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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 47 New Delhi November 10, 2018

Battle of Karbala Revisited

Monday 12 November 2018

BOOK REVIEW

by K.S. Subramanian

Ocean of Melancholy: The Tragedy that was Karbala by Mir Mosharraf Hossain; Niyogi Books, New Delhi; 2018; Price: Rs 395.

The battle of Karbala in Iraq in 680 CE was a watershed in the historical development of Islam and gave birth to two leading sects of the religion: the Shias and the Sunnis. It is of vital importance to Indians, especially the Hindus, to understand the real causes of the battle and the historical consequences that it had.

The novel Bishad Sindhu or ‘Ocean of Melancholy’, on the battle of Karbala by Mir Mosharraf Hossain in 1885, is a classic in Bengali literature that was popular among both Hindus and Muslims of undivided Bengal. The battle of Karbala took place on October 10 of 680 CE and led to the inhuman killing of about 75 people of the Shia community among whom were Imam Hussein and his kinsmen, including children, by the Sunni followers of the cruel dictator, Yazid. The original novel in its Sanskritised Bengali version has been ably translated in this book by the eminent free-lance writer and poet, Alo Shome. She is to be warmly congratulated and thanked for her labours.

The battle of Karbala is remembered as Muharram and is commemorated every year by the Shia Muslims. It was a battle of succession following the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE. One group of followers of Prophet Muhammad, based in Medina and led by his grandsons Hassan and Hussein, clashed with a Damascus-based larger military detachment of the forces of Yazid, the Umayyad Caliph, after their refusal to accept his overlordship and pay tributes to him. The plot is dramatic with an undertone of myth, deeds of heroism and divine intervention. The story explores the sufferings of human life and the petty jealousies, covetousness and hatred in human beings. It provides an unforgettable picture of the bloodbath and killings that took place in the fateful battle at Karbala.

Mir Mosharraf Hossain (1847-1911) was an eminent litterateur, activist and thinker, one of those who emerged during the Bengal Renaissance. He authored 35 books of which Bishad Sindhu (1885) is regarded as the best. Though a zamindar’s son, Hossain explored the hard-headedness of this class of people. He also defended the Hindu practice of cow protection. Apart from novels and plays, Hossain wrote poetry, satire, textbooks, autobio-graphy and biography. He depicted the follies and vices of his age.

Bishad Sindhu is based on the seminal event of the battle at Karbala in which Imam Hussain was killed. Full of pathos, it found immense popularity among Hindus and Muslims alike. The novel was reprinted several times and made the author immortal. Of significance in the novel is the fact that though Mosharraf displays profound sadness over the killing of the brothers, Hassan and Hussain, the grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad, at the hands of their sworn enemy, Yazid, he also seems to empathise with the party opposing the two. Some literary critics went to the extent of characterising Yazid as the real hero of the novel and not the brothers, Hassan and Hussain. Though a wicked man, Yazid is glorified for his ability to love the beautiful Zainab, the wife of Hassan. His unrequited love is brought out delicately in Part I of the novel. The author brings out the fault-lines of both the rival sides. While Yazid and his associates are cruel unbelievers, Hassan and Hussein are strong believers in premonitions and supernatural forces which they believed would protect them from harm.

A unique feature of the novel is Hossain’s use of the Bengali language, which contributed immensely to the development of the language. The book’s popularity led the author to add two more sections to the novel: Uddhar Parva (‘Operation Rescue’) in 1887 and Yazid Badh Parva (the ‘Slaying of Yazid’) in 1891. The three separate parts were later printed together. Though a brilliant literary exercise, the novel has its faults: historical inaccuracy, unnecessary sub-plots, surplus characters and avoidable verbosity. The novelist’s talent shines through in the first part on ‘The Story of Muharram’. The other two parts remain lengthy accounts of warfare.

The translated version of the book includes Part I on Muharram Parva; followed by Part II on Uddhar Parva; and Part III on Yazid Badh Parva. An epilogue discusses the battle between good and evil and the triumph of the former.

Alo Shome notes that the battle of Karbala, on which the novel is based, was really a political power struggle. It came about when Yazid, the ruler of Damascus, wanted to crush a group of people who refused to accept his suzerainty. However, the imaginative author displays his creative skill in portraying the story as arising out of Yazid’s love for a married woman as the main cause of the Karbala battle.

The play of supernatural elements linked to the story-line is quite fascinating. At the very beginning of the story, Archangel Gabriel comes down from Heaven with a message from God to Prophet Muhammad that ‘the child of one among his followers would become a staunch enemy of his beloved grandsons Hassan and Hussain. He would kill Hassan by poisoning him and slay Hussein with weapons.’ This prediction comes true.

Further, at the end of the novel, ‘the dead heroes of Karbala were granted fitting last rites by God, who sends all his celebrated saints from Heaven to Karbala to chaperon the martyrs of the Karbala battle to His abode. Archangel Gabriel was the first to come down to earth. He was followed by Adam, Moses, Solomon, David, Abraham and Ismail.’

The villain of the story, Yazid, who inflicted unbelievable violence on those who refused to accept his suzerainty, is duly punished by Zayn-al-Abidin and Muhammad Hanafiyyah from the other side who defeats him and deprives him of his power. Thus, good triumphs over evil and God intervenes to restore order and justice: an elevating lesson for humanity.

Alo Shome, the intrepid translator of the complex novel, and the publishers Niyogi Books, New Delhi, deserve our grateful thanks.

The reviewer is a former civil servant and scholar. He is the author of Security, Governance and Democratic Rights: Essays on the Northeast, published by Niyogi Books, New Delhi.

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