Gained in Translation: Me, according to myself

When I was young and starting out as a writer, I lived off the earnings from my writing for several years. I never tried to get a job because I thought it would interfere with my writing.

New Delhi | Published: January 7, 2018 1:25 am
(Illustration by Subrata Dhar)

When I won this year’s Sahitya Akademi award, I thought there must have been some mistake, that it was impossible. I am a solitary creature and I exist outside the business of a metropolis like Kolkata — in a small town. My life is extremely ordinary, like any other man who works for a living. My father worked at the docks, so I do not belong to a distinguished family either. When I was young and starting out as a writer, I lived off the earnings from my writing for several years. I never tried to get a job because I thought it would interfere with my writing. I also had a Masters’ degree at the time. I thought I would not start a family; but fate laughs at these plans and I suddenly found myself married. The man who was entirely dedicated to literature was then forced to join as a non-permanent worker in a government-aided autonomous organisation.

My hard-fought attachment to the world of letters got somewhat loosened during this time. Then I remembered my own stories, the earthy folktales and legends that I had heard all my life and those helped me find a new form for my series of narratives that were published in six novels as the ‘Qissa’ series. I was thankful to my readers then and I am thankful to them now. As soon as I heard about my award, I told the media that I wanted to dedicate it to my readers.

I was born and brought up in a Muslim society and I’ve had a lot of things to say about that. In my novels and short stories, I have tried especially to get into the minds of my women characters. Many people call me a feminist writer for this reason. People outside my immediate society have also found shelter in my stories. I do not think of myself as a writer for a specific community and I belong, in fact, to the mainstream itself. In my writing there are characters from different communities, not just my own. I like to think of myself as a global citizen. I think of myself only as another human being; and these ordinary characters are the ones I like to inhabit indiscriminately while I am writing.

The novel that I am being awarded for, The Missing Person, is written in a satirical vein. My other novels contain the atmosphere of fairy tales and folk narratives, and they bear the desires of ordinary people to live in harmony. In these other works, I have also tried to bring in some of these formal innovations with genre as I’ve mentioned before.
In this novel, a lot of folk narratives and songs have been mixed together and presented as a tale. It tackles the theme of separation among lovers, and the disruption in the lives of a community after a missing person re-appears; the story is narrated in the fashion of a folktale like (Tagore’s) The Golden Stick. This event touches the lives of people in about eight or ten villages and begins a process of rebirth. These people bear no ill-will or malice either. The villages seem to become like Ahalya, waiting for that fateful touch. This archetype was built into the structure of the novel.

I have been writing since I was very young. My search for these folktales and legends began at an early age because the first source was my mother who told me these stories and made them part of my memories of growing up. Those stories were rooted and traditional. I have tried to recreate the mood that was contained in those narratives. I don’t know if I have succeeded in doing that. I want to take this opportunity to pay my respects to my readers again, my contemporaries and senior writers. I want to thank the Sahitya Akademi especially. Thank you.

Afsar Ahmed is a Bengali writer who focuses on issues related to social justice, communal harmony and economic inequality. His latest novel Sei Nikhonj Manushta earned him the Sahitya Akademi award for 2017. Translated from Bengali by Ankan Kazi

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