Remembering Siraj

In Syed Mustafa Siraj (1930-2012), we have lost a voice earthy and quiet. A vision inclusive, generous, and of profound human empathy. A language sumptuous, many-tongued, and possessed of a cognate splendour that is increasingly rare to find.

Born in Khosbaspur, Murshidabad, Syed Mustafa Siraj grew up within a strong literary environment at home surrounded by books and journals, and familiarity with several languages including Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit, other than Bengali. He started writing poems as early as class 8. His mother, Anwara Begum, who wrote poems and short stories, was an early and abiding influence. Active in Leftist politics in his youth as well as the people’s theatre movement, Siraj joined a wandering folk theatre group, Aalkaap for six years (1950-56), performing and travelling with them through much of rural West Bengal. These years, rich in diverse experiences, brought him in close contact with the people and the landscapes that would find an indelible place in his writing. “I deconstruct experience, and it is this deconstruction which brings in an episode, a fragment, giving rise to a story. I do not go beyond experience,” he once said.

Siraj’s debut novel Neel Gharer Nati – based on his recollections of the life of a village performer put into the profession by her own father – was published to critical acclaim in 1966. One of the finest, most respected voices in contemporary Bangla literature today, he is most famous for his 1988 novel Aleek Manush, which won the Sahitya Akademi Award (1994), the Bankim Puraskar, and has been translated into eleven Indian languages, and also into English as Mythical Man (2005). He also won the Narasimha Das Memorial Award for his novel Amartya Premkatha (1988). His short story “Ranirghater Brittanto” (1986) and his novels Nishimrigaya (1970) and Krishna Bari Fereni (1980) have been filmed in Bengali. A writer with over 250 published works, Siraj has also written prolifically for children – ghost stories, mystery stories, adventures and more. His Goenda Colonel detective stories enjoy a loyal fan following among the young and old alike, and have also been published in English.

Having grown up in the countryside, Siraj was always self-admittedly a writer more comfortable within rustic settings who could feel the pulse of people in the villages and small towns of Bengal, their everyday lives and basic concerns of survival in a world more privileged than them. Moving between the Birbhum countryside that he grew up in, small towns, and Kolkata, his stories blur the lines between the rural and urban, seamlessly integrating contrasting perspectives, the impossible plurality and polyphony of life. They bring alive ordinary people on the margins confronting universal human predicaments and dilemmas with an empathy both profound and insightful.

Many of his short stories, like those of Premchand and Chekov, have rural settings that juxtapose the quotidian problems of men against nature’s inexhaustible potential. “Nature always brought to me a sense of limitless freedom, a taste of infinite liberty,” he was fond of saying, reminiscing about his childhood in the village in Khosbaspur, Murshidabad, his favourite trees, and the special place they enjoy in his writings. Living in Kolkata with his wife Hasne-ara Begum, he would periodically retreat to his house in the village to find the solace and peace of mind that the city of Kolkata could never give him. It is there that he now rests, in the village of his childhood, amidst his favourite trees.

All of us at Katha, cherish our association with him through the translation and production of the book `Die said the Tree & other stories. We salute this great bhasha writer whose vital embrace of life and language transcended cultural and linguistic boundaries, whose silences spoke as wise and eloquent as his words.

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