Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Shaheen Akhtar

Interview by Susan O'Neill

Shaheen Akhtar is a new but already established name in the literary horizon of Bangladesh. She has published two novels Palabar Path Nei (No Exit, 2000) and Talaash (The Search, 2004). Talaash won the Prothom Aalo Best Book of the Year Award for 2004. She also has four collections of short stories and was editor of Zenana Mehfil: Selected Writings of Bengali Muslim Women Writers 1904-1938. Her prize-winning novel Talaash (The Search) attempts to seek, if not social justice, then a certain understanding that moves beyond tolerance or acceptance of the Birangana (literally Heroic Women) of Bangladesh—the women who were raped during the Liberation War in 1971. Although she dreams of doing nothing but writing one day, currently she works for a human rights organization to earn a living.


Shabnam Nadiya     You've won an award for your novel Talaash—the Search. I found it interesting that, well, we see a kind of simplification about our Liberation War, that the Freedom Fighters are all good, while the Pakistanis and the collaborators are all evil. You didn't present these issues in that manner—what you've drawn are the gray tones of reality. Your character Mary was first ruined by a Bengali man, a man who was involved in progressive politics. Later we see a different kind of opportunism—he uses and discards the War and our nation just as he once used Mary. On the other hand, the man who is kind to Mary has a questionable role in the War. Tell us a bit about all that.

Shaheen Akhtar     Well, it's not as if I planned it all out. Working with so many characters, so much that was happening and in such a vast expanse of time, at times it felt as if perhaps I had no control over where the characters were going, how the events were turning out. But the character you allude to specifically is Abed Jahangir. The first part of his character was part of my planning. It's a kind of given that activists of a movement, people who participate in a revolution (from the leaders to the petty leaders) begin to behave just like the people they had struggled against—once they get a taste of power. They're okay as long as they are out of power.

As to Ramiz Sheikh. You'll notice that as a woman you'll sometimes see kind behaviour from someone from whom you don't expect it. The reason is probably that the "bad" person knows he is bad. Because society / the law let him know that he is bad. So he has a yearning to do some good. Also as a marked "bad" man, he himself suffers various injustices. So it's not too difficult for him to understand the injustices that are meted out to women. Perhaps a kind of camaraderie is born of that. During times of crisis, villains are right there beside the women rather than the heroes. Although Bhima of the Mahabharata can't be called a villain as such, he certainly didn't have the heroic qualities of Arjuna or Yudhishthira. Yet it was Bhima who saved Draupadi from various dangers, not Arjuna or Yudhishthira.

SN     In fact, similar to your novel, Yudhishtira actually got Draupadi in trouble through his passion for gambling: he bet and lost her. In both cases, the honor of the woman is compromised.

SA     Heroes are self-absorbed. They're busy with themselves. Where do they have the time to do anything for women? On top of that, they expect things like inspiration and sacrifice from women. To men like this, a pregnant woman during wartime is simply a burden. Instead of defining it as "ruin," we can say that Abed Jahangir committed a terrible crime by deserting Mary during a time of crisis.

I did leave some clear clues in the novel to absolve Ramiz Sheikh of doubtfulness for his role during the War. For instance, for the whole of the 1960s, he was in jail. He had no personal opinions on why the Bengalis were fighting against the state of Pakistan, how such a terrible war began. So he makes unintentional mistakes every step of the way. Of course, he has to pay for those mistakes with his life.

SN     Tell us a bit about reader response to Talaash. How successful do you think yourself in communicating what you wanted to say?

SA     I think that a kind of guilt works at a subconscious level in the minds of the Bengalis regarding the women tortured during the Liberation War. The War went on only for nine months, it was the responsibility of the people of that liberated nation that the period of torture was lengthened beyond that for these women. This is presented to the reader in my novel Talaash, by narrating the story of 30 years of that post-War abuse. Maybe because there was a subconscious guilt about it, readers didn't reject it, they've tried to assimilate it to their own emotions. Such an indication is quite clear in the testimonials of the jury board, reviews of Talaash or reader feedback that I've received on a personal level. Talaash is perhaps a successful book in that it awakened sleeping consciences. But if such a situation should arise again, there's no guarantee that they're not going to behave the same way. In fact, it's more than probable that they will. Because the fault at the root, that issue of satittyo or the honor of women—that remains unresolved.

SN     Where did Talaash arise from? The issue of the Liberation War has come up in our literature in many ways. But probably none of our other novelists has attempted to illuminate the saga of the Liberation War from the point of view of a raped woman. Why did this particular angle come to you?

SA     Before I wrote Talaash, I was involved in research related to the Liberation War for about four/five years. I had a chance then to interview women who were raped during the Liberation War and to study related books, documents, publications. The tendency to glorify the Liberation War is common in our literature. The other side of it remains closed in darkness. The research that I did opened my eyes. I felt an urge to look at the War from the point of view of those who were so damaged by the War, especially women. It was especially during the interview process of raped women that I became deeply involved in issues such as the deceptions these women underwent and their anger and frustration over it.

SN     You have other stories about the Birangana. What do you think of the whole Birangana issue?

SA     The title Biranganawas awarded probably in January 1972, as soon as the country was liberated. Emotions, patriotism were very raw back then. Those who came up with the title, maybe they thought that this was the way to acknowledge the sacrifices made by the women who were victims of rape. They were brave—Birangana, Heroic Woman. Because an enormous war had just been fought. Everyone was exalting, singing triumphant songs of courage. Back then, what could have been a bigger acknowledgement? Maybe the intent of the title-givers was pure. But it worked just the opposite for those who were awarded this title. The label of Birangana turned into a slur. The word lost its literal meaning and took on the hue of how society viewed women who were victims of rape. When I went to interview them 28-30 years after the War, the request of those women was that they be called Muktijoddha, Freedom Fighters instead of Birangana. That way they would benefit both in terms of money and honor.

SN     When did your writing begin? Your formal academic degree was in economics. How did you get from there to literature?

SA     I've always been a reader of literature. I wrote a bit here and there until I was around eighteen or nineteen. Then there was a gap of many years. Even though I studied Economics, I never looked for jobs in that line. My first job was to make documentary films. I had a chance to move in the direction of film-making. I used to watch oodles of movies (still do). That was a turning point for me. Because I had just finished my studies, I had a job, the issue of marriage came up. This was the fag-end of the '80s. Renting an apartment and living by oneself was even more difficult then than it is these days. Anyway, I had to face many crises when my marriage broke up. To which I was unable to come up with any practical solutions. In the meantime, I gained some experience. I began writing about these things. You can say that my entry into literature began as a way to reach an understanding with myself.

SN     You mention film-making. That was another field where the urge towards creative expression might have been fulfilled. What made you discard that field and choose writing?

SA     The film-making opportunity that I had because of my job had to do with making documentaries. But my experience was demanding fiction. And anyway, to reach an understanding with myself, the thing I needed right then was a solitary act such as writing. I've mentioned before that I used to write when I was younger. I felt that during my time of crisis, this practice of my childhood would grant me shelter in some way. Maybe I could grab hold if this and stand up straight.

SN     How difficult was it for you to get from the writing to print?

SA     I am an absolute outsider in the literary milieu of Dhaka. I began writing at a very late age. A lot of people decide in their adolescence that they're going to be writers. They move ahead with that in mind. Their mental make-up is totally different. Maybe these are the reasons why I still haven't become too friendly with the literary crowd. I did have problems in getting published at the beginning. But because for a long time my writing was a lot like writing a diary (although the form was that of the short story)—it didn't bother me too much.

SN     Tell us a bit about the experience about being a woman writer in Bangladesh.

SA     Women's writing doesn't have to be read to be rejected. It's a given that a woman is going to write badly. My writing began with the lives of single women. As subject-matter or content, this was something new in our literature. My colleagues (especially the contemporary male writers) didn't want to pay much attention to all that. They wanted to pin a badge saying 'feminist' on me and let it go at that. I think people do it because it's easy to give a label, or because by doing so one can evade responsibility. No matter how they're experimenting with form, most contemporary writers are still stuck with the plots/subjects of their predecessors. Perhaps the reason is limited experience or a lack of original thinking. From this perspective, the work of contemporary women writers appear to be offering much more in terms of diversity. Especially in literature. Maybe because they have to undergo some struggle as women. Anyway. One negative experience I have had as a woman writer is the issue of book reviews. Or the lack thereof. When there are reviews, they're very frustrating. And perhaps because I am a woman, there are attempts on the part of male reviewers to give me irrelevant advice. They probably would not have the guts to do that in the case of male writers or they just wouldn't have done it.

SN     What are your expectations from your writing? What have you achieved?

SA     It'd be great if writing would be enough to earn my livelihood. I wouldn't have to have a job. Since that's not happening and isn't really a possibility, right now all I ask for is the ability to write well, and alongside that large numbers of active, responsive readers.

SN     Were there any impediments on the way to becoming a writer?

SA     The situation here is not conducive to becoming a writer. All of it is obstruction—in the home and out of it. Enough time is needed to think about writing—not having that seems the main impediment to me.

SN     What else has influenced you as a writer? I'm not speaking only of literature, but books, music, paintings everything.

SA     Films, in particular.

SN     Come on, give: which films in particular? Who are your favorite directors? Has any particular film or scene directly influenced or informed your writing?

SA     It's difficult to come up with specific instances like that. I've got many favorites among film-makers. The Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, Iran's Abbas Kiorostami. Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray—I could go on and on. Before I wrote Talaash, I watched several war films. Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai... I was intensely moved by the film Buena Vista Social Club by the German director Wim Wenders. It's a documentary about a group of Latin American musicians. But the making of the film is very fiction-like. I think that technique would be very effective in writing. Especially if anyone wanted to write something on a real incident or issue, they might want to think about Wenders' style.

SN     An alternative stream has emerged in women's writing in Bangladesh. Compared to the tradition-mongers such as Selina Hossain, Rabeya Khatun, Razia Amin etc, the work of writers such as yourself, Audity Falguni, Shahnaz Munni and others contain a strong experimentalism in terms of form, technique, content, language. Why do you think this evolution occurred at this particular time?

SA     I think time is the issue here. All writers—male and female—are dabbling in experimentation these days. And women writers are now competing with male writers. Something that wasn't seen too much in the past. The fact that women were writing—that in itself was enough in the past.

SN     It's my belief that a new polarization is occurring in terms of the relationship between male and female in our culture. This is happening very gradually and in a behind-the-scenes manner, but we're at a delicate juncture right now: it's happening for a number of reasons such as women's awareness regarding their rights, an increase in the number of working women, the breaking down of the traditional family unit into the nuclear father-mother-child type of family. This "era" might work for or against us. How does this issue emerge in your writing?

SA     I think the reason for this change is that women are being faced with new experiences. In the case of literature, I really don't know whether the situation will go clearly in favor of women or not. Perhaps the fun thing here is the opening of all kinds of doors right in front of our eyes. But there is another aspect to this transformation that I want to mention. A key experience in this time of ours: women who are in positions of power behave just like men. Because all this time they had been out of power, we didn't know this. Does this work against us? There's no easy answer to that. At least for me. If I do write about it, I'll certainly point my finger to that chair of power. Another thing is, not the middle class, I'm writing/am thinking about writing more of the marginalized woman of contemporary society. I want to bring up in my writing their very own modes of living (which existed in the past and still does), not the values, sense of ethics, or preaching imposed from outside.

SN     "Woman alone" is present in your writing in various guises. Definitely in Talaash, even in your short stories, we see women who are living "different" lives. Women who, whether of their own choice or not, are living lives that are devoid of male companionship. Why is this?

SA     I think I've said in response to another question that my writing began with single women. In the reality of our society, there's the touch of the whore and the housewife in the lives lived by single women. I mean in terms of freedom and subjugation. You'll have to face such situations as a single woman, which the married woman will not even know of throughout her life. The field for these experiences is vast: your landlord, colleagues, boss, neighbors, the local grocer. On the other hand, because she's living alone, outside of society, her daily life isn't too tightly bound in rules, it's rather relaxed. If there are no external problems (such as being harassed) and if one can deal with the loneliness issue, I think it's not too bad an experience. Anyway. Because this "different" or "alternative" lifestyle was within my experience, it became something to write about.

But is it totally devoid of male companionship? Because she's a single woman, she has no continued conjugal life. She has relationships with men, and break-ups—perhaps more than others. The main reason being that she's not married, not involved or legally bound up with anyone. In many cases, they become victims of trickery by men.

SN     You play around a bit with the concepts of time and reality. Just as in a number of your short stories, in Talaash, the whole story is not presented from the same perspective, at times the chronology of events simply ignores the linear progression of time. In your short story She Knew the Use of Powdered Pepper, the same chain of events is presented by the same narrator in various versions. Harold Pinter once said, "There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false." Is this reflected in your writing?

SA     I've perhaps broken down time to sort out the storyline. However, no matter how far I go from reality, that departure is based on reality itself. For instance the scene in Talaash where Ramiz Sheikh is shot. Mary was watching it from a distance, imprisoned. Various tortures were being inflicted on the girl, totally unrelated to how she has lived in the past, totally unexpected. So in this physical/emotional turmoil she sees bullets being shot from many rifles toward the man closest to her. In such a situation, that she sees Ramiz Sheikh fly off into space doesn't seem at all unrealistic or untrue to me.

SN     You're talking of artistic truth here.

SA     It seems to me a major precondition of fiction writing to create an 'appropriate environment' to present such an 'impossible' or so-called untruth.

SN     Most writers have some work that is to some extent autobiographical. Where do you get the news about the hearts and souls of your characters? How related are they to your own life?

SA     My writing began with my own experiences. If I do write something beyond that, I find it necessary to do some research. But that's not formal or anything. And of course there's always a certain emotional involvement on my part with all of these issues. Actually, what I want to say is that the elements are collected through the research, but literature can't be created based just upon that.

SN     Tell us a bit about your personal life. Which relationship is the most important to you?

SA     I've given some information on my personal life already. For instance I was single for a long time, I work at a job to make a living. Apart from that, another bit of personal info is that I've been living the life of a married woman for two and half years.

It's difficult for me to think of any one relationship as important. I've lived alone for a long time. Non-family have become family—of the heart. I've had different kinds of friendships. But whether a relative or not, friendship is important to me. But there also has to be a sharing of things related to writing.

SN     What has been the most important decision you have ever taken?

SA     I don't think I ever thought out a decision in my life. Now I think that to restart my writing was a very important decision.

SN     What do you regret in life?

SA     There are so many regrets. Recently I've felt that I'm growing old, and I still haven't written anything notable.

SN     You've been exiled to a desert island. You can take only five books with you. What would you take?

SA     If I'm exiled to a desert island I can't just do with books. I'll need a lot of stuff. A DVD player with a load of films. A few close friends. After that, maybe I'll think of books.

SN     Sacrilege for a writer! But what books?

SA     The books might be Marquez, Rumi, the Mahabharata, a Bengali to English and an Arabic to Persian dictionary.

SN     If you're asked to give one piece of advice to a new writer, what would that be?

SA     I'd say resist bringing out a book every year. This writerly rat-race is the key reason for the poverty in our literature.

SN     What's your new project?

SA     I'm working on an anthology entitled "Woman in Bengali Literature." This will be completed in mid-2007. My writing is almost nonexistent now that I'm doing this. I've also gone through some interesting experiences. So many doors are opening in front of my eyes leading to unknown facets of Bengali literature. Perhaps they will be of use to me in my own writing in the future. I don't know just yet.


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