Ayesha was, and wasn’t, a real person: Anisul Hoque

Nusrat Nowrin | Update:

Cover of The ‘Ballad of Ayesha’. Photo: Collected"Dhaka. 2 October 1977. A military coup is thwarted, but the exact sequence of events is shrouded in mystery. Soon after, Ayesha Begum, recovering from the birth of her second child, receives a letter from the air force stating that her husband Joynal Abedin has been sentenced to death, convicted of insurgency. But has the verdict been carried out? If it was, when and where was he executed? If he was indeed hanged, what has happened to his body? Trying to find answers to these questions, Ayesha embarks on a long and arduous quest to search for her husband, reminiscent of Behula's epic journey in her effort to resurrect her dead husband Lakhindar in the Bengali folktale Manasamangal. Set against the backdrop of a raging famine, political assassinations and coups that took Bangladesh by storm right after its independence in 1971, Anisul Hoque's The Ballad of Ayesha is as much a story of the newly created nation as it is the story of its people," reads the Amazon.com blurb of The Ballad of Ayesha by Anisul Hoque.

Renowned Bangladeshi author Anisul Hoque's much read novel, 'Ayeshamangal' has been translated in English by Inam Ahmed. The book is being published by one of the world’s leading publishing companies, HarperCollins. Amazon.com is launching the e-book worldwide on 25 May.

Several earlier books of the author have been translated. His famous novel ‘Maa’ (mother) has 79 editions so far and has been translated in English, Spanish and Oriya too.

In an interview with Prothom Alo, Anisul Hoque talks about his experience of creating ‘Ayesha’. The interview has been taken by Nusrat Nowrin. The full text of the interview is given below:

Prothom Alo: Tell us about the title of ‘Ayeshamangal’. We know ‘mangal’ refers to a literary tradition…

Anisul Hoque: It refers to the literary tradition of Mangal Kavya. And the word implies connotation of auspicious message (mangal barta). The words ‘mangal’ and Ayesha resonated well, so I chose them. Also, Ayesha was one of my favourite characters from Bankim Chadra Chattopadhyay novels.

A portrait of Anisul Hoque by Asim RoyProthom Alo: How did you feel while writing the original in Bangla years ago?

Anisul Hoque: Let's talk about the start of writing. When an idea comes into my mind, it simply carries me away. I feel very excited when I start working on it. All the new characters, their times, the setting--it's a huge excitement. It's like the illusionary golden deer you are running after or ‘ar koto dure niye jabe he sundori’ (how much further will you take me, beautiful one). It seems she allures me to the heart of a deep forest. I feel like I’m working on something extraordinary and it's going to be a great work of art, my best work, even the best in the whole world. It is in such a mood that I go ahead and complete the work with utmost exhilaration. That is how the work is completed. At this point, I feel a huge weariness and an acute sadness descends upon me. It seems like a failure to me, like I have just ruined another good story--as if a good possibility has just been killed. Then after a very long period, say after 10 or 12 years, when I come across the piece again, I am stunned-“Oh, my God! Is this my writing? Did I write so well!” because by this time I had forgotten what I wrote. So, after spending 20 years with the sad feeling of writing poorly, I discover that I was wrong all along! I had actually written well! I underwent the same experience with ‘Ayeshamangal’ too. After finishing Ayesha, I started writing ‘Maa’. So I got over with Ayesha and was caught up in the fresh excitement of a new book.


Later, Inam started to translate ‘Ayeshamangal’. After he completed it, I read his translation. I felt, oh, this was even better! I felt, I had to read the original too. So, I started to read the Bangla ‘Ayeshamangal’ and discovered, I didn’t write all that bad!

Inam is a very good writer. We are very close. And share a lot of camaraderie. My friends, editors, publishers and I believe he is one of the finest English writers from here. He treats any subject so masterfully. Whether it’s on human rights or even a front-page report on gas or oil, he writes masterfully. He handles humanitarian stories with equal care. I can remember one of his pieces on a man who was killed in a London subway attack. His recorded voice could be heard over the phone in answer to any call. Inam wrote a piece on this man's mother who called the number to listen to the voice. This is Inam. When he finished the translation, I joined him for editing it. And once again I felt, yes, Inam actually writes very well. Inam himself had concerns about the cultural constraints or limitations that made the work hard. For example, in Bangladesh if someone says, Saleha doesn’t eat Quddus’ rice anymore, it would imply that they are divorced, but it doesn’t make any sense in a different language. Or say, if it is said, “Don’t wipe the vermilion off my forehead,” it implies, “don’t kill my husband,” but it's hard for a westerner to understand. So, Inam was concerned over these nuances. In the novel there are elements of history, Bangabandhu, or the coup of Ziaur Rahman, the referendum, etc. How could anyone without knowledge of our history understand the story? I assured Inam, when we read Spanish literature in Bangla or read Marquez or other Latin American literature in our language, does it create a problem? We have even memorised from such literature, but, actually how much of it do we understand? I can remember, as a child I read about a sandwich in my textbook. I asked my teacher and parents, but none of them could explain it to me, as they didn't know what it was. We had grown up with these difficulties. So, I think the same applies to foreign readers too. If there is any universality in the work, and if that universality attracts a reader, then it matters. They might not get all the tiny details, but even after that, what remains is literature.

Prothom Alo: A good reader might look for the details too, just as we do while reading literature of other languages. You said, 'what remains is literature'. Doesn't it apply to poetry too?

Anisul Hoque : It's not true about poetry always. Sound plays a crucial role in poetry. The rhythm and resonance is important there. It's not the same with the poems that prominently feature images. Images don't lose much in translation.

Prothom Alo: How essential is it for creative works to have that excitement of doing the 'best work of the world'?

Anisul Hoque: Actually, after starting many of my works, I felt it wasn't such a great thing. And I didn't proceed. If the feeling is not there, it won't become anything. It happens with any creative work. A painter starts a work and later doesn't feel like completing it. Why? Because, he understands that it was not being quite attuned. Because, the essential attraction from which it sprouted, later gets lost midway. I started many stories, but didn't finish. If at some point the author surpasses the attraction, he might not go on. When I write, I literally close the doors and windows of my room, shut down Facebook, switch off my phone and disconnect from the rest of the world. My wife says I become autistic then because I don't respond to her during these times. I can't listen to words actually during my work. If I could not concentrate this way, it would be impossible.

Prothom Alo: It must be hard work for a creative person, you must have to make sacrifices…

Anisul Hoque: I would not like to see it this way. I think our sacrifices are rather easy ones. If it’s seen as a sacrifice, that would be overestimating the writers. But, I haven't really reached any conclusion about this. Think about a farmer who works in his field, the love he has for each of the seeds he plants in the soil, what about that? So our sacrifices are easy ones, living in the comfort of our homes, in our comfortable ways. Perhaps I've not attended many family invitations, gatherings, but that’s hardly a sacrifice. There are many who work harder than us. But, that's not recognised.

Prothom Alo: Very true. So, when is 'The Ballad of Ayesha' being launched?

Anisul Hoque: On 25 May. It will be available on Kindle from the 25th. It is already with Amazon India and in every European country. Amazon will come up with the print copy on 31 May. In Bangladesh, Prothoma, Batighor and Rokomari have already booked copies. Gradually Bengal Boi, Pathak Shamabesh and Bookworm will bring them too.

Anisul Hoque signing autographs at the Ekushey Book Fair 2018 at the Bangla Academy compound, Dhaka. The picture was taken by Sumon Yusuf in February.Prothom Alo: Tell us about the publisher of the Ballad.

Anisul Hoque: Well, 'The Ballad of Ayesha' is being published by Harper Perennial from the house of HarperCollins. Harper Perennial, as it is said, publish contemporary classics in translation, so I guess that might be a good thing. Harper Perennial published Mahmudul Haque’s ‘Black Ice’ (‘Kalo Borof') too. The timing of the Ballad of Ayeshamangal is significant for several reasons. And publicity is important too. Not because it's my work, but because our literature needs to reach the international arena. When Nasreen Apa (Nasreen Jahan)'s ‘Urukku' ('The Woman Who Flew') was translated and published, we could not share the news on Facebook. We could not take the message to a greater audience. But, we have scope now. It's a great opportunity at present that a book can be published worldwide all over. Also, we have ample scope to inform people. So, I am hopeful about this novel. About 10 million Bangladeshis live in foreign countries, about one million of them in the US. So, if they read the book, enjoy it, they can give it to their foreign friends to know the literature of Bangladesh. This would change the scenario. In Bangladesh, there are English medium educational institutions that can promote our translated literature too in the same way.

And think about, the target audience for Monica Ali, Tahmima Anam, Zia Haider Rahman--they are the same as those translated works. The difference is those were originally written in Bangla. Till now, I think, we have not been accepted by our translated works so far in the world.
I personally believe that, if a country lags behind economically and politically, no matter how great its literature is, it is not recognised internationally.

I think the 'Ballad of Ayesha' is an excellent chance for us to reach the world. My own book, 'Maa' was also translated. A journalist from the Times of India, who is a writer too, took the initiative. It was a huge effort by the publisher to take it to a comparatively greater audience. Many people from around the world shared their feelings with me after reading 'Maa', including ones from Pakistan too. So, whether Bangla literature is translated in other languages, the publicity is important.


Prothom Alo: How did you perceive the character of Ayesha?

Anisul Hoque: It was around 1996. I worked at Bhorer Kagoj (a Bangladeshi newspaper) then. A woman came here with a newspaper report that was written by Zayadul Ahsan Pintu. She was looking for her husband and the report had clues about his fate. She had been waiting for his return for about 18 years. That day when she came here, a list of names was given to her. I was there. I saw her face. That inspired me. It was then I began conceiving Ayesha (fictional name). Most of the materials are inspired from real life events. But the names and setting were fictional. So, Ayesha was, and wasn't, a real person. The novel was published around 1997, the next year.

If the readers feel Ayesha's anguish and patience, if it saddens them too, I think that is enough for them to remember her.

The word 'ballad' was chosen by me to reflect the saga of Ayesha. I am happy that the translator and publisher didn't disagree. At first I was not to happy with the red and green cover, as it has become quite predictable now. But, later I felt these are the colours that signify my country, Bangladesh. And also, the touch of 'mangal', with all the auspicious connotations of the word, is there for all.

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