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Lives of Others: Writer, tailor, asker, eagle-eye

Facebook posts turned into a novel that is being considered a tour de force

Chandrima S. Bhattacharya | Published 11.10.21, 07:17 AM
Ismail Darbesh at his family shop in Domjur in Howrah.

Ismail Darbesh at his family shop in Domjur in Howrah.

Picture by Subhendu Chaki

It all happened on Facebook first. And on the mobile phone.

One day four years ago, Ismail Darbesh, 42, sat down on the staircase of his home and began to write about the place of the mosque in a Bengal village. Darbesh runs his family tailoring business with his brothers from Danspara village in Domjur, Howrah, and also lives there.

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Soon his posts turned into a novel that is being considered a tour de force.

Talashnama, published by Abhijan Publishers, Kolkata, in February this year, is going into the second edition. So in between trips to Mangla Haat and Metiabruz Haat, wholesale markets for inexpensive garments — he looks after the selling of the clothes as his other brothers look after other aspects of the business — he is also dropping in at his publishers for last-minute changes.

“I often wrote sitting at Mangla Haat,” smiles Ismail.

Many feel Talashnama is about a community’s life centred in the mosque, is the first Bengali novel in some time that presents a detailed, critical and sensitive portrait of contemporary Muslim society in Bengal. It is set in a fictional Howrah village called Sadnahati, which like Ismail’s own village is home to many “ostagors”, men who own tailoring establishments. Because Muslims are marginalised, not visible in public offices, courts of law, teaching, the medical professions, or among writers or artists, says Darbesh in the novel, all they have is the space around the mosque, “…where there’s no competition from non-Muslims. That’s why in thousands of villages like Sadnahati, the most certain address to enjoy power is the mosque and its elementary school, the khareji madrasa.” That’s where they collect, “crab-like”, in defence.

That is where the dynamics of village politics play out, cloying, complex and vicious, often aligned with an orthodox interpretation of Islam and the structures of power and profit, or what little of it exists in the village economy. Lives remain narrow, the stakes are small, but the tragedies can be enormous.

An individual gets sucked into this vortex of meaningless but brutal complexities to never come out again. One is reminded here of Manik Bandyopadhyay’s Putul Nacher Itikotha, though that novel is set in a different milieu.  Ismail admits that Manik is one of his favourite novelists, as are the other Bandyopadhyays, Bibhutibhushan and Tarashankar. Talashnama, as the name suggests, is the account of a quest.

Ismail does not deliver a critique of his community from above. He looks at it from within, but poses difficult questions, placing what he sees, as it were, under a scanner, viewing it closely, meticulously.

He does not want to antagonise anyone, but draws attention to what is wrong. He does it gently, as the story unfolds, through his characters.

“The biggest problem is not recognising the problem,” says Ismail.

We are sitting at the Abhijan Publishers office off College Street, and Ismail’s young publisher, Maruf Hosain, is proud of Talashnama’s success. The book is being translated into English for Harper Collins by V. Ramaswamy, who is also visiting the office.

Readers, both from the Muslim community and outside it, are reading the novel with interest. Copies are disappearing fast in Bangladesh, too. “Thanks to Ismail, a new kind of readers are stepping into our office,” laughs Hosain. They include men of religion. Some of them have been in touch with Ismail, saying that they identify with his story and acknowledge the problems.

The name Maruf is significant in Ismail’s life.

In 2017, Ismail had gone to Mecca for Haj, where he befriended Maruf Hassan, with whom he had long discussions about Islam and Bengali Muslims. They agreed that lack of education makes the community backward and poor. That is when Ismail first thought of writing something.

His publisher is another Maruf. The third Maruf is a character in Ismail’s novel: he is a modern man, who wants to change his society, rescue it from the stranglehold of regressive practices in the name of Islam, bring in education, new ideas into the stagnant village life.

Maruf is often in conversation with the village imam, Tahirul, a pious, young man, idealistic and pure in heart, committed entirely to Islam, intent on spreading the Quran’s message of beauty, truth and ethical behaviour.

But Tahirul does not have it in him to confront the difficult questions; he often looks away or invokes religious authority to escape such situations. Especially when he is in the company of the brilliant and beautiful Riziya, the rare college-going girl from Sadnahati, who is exceptionally proficient in the religious texts and asks the toughest questions, starting from a fundamental one: “Why cannot women enter the mosque?” She is an agent provocateur and a tease.

Tahirul falls passionately in love with her, and she with him.

What follows cannot quite be predicted. No one is a saint here. Nor are there happy endings. One doubts if there is an ending ever, in life, and in this novel. “I just stop my novel at one point, so that the questions remain,” says Ismail. It is for the reader to seek answers.

After he had written about 40 weekly instalments of his novel on Facebook, for which his readers would wait eagerly, Ismail’s publisher decided that a print edition could be thought of. He already had to his credit a collection of short stories titled Kamsabadher Nepothye (Behind the killing of Kamsa), published by Abhijan.

He began to write whenever, wherever, on his phone, to finish writing the remaining 20 chapters for the print edition. But he had not thought of saving his pieces. One day, his six-year-old deleted the entire file by mistake. So he wrote it again.  

Ismail had not ever thought he would be a novelist, though he was drawn towards reading from a very early age. Despite difficulties, he went on to study Bengali honours at Narasinha Dutt College in Howrah and later enrolled for Master’s in Bengali at Calcutta University, but could not complete the degree.

By then, however, he had discovered literature. He devoured everything, from the Bengali classics to Syed Mustafa Siraj to Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay to Humayun Ahmed to Sunil Gangopadhyay to Afsar Ahmed to Zakir Talukdar. With hardly any good library around him, he would often come to College Street and buy the books.

At home, his mother was an avid reader. His father and elder brother were encouraging. His brother is proud of Ismail’s accomplishments as a writer. “But otherwise not many others know of my book in my locality,” laughs Ismail.

He writes in the language that is spoken in his village: it’s a mix of a Howrah Bengali dialect, Pharsee and Urdu words, which is hardly known in the city. Ismail’s prose may be a little uneven and his plot may have a few rough edges, but his language is powerful.

His novel points at another thing. In a village like Sadnahati, Hindu and Muslim may not be living in perfect harmony, but they are not at each other’s throats all the time. There is friendship, social mingling, and even marriages taking place between the two communities, the last happening without too much fuss. One can feel undercurrents and tensions, perhaps, but the communities do not make for the polarised society that is the agenda of some political parties.

In a post-truth world, maybe fiction needs to remind us of many things.

Last updated on 10.11.21, 05:46 PM
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