Bharat has lost its voice. A voice that answered to the name of Syed Mustafa Siraj fell silent as the veteran Bengali writer passed away after a brief illness in Kolkata. Siraj, a Sahitya Akademi winner for his novel, Aleek Manush, in 1994, penned over 300 short stories and 150 novels. Though Siraj wrote for adults as well, and lately for children, he always strived to bring the scent of the soil to his works. His was a realist narrative, quite removed from the mysticism and romanticism that characterised much of contemporary Bengali literature. No self-aggrandisement, he was a master of the unsaid word.
Though in the autumn of his life he came across as somewhat wistful, with memory being only a selective companion, he retained his innate earthiness till the end: even when he occupied urbanscape! He always had an ear to the ground that helped him talk about man and nature at a time when more and more writers were lost to urban India. His characters, his plots, settings of his novels and short stories were all about rural Bengal and by extension about Bharat that is increasingly disappearing from the literary map of the country.
In recent years, Siraj’s worth came to be appreciated by a wider section of people, thanks to noted Bengali filmmaker Anjan Das, who picked Siraj’s story Ranir Ghater Brittanto to make Faltu, a feature film that, like the book, talked of an orphan’s struggle as part of a village populated by people from the other side of Bengal. Set in Ranighat in Murshidabad, the film only strengthened a feeling among cinemagoers what literati knew all along — Murshidabad, where Siraj was born in 1930, played a central role in his writings. In fact, his origins reflected consistently in his works. His much-lauded Aleek Manush was based in Murshidabad and focused on the different cults within the Muslim community there.
Incidentally, Siraj, though born in a Muslim household, was against any organised religion and believed that he was free of any denomination. The fact that he respected people’s beliefs probably helped him find a larger circle of readership when he started penning a series called Detective Colonel.
Like in Ranir Ghater Brittanto and Aleek Manush, Siraj’s village in Birbhum formed a recurring landscape in his fiction. Even here, Siraj was against idle nostalgia or mere romanticism and believed that the reddish, arid soil brought with it a lot of hardship. That, however, should not be regarded as a licence for man to tamper with nature’s own cycle. All along, in his works, nature had a sharp, clear voice with even trees, rivers, rain having a purpose. For him, it was only man who disturbed the harmony between different elements of nature. In what was probably the last interview of his life, Siraj told The Hindu Metro Plus on August 26: “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.”
Though his writings were translated into many languages, including English, Hindi, Urdu and Tamil with a couple more in Dogri on the anvil, Siraj was not an easy writer to translate. His style of writing bereft of verbs and articles often challenged translators. In fact, translations as a bridge came to have only a limited benefit for Siraj, who never came to command as wide a readership as, say, Mahesweta Devi or in recent years Sunil Gangopadhyay. This despite the fact that some of the earliest translations of his books came as early as the 1960s!
Almost incredibly, the literary world almost never had him. In the early years of his life, Siraj was closely involved with the folk drama group Aalkaap. He played the flute and a little later taught folk dance! He travelled widely and performed across Bengal. It was only with the passage of time that he realised his true calling.