South Asian Literature in Translation: Beloved Rongomala

Beloved Rongomala by Shaheen Akhtar, translated from Bangla by Shabnam Nadiya

Publication date: 2018
Publisher: Bengal Lights Books (Dhaka)
ISBN-13: 978-9843450487

1) Tell us about this book and its original author.

SN: Shokhi Rongomala (Beloved Rongomala in my translation) is Shaheen Akhtar’s third novel. She’s one of my favorite writers and I’ve been translating her work for over a decade. Akhtar has received multiple awards in Bangladesh as well as abroad, the most recent being the 3rd Asian Literary Award, a major prize in South Korea, for her novel Talaash (The Search, trans. Ella Dutta), translated into Korean by Seung Hee Jeon. 

Beloved Rongomala is the entwined story of two women—Rongomala, the low-caste mistress of a louche zamindar (feudal landlord), and Phuleswari, his young queen—who are charismatic and complex. Akhtar discovered a pala gaan, a folk music form similar to ballads, in southern Bengal while researching an anthology of women’s representation in Bengali literature. The pala gaan, Chowdhury-r Lorai (Chowdhury’s Battle), depicted a battle between the zamindar and neighboring kingdoms, alongside family feuds and palace conspiracies. Akhtar also came across a lake named after Rongomala and the ruins of the Chowdhury palace. It was a slice of local history that historians mostly ignore; Akhtar took that saga as her core narrative but crafted the story from the women’s point of view.

2) Why were you drawn to choose the book for translation?

SN: One of the things I love about Akhtar’s work is how she consistently takes the reader to the story behind the story and gives voice to people silenced by history. And she does this flawlessly, without containing her characters within a victimhood narrative box. In The Search, it was the wartime mass rape survivors whose complex, compelling stories came to the fore. In Beloved Rongomala, we hear from the women whose lives are wholly determined by the men they ‘belong’ to. I remember turning the last page of the book, awash in a slew of emotions, and realizing very clearly that this was a book only a woman writer could have authored. 

In addition, I was so in love with many characters in the book: astute and vivid renderings of people constrained by circumstance. And even minor characters are distinct and alive in these pages. One of my favorite characters, for instance, is Somiron Bibi, the wife of the royal boatsman Karim Sheikh. She only shows up a handful of times, yet I was entranced by her gossipy curiosity, her attempts to balance her maternal tenderness and loyalty towards her husband who was furious at their daughter. Akhtar is a genius at providing specific detail to make a character blossom: one of my favorite scenes is Somiron Bibi ‘twitching like a headless chicken’ because she can’t leave the stove but is missing out on a choice bit of royal gossip. Details about what she’s cooking—duck egg curry—and her action of slicing the boiled eggs with a strand of her own hair make that minor scene a standout. 

3) What were the key challenges and surprises for you during the translation process/journey?

SN: Translating Akhtar’s prose is always a challenge, but a joyful one. Beloved Rongomala in particular, is steeped in the diverse local traditions of southern Bangladesh (an area from where both Akhtar’s and my own family originate). This was more than a question of just language—it was essential to figure out how to translate cultural cues and contexts. To give you one example, there’s a scene where the chief maid brings in a Mullah to perform a ‘cure’ on the ailing young queen. To the majority of source language readers, the very name of the man and his presence is weighted and fraught with several layers of transgression: he’s a man in the women’s quarters, a Muslim man in the inner quarters of a Hindu household, a low-class Muslim man in the inner quarters of a Hindu royal household. For the non-South Asian reader, I tried to provide clues through careful tweaking of the text, e.g. the Mullah is ‘smuggled in’ instead of ‘brought in,’ windows are ‘quickly shuttered’ instead of merely shut. I hate adding footnotes in fiction, and so finding other organic strategies to bridge the lack of cultural knowledge is something I’m always trying out.

4) What’s one thing you wish readers knew or appreciated more about this book?

SN: Beloved Rongomala doesn’t just give voice to women (mostly ignored by formal history) but centers a woman who is low-caste. I’ve mentioned that the novel originated in a folk ballad and if you notice the title of the pala gaan, it’s about the zamindar, who’s male and upper-caste.  The very title of Shaheen Akhtar’s novel focuses on Rongomala—a low-caste woman in a relationship outside of the bonds of marriage. This re-centering makes for a complex story, one which provides no easy answers to unsettling questions.

5) What’s your next translation project that we can look forward to?

SN: I’m in the last stages of completing a selection of stories by Bangladeshi writer Mashiul Alam. The manuscript, The Meat Market and Other Stories, was awarded a PEN/Heim Grant in 2020 and one of the translated stories from the collection (title: Milk) won the 2019 Himal Short Story Competition. 

Mashiul Alam’s work is diverse—from realist narratives to political satire to surreal fantasies. The stories I’ve chosen for this collection are rooted in the familiar but shot through with magical or surreal elements. I love the way his fiction creates a sense of unease, of disruption, and does so with a broad emotional range. The Meat Market, for instance, exemplifies the brutal, base nature of contemporary consumerist society: people only know how to slaughter, how to eat, how to belch. Yet alongside that, he has a story like Milk, which, despite the abject lives described, propels the reader towards a sense of wonder. I find his work quite unique and I’m excited about these stories that move with such ease among the real, the unreal, the magical real, and the surreal.

Author Bio: Shaheen Akhtar is the author of five novels and four short story collections. In 2004, her novel Talaash won the Prothom Alo Book of the Year award; in 2020, the Korean translation of  the novel (translated by Seung Hee Jeon) was awarded the 3rd Asian Literary Award in South Korea. The English translation of Talaash (The Search, trans. Ella Dutta) was published by Zubaan in New Delhi in 2011. Akhtar was presented with the Shera Bangali 2014 award by India’s leading Bengali news channel ABP Ananda, and in Bangladesh, the Bangla Academy Literature Award in 2015. In 2015, she also received the Akhteruzzaman Elias Katha Shahitya Prize and  the IFIC Bank Award for her novel Moyur Shinghason (The Peacock Throne). Her most recent novel Oshukhi Din (Unhappy Days), about the 1947 Partition, won the Gemcon Literary Award 2019. (Image Source: Shabnam Nadiya)

Translator Bio: Shabnam Nadiya is a Bangladeshi writer and translator, settled in California. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is the recipient of the Schulze Fellowship (2013); the Steinbeck Fellowship (2019) for her novel-in-progress Unwanted; a PEN/Heim Translation Grant (2020) for her translation of Bangladeshi writer Mashiul Alam’s fiction. Her translation of Mashiul Alam’s short story, Milk, won the 2019 Himal Southasian Short Story Contest. Nadiya’s translations include Moinul Ahsan Saber’s novel The Mercenary (Bengal Lights Books, 2016; Seagull Books, 2018), Shaheen Akhtar’s novel Beloved Rongomala (Bengal Lights Books, 2018), and Leesa Gazi’s novel Hellfire (Eka/Westland, 2020). Her original work and her translations have been published in: SAAG Anthology, The Offing, Joyland, Amazon’s Day One, Gulf Coast, Copper Nickel, Wasafiri, Words Without Borders, Asymptote, Al Jazeera Online, Flash Fiction International (WW Norton.) (Image Source: Shabnam Nadiya)

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast. Her story collection, Each of Us Killers, and her literary translation, Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, were out in 2020. Her writing has appeared in various venues in the US, UK, and India, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, NPR, BBC Culture, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers, and others. Having worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.

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