Fakrul Alam

Dr Fakrul Alam is Professor of English at the University of Dhaka. His books include 'Rabindranath Tagore and National Identity Formation in Bangladesh: Essays and Reviews', 'The Essential Tagore' (co-edited with Radha Chakravarty); 'Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English', 'South Asian Writers in English', and 'Jibanananda Das: Selected Poems'. His translation of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Unfinished Memoirs was published in 2012. He has received the SAARC Literature Award 2012, the Bangla Academy Puroshkar (Literature Award) for Translation in 2013. In 2016, Bangla Academy published 'Ocean of Sorrow', his translation of the late 19th century Bengali epic narrative, 'Bishad Sindhu' by Mir Mosharraf Hussain.

An interview with Prof. Fakrul Alam, on the translation of Bishad Sindhu, an epic novel based on the tragedy of Karbala and its aftermath

Md Intaj Ali: What is the context of the novel Bishad Sindhu and why did you choose to translate this?

Fakrul Alam: Bishad Sindhu is an epic novel by Mir Mosharraf Hossain, a Bengali writer of the late 19th century. It is based on the tragedy that occurred in Karbala and its aftermath. However, it is narrated not on the basis of historical records but on the story of Hassan and Husayn as narrated in the folklores of Bengal. The tragic story of the grandsons of the Prophet is used basically as a frame for the story of the villain Yazid, who is driven to murder because of his desire for Zayneb, who marries Hasan and spurns Yazid’s desire for her. I decided to translate this text when Mr. Shamsuzzaman Khan, Director of the Bangla Academy, requested me to do so, and because he felt that it needed to be translated for a worldwide readership.


I.A.: The book is divided into three parts, can you briefly talk about it?

F.A.: Book I is titled as 'History of the Muharram' and narrates the events that led to the death of Hassan and Husayn because of the aggression and vindictiveness of Yazid, son of the ruler of Damascus. Book II, 'Rescue' details the consequences of the death of the brothers, the machinations of Yazid and his henchmen, as well as the plight of the survivors of the families of the two brothers. But this book also shows the movement launched by forces loyal to them to confront Yazid and destroy him. Book III, 'The Killing of Yazid' rounds off the epic events by focusing on the fate of the villain and the eventual political settlement of the conflict that he had engineered.


I.A.: What was your approach while translating Bishad Sindhu as Ocean of Sorrow?

F.A.: I have only one strategy of translation—to stick as closely to the original as possible, not only in terms of diction, but also in terms of a work’s stylistic, formal and generic elements.


I.A.: Your biggest challenge while translating a text like Bishad Sindhu?

F.A.: One is the sheer size of the book. In the Bangla Academy edition the book is well over 500 pages. That is hard work stretched over a period of time when I had a lot of other work as well! The other is the diction, for Mir Mosharraf Hossain who often used archaic Bengali words or literary ones that are no longer used widely. This meant that I needed a dictionary by my side all the time.


I.A.: Was there anything unique that you discovered while translating the text?

F.A.: The thing that I discovered as I translated the story was how good a writer Hossain is and how crafted and brilliant his writing can be. Also, I realized how deftly he had combined epic, tragic and realistic elements and worked to give his narrative a mythical dimension.


I.A.: How do you contextualise Jari Gaan in Bishad Sindhu?

F.A.: If you go to YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYEmGBFuWY4) and type Bishad Sindhu: An Ocean of Sorrow you will see an extract from a Jaari Gaan—a genre incorporating lamentation in rural Bangladesh—performed on the tragedy of Hasan and Husayn, based on Bishad Sindhu. In many parts of Bangladesh, and especially in the month of Muharram, such songs are performed based on episodes of the novel and this is part of its afterlife in my country.


I.A.: Bishad Sindhu, is a historical novel, what kind of liberty has Mir Mosharraf Hossain taken to blend reality with fiction?

F.A.: As I pointed out above, he takes a lot of liberties with history and follows extant folk narratives for his telling as well as epics like The Iliad to give his work a mythical dimension. Indeed, Hossain’s work could be called 'The Rape of Zayneb' in the sense that Homer’s story is called 'The Rape of Helen'!


I.A.: Would you agree that a work like Bishad Sindhu is a performative text? Did you consider it as a kind of ‘interpretative performance’ while translating it? If so, why?

F.A.: It is a performative text, as the many performances based on it everywhere in rural Bangladesh till now testify. And it is its drama-filled interpretation of a historical event that made it so ready for performance.


I.A.: Do you regard Bishad Shindhu as an epic?

F.A.: As I said in the previous response, it leans on epics—not only Homer’s Iliad but also the Bengali epic, Meghnad Badh Kavya by Michael Madhusudan Dutta. The story is of epic dimensions and many episodes are narrated in the epic style of narration. The abduction of Zayneb, wars, heroic deeds, supernatural beings and happenings etc. flavour it as epic.


I.A.: The Puthi (manuscript) tradition of Bengal is the primary source of inspiration for Mir Mosharraf Hossain to write this novel. Would you be able to talk a little bit more about the Puthi tradition of Bengal?

F.A.: Puthis are manuscripts from an earlier era that recounted legends and that were recited in rural surroundings for entertainment as well as edification. They dealt with stories that are moving and moral as well as culturally significant. Obviously, the story of Karbala had great appeal for Bengali Muslims and so there are a number of puthis about it that Hossain was able to draw on.


I.A.: How far is the text connected with living tradition of the Muharram festival?

F.A.: The text, as I point out in my Introduction, is recited regularly during the month of Muharram in many parts of Bangladesh, often to the accompaniment of music and dance, that is to say, in the Jari gaan mode. Once again, I would like to refer you to the video posted on YouTube if you want to see a sample of such a performance by a group that has earned quite a reputation for its performances based on the novel in rural Bangladesh.


I.A.: Previously, you have translated works of Jibanananda Das, Rabindranath Tagore and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. How was translating Bishad Sindhu unique?

F.A.: Well, they are all unique and so the experience of translation in each case is quite unique. But no doubt translating poetry and the memoir prepared me for the poetic and narrative elements of this work.


I.A.: Is there any politics behind the work not being translated earlier?

F.A.: Not really. It is a difficult book to translate and a lengthy one and I hope I am not being immodest when I say that not too many people in our country could have met the challenges of translating such a work. Perhaps post-partition amnesia has made the book fade from a lot of people’s memories in India. But so many of our classics—in both parts of Bengal—still await translation!


I.A.: Is there a place of Bishad Sindhu in World Literature?

F.A.: Sadly, nowhere. Without translation, how could the work have any kind of impact on any other people living in any other part of the world? Even now, and after the Bangla Academy edition came out in November 2016, I feel that unless I can attract an internationally renowned publisher that has a 'Classics' series like Penguin and OUP, this book will not get the readership it so richly deserves.




Md Intaj Ali is a PhD research scholar at the Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Hyderabad.