TURNING MYTHS INTO MORALITY STORIES – a book review

Ekram Kabir
Storytellers wonder as to what actually their readers or listeners want to read or hear. In fact, writers over the centuries have spent time thinking about this when they sat at their desks to write. Many who realised that readers do want to hear about their own lives in the story have succeeded as good writers. Writers who like to deal with people’s dreams, aspirations and certain intricacies of human existence are set to be remembered for a long time to come.
Shahnaj Munni is possibly one of them. Working as a TV journalist, she has hardly time to spare for creativity. All her time is spent in disseminating facts. But she is possibly a writer more than she is a journalist.
Her profession takes her to places where people normally do not plan to go. Journalism, for her, is good cause to get closer to ordinary people and learn about their unattainable dreams, their everyday passion. She seemed to have learnt a lot about commoners and their life. She deals with a wide range of people, from small entrepreneurs to beggars. She can even make a motorbike come alive.
Matir Transistor, her third work of fiction, a collection of 17 short stories, reflects exactly that. In ‘Matir Transistor’, the title story, Munni makes readers believe that humans are made of clay and they talk, they talk a lot; all their life they fail to understand that they are nothing but radios manufactured with clay.
Munni is also a lover of myths Indian, Greek and all that. In one of her earlier works, Jiner Konnya, she transformed the mythological tales into real-life incidents of present-day Bangladesh. These stories have a wonderful impact on present-day middle-class readers who discover the gods in themselves. Isn’t that Shakespearian or Marlowesque? Yes, the titans of English literature, like William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlow, had done this. Yes, these great playwrights turned myths into morality stories with strong messages.
Readers realise that the minds, dreams and conflicts of mythical gods and goddesses are no different from theirs. It is a tremendously gratifying feeling when one discovers some sort of godliness in one’s self. That perhaps would be best form of satisfaction of a human existence. This is how Munni makes her readers feel about a particular “need” or to an extent “want”.
Shundor in ‘Shundor Shaheber Shaban’ (Mr. Shundor’s Soap) is a soap manufacturer. He has inherited this business form his forefathers. Somehow Shundor develops a strong sense of righteousness in him. He wants to invent a brand of soap that can clean the human soul. This possibly leads him to some sort madness at the end. Shundor, who is portrayed as a virtuous person, is not altogether a man without any folly. He is seen to take comfort lying on the lap of a model, a young woman who works to promote his product. He does this despite being a married man. The ending of this story is similar to August Strindberg’s play Father in which the protagonist is proven to be a madman and left at the hands of fate.
Munni, among her readers, is known to be a user of difficult language. She says in this work she tried to keep her language easy, exactly like that people around us speak. For her, that is a good deviation as her earlier works had a problem with diction. The language she uses in those works would have made her a disciple of Madhusadan Dutt.
But the names Munni picks to call her characters are very commonplace. Characters such as Jharu Mian, Kohinoor and Nurun in ‘Matir Transistor’ are not even from the middle class; as humans these names perform in an area where becoming a middle class representative is a lifetime’s dream. Munni uses common names in all her short stories.
The most important aspect of Matir Transistor is possibly Munni’s depiction of the emotional struggle of the poor, their hopes, aspirations and worldly follies. In the story ‘Japani’, the central character Ibadat saves some money for his own wedding. But somehow he has bought a motorbike with that money. From then on, he starts loving his bike like a man loves his wife. When the bike is destroyed by a group of goons, Ibadat feels like losing everything. There lies Munni’s portrayal of human fall. Ibadat could have avoided buying the bike, but his passion for a bike leads him into placing more importance on it than his wedding. Passion for a bike is possibly Ibadat’s Achilles ‘ heel.
Human beings are not only helpless; they are also jealous and cruel people. Munni’s love for living things is displayed when she talks about human cruelty as well.
Somehow she has a different realisation about human beings; she understands how human lives become moments in space; she understands the ubiquitous dilemma of absurdism in every human mind. Humans are the only species who are driven by love and hatred for the same thing or person.
These are great stories. If these are translated, they are bound to be acclaimed in the international market. All her seventeen stories deal with the soul, with peace for the human soul. This is a very timely book. It is a time when the whole world possibly needs to go into soul searching. Similarly, TV drama producers in Dhaka should read these stories. They will certainly get good food for their productions.
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