In 1922, a young man was born in Sholashahar, Chittagong district, who was named Syed after a distant uncle who had passed away. Whether this uncle had been unappreciated during his lifetime, had drunk more than he should have or had played cards instead of taking care of his family, all these facts were not taken into account when the newborn was named.
Besides, the name fit him like a glove, and little Syed’s family soon forgot the forefather who had unknowingly given him his name. Sholashahar is a medium-sized city, located about 183 kilometers from Dhaka. As the story you hold (I hope firmly) in your hands begins, it is raining throughout the Chittagong district.
The date palms are glistening with fist-sized drops and the sun is struggling to regain its dominance in a sky obscured by thick clouds. A sparrow with blue reflections watches a house whose sparkling white indicates that it was recently repainted. Banyan trees stir in the east wind, and the wind drowns out the cries of little Syed, who is breastfeeding.
It is Friday at the beginning of this story and the father of the little boy returns from the mosque with a bound book in his arms. On the cover is written in Bengali « Gitanjali ». It is a collection of poems by the Indian scholar Rabindranath Tagore. The father is soaked, his foggy glasses prevent him from seeing clearly, but he finally finds the entrance to the house. After taking off his shoes, he weighs the volume and begins to rid it of the inopportune drops of water.
— What do you have with you? asks Arpita, his wife.
The young and pretty brunette carries the child in her naked arms. Her beige sari is crumpled on all sides. She wipes her sweaty face with her right arm. The sun slides into the main room of the house like an intruder. The rain has apparently just stopped beating the drum. Syed’s father glances out the small window. Then he closes it with a sigh.
— I talked with the mullah for half an hour. He is a scholar. And a great reader. He lent me this book.
— What are you going to do with it?
— We will read it to the child. Every evening. Each of the lyrical songs in this book we will read to him, one after the other. And when we have finished with the many poems that make up this book, the child will have grown up. And he will be able to write verses himself.
— Oh, I see. You want to make him a poet!
— Does that bother you?
— I don’t know…
— You know I used to keep a literary gazette myself.
— You talk so much about it!
— I would have liked to live from my pen. But the boy will live these beautiful things instead of me.
Syed’s father was an official of the British Raj. He spoke fluent English, which he taught his son from an early age. One day, Syed’s family moved to Mymensingh. The child had just turned eight. On the day the Walliullah family moved in, the Brahmaputra sent thick brown smoke into the air.
On the way to school every day, little Syed would inevitably come across a tombstone. It was covered by a red cloth. Intrigued by the remoteness of the grave, located on a small hill, the child would sit there for a while. He kept thinking about the characters in his next story. Syed’s father had long since finished reading Rabindranath Tagore’s work to his son. And he seemed to be following the wishes of the man who had raised him.
Syed sat on the ground in the small courtyard of his house, nonchalantly tracing Bengali letters on the floor. Then he would stare at the sun until he was blinded. He would run to the main room of their house in Mymensingh. At the table, he would write a draft of an adventure story every day according to this ritual.
How many war heroes have lost their lives in the guise of the young boy? How many heroines have been kidnapped under his sharp pen? I couldn’t tell you. But as someone who knew Syed as an adult, I can attest to his passion for adventure.
Many years later, when Syed had left Bangladesh to travel the world, he would remember his literary rendezvous with the sun and the courtyard of his childhood home.
And the day he forgot it was a turning point in his life. He had been visiting Australia for several weeks already, when, exhausted by the heat, he decided to give a chance to a small snack bar that distributed fresh water to the many customers. Syed worked as a journalist for The Statesman in Calcutta. He had been sent to Melbourne to take the pulse of the local Bengali community.
A woman in a long white dress, held by a broad brown leather belt laced waited for her glass while passing with a certain boredom a long spoon on her lips underlined of red. Syed stared at the beautiful stranger. It was obvious that she was not waiting for anyone. She had come like him to refresh herself here. He met the one who would become his wife. She was French, her name was Anne-Marie, and she lived on a tutor’s salary.
In 1947, a historic event changed the face of Asia forever: India painfully separated from Pakistan, which was born into the world as a nation. Syed, who was a Muslim, decided to join East Pakistan. This was the name given to Bangladesh at the time. He took Anne-Marie and her newborn son with him. When they arrived, they were greeted by a distant aunt who hugged Syed as if she was afraid of losing him in the turmoil of history.
The aunt was friendly, but intrusive, and like many of our lovely aunts, meddled in things that were none of her business. She pretended to sweep the living room of the house where Syed and his wife were staying, and glanced into the conjugal room whenever she could. Anne-Marie, who did not want to be spied on in this way, got her husband to move out within the year.
The couple moved a few kilometers from the mischievous old aunt in downtown Dhaka. Their home was next door to an elderly bihari couple, to whom Syed would read his short novels in the evenings. Inspired by his childhood in Mymensingh, the young man set out to write a story about a village that was disrupted by the arrival of a stranger with evil intentions.
This novel, « The Rootless Tree » was soon to become his masterpiece. And I, who was a friend of Syed’s, even though I am much younger than him, and who was so inspired by his work, can only recommend that you read it. This wonderful novel has changed my life! It helped me to understand my fellow human beings better by sharpening my sense of psychology. You don’t believe me? However, I am not a beneficiary of the author. I don’t get any taka on the sale of his books. But Syed has left us a long time ago, and I am getting older; I am losing the thread of my story…
The day « The Rootless Tree » was published, I was a very young man. The book was given a stand at the Dhaka book fair. I had gone to the Bengali capital to pursue my boredom-ridden studies in economics. I had skipped a class, not very proud of myself, and was wandering through the streets, when the noise of the fair drew my erratic steps. I, who loved to write and read so much, to see so many writers alive on the same day! I was overjoyed, I forgot about the missed economics class.
I recognized several names in Bengali literature, but as I passed a booth, I noticed the buzz around it. Onlookers had gathered around a man already in the prime of life, whose temples held strands of gray hair. It was Syed Walliullah, the writer who was to change the literature of my country forever.
I continued on my way and wandered through the fair. As evening began to fall, a rain shower began to fall on the book fair. Syed’s face turned a rusty color. He was upset that the books on his stand were leaking. I rushed over to help him and we got to know each other. He told me that his wife was expecting a second child, a girl, and that he had written « The Rootless Tree » to support his family. I found him a bit nervous, but I could tell that he was a very sensitive man, so I admired him even more.
His daughter was born a few days later and I used to visit the Waliullah family frequently. I used to sit on the roof of the couple’s house on a wicker mat. The night would cast its smoky eyes over us, and we would talk about the state of the world. Syed was particularly concerned about the independence of Bangladesh, which he could see beneath the hidden march of history.
1971 came quickly. Syed sent his wife and two children to England. I had resumed my studies of literature this time and stayed away from any form of academic politics. But Syed was passionate about the rebellion that was rumbling throughout the country.
He soon joined the Mukto Bahini. I could not stop him from giving his life for the Bengali nation. His ardor masked a sometimes macabre reality. The Pakistanis had imposed their language on East Pakistan of which Dhaka was the capital. I was just beginning to break through as a writer, Syed had already written the manuscripts of other masterpieces and the wind was blowing hard in the capital.
Our last meeting took place on the eve of the declaration of independence of Bangladesh. I had become suspicious, suspecting that my friendship with the famous writer made me suspect in the eyes of the Pakistani occupiers. So I shaved the walls and went to Syed Waliullah’s house. My hands were full of pastries, which I offered to my friend. He made me sit down.
— Now it is becoming serious.
— What is the matter?
— Independence. It will be proclaimed tomorrow.
He stood up suddenly, and took my hands in his. He was exulting with joy. I stepped back, wary. Even today, as that day is drowned in the murky waters of my memory, I still curse my cowardice of the time. Of course, I was young, I had just finished with pain my first novel…
I wanted to live, I think. I was afraid. No, I was terrified. The war had made me a receptacle of anguish. And that last evening, in the dim light of the candles that lit the patio of the house of the writer who had introduced me to the joys of literature, I fell silent. I was unable to answer anything to my friend. Syed didn’t seem to mind.
I thought of his wife and two children and my heart sank. I left him in an inky night. On the way back, a Pakistani official followed me. I knew him well, he had already come several times to ask me about Syed. It was only at the cost of the details I gave him about the life of the great writer that he let me work in peace.
Hey, what? I betrayed my best friend, yes, the greatest Bangladeshi writer of his time; I betrayed my motherland, perhaps, I know that much. But today, when old age is sniffing at me like an old dog, I want to shout it out loud: it is not me who betrayed Syed, it is the war. War has made me a monster, it has separated two souls that literature had brought together for a time. The war has buried my morals, it is it that pushed me, this last evening, to stammer trembling in front of the soldier’s uniform:
— He will join the rebels tomorrow.