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The Role of Religion and Superstition in "Trees Without Roots"

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Abstract

Syed Waliullah’s Tree Without Roots is the English translation/transcreation of his much acclaimed, classic novel, Lal Shalu. Set in the fictional village, Mahabbatpur, of the Bengal countryside, Tree Without Roots is centered around the fortune-hunting Majeed, who preys upon the simple-minded rural folks by exploiting religion, as he has no land or skills to support himself otherwise. It also portrays a picture of eternal Bengal, subject to the ravages of nature – storms, floods, cyclones and dying rivers. The Bangladeshi author, Syed Waliullah, has described how the text particularly deals with veritable colonialists like Majeed, who earn their livelihood through fraudulence even in this modern world by capitalizing on the irrational fear and superstition of the subalterns. I have adopted the library research method by studying the text, along with different pieces of literature writings and research works. This paper is an attempt to provide the readers with a more analytic idea of the Bengali mind and the impact of religion and superstition on the rural and urban populace.

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Key Words: Subalterns, Bengal, Rural, Religion, Superstition, Fraudulence

The original novel Lal Shalu (Red Cloth) was published in 1948, while its English translation was published with a maiden title called Tree Without Roots nineteen years later, in 1967. Syed Waliullah was equally adept in Bangla and English; though not conceded by him, it is now justly established that the English rendition was done by the novelist himself, which rationalizes the several changes that pertain to the new version – there are abridgements and diversifications, and a significant addition in the ending – who but the author himself could take such liberties? Moreover, in the original text there are intricacies and provocativeness of language, particularly in the dialogues, which would have been difficult for an outsider to convert into English as convincingly as has been done in Tree Without Roots. Professor Choudhury passes a more general judgement in describing Tree Without Roots as “certainly a revised and improved version of Lal Shalu” and “a great artistic achievement indeed.”

Syed Waliullah, the Bangladeshi Novelist, was born on 15 August 1922 at Sholashahar in Chittagong. His father was a government officer, whose postings took him to different mofussil towns in Bengal. Thus, young Waliullah, who accompanied his father, was able to discernpastoral life in Bengal. Infact, the story of Lal Shalu, which Waliullah wrote as a young man, was inspired by a shrine covered with red cloth that he would often pass by, when he lived with his father in Mymensingh. When he wrote Tree Without Roots he had become matured, better read, and had acquired a commendable mastery of the English language. To build up the structure of this novel, the novelist used stream of consciousness.

While in Paris, Waliullah absorbed existentialism and successfully incorporated it into his writings. He is often regarded as the pioneer of existential analysis in the literature of Bangladesh. His novels are a manifestation of his mastery in revealing the inner depths of his characters psyche. With the perceptibility of an artist, Waliullah had anticipated the destitution and sadness of the people in the villages, arising out of the sheer fact that there was little land and too many mouths to feed. On this context, Waliullah has written in the novel –

“Little food means more religion.”

He had an almost uncanny awareness of the shape of impending things, of the benefit that the ruling class would be making out of religion in order to enslave the public as well as to legitimize its own authority.

All of Waliullah’s published writings are set in Bengal and so is Tree Without Roots. He has fabricated a fictional village named Mahabbatpur as the stage for the actions of the conniving charlatan, Majeed, who has transformed the hitherto overlooked grave of an anonymous person into a shrine – about whose identity he knows nothing, yet whom he acknowledges to be a saint that has visited Majeed in a dream. The village is mostly allegorical; the outside world has no connection with it; no newspaper or electronic device reaches it; no education center exists; even that number one pastime of the Bengalis called politics is missing. Life here is primitive. This is an atypical village even for backward Bengal. The author compels our belief entirely by making full use of his subtle style, which is often ironical and always lively.

The central character in this novel, Majeed, who feigns to be a saviour of the hapless people around him, is himself a poor man and has been driven to his fraudulence by the urge for a source of income. What he does, is nonetheless, quintessential of what the ruling class has done and is still doing. Like Majeed, the rulers are incapable of doing anything productive; they are parasitical; whatever they do brings about nothing but misery for the people.

Majeed, the protagonist, is simultaneously a veritable colonialist and an active missionary. The man, who started as a vagabond desperado, ends up being a man well rooted in the society. To make a comfortable niche for himself, he plays on the religious sensitivity of the poverty-stricken, gullible villagers. He slowly lays down the groundwork: planting the seeds of fear into the hearts and minds of the innocent peasants, makes them feel guilty over the sinful neglect of the patron saint. Majeed soon establishes himself as a spiritual guide of the villagers through his charismatic behavior. He becomes the ruler and seeks to convert the simple peasants, who are almost heathens in their life-style, into devout Muslims. Everything in this village encircles around Majeed’s survival, even his values. Waliullah observes the drama – sometimes tragic, often farcical – from a distance and with aloofness; yet looks at it sympathetically. Indeed, he writes with a heavy heart. He understands his Majeed; he fathoms the ins and outs of the man who had actually migrated to Mahabbatpur fleeing drought, poverty and famine; for whom religion is a mere way of having food and shelter; so the novelist does not make Majeed the villain of the piece. On the contrary, Majeed arrives as the hero and remains so. He is as secluded as the shrine he has created and has become the slave of his own creation: though Majeed is anxiously aware of the game he is playing and the risks that come with it, there’s no turning back once he has embarked on it. Majeed is intimidating to others but terrified within himself. He feels nostalgic for his childhood home which he has left behind; he tries to set up roots in a land where he has never been before. He has no one to divulge his secrets to, and is incapable of pouring his heart out to anyone. Everything in this village encircles around his survival, even his values.

In an eccentric manner, this village represents Bangladesh in miniature, distinctly in respect of poverty and fundamentalism, which actually goes hand in hand, one helping the other, here as much as elsewhere. Therefore, reminding us of an eternal collaboration between poverty and religion. Waliullah knew how challenging it would be to change society, given the degree of poverty and the heartless machinations of its ruling class. The land is truly beset with swarming Majeeds of all sorts. Despite all his conspiracies, Majeed himself is no simple caricature in a satire; he is a tragic human character protecting himself and causing harm to others, not out of any ill motive, but driven by the sheer necessity of eking out a living.

Intriguingly, the translated version of the novel differs substantially from the original one. The change in the title of the new version of Lal Shalu implies that the emphasis has been shifted from the shrine to its caretaker. Considering the fact that it is nearly impossible to separate the two, here the limelight is sharper on the man: Majeed acquires “a certain grandeur” which is missing in the Bengali original.

Tree Without Roots agrees with the Bengali original in the essential storyline but the preamble of Tree Without Roots is longer and the conclusion is completely new. Lal Shalu concludes with a hailstorm; in the English version, the hailstorm is described in greater details and what happens afterwards. Even more noteworthy is what Majeed does when the hailstorm eventually stops. In a surprising turn of events, Majeed does not go to see what has happened to the mazar or to the crops in his fields. Rather, he rushes to Khaleque, the landowner and the wealthiest man in the village. The author discloses that deep down Majeed knew why he was going to Khaleque, although he reluctantly admitted it –

“The main source of his livelihood was not his land and his crops, but faith, and faith, he knew, though not as easily destroyed by natural calamity as material wealth, if once destroyed may never be restored.”

He knew that though the damaged mazar could be repaired, faith of the public in him and their trust in the mazar once shaken could never be restored. Hence, the man of religion must run to the man of material wealth; and the two must come together as one to preserve faith in the system. Majeed’s seeking help from Khaleque is both ironical and practical.

Khaleque, as we saw in the novel, had been subservient to Majeed. Khaleque had made an ample contribution to the setting up of a maktab and a mosque as he was feeling guilty on the palpable account of his failure to take care of the saint’s grave. For showing the audacity to send for blessed water from a pir in the neighbouring village, Majeed inflicted punishment on Khaleque, causing great pain to the naive landowner and his harmless wife. Interestingly, now that things have taken a melodramatic turn, Majeed must run to Khaleque, call him his friend, in order to seek his help, although diplomatically. It is none other than Khaleque who can rescue Majeed from disaster: should Khaleque lose trust in Majeed and his shrine, no one else in the village will have any faith in Majeed. Soon flood devours the village; fields are submerged; Despite Majeed’s home being threatened, he doesn’t forsake the mazar. For he knows that if he leaves, the entire village will lose faith in him and in the protection of God he has so persistently proclaimed to have been ensured by the holy saint. And that eventually, he will be rendered shelterless, perhaps forced to return to his native place.

Nevertheless, little does the nature care. The water level rises, Majeed is compelled to take both his wives to Khaleque’s house at the dead of night, while he strides back to his submerging home. Majeed, here, becomes an example of a typical Bengali peasant who is time and again beaten but never yields and clings to his dwelling even when struck by Nature. In the novel, as well as in the life of Bengalis, there are two faces: one nourishes and the other destroys. It does not change; on the contrary, the individual does.

As Waliullah writes –

“The animal cry of carrion-eating jackal of the night never changes, but the voice of man does, sometimes tender, sometimes commanding, fearful or domineering, gentle or cruel.”

So the questions are – will Majeed ever change? Having lost his mazar and in confronting his rebellious, non-conforming second wife, Jamila, will this imposter of a man reform as he takes his second birth in the land of his adoption becoming the head of a family, also owning up to the position of the teacher in the maktab and the muezzin of the mosque, perhaps declaring, it was God’s wish that the mazar must be abandoned, whilst religious education and practice be taken up sincerely through submission to the will of the Almighty? Will he do it? We are not certain. However, the one thing we are certain about is that a reformed Majeed would not be as intriguing to study for the readers as was the Majeed in Tree Without Roots.

Waliullah was trying to dig up the fallacy in pseudo-religious dogmas and its practices, which grounded heavily on patriarchal conjectures and dominion. Tree Without Roots is basically a portrayal of the traditional superstitious Bengali-Muslim society, where, the middle-aged protagonist, Majeed, pretends to be the “bearer of the light” to show the “rustic,” “illiterate,” “non-believer” inhabitants, the “right path.” The fear that Majeed initiated since his advent in the village continues till the end of the novel. Whenever there appears any sign of obstruction that threatens Majeed’s existence, he sharpens the sword of fear creating different spells to mitigate the poor village people.

The arrival of the Peer Shahib in a neighbouring village and the apparent anti-religious behaviour of Jamila are the two cases that make Majeed perplexed. As the appearance of the Peer shakes Majeed’s reign in his domain, he is instigated to handle the perilous situation at a great risk. In the beginning, Jamila seems like a soft lump to Majeed but later he discovers that Jamila is not that much submissive: she defies the patriarchal norms set for women; she does not possess any religious fear; she breaks through all the shackles that Majeed wants to put her into; builds a sort of resistance against the patriarchal paradigm of control; she is obstinate and does whatever she considers better; He attempts to exert his influence on her was fails to do so. Hence, Jamila’s revolt makes her a conscious, independent, modern woman who does not believe in groundless superstitions. She refuses to be colonized by Majeed which makes her a truly empowering individual.

In the course of the novel, Majeed, who is a round character, undergoes some transitions. The rootless, financially helpless, and religiously corrupt Majeed that we see at the beginning of the novel, transmutes into a socially influential, economically strong and highly eloquent religious guru by the end of the novel. Regardless of these changes, the one thing that is constant is that Majeed suffers from loneliness and insecurity throughout the novel.

Tree Without Roots has become an indubitable sketch of the agrarian Muslim society. In this novel, Syed Waliullah has very artistically depicted the early superstitious scenario of Bengali-Muslims which still lingers. No matter where you live, be it in pastoral or urban area, people have certain beliefs and superstitions. South-Asian countries mainly Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are no exception in this case. Though the modern world is becoming fast and progressive, there are some people in these countries who are still superstitious, having strong faith in the local beliefs. Superstitions stem from tensions, anxieties and fears which have a strong clutch over humanity as it struggles down the corridor of life from birth to death, irrespective of their educational and financial status.

Superstition is the belief that certain things or events may bring good or bad luck. It is a practice resulting from ignorance of the laws of nature, fear of the unknown, faith in magic or chance, or a false conception. There is a section of the society which manipulates minds of the people to their advantage, hoarding mass wealth from the victims by exhibiting power in so called miracles and supernatural feats under the disguise of divine blessings. These god men/women, babas, peers, shadhus, matajis and maharajas are the main transporters of superstitions, possessing a strong hold on common people. They mainly target the weak-minded people, capitalizing on their lack of knowledge. Such people are oblivious to the fact that they are mere pawns in the ‘vicious game’ of the hostile predators. Even literate people and elite classes support these sly imposters who have literally twisted the definition of superstition under the name of faith. These deceitful, opportunists use superstition as a weapon to exploit religion.

There are thousands of Majeeds out there. They are story-telling geniuses who have the capability of enchanting people with their rhetoric. They can easily comprehend people’s psyche and use it against them. They don’t want the bubble of fear that they have created to ever get burst. These people are the representatives of gross poor Muslims who seek their existence in self-created religious identity. They not only want to establish economic solvency but also psychological domination over their community. Their survival precedes everything, even their values, morals and conscience.

As Waliullah writes in Tree Without Roots –

“It is tricky for one to know whether one has sinned, and to what degree, Majeed told himself. Except I do identify that I am not terrified for the reason of my misdeeds. My fright is of having to return to where I began.”

It is written in The Holy Quran –

“See you not how Allah sets forth a parable? A goodly word as a goodly tree, whose root is firmly fixed, and its branches (reach) to the sky (i.e. very high).” [V.14:24]

“And the parable of an evil word is that of an evil tree uprooted from the surface of earth, having no stability.” [V.14:26]

Therefore, a dishonest man is like a tree without its root, with no stability or firmness to hold his ground.

Superstition is the child of ignorance and the mother of misery. Belief and miracles grow in the soil of ignorance. To any man who is capable of thinking, miracles are not only impossible but also unthinkable.

Some verses in The Holy Quran concerning the superstitions that people cling on to regarding mazars –

“Verily, you cannot make the dead to hear nor can you make the deaf to hear the call (i.e. benefit them and similarly the disbelievers), when they flee, turning their backs.” [V.27:80]

“Nor can you lead the blind out of their error.” [V.27:81]

“O mankind! A similitude has been coined, so listen to it carefully: Verily, those on whom you call besides Allah, cannot create (even) a fly, even though they combine together for the purpose. And if the fly snatches away a thing from them, they will have no power to release it from the fly. So weak are (both) the seeker and the sought.” [V.22:73]

Each one of these verses strongly supports the argument that the dead people resting in the shrines cannot help the living human beings in any way. They are incapable of using their senses in serving any kind of benefits as they are no longer alive.

Robert Green Ingersoll, the American lawyer and orator of the United States (during the Golden Age of Free Thought) writes in The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Vol. XII –

“Man should think; he should use all his senses; he should examine; he should reason. The man who cannot think is less than man; the man who will not think is a traitor to himself; the man who fears to think is superstition’s slave.”

The compactness of the storyline is noteworthy right from the beginning of the novel to the end. Thus, Tree Without Roots has become a creditable endeavour in our fiction.

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