Obituary: Shaukat Osman

SHAUKAT OSMAN was the most eminent literary and cultural figure of Bangladesh. Throughout his long career he fought tirelessly against religious obscurantism, fundamentalism, military authoritarianism and political corruption. He was a crusading spirit.

In the mid-Forties he wrote two novels which appropriated the hitherto largely unacknowledged life of the Bengali Muslim peasant and the urban poor for modern Bengali literature. He was instantly lauded as Bengal's most notable Muslim writer, and went on to publish over 80 volumes of fiction, plays, verse, criticism, translation, autobiography and juvenilia.

Osman's first novel, Janani (1944-45), remains arguably his best. Set against the rise of communal politics of India, it can be read as an affirmative experiment in the possibility of Hindu-Muslim unity.

Azhar is a pious Muslim peasant, but his best friend is Chandra, a toddy- addict, low-caste Hindu fisherman cum part-time impresario. Their relationship is sometimes mediated by Azhar's little boy - through whose eyes the author often sees the world, giving it a certain charm. The other theme of the novel unfolds after Azhar's death, when his widow Dariabibi's heroic struggle to support her children and protect her honour ends in tragedy.

A chunk of his next novel, Adam's Children (1946) - which was never completed to Osman's satisfaction (he called it "a torso") - captures with stark realism the life of the city poor. The writer's own life in Calcutta gave him a privileged perspective.

He was born Sheikh Azizur Rahman in Hoogley, West Bengal, in 1917, into a Muslim family, to a father whom he described as a peasant-artisan. At the age of 13 he went to Calcutta to continue his secondary schooling at Madrassa-e-Alia, living in jagir lodgings - an arrangement whereby young indigent students stay full-board with a family while tutoring their children. After matriculating, he supported himself while studying at St Xaviers College for an Honours degree in Economics, and gave extra tuition in order to send money home.

During this period of his life, he later reminisced, he had "lived half- starved for months on end and on some days went without food". He had his first full-time job as a poster writer after taking his Masters degree in Bengali in 1941, and later that year he was appointed lecturer in Bengali at Calcutta Government Commercial College; this was a government post he would hold at different colleges until retirement in 1972.

Following the partition of India in 1947, Osman opted for Pakistan (the eastern part of which became Bangladesh in 1971). He was posted to Chittagong and subsequently Dhaka. Though he wrote several volumes of short stories based on his experiences of his adopted country, he probably never got to know it intimately enough to write a full-length novel in a realist mode.

Osman was a committed writer and he saw his commitment in terms of opposition to the pursuit of aesthetic goals, which he spurned as self-indulgence. This was not entirely without regret. In A Dialogue With Self, his alter ego speaks thus:

In the face of an unbearable present, you have wasted all your energy in producing ephemera. Your activity is limited to the pursuit of the bubbles of national life. You have not learnt to dive deeper "in search of the exquisite pearl".

In his fiction, Osman worked in two distinct modes. His early realism gave way to an allegorical manner presumably under political pressure but, as he wrote to an old student, from 1962 onwards he never allowed his "flag of protest to be brought down".

That year he published The Laughter of the Slave, a thinly disguised attack on Ayub Khan, Pakistan's then military ruler, who sought to bribe the nation's intellectuals into submission. Osman finds in Haroun-el-Rashid, the mythical king of Baghdad, an allegorical prototype.

One night the king is enchanted by laughter he overhears during one of his nocturnal rounds of the city. The source turns out to be a slave in the presence of his beloved. The king removes the slave from his original home, gives him a life of luxury and commands him to rehearse his laughter, but the man, now estranged from his loved one, denies him the pleasure and dies tortured.

Osman occasionally returned to a realist mode, as in The State Witness (1985), a story of corruption whose theme is migration from Bangladesh to the Middle East. While the first two chapters, mute "testimonies" of two characters awaiting trial in prison cells, are continuing evidence of his power of realistic observation, the third chapter offers a humorous account of the trial where the lawyers deploy the sharia (Islamic law) to denounce serious criminal charges as un-Islamic.

During the last years of his life, seeking a wider audience, Osman wrote a weekly column of folk-style verse and song for a newspaper, in which he deployed irony, satire and his characteristic humour; he also wrote his autobiography, Rahnama, which was serialised in Janakandha, the most prestigious national newspaper.

In 1996 he suffered a stroke and was virtually confined to his rooms by doctor's orders. It was painful for a man of his temperament - an ardent and witty conversationalist, convivial, restless and surprisingly youthful and sprightly at 80. He did not recover from his second stroke.

Kabir Choudhury translated The Laughter of the Slave into English in the Sixties. In 1993 my translations of Janani and The State Witness were published by Heinemann and Peepal Tree Books respectively. Three years later Penguin India published God's Adversary and Other Stories, an anthology of 23 of Osman's short stories I had translated over the years since I first met him in 1962 as a much older colleague at Dhaka College. Osman's short stories have been translated into many languages including German, Russian, Japanese and Norwegian.

When Shaukat Osman died, the whole Bangladeshi cabinet were gathered at his bedside in the intensive care unit. His body was taken to the Shaheed Minar, the nation's most hallowed mausoleum, for people to pay their last respects. He was buried in the graveyard where the bodies of intellectuals murdered in 1971 are laid to rest.

Osman Jamal

Sheikh Azizur Rahman (Shaukat Osman), writer: born Hoogley, West Bengal 2 January 1917; married (three sons, one daughter; and one son deceased); died Dhaka 14 May 1998.

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