Mujtoba Ali


Mujtoba Ali: The Enigma of Transit

Daily Star Book of Bangladeshi Writing, 2005

Syed Mujtoba Ali presents a paradox for Bengali literature. In his day, he was one of the most well-known and widely read Bengali writers. His prolific output of novels, novellas and especially short pieces filled 11 volumes of collected works published in Kolkatha. While he did not always garner the same critical plaudits accorded to other authors, he achieved a more difficult task: he was popular. His essays, especially the humorous pieces detailing his many travels, had a wide readership. While many young Bengalis may have never heard of "Mayurackhi" or "Panchathantra", they still greet his name with, "Oh yes, didn't he write 'Desh e Bidhesh e (Home and Abroad)'?". Although it is a little lopsided, 'Desh e Bidhesh e' continues to be more well known that his entire prolific output. There are of course many Mujtoba specialists in Bengal. Their knowledge of the details of his work and life are greater than mine. My personal link of my great uncle brings absolutely no insider knowledge. But I risk the ire of Mutjtoba specialists and give my theory that much of the appeal of "Desh e Bidhesh e" is also partially why it is difficult to popularize his work now. Much of that book, and some of his essays, focus on Mutjoba Ali's travels all over the world. At a time when many Bengalis were confined to the subcontinent, Mujtoba Ali spoke multiple languages and was a world traveler. His stories of "exotic" cities in France, Germany, and Egypt filled the reader with wonder. Recently, there were a few articles about him as the "first Bengali in Afghanistan" (certainly he was the "first" Bengali to write about Afghanistan). But, in today's globalized world, some of these stories have lost their unique resonance. At a time when there are millions of Bengalis scattered throughout the world, and satellite television brings the world closer, his experiences of eating a stuffed cucumber in an Egyptian cafe is no longer unique or captivating.

Another aspect of Mujtoba Ali worth dissecting is what he represented, especially in Kolkatha's bhodrolok society. As one of the very few Bengali Muslims published in a genre dominated by the Hindu bhodrolok class, Mujtoba represented the idea of pan-Bengal unity (uncomfortable economic realities intruded into cafe society). The confidence with which he wrote about his travels allowed readers-- Muslim and Hindu-- to project themselves into that life as well. After the independence of Bangladesh, he received even greater recognition, with two of his stories being placed in school textbooks (which are certainly read by many million more than will ever buy and read a novel in a shop). A careful reading of the politics of that period will show, lip service to secularism aside, Hindu writers were never celebrated by the new Bengali state with the same enthusiasm.

Context and politics aside, one reason Mujtoba is eclipsed today is due to the total lack of translations of his work. In a globalized market of ideas, translating text into English is essential to reach a wider audience. When anthologies of South Asian literature come out, they are usually (unfairly) slanted towards works available in English. But Mujtoba Ali's special gift came in the rich interplay between Bengali and the culture of foreign countries. While musing on some odd sight on a Paris street, he would smoothly quote from Tulshi Das, the Geeta, Tagore, Nazrul or Bankim and make it freshly relevant. Much of the subtleties in these interactions are lost in English translation. All this is, of course, an elaborate mea culpa for the inadequate translation to follow. I selected two stories because the behind-the-scenes context intrigues me. Punoscho because of the rare reference to a love affair (even brief and determinedly asexual). Roshogolla, was one of the first stories many of us read, as it was required in SSC textbooks. But during inclusion in the textbooks, certain offending objects were carefully excised. The prologue to the story vanishes in the school version. You may think this is for purposes of brevity, but I suspect it is because Mujtoba's description of border crossings can be read as a coded reference to the absurdity of partition. Chauvinist quarters would like to erase the fact that Mutjoba found Pakistan distasteful as a concept and spent some of his life in post-partition India. Even references to "my golden motherland India" in the main text were also removed from textbooks. The other interesting omission is any mention of vices, especially alchol. Besides Indian sweets, another key player in the story are many bottles of flowing chianti wine ("chianti or roshogolla?" is a repeated refrain). This reference is also carefully "disappeared" from the textboosk.

When Shall We Meet Again? [Punoshcho]

By Syed Mujtoba Ali

Translated by Naeem Mohaiemen

This experience-- the one I'm writing about-- happened in Paris. But it could just as easily have happened in Berlin, Vienna, London, Prague or any other such city. All my Parisian friends had gone to the rural areas or the beach to enjoy the dying days of summer. I was lonely without them. You can't spend all your time at the National Library or Guimet Museum. I had already enjoyed all the joie-de-vivre of Paris, there seemed no point in endlessly chasing the same experiences again. I was walking among the crowds on Place de la Madeline and debating what to do next when suddenly I heard from behind me, "Bon Soir, Monsiuer Le Docteur!"

I turned and saw a girl who looked like one of the millions of French lovelies. She looked familiar but I couldn't remember her name. With a ready pout on her face, she said, "Oh, now you don't remember me! But you knew me even before you met your new love, Paris!"

As a schoolboy, a sudden slap from the teacher would remind me what the capital of Montenegro was. Just like that, it came back to me-- of course, I had met her on the train from Marseilles when I first arrived in France. My hat was already off, now I added a bow and pleaded, "A thousand pardons and I beg your forgiveness, Madamoiselle Chatineau!" When it comes to high courtesy, there is much similarity between Paris and Lucknow. If you ever leave your book of Parisian etiquette at home, don't hesitate for a second-- just start using that antique Lucknow style. It works like a charm. In small matters, we say, "Less is sweet", but in etiquette, it's "No harm in excess."

Madamoiselle was very forgiving. With an "Enchante" she extended her hand. I held the lovely glove-sheathed hand close to my nose. In the religious books, it says a kiss is expected at this time. But with less familiar hands, the law of "Smelling is equal to half of eating the food" is applicable.

Madamoiselle said, "Why are you walking around like an orphan?" I replied, "What to do, It was written in my fate!" She immediately proposed, "Well then, come with me to the cinema!"

A fine mess! Not only did I hate this thing called cinema, but I was also having hard times with money. Not entirely lost at sea, but just a little bit what we call "Iye": lacking the towel that is needed to take a quick dip in the river waters. Spotting my hesitation, Madamoiselle quickly said, "I have two tickets with me. I've heard a lot of praise of the book 'All Quiet on the Western Front.'" All my escape routes were now blocked off!

Madamoiselle: "Well, there's at least an hour or so left until showtime. Let us go and spend some time in a cafe"

"Let us"

I had never heard of the drink that Claire insisted on having, the waiter also had to have it explained to him. The preparation took a good fifteen minutes. The drink arrived in a strange manner. Inside a huge tower of a glass there was about a half inch of a light yellow substance, God knows what cheese this was! I quietly ordered a small coffee.

Claire polished off the God-knows-what-cheese in ten minutes and got up, "It's impossibly hot. I'm choking in this cafE. Let's go somewhere else." The waiter came over to me (only me!) and quietly said, "Forty francs." What, Forty for those three drops? Claire had opened her purse, but only to bring out her handkerchief! As she closed her purse with a loud click, she looked at me, "Oh that's not right! You shouldn't pay for this." I said (only not too loudly), "Oh no, I insist. Of course I'll pay, with pleasure. Heh heh."

Exiting the cafe, Claire took a deep breath of the Paris air full of the foul scent of burnt petrol, exhaled, and said, "What a relief. I was dying in there. But there's still a lot of time left. Where shall we go next?"

When I was back in Bangladesh, I used to suffer from Malaria. I can't always hear everything. One of those attacks of deafness overtook me now.

Claire filled in the silence with alacrity, "That's right, I just remembered. There's an open-air restaurant very close to the cinema hall. You haven't already eaten, have you?"

Like all Bengalis, I have the bad habit of eating dinner late. But to avoid the looming disaster, I lied grimly, "I don't really eat dinner that much..."

"Bien sur, I'm exactly the same! Only one course is enough for me. No soup, no pudding. It's unhealthy to eat too much at night. Paris in August is a deadly place!"

Somehow, there was already a taxi standing next to us. Parisian drivers have an uncanny knack of spotting a woman's posture and know who is about to call a taxi.

For the first time in my life I realized what Rabindranath Tagore meant in the famous song: "I felt like I had traveled an endless path" Tagore must have got into a taxi, the meter must have been broken and at the end of the ride, the fare must have came out of his own pocket. Otherwise, the song loses all meaning!

We arrived at a gorgeous restaurant. Tables at every corner, dark green lamps on each table. Music, waiters, champagne, beauties, diamond rings and all the courtiers of the royal palace. I was wearing gray pants and a blue blazer-feeling very out of place.

Claire spoke to the waiter, "Nothing much, only the hors d'oeuvres"

Along came the "hors d'oeuvres"! About a dozen types of food arranged into separate compartments on a massive tray. Salmon, Russian Salad, small pieces of Frankfurters, Caviar riding on Toast, Yogurt, Shrimp, Stuffed Olive, Onions in Vinegar, and much more.

In our country, we call this "thirty two and half fried". I would guess though that the price here would be many times more, maybe more than thirty two and half times! This was a "one course meal"? I read somewhere that India's Motilal wanted a simple village home and spent one million rupees on the construction. The idea must have come from Paris' "one course meal"!

The waiter was back again, much too enthusiastic for my taste: "Anything to drink?"

Claire turned her neck to the left and said, "No," then turned her neck to the right and said, "Oui," again to the left and "No," right again and "Oui"....

I was sitting there following the turn of fate and wondering: What now for my fate? The noose or the black waters?

Not black waters, but close enough. The last turn was to the right. Meaning the red waters...

Claire also spoke a few drops of English. As we waited, she explained to me, "It is not a drink but a dream, Monsieur! This thing is the pride of France, the inspiration for the humorous and the waters of Jordan for sinners."

Of course! Why have any less? Tagore himself wrote, quoting one of our Baul musicians, "The drowning man, what does he care if all his possessions sink?"

Just as we had finished with that "one course" meal, the waiter came back and told us that a shipment of fresh oysters had just arrived! How did he know that in that entire restaurant, we were the table that wanted to sample the most expensive dishes of the night? When the music is playing, you can't stop the dancing girls-- I knew this only too well. So when Claire ordered a dozen of the oysters, I could only think "Why not?" My only hope was that if a pearl came out of one of those dozen oysters, I would use that to pay off our bill!

Claire did not burp once. Who knows how many centuries the French have been practicing the art of eating a dozen oysters without any gastric disturbance! A thousand salutes to French civilization!

I paid the bill with almost the last franc in my wallet.

Yes, that night we also went to the cinema. As we sat in our five-centime seats, Claire's snores could be heard over the roaring cannons of "All Quiet." Maybe I shouldn't call it snoring, after all French civilization might disapprove of using such a peasant term to describe one of its fair citizens.

When the cinema ended at 11 pm, Claire came out of the theater and immediately said, "Well where shall we go next? My whole body is crying out for some classical music."

I was about to say, "The church of Notre Dame. It is the only place where we can sit down without spending any money!" But I restrained myself. All I said was, "I'm afraid you'll have to excuse me now, Madamoiselle Chatineu. I have a lot of work tomorrow, I need to go to bed at an early hour."

What Claire said in response I can't remember, maybe I didn't hear it. I felt a little sad that I couldn't preserve the last rituals of courtesy. Like the final stages of goddess worship at Dashami Pooja festival, it was expected that I would drop her at home in a taxi. After all these expenses, why get stuck on this last ritual? I didn't even have the money to buy the whip, so I had to satisfy myself with buying the food for Madamoiselle's horse carriage.

After I paid the bus fare for myself, I rummaged around in my pocket. What came out was barely enough money for three coffees, one sandwich and five cigarettes.

My luck kept going strong that night. Within a few minutes, the bus blew a tire. I had to walk half a mile to my home.

Most Parisian hotels are located in the spiritual areas. In the Geeta, the definition of a spiritual person is: "Even when it is night for all other creatures, the spiritual stay awake." Now what the spiritual person does while awake is not described in Geeta. As I walked, I saw a sea of humanity all around. They did not look like they were in search of some deep philosophical meaning. Perhaps they were children of amreet, in search of that amreet on the Paris streets.

In India, the Hindus go to Kashi, the Muslims go to Mecca, in Europe all the disciples head to Paris in search of the meaning of life. As the disciples walked down the streets, at every step you would hear the sweet tones of "Bon soir monsieur, may your evening go well." If you responded to the siren call-well, what happens next, I have no personal experience, nor do I crave that experience. I have no need to become Emile Zola's Mollinath. I still haven't been able to digest what Swarat Chatterji wrote, let alone Zola.

My hotel was only a little further, the streets were becoming deserted. I was a little lost in thought, otherwise I would have never replied to that last "Bon Soir." As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized I had made a mistake. Handling two beauties in one night was beyond my meager strength. My ancestors handled four beauties at the same time. My generation's fall from those heights was quite pronounced.

No, as I looked at her closely, it didn't seem like she belonged to the night creatures, although I was certainly "poor Charu Datta". What was such a flawless beauty doing on the streets? It is true Tulshi Das once said, "The universe travels along such strange paths. The bartender sits in his tavern and sells wine, and there is no end to the crowds. Yet the poor milk-seller has to go from door to door to try to sell his milk." But this law usually doesn't apply here on the night streets.

I said, "Please don't be offended, but I can't quite place where I met you."

The vision gave a beautiful smile, a note from the lyre rang in the night. That smile, it was so sweet and shy that I knew right away I had never met her before. I may be a dry sort, but even I would not forget a smile like that.

What to do now, she had started to walk with me. If she wasn't one of the vendors of "life", why was she walking with me? And why not say something-good or bad? No more of this, I would leave Paris tomorrow! I prefer my crosswords to be in the morning newspaper, not on the streets.

Suddenly the poor girl stumbled and fell. I quickly helped her up and asked, "What's the matter?"

"The problem is not the road, I am very tired."

Dear reader, you are now thinking, "Oh you idiot! Twice in the trap on the same night, etc." Yes, I have to admit, I was an idiot once more. But at least this time I kicked aside the rituals of Paris-Lucknow. I said to her directly, "Look I have enough money in my pocket for three coffees, one sandwich and five cigarettes. Do you want to sit in a cafe with me?"

Came the reply, "I'll only drink the one coffee."

After we were sitting in the cafe, I said, "Drink the coffee, eat the sandwich and then go home."

She said nothing, neither agreeing nor objecting.

In the harsh lights of the cafE, it seemed clear that the girl's weakness was from starvation. Love is blind, but Paris is not a lover. So why was she letting this beauty starve? But to solve this puzzle would require barbaric questions. Anyway, why ask? I had no solutions to offer.

Suddenly the girl spoke up, "You misunderstand me..."

"Please, I don't want to hear anything."

"That's why I called you 'vous' instead of 'tu'. But I am new at this. I went on the street for the first time last night. But no one came near me. I suppose I don't have that kind of face. I also didn't have the courage to invite anybody with a 'bon soir'."

There is no end to the human ego. I had decided I wouldn't ask any questions, yet here I was asking about myself: "But why did you say 'bon soir' to me?"

"Perhaps because you looked like a foreigner. Or, I don't know why, I can't quite say."

I quickly said, "No that's ok, I really don't want to hear anything."

A moment of silence passed, then she spoke up again, "Well whatever it is, I have to get at least one client today. My landlady threatened to throw me out of the house today!"

The night was getting deeper. I finally had to say, "Well, whether you go home or not, if you sit here with me, you're losing your chance. You know none of the potential clients will come near you if they see you sitting with a man. It's getting late, the streets will soon be full of drunks."

She didn't quite tremble, but a shadow passed over her face.

More silence. This was getting more curious. Finally I said, "Well, shall I be going?"

"Why, don't you want to sit with me?"

I quickly apologized, "No, it's not that at all. But if you sit here with me, you're wasting your time."

"But you treated me to coffee!"

I was practically in tears, "Please, don't take it like that."

"Then why did you treat me to coffee?"

"Please, please, let it go."

Finally, she said, "No one ever treats me to anything. Please stay here with me, don't leave. I really enjoy talking to you."

Even in the midst of all this pain and sadness, I have to admit her beauty and company was still enjoyable.

Again, she said, "And you know, once you leave, I'll have to go out on the streets in search of men to say 'bon soir' to. I just don't have the courage for that tonight."

How quickly she had discovered how harsh and cruel Paris could be!

I said, "Well why not leave it for tonight? I'll walk you home. Where do you live?"

"Very near, the lane next to the L'avenir Hotel."

I happily said, "Well let's go. I happen to be staying at the L'avenir Hotel."

As we walked, she held my arm. The human hand can say many things without a word. Some of it I understood, some of it I preferred not to understand. She was now able to say many things. Perhaps because she had been rescued from the nightmare of having to say 'bon soir' again. She started telling me her story: how she had tried hard to earn money, had managed to get jobs, how those who had given her jobs had asked for things, how they had tried to force her into it, how she had run away from the jobs, so much more.

And her French was beautiful. I had to observe, "You speak French so well."

Now she was smiling with pride. "Well, why not! We used to friends with the Daudin family."

Well, that explained it. Very few people could write French like Alfonse Daudin.

And so it went like this, listening to her stories as we walked to the hotel.

Finally when we were standing in front of my hotel door, I said, "Well, let me walk you to your door."


"Why not?"

No reply, so I said, "Well, we are so close to your house. Maybe I'll say 'bon nuit' and you can walk home from here?"

I was holding her hand to say goodbye, but she wouldn't let me go. In a low voice she said, "Take me to your room."

You may call me a fool, or you may call her crafty, whatever you wish-but as God is my witness I had to consider her's the purest heart I had ever met.

Finally I spoke, "I don't have the ability to really help you. But God has given you amazing beauty, anyone who can save that beauty will be thankful forever."

The word "God" seemed a little out of place on the streets of Paris.

She said nothing, but just stood there with her head low. I said, "Well, why keep giving you advice? You won't listen. You're tired, it's time to go home."

She lifted up her head and looked at me. What those two gleaming eyes spoke of, I haven't forgotten to this day. No one else has ever looked at me like that.

Then slowly, she began walking home.

I looked after her in breathless admiration. Her body stood upright with majestic grace, carrying that limitless beauty on its shoulders, only her head was bent under the weight of pain and exhaustion.

As soon as I woke up next morning, my first thoughts were-last night I made a terrible mistake. If you want to help someone, there is more than way to do it. I chastised myself, why couldn't I understand that simple thing last night?

Quickly I washed my face and ran out in search of the girl. What a fool I was, I hadn't even asked her name! As I was running towards the hotel door, the porter stopped me and gave me a small package with my name on it.

As soon as I opened it, a letter came out. In delicate hand-writing, she had written.

"Dear friend, I have to admit, you were right. In the end, I listened to your advice. This morning I am taking the five a.m. train to my village. I don't have anybody there either. But it will be far better than starving here in Paris. I'm going without a ticket.

I don't have anything to give you, except this sweater. God willing, it will fit you nicely.

-- Julie"