There are a handful few epics written in Bengali; even the greatest of Bengali poets Rabindranath Tagore did not pen any. Poetry volumes devoted to the achievement and deeds of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman are not many, either. Mostafa Tofayel, however, thought otherwise and ventured into writing an epic adumbrating the heroic struggle of the Bengalis under the shrewd and nation-defining leadership of the greatest of Bengali in a millennium.
Appropriating crafts, formats and styles of Greek as well as Indian epics, he came up with a Bengali epical piece titled Ekjon Prometheus Tini (A Proetheus He Is) where he eulogizes Sheikh Mujib as Prometheus, the Greek god who defied the king of gods Zeus and taught mankind the use of fire and other skills. Using all sorts of metaphors, symbols, allusions gleaned from both classic epics and outlining various phases of Bengali's resistance against Pakistani occupation as well as liberation movement, Tofayel created a new literary masterpiece. On top of that, it transpires to be a major intervention in Bengali political literature.
Written in an operatic manner and following the act division of Kalidasa, an ancient Indian epic poet, the book starts with 'abahani' (the epilog) that invokes Sheikh Mujib as the muse. The myth of Prometheus is re-created, and Bangabandhu's sacrifices and sufferings for the emancipation of Bengali people from the shackle of Pakistani oppressive rule are equated to those of Prometheus. In the myth, the king of gods and goddesses Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him in iron shackles and letting loose eagles on him to feed on his liver by pecking which renews every day.
The only crime he committed was to teach mankind the secret formula of using fire and other craftsmanship. That's why Zeus appears in this epic as the representative of tyrannical rulers like Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan, the latter launching the genocide of unarmed Bengalis officially tagged as "Operation Searchlight". Moreover, the poet drew upon other literary pieces including the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, Bishad Sindhu (The Ocean of Sorrow), the Iliad, the Bible, the Meghadutam, and glorified the painful experiences and heroic struggles of Bengalis. The epic, in the main, offers glimpses into Bangabandhu's rise and fall as the supreme leader of the nation and his messianic role as its key liberator.
Characters in the epic include the eponymous hero Prometheus representing Bangabandhu, his four associates (four national leaders), Zeus (Yahya Khan), Youth Leaders, Student Leaders, Poets, The Motherland, Birds of Light, Lubdhoks (Sirius), Gravediggers, Grave-inhabitants, Conspirators and Killers among others. There are also choruses, seers and commentators in the fashion of Greek epics. All these characters and poetic devices are employed by the poet Tofayel to bring out all aspects of Bangladesh's bloody history.
They provide a graphic detail of the liberation war. Their interactions and exchanges focus on human dimensions, historical events, suffering and exploitation of the Bengali nation, Bangabandhu's charismatic leadership in mobilizing Bengalis toward liberation, popular expectations regarding the free country, and the subsequent assassination of Bangabandhu along with his kith and kin. How Bengalis' hard-earned freedom and independence was hijacked by anti-liberation forces are also touched upon.
The poet, in fact, appreciably incorporated multiple voices from various strata of Bengali society and made the epic a genuine representation of a collective struggle of all Bengalis. The epic unspools the history of Bengal stretching from an ancient time to the present. It laments the loss of past glory of Bengal that was once resourceful. For a millennium or so, it has been victimized through foreign exploitation and invasion. It is Bangabandhu, the Prometheus of Bengal who took up the job of arousing Bengalis with a crusading spirit.
He taught them, according to the poet, the mantra of igniting fire. In other words, he built up confidence in them that they could achieve their rights to freedom. However, the epic also offers a snapshot of the history of assault on the mother tongue Bangla, brutal genocide of Bengalis, rape of Bengali women, large-scale destruction of infrastructure and disruption of normal life in the land. It also spotlights the glorious resistance put up by people from all walks of life triggered by Bangabandhu's electrifying leadership and inspired by his unflinching patriotic spirit. It also highlights popular participation in the war and the common dream for a free, fair and democratic country as envisioned and inculcated in them by Bangabandhu.
In addition, Bangabandhu's suffering of inhuman tortures, pains and troubles inflicted by Pakistani authority also comes to the fore. Like Prometheus, he accepts everything for the greater cause of his beloved Bengali nation. Moreover, heroic deeds of seven greatest warriors and active support from foreign friends are vividly mentioned. Nevertheless, the conspiracy of the defeated forces in undermining and failing the new state of Bangladesh and the subsequent murder of Bangabandhu and his family and jail-killing of the four national leaders also receive critical attention in the epic. Finally, the epic resolves that Bangabandhu has become a star in the sky blessing and inspiring Bengalis from above.
The epic Ekjon Prometheus Tini employs a very lucid and free-wheeling language. It, nonetheless, does have seriousness and grandness of articulation typical of an epic. The dialogs are very evocative and emotionally charged. Rivers, flowers, fruits, seasonal changes in Bangladesh are romantically portrayed. Freedom fighters' unparallel bravery and resolve in defying all odds to achieve their goals is eulogized in an emphatic and heart-touching language. Snatches of Nazrul as well as Tagore songs are sung by the chorus that reinforces the writers' contribution in our cultural resistance.
The use of literary devices like metaphor, conceit, symbol, allegory, hyperbole, repetition contributes to the musicality of the text as well as assertion and highlighting of the contents. Mostafa Tofayel, to say the least, has been masterly in his choice of diction, employment of a chiseled-out language and use of dialogism.
Considering the dearth of the epic in Bengali and small size of poetry on Bangabandhu, Ekjon Prometheus Tini is a huge addition to the repertoire of Bengali political poetry. The volume appears to me as a poetic retelling of our history and how Bangabandhu is deservingly central to it. Poet Muhammad Nurul Huda, National Professor Kabir Chowdhury and West Bengal poet Jyotirmoy Das were all-praise about the high quality of the epic for both its literary and political value. I have found it very refreshing and engaging, to say the least. Readers at large will find in it a resource pool to take up stuff from, according to their orientations and positions.
The reviewer studied English literature at University of Dhaka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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