which comes into truth at the end of the novel. The loss of one breast by two women both Muslim – one by the Hindus one by the Muslims – adds a special meaning to the whole plot of the novel – the best of which denotes the separation of India and Pakistan for which Bangla was divided and was made incomplete – that incompleteness is yet to be completed, history says.
When Khoabnama meets the end, Tamij does not meet Fuljan and Sakhina – his daughter from Fuljan. We meet him earlier where in his absconding life Tamij makes his tour to the northern zone where Tebhaga reached its climax. At the end of the novel Sakhina is seen with Fuljan at Kathlahar Bil where Sakhina remakes her connection with her forefathers where remains the long hereditary connection only, nothing else.