Iffat Nawaz’s novel Shurjo’s Clan is a horror story of the creepiest kind, undercut by pathos for the ghosts who do the haunting. The story opens with a description of the kind of house in 1970s Dacca that belongs to the realm of nostalgia, with a first floor and a second floor, and a floor in between where the protagonist, Shurjo, beloved child of a joint family in the new country of Bangladesh, has her room. On the surface, we are pulled in by evocative descriptions of a beautiful, idyllic life, filled with family dinners, music, and a loving father who records his daughter’s every speech on a cassette player. But the ghosts arrive immediately.
Shurjo’s father’s brothers Shoku and Bhiku died fighting in the independence war of Bangladesh in 1971. Shurjo’s father Babu and his ageing parents are tormented by these twin tragedies, from which, it seems, they can never recover. To complicate matters, Shurjo’s mother Bela also has a dark family history. When Bela was young, her mother Shantori killed herself by jumping into a well. These tragedies haunt the inhabitants of the house in Gandaria, until the ghosts show up on day.
Visitors from the ‘Unknown World’
The sorrowful family is delighted to trade in their losses for a strange existence in which every evening, their lost loved ones cross over from the world of the dead, the Unknown World, into the Known World, to pass time in endless family merriment. In the morning, they disappear, leaving the living characters to face their days in unhappiness. One might say that the family deliberately chooses to live in memories with the dead, allowing the dead to take space in their lives every night and allowing their pathos to seep into their own lives.
The novel takes a horrific turn, however, when the child Shurjo is born in this dark, desolate home. Her parents are faced with a dilemma. Should they kick out the ghosts of their loved ones to make room for a new, bright future for Shurjo? The ghosts are not menacing. Rather, their need to remain a part of the family is pitiful and sad.
When Shurjo’s father suggests that growing up in a house haunted ghosts may not be healthy for his young daughter, his younger brother Bhiku, who died when he was only 18, “lowered his head, then looked up, his eyes a still pond. ‘Do you want us to leave?’” The dead are almost comical in their efforts to persuade Babu and Bela to let them continue to be part of their lives. They promise to be festive and upbeat around Shurjo if they are allowed to keep visiting every night.
Ultimately, just as Babu suspected, the burden of listening to the sad stories of her family’s dead
members ultimately becomes too much to bear for the small child. Too late, her parents discover that
she is scarred by these horrifying figures in her life, a maternal grandmother who committed suicide and two young uncles who were martyred fighting to give her a free country.
While the ghosts have no intention of harming the living characters, their menace lies in their desperation to let their family know their stories. They want to ensure that their sorrows make an impression on their family members. In the process, they end up traumatising the living characters so badly that it is impossible for them to live normal lives. Babu, Shurjo’s father, says, “We feel a sense of loss at the start of each day.”
They can only live in their memories, by recreating their pasts, and letting their loved ones freely wound their souls.
A new mode of telling history
All the characters in the novel try to escape the haunting, although most are unable to do so. We see Bela trying to create a new life for herself, only to witness the signs of her mother’s depression return to haunt her child Shurjo. We see Babu try to escape the ghosts of his brothers by leaving his home and parents and taking his wife and daughter to America, and yet, the ghosts follow him there.
Their last hope is Shurjo, the bright child of a new country. Will she survive the haunting of the ghosts and make peace with her past?
The book oscillates between fairy tale and horror as new modes for the historical novel. Like a character of a fairy tale, Shantori was in love with the river of her childhood, Bhagirathi. Forced to migrate to Dhaka with her husband following the riots in Calcutta during Partition, Shantori rejects her new homeland, searching vainly for the river of her childhood that she has left behind. This search ultimately leads her to jump to the bottom of a well of water. The image of the of the martyred figures Shoku and Bhiku coming to dinner every evening echoes Bangladeshi families recounting their stories of 1971 over and over again.
The early chapters of the novel recount the history of each character, in an almost necessary family history, retelling the stories by which Bengalis trace their mythology, Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula, the Partition, the riots in Calcutta, and other oft-repeated stories, as if who we are and where we are from has to be established before the story can be told. This battle for identity is itself a big part of the novel.
When a mean classmate challenges Shurjo, saying that her family is not really Bangladeshi, since her grandparents crossed over from India, we see that this sentimentality surrounding identity lies at the heart of the characters’ depression. Shurjo’s tragic maternal grandmother Shantori feels that she is an outsider in a new place, a refugee who has left her home, and this simple fact of displacement robs her of the will to live.
Similarly, although Shurjo contends that she never has to prove her patriotism because “her family had added their own flesh and blood to the soil of the country”, we see that she bears a deep grudge for this sacrifice and is ultimately unable to live in the country her uncles and her father fought to create for her.
Like in all good horror stories, the rules of the world are solid. From the beginning, the characters ask why the dead have come back suddenly, what is their purpose, and how will they leave? Although it takes two generations to solve the mystery, they figure it out in the end, luckily for Shurjo, and most satisfyingly for the reader.
Shurjo’s Clan, Iffat Nawaz, Penguin.