Translation Fiction: Lalsalu (The Red Cloth)

Lalsalu is a novel by Syed Waliullah published in 1948 by Comrade publishers. It is a classic of modern Bengali literature. Waliullah was conferred Bangla Academy Award for this debut novel in 1961. By 1981 the book’s 10th edition was publis

Syed Waliullah


Syed Waliullah (August 15, 1922 – October 10, 1971) was a Bangladeshi novelist, short-story writer and playwright. He was notable for his debut novel, Lalsalu (translated in English with the title “Tree Without Roots”). He was awarded Bangla Academy Literary Award (1961), Adamjee Prize (1965), Ekushey Padak (1984) and Bangladesh National Film for Best Story (2001). Lalsalu, was inspired by a shrine covered with red cloth that he would often pass when he lived in Mymensingh. Waliullah is often considered the pioneer of existential analysis of the characters psyche in the literature of Bangladesh.


The wanderlust of the people of this barren populous land makes even the smoky sky may be slightly alarmed. There’s nothing at home. Dividing, looting, at places killing has been tried to no avail. Those who float away on the self-made rafts, their eyes see beyond the horizon; past the range of vision, over the big river, beyond the district and the state, may be even farther. Smoldering hope; made absurdly fierce by the crushing despair of home. Whose eyes burn with desire while looking ahead, can’t afford to wait; delay of a day, minute may as well mean a death sentence. So they run and run.

In the depth of night when a dozing train from another region arrives in a serpentine speed at this land, a sudden jolt goes through its long body, the machinery squeak and clank. After passing through so many stations slumbering in the hours of darkness under lantern light, the consciousness of the drowsy train wake up like porcupines quill. Their outwardly madness burns the body like fire. The passengers in the train compartments, suddenly woken, extend their faces, some in fear, some in curiosity, and see men running in the darkness. Where’ll they go? Why this madness and restlessness? Those who are new in this line watch. They run. Run and scream. From this end of the train to the other end as if in search of that car while getting into which they can split their foreheads. In the mean time kinsmen and fellow travelers are lost. Someone’s shirt gets ripped, someone’s topi[i] gets trampled. Someone’s most important thing meaning the bodna[ii], without which one can’t move a foot in a foreign land, somehow gets lost. And why not? Running with a ‘getting the body in is enough’ mentality bound to get something lost. On some only a single strand with the charms hanging in the neck is left on the body. But of course, they are young. If nothing else they at least learn to tie a tight knot when they come of age.

The train with its python like long body has an unlimited patience. Clashing gears and machinery rattle its frame, the feverish body quiver but doesn’t run away. Separated from its body, the locomotive engine drinks water nearby in dim light. It drinks like a human being. And wait. The needle of its patience doesn’t move.

And why should it? Despite the cover of darkness he knows the country he’s in at this dead of night is barren. Empty fields, collapsing river banks and flooded paddy fields. There’s also enough land inside river belly.

Really there’s no crop. Whatever’s there is very little. There are more topis than crops, more weeds of religion. At morning so many shrieks rise from so many Maktabs[iii] that it seem like the Gods special country. Even the naked boy recites the Quran, recites screaming in unison drowning the voice of the old Moulvi[iv]. He finishes memorizing the Quran before the beard grows. With that comes a certain look in the face. They are Hafez. There place in heaven is fixed.

But these are dead lands. Crop less. The little something that grows is tiny compared to the population. That’s the problem. And so not only there’s this special feeling of being near to the Gods way but also there’s the look in their eyes for the absence of food. Gaunt body gets soft and the voice though it’s beautiful while recitation gets feebler with helplessness and hardship. Day by day pain and suffering trace in it. They try to bring greatness in the few facial hair hanging around the emaciated chin in unrestrained weakness, but the poverty of the rugged jaws under the hungry eyes don’t go away. Some who have more hope, study in the Alia Madrasha[v]. They go abroad and memorize huge worm eaten tomes. But the knowledge of those tomes had been marooned in a reef some time in the past. There’s no one to rescue it and cut across the waters of the ages to bring it to the present. So the spectacular words of the books howl in some faraway forest of the past.

Even then there’s hope, so much hope. Unwavering belief in Allah. Days go by in a different kaleidoscopic dream. The hungry eyes erode, watching a hostile world indifferent to personal happiness. Devine knowledge can’t feel the chest because of the empty belly below. They wash themselves with the cold water sitting on the square piece of stone on the concrete bank of the pond by the mosque. They take off the topi, cool it by blowing inside the hollow and wear again but can’t find peace. They choke in their mind; eyes get burned staring at the sunlight reflecting on the horizon.

So they leave country. They leave in flocks and spread around. Someone makes a raft and floats away and becomes ships mate, becomes laborer in factories, household servant, office clerk, machine-man of printing press, and leather worker in tannery. Some become Imam or Muazzin[vi] in mosque. Thousands of mosques are spread around the country. But mosques of the city, mosques of the small towns, even the mosques of the villages are already taken. So at last some goes to faraway lands. May be to abroad or some other country. In faraway villages, to reach where one has to cross dried river beds, spend countless nights sleeping on the haystack in the buffalo cart. Even in Garo Hills where who knows who built a mosque with bamboo in the forgotten past.

May be one day a leather boot wearing government official goes there to hunt. On the outside he wears western cloths with a clean-shaven face. But inside he is actually a Muslim; an educated neo Muslim in a new wrapping.

 Hearing a call to prayer in a soft voice in this remote region startles him. With it his desire of hunt diminishes a little.

He meets the Moulvi later. Because of living away from his kinsmen in this jungle there’s a wild loneliness in his face and eyes.

-Your home, sir?

The hunter answers.

-Your name?

The Moulavi’s eyes brighten hearing his name. And the Gods world brightens before him too.

The Hunter questions him back. Talking about home stirs memories in the Moulavis mind. But he restrains himself and says, people of this side lack the light of Allah. They are illiterate, kafir[vii]. So he came here to spread light. He doesn’t mention that there’s no crop, the constant scarcity, famine.

In the distant jungle the tiger roar. Sometimes elephants come down from the hills breaking everything in their path. But five times a day beyond the tall Sal trees a faint voice rises, the Moulavis voice. His few thin tufts of beard fly in wild heavy air and in midnight corners of his eyes may get a bit wet for home.

But that’s what the hunter assumes. Back in his camp he imagines these while cleaning his gun. But he could never know or guess that the Moulvi’s eyes shine with a new light.

It was a hot still day of late Shraban[viii]. The pastures and long paddy fields stand still in the windless silence, not a pulse anywhere. No clouds in the sky. Even the bluish bronze horizon is motionless.

In such days people get into the rice fields with boats. There are two men in each dinghy, with spear and leister. In the motionless rice field there’s an intense silence. Somewhere a crow caws and it feels as if the whole sky is ripped apart like a jute rug. They carefully steer the boat through the paddy; no wave, no sound. One man sits at the bow like a statue, his eyes sharp. Those eyes move through the gaps of the paddy in a slow serpentine motion.

Taher, Kader are also in one edge of the vast rice field. Taher stands in front, hunters needle like concentration in his eyes. Behind, Kader also sits like a statue, waiting for his brother’s signal. He rows but in a fashion as if it’s cotton below instead of water.

Suddenly Taher trebles for a moment before becoming rigid. His eyes look ahead as he signals behind with his fingers. Forward, left. On left some rice-stalks tremble; in the airless rice field that trembling shows clearly. More left. Careful, slowly. Tahers finger gives these signals in strange swiftness.

By this time he has picked up the leister from his side. No sound was made during picking. The proof is that the rice-stalks are still trembling there. Then some breathe stopping moments. The boats floating silently among the rice field afar stop. Men watch Tahers dark body, suddenly taut like a bowstring, with fixed eyes. Then see, suddenly that dark upper body vibrates like a bolt of lightning, a leister flies like an arrow. Sha-jhak.

Moments later a large Rui fish floats up, its mouth open. After awhile the boat carrying Taher comes near the road to Motigonz. Kader is sitting behind like before, watching Taher with unblinking eyes. Suddenly he sees Taher looking at something at the road, a surprised look in his eyes. He also looks that way. He sees, a man standing on the Motigonz road with his hands raised towards the heavens in prayer, few thin tufts of beard in the face, eyes shut. Moment after moment pass, the man has no sense. As if the quiet sky has turned him into a stone statue.

Kader and Taher watch with wonder. They don’t talk in fear of alerting the fish but a rice stalk beside them moves clearly, even makes a faint noise but no pays attention.

The man finishes his prayers after awhile. He ponders something for a moment and picks up the bundle from his side. Then he starts walking north in long strides. In north some distance from here is the Mohobbatnagar village. Taher and Kaders home is there.

At afternoon the two brothers return home with fish and see a gathering of people in Khalek Bepari’s house. The people of village are there, their father is also there. Everyone has a solemn air about them, everyone’s face bowed in contemplation. When they peek inside they see that man sitting at a side, the one who was seen praying on the Motigonj road. A gaunt man, the jaw brightened by sharp age. His eyes are closed. No movement in those closed sunken eyes.

Thus Mazid enters Mohobbatnagar village.

(to be continued)



[i] Cap, Taqiyah

[ii] Spouted toilet wash jug

[iii] Religious school, primarily used for teaching children in reading, writing, grammar and Islamic studies such as Qui-rat (Quranic recitation)

[iv]  Islamic religious title given to Muslim religious scholars

[v] Religious school

[vi] The person appointed at a mosque to lead and recite the call to prayer

[vii] Unbeliever

[viii]  4th month in traditional Bengali calendar

P.S. This is first time I’ve translated anything from Bengali. Any criticism and advice is welcome.

9 thoughts on “Translation Fiction: Lalsalu (The Red Cloth)

  1. It is a very nice translation piece. Being a Bengali I very well relate to this and I see the original essence is not lost at all. Good job on this. I do translation work too. We should connect more often.


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