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Reader Review: The Search (Talaash) by Shaheen Akhtar

The Biranganas or the Warrior Women was the term used to designate a class of women after the 1971 war of Bangladeshi Independence. They were the symbol of honor, sacrifice and valor; the very virtues so necessary for the freedom struggle. The irony of the situation was that these women who now stood for the honor of the newborn country were themselves dishonored and violated during the war.

Enter Mukti, a young researcher who is trying to find answers to complex questions about the life of a Birangana, Mariam. What was life like for Mariam in East Pakistan, during the 1971 war and finally in Bangladesh? What were the significant phases? Why did she remain in the city even when it was clearly dangerous for women to stay back in the conflict ridden areas? And importantly, why did she not commit suicide to avoid further dishonor when she had the opportunity to do so?

The Search (Taalash) is Shaheen Akhtar ‘s new novel, translated from Bengali by Ella Dutta. The text weaves through the circumstances and desires of women and the inevitable clash of the two in Mariam’s life. She is haunted by her personal demons of dreams unfulfilled and also fights a constant battle to find herself rehabilitated in proper society. Her experiences of violence and rape almost fade in comparison to her grief at being abandoned by the men in her life; Jashimul Haque, Abed Jahangir, Momtaj, Debashish and her grief pales in comparison with her desire to live, get married and have a child to raise.

The book alternates dexterously between dispassionate and emotional passages displaying hurt, pain, anger, jealousy, apathy and most importantly, helplessness. There is an undercurrent flowing through the novel about the clash of the personal sphere with the public one and the fact that a woman’s personal space is also highly political (in terms of power relations) because of the way a woman’s body is viewed as a possession by the men, especially in times of war; to emphasize victory/superiority over the enemy side by violating their ‘honor’. If this idea is understood, then is it not true that the Biranganas did pay for the freedom of Bangladesh (however unwillingly, helplessly) with much more than political ideologies and blood.

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