Published:  12:55 AM, 07 September 2017

Mir Mosharraf Hossain's shaping of Ocean of Sorrow

Mir Mosharraf Hossain's shaping of Ocean of Sorrow

While the core story of Hossain's Ocean of Sorrow is historical, it has to be said that he treats history imaginatively and takes considerable liberties with recorded history. Hossain himself claims in his Preface that he has based his narrative of the deaths of Hassan and Hussein at the hands of Yazid in Karbala in the month of Moharram on an epochal event in the history of Islam on the basis of extant sources.

Specifically, he declares that he has based his account of these major historical events closely "on Persian and Arabic chronicles." Hossain even suggests that his task was mainly that of a translator. However, scholars who have analyzed his text tell us otherwise.

They point to the existence in eighteenth and nineteenth century India of Persian and Urdu narratives based on the Karbala events and their consequences and the impact they had on Bengali Muslims. In fact, Hossain's main sources seem to be extant stories of the events in Bengali Muslim puthi literature based on these sources as well as his own very fertile imagination.

In a few instances, his own life seems to have contributed to the shaping of the narrative in crucial ways. For example, the problems that arise when one has to contend with co-wives, as is the case with Husayn in Book I of The Ocean of Sorrow, appears to have their origins in Hossain's own life, for his first wife, Azizunessa, made life difficult for Hossain as well as his second and dear wife Bibi Kulsum in all kinds of ways, creating endless problems for him! Thus it is that he can put Mainuma and Zaida's scheming in perspective by having his narrator declare, "The moment a woman thinks of her co-wife, the fire in her can burn with a double, triple, or quadruple intensity."

Hossain claims that his main intention as a writer was "to present the main events of Moharram" to his Bengali readers in a manner that would enable them to "understand them easily".  To that end, he deploys a number of techniques that gave his narrative a distinctive tone. Foremost of these elements is the creation of a narrator, who, in the tradition of classical novels of the European tradition, breaks off from the narrative from time to time to engage readers in the unfolding narrative in ingenious as well as not so subtle ways.

For instance, in Chapter 2 of Book I the narrator tells the reader why he or she should not expect messages to be addressed to people in medieval Arabia the way they were delivered in nineteenth century Bengal. But the narrator can also resort to irony to place things in perspective, as when he offers "a thousand salutations…to the spirit of wine" for making a hardened sinner like Yazid feel contrite on inebriated occasions.

In fact, throughout the narrative, Hossain intercedes again and again to reveal the shaping hand that directs the narrative and to assure readers that he was always conscious of their needs. To that end, too, every now and then he will resort to moralizing on events or on human nature to bring out their significance and summarizing the plot underscoring the ethical issues involved in acts people choose to perform for their benefit.

But what is really amazing in Ocean of Sorrow is the manner in which Hossain interjects into his narrative passages where the narrator can share with readers the problem he has in writing his narrative. This is because he writes in a climate where freedom of expression beyond limits is hazardous, both because of the presence of a colonial government which has its own draconian codes on the limits beyond which writers must not trespass, and a very conservative readership in Bengal.

Indeed, Hossain was accused of blasphemy after the first Book had been published and blamed for treating imaginatively events that some conservative Muslims of his times felt should have remained sacrosanct. To take an example of how frustrated he felt at being hemmed in by such responses, one can adduce the truly amazing outburst in the opening pages of the fourth chapter of Book II where he has all the angels descend to the plains of Karbala to deliver the "last rites to Husayn and the other mighty souls who were with him on earth."

Hossain declares that he is aware of the outcry that might ensue because he has made the heavenly messengers descend from heavenly heights at this juncture of his narrative. He laments that there have been attempts "to have the poet's imagination suddenly interrupted before it has expressed itself fully" and that "ignorance" and "superstition" in the late nineteenth corner of the world he works in has already taken their toll on some writers. He lets readers know at this juncture how the "first volume of Ocean of Sorrow has managed to arouse the ire of the ignoramuses in our midst".

His fault, he reveals, is "no more than the fact" that he has "used in print words that have currency in East Bengal to address prophets and Imams" in his book. To bring the heavenly messengers down to earth, he suggests, is a must for him; after all, he is dealing with a theme and in a genre that demands that the supernatural elements play their parts. As far as he is concerned, the fate of Hasan and Husayn and the outcome of the Karbala massacre went beyond human history and involved divine intervention again and again.

It is clear that Hossain's progressive inclinations have made him dare to enter into fictional areas that could offend conservative Muslim opinion and even the establishment. Another instance of the audacity of his imaginative undertaking, given the society and political situation in which he lived, is to be found in Book II, Chapter 5. Here, and not strictly in context, for the chapter is really about the triumphant Yazid doing whatever pleased him after the rout of the Medina army in Karbala, the narrator slips in a paean to liberty thus:

"Liberty-the word has such a wonderful ring to it! To have liberty is so delightful! An independent country is a place where one can be so much at ease." That these lines were written soon after the formation of the Indian National Congress in December 1885-an event that galvanized educated Indians chafing at British sovereignty who were sensing that the time was coming for them to wrest back control from the British-make them transcend their context.

One senses here that Hossain is no longer interested in only Yazid and is using him as an excuse to address an issue that has made him think about the possibilities as well as the limits of freedom, not only for the writer but also of his people. As with Haman's meditation on governance (discussed above), they point to Mir Mosharraf Hossain's political sensitivity and desire to use his narrative to articulate his beliefs about good and bad governments and the limits of freedom in colonial Bengal.

There are many such instances where the alert reader can sense Hossain breaking the narrative frame to alert readers to his larger interests in writing the story of Karbala. One gets the impression in the battle scenes, as one does in Homer's Iliad, of a narrative that stresses the horrors of war as much as the necessity of heroic conduct because of the writer's ambivalent attitude to the role wars play in human lives. Hossain's presence is also felt in his asides on lust, ambition and greed, etc.; not a few episodes and characters seem designed solely to convey his feelings about them to readers.

Thus the digression involving Moslem's sons towards the end of Book I and the one involving Shimar in one of the opening chapters of Book II strain the reader's patience considerably when they deviate at such length from the story of Hasan and Husayn and from the outcome of the Karbala war to portray men driven by all-consuming greed. These episodes also point to the greatest failing of Hossain as an author-his lack of restraint. Certainly, the second book of Ocean of Sorrow would have become as impressive as Book I and Book II if Hossain had not been so self-indulgent in giving us episodes such as that of Moslem's sons and Shimar's bid to claim the reward posted for Husayn's head from Yazid regardless of the human cost involved.

Hossain's shaping presence in the narrative is, of course, as evident in the narrative in his style as it is in his thematic interventions and moralizing asides. Aside from his use of epic conventions, mention must be made of his prose, which he flavored at appropriate moments with rhetorical elements; his frequent recourse to Sanskrit-based Bengali words or his somewhat less use of words derived from the Arabic and Persian; and his use of epic diction and special stylistic devices to elevate episodes and give them the flavor of a work worthy of being considered with other grand narratives of heroic happenings and larger than life characters as well as supernatural situations.

Hossain's characterization is also evidence of his skills as a novelist; certainly, he has made women like Maimuna and Zaada and men like Shimar and Marwan convincing in their villainy, although his most impressive creation in this vein is Yazid. And while the brothers Hasan and Husayn are too conventionally good, Zayneb is outstanding as the portrait of a noble woman who agonizes intensely on the trial of destruction she has unwittingly spun in the course of her life.

The after-life of Ocean of Sorrow   
Mir Mosharraf Hossain's Ocean of Sorrow has had a unique and amazing afterlife. It attracted wide attention in Bengal as the three books that constitute the complete work came out one after the other from 1885 to 1891. Hindu Bengali reviewers mostly welcomed it since they had rarely seen a Bengali Muslim wield the Bengali language with the kind of competence and flair that Hossain had shown in his work. 

Representative of such responses is the eminent Bengali Hindu scholar Hariprasad Shastri's 1887 review of the first book (written in English) in the annual report of the Bengal Library where he declared: "Mir Mosharraf Hossain's Bishad Sindhu, based on the events of Karbala, is one of the best works in the Bengali language.

The earnestness and paths of the work, its elevated moral tone and dignified diction, raise it to a high level, and mark a distinct departure, both in matter and in manner, from the current examples of imaginative writing in Bengali." Educated Muslim Bengalis, on the whole, were understandably elated since here was one of them writing at a level that did them proud.

Later generations of Bengali critics also found the book amazing in all sorts of ways. They commented, for example, on the liberal and progressive perspective that Hossain often adopted and his deliberate attempts to model himself on epic writers. But others appreciated the deftness with which he drew on the Muslim Bengali tradition of puthis and other extant prose narratives published on the Karbala events to weave oral and literary traditions together to compose a major text that would become timeless.

    But it is the way that the story of the plight of Hasan and Husayn and their descendants, and the villainy of Yazid and Marwan that attracted the people of East Bengal that is truly amazing, if one studies the after-life of Ocean of Sorrow. This is because the people of this part of Bengal adopted Hossain's narrative as if it was their own national epic. This story of agony, pain and the loss caused by the villainy of Yazid and of the ultimate triumph of the Islamic forces against the kind of heathenism he represented struck a sympathetic chord in the region. The full text of the work has gone through countless printings and is even now available in any number of editions, indicating its continuous popularity in Bangladesh for well over a century now.

But in addition to the print editions from which sections were often read out in parts of Bengal on special religious occasions, episodes from Ocean of Sorrow have been adopted for recital and/or performances combining music, dance and dramatic verse.

Even now these performances and readings of Hossain's works are features of rural Bangladesh, especially during the Moharrum month of the Islamic calendar and in the winter months of the country. These performances are known as Jari gaan (literally "songs of lamentation"). Although there can be other sources for these performances, most of them are about the plight of Hasan and Husayn and their families in Karbala, and most resort to Hossain's book for material.

If one takes into account the number of copies of Ocean of Sorrow printed since the end of the nineteenth century, the number of editions of the work still in print, and if one also takes into consideration the impact it has had on the popular imagination in rural Bengal for generations in spawning folk genres such as jari gaan, it will be no exaggeration to say that Mir Mosharraf Hossain's book is one of the most read and best loved books of the region. And yet the work has never been translated before. What follows, then, is the first English version of a work of unique importance and enduring popularity in Bangladesh, produced with the hope that it will give a new dimension to the after-life of Mir Mosharraf Hossain's masterpiece.


The writer, a retired professor of English, University of Dhaka, is a prominent translator and essayist.
The above excerpt has been taken from the introductory part of Ocean of Sorrow (Bishad Sindhu), published by Bangla Academy in 2016.

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