Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty talks to Bangla literary luminary Syed Mustafa Siraj about “Die, Said the Tree and Other Stories”, the first ever translation of his short stories into English

Syed Mustafa Siraj is not a very familiar name to the urbane readership of English newspapers. But Siraj can do without it. Really, it is the readers, of not just English newspapers but literature produced in English in this country, that certainly need to know more about writers like him. To relish words that typically smell of the wet land after a rainstorm and the crisp air of a fruitful sunny day; to experience settings that cuddle the sights and sounds far away from our high-rise living; to know characters who echo the hopes and the horrors, the dreams and their crash-landing in a milieu that is outside the bracket of a ‘shining’ India. Simply put, features that we still not often find in fiction written in English.

An important voice of contemporary Bangla literature, Siraj, in his over 40 years of writing short stories, novels and children’s literature, has delved deep into rural Bengal. Faithfully bringing to the pages of his books the typicality of “gaon and taun”, the people, their faith and fights and the futility of it, their living and longings, noting in simple expressions the changing hues in response to ‘modernity’.

Though he has been translated into different Indian languages including Hindi, (as far back as 1965), there is not much for English readers. Except in 2004, when Delhi University professor Nivedita Sen translated into English some of his popular detective stories written for children. They feature Colonel Niladri Sarkar, a rather popular character of Siraj in Bengal. It was called “The Colonel Investigates” (Srishti).

Recently, Sen has translated 10 of Siraj’s short stories into English too. Titled “Die, Said the Tree and Other Stories” (Katha), the compilation is an interesting peek at the subjects that have been at the core of Siraj’s importance as a vernacular writer. In this email interview from Kolkata, the octogenarian talks about his life and work. Excerpts:

You have been writing for decades now. What changes and constants do you note in your work? Has your reader changed?

Since my worldview has remained the same, nothing has really changed in my work, although I might have experimented with a new genre or style. I essentially explore man’s relationship with nature and try to demonstrate that whereas trees, rivers, rainfall, etc. live out their own course without obstructing any natural or human cycle, man tries to direct the course of nature by building dams across rivers or curb the freedom of his fellow beings in sundry ways. In the story “The House” (in the compilation), although I deploy adolescent sexual fantasy to depict what I try to say, the demolition of the house shows that human beings mercilessly rob the creativity of fellow human beings.

The component of my readers has not undergone any palpable change. Since I write both children’s and adult fiction, I have readers ranging from school children to people of my generation.

Your short stories often end on a rather disturbing or cynical note. Among other things, they look it looks at the futility of religious dogmatism.

One of my chief convictions has been that of not believing in any particular religion. I am free of religious belief. But I also understand that most people are religious and I am, therefore, tolerant towards anybody’s religion. I would consider to have succeeded in my role as a writer if I have been able to spread this message.

Your writings give a close peek at rural Bengal. Also, you always pose the power of nature against man.

Many of my stories 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. I spent my childhood in the village in Khosbaspur and Birbhum to the extreme west of the Ganga, they are a recurring landscape in my fiction. Although the region is romanticised as Ranga Matir Desh, the land of reddish/ruddy earth, its soil is arid, unyielding and hostile. In trying to make a living out of that earth, the people there are tough and capable of much hardship. This is reflected especially in the women of that region who possess reservoirs of courage, strength and the resilience necessary to survive in a hostile environment. But the relationship between man and nature should be one of harmony. Like Colonel Niladri Sarkar, although I have become more of an urban dweller over the years, I am still a nature lover. I periodically retreat to my house in the village to find the solace and peace of mind that the city cannot give me.

What are you writing these days?

I am not writing much these days because both my wife and I are not in good health. I still do some Colonel stories for Puja annuals. But I regularly write articles for the magazine Kashtipathar, edited by Amarendra Chakrabarty, in their column ‘Je Kotha Bola Hoe Ni.’ I write on random subjects like why I believe the Mughals ruled badly, or about the etymology of the name Sri Lanka. But some anecdotes from my personal life also find expression here, and if sutured together, the essays could shape up to read like my memoirs.

Will there be any more English translation of your work soon?

National Book Trust is still in the process of getting “Aleek Manush” (He was presented the Sahitya Akademi Award for this novel), translated into Urdu, Tamil and Dogri. My first ever translated work was to Hindi in the paper Sarika, edited by Khushwant Singh, in 1965. Thereafter, many short stories have appeared in Hindi newspapers and some novels have been translated into Malayalam. More English translations will happen if readers like the present compilation and translators take up more of my stories.

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