Book Title: Beloved Rongomala
Author: Shaheen Akhtar
Shaheen Akhtar’s stunning book reads less like a novel and more like a fable of yore, full of grand passions, overweening ambitions, treachery, stories behind the story and subplots. It tells of the relationships between Raj Chandra Chowdhury, a petulant feudal king, his childlike wife Phuleshwari, and his low-caste mistress Rongomala, whose beauty is unparalleled. The plot plays out in the small kingdom of Bhulua in southern Bangladesh, where the king, oblivious of the threat of the increasing influence of the British East India Company, plays his idle pleasure games. Owner of a crumbling estate, he still lives in the glory of erstwhile times, while his family and courtiers spend time in family feuds and palace intrigues.
‘Beloved Rongomala’, originally ‘Shokhi Rongomala’, is the award-winning Bangladeshi author’s third book. At the centre of the plot is the murder of Rongomala, which Akhtar transforms into a saga of class and gender struggle. While Rongomala has the minor king, Raj Chandra, irrevocably under her spell even as the family wealth of Queen Phuleshwari is the reason for the king’s affluence, the power in this gender equation clearly lies with the man. A foolish and vain king dominates the women, including the queen mother, Ma Shumitra.
The book is full of evocative sensual pictures — women running to pick the fallen mangoes after a storm, the enigmatic mountains of Tripura, the star-studded sky that hangs over a calm sea, smoke wisping in the air, and the crows cawing and shrieking as they soar overhead in hundreds. The humid greenery of the marshy region of Samatata, the hard summer heat and the torrential rains add to the heavy atmosphere of the book. The marsh is home to the marginalised Mog community of lake diggers, to which Rongomala belongs. She lives in Nor House, a cottage on stilts inside a lake, which later becomes her and the king’s pleasure house.
The fate of the two women — the wife and the mistress — intertwines. While the concubine is ambitious and charming, the wife is the eternal child bride, occupied in “feeding, bathing and play-weddings of her pet birds”. Intensely jealous of Rongomala, she imagines her even in the act of lovemaking with her husband. The women characters are well fleshed out and seem better equipped for survival than the men. Even as they must succumb to the dictates of the man, they are not victims. Rongomala herself rebels against her reduced status as a lower caste woman. Her immortality and fight for wealth is punished. “That unfortunate girl had perished because of her fancy to have a lake cut in her name — an honour a lowborn woman couldn’t claim.”
Shabnam Nadiya’s translation does full justice to Akhtar’s cinematic prose. She has captured the cultural nuances and contextual allusions of southern Bangladesh in the 18th century. The translation retains Akhtar’s lyrical tone and storytelling style.