South Asian Literature in Translation: Black Ice

Black Ice by Mahmudul Haque; translated from Bangla into English by Mahmud Rahman

Publication date: January 5, 2012
Publisher: HarperCollins India
ISBN-13: 978-9350292174

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

MR: Mahmudul Haque was one of Bangladesh’s premier prose stylists. Once unknown to me, he had written many novels and stories from the 1950s to the 1970s before turning his back on the literary world around 1981. For decades, he’d been a recluse. In 2006, just as I was beginning an extended stay in Dhaka to write a novel, I discovered him in a rare newspaper interview. Tidbits about the author and his writing fascinated me. I devoured all his books, then sought him out to seek permission to translate his writing. He generously welcomed me as a friend. I learned that one of his novels I loved, Kalo Borof, was his favorite. Written in a ten-day burst in 1977, it was published in a newspaper’s Eid supplement. It came out as a book in 1992. 

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

MR: I chose this novel because it is about the Partition. Though that historical tragedy is better represented in literature from India, there have been a few prose works about the subject from the Bangladesh side. In our common historical memory, we often overlook 1947 despite how this event played a crucial role in shaping who we are. Kalo Borof was the first novel I read that showed the long reach of Partition into a person’s adulthood in Bangladesh.

The book also appealed to me because it is written in two alternating voices. One voice is intimate: the first-person memories of childhood in Barasat, a suburb of Calcutta. The other voice is in the third person, slightly distanced; this one depicts Abdul Khaleq’s adult life in a rural town in Bangladesh and his growing alienation from his wife and the world around him.

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

MR: After I began visiting Mahmudul Haque every two weeks or so, we would talk about everything under the sun. Almost everything I learned about the Bangladesh literary scene from the 1950s through the early 1980s I learned from him. While translating the novel, I compiled a list of thorny questions that I wanted to take to him after completing a substantial draft. When I called to schedule that meeting, a different voice replied and told me that he had died the previous day. His death shattered me. In time, I had to find other resources to resolve those puzzles. I was able to find resources to help me with some dialect puzzles but one eluded me.

In the book, Poka and his friends come across a man who chants, “Hambyalay jambyalay, ghash kyambay khay?” Not a single person I asked knew what this meant. The author’s younger brother, Nazmul Haque Khoka, came to my aid. He vaguely remembered a saying in West Bengal putting down Bangals, people from East Bengal. The words were attributed to Bangals’ supposed confusion upon encountering an elephant: “A tail out in front, a tail while going, how the heck does it eat grass?”

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

MR: The Bengali original is a bit of a cult classic in Bangladesh. I often read accounts of new readers discovering Mahmudul Haque through this book. Those drawn to it are especially drawn to the style of the language, the two voices created by the author. I also believe readers are drawn to it because life in Bangladesh mostly avoids talking about the Partition. I hope that Black Ice finds a place in discussions about Partition literature.

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

MR: I have begun to translate Mahmudul Haque’s third and most complex novel, Jibon Amar Bon (My Sister – Life, the title an homage to Pasternak’s cycle of poems.) This was published a couple of years after Bangladesh came into being in 1971. It spans the month of March when a mass upheaval broke out against the Pakistani government’s refusal to respect a Bengali nationalist electoral victory, ending with a brutal military crackdown. I was especially struck by the refusal in the book to romanticize the movement. Written at a time when nationalist emotions ran high, the book sparked some controversy and even brought him to the attention of the security services. 

Author Bio: Mahmudul Haque (1941–2008) was one of Bangladesh’s premier prose stylists: the author of ten novels and numerous stories. He spent his childhood in Barasat outside Kolkata and moved with his family to Dhaka shortly after Partition. He started writing stories as a teenager. As an adult, he wrote fiction while making a living running his family’s jewelry shop. [Image Source: Mahmud Rahman]

Translator Bio: Mahmud Rahman is a writer and translator, originally from Bangladesh, now resident in California. His first book, Killing the Water: Stories, was published in 2010 by Penguin Books India. His second book, a translation of Bangladeshi writer Mahmudul Haque’s novel, Black Ice, was published in 2012 by HarperCollins India. He makes a living working in higher ed IT support.  (Image Source: Mahmud Rahman)

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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