This is an aberrant situation…well, read on. Alam, in his Itihasher Korcha, quotes the Natore-born eminent historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar, wondering if any descendant of the brave ruler of Sandwip, Dilwar Khan is still to be found in and around Dhaka. Lo and behold, there are many, including yours truly who became aware of the fact some years back. My mother was a direct descendant; her first cousin, Mujahidul Islam Selim, the first elected VP of DUCSU in independent Bangladesh, and also a freedom fighter, is another. Notice my quandary? I am, in a way, reviewing a part of my ancestry. Now, on to the small book under review.
Mahbub Alam, a former career diplomat who served as a Bangladesh Ambassador to several countries, was a student in the History department of DU. His love for history has carried on well after his formal retirement from service, as exemplified by his feature writings and essays, and he has from time to time collected and presented them in a string of separate books. Itihasher Korcha is the latest of such endeavours. Strictly, Alam writes of the fringes of history, eminently readable, and so often of much importance to the major events that have taken place, and then recorded and analyzed by historians/historiographers.
Alam opens his string of ten succinct essays with a pen portrait (“E Kon Birbal”) of Mahesh Das, more familiarly recognized as Raja Birbal, one of Emperor Akbar's nine court luminaries, whose rank included Raja Man Singh, Raja Todar Mal, and Mulla Do-Piyaza. The author reiterates the rectification of the confusion that several people have had regarding Birbal and Do-Piyaza as being the same person. They were two distinct prominent personages in Akbar's court, but the confusion could well have arisen on the basis of both having the endearing qualities of wit and wisdom simultaneously. In addition, Birbal was also an accomplished poet, singer, and a skilled diplomat. Furthermore, he was an astute military commander who lost his life in Swat (now in Pakistan), leading an expedition of Mughal forces against Pathans. For all his great accomplishments, and being a particular favourite of Akbar, he attracted a number of powerful enemies, some from the very court of the Great Mughal, who cast aspersions on his character. One of the more prominent was the historian and religious scholar Abd al-Qadir Badauni, although the negative comments only gained popularity a hundred years following the end of Akbar's reign.
The next piece (“Mogh Dhaon”) is largely about the many exploits and undertakings of the Mughal Subadar of Bengal, Shaista Khan. There is an interesting and informative discussion on the Moghs and diverse pirates prominently of the Portuguese variety, as well as the perspicacity of the seasoned warrior Shaista Khan, who garners praise for understanding that alongside military means, diplomacy was critical to winning wars. Dilwar Khan, also known as Dilir Raja, makes his appearance in a related context, parts of which I will endeavour to elucidate on from my own knowledge. Dilwar Khan was an admiral in Emperor Jehangir's navy. He was sent on an expedition to suppress a Mogh revolt in Sandwip. He did just that and then, not uncommon in those days of monarchical rule, promptly revolted against the emperor and declared himself the independent ruler of Sandwip in 1613-14, and ruled for 50 years, seeing off both Emperors Jehangir and Shahjahan. He repelled Mughal attacks twice, but lost to Shaista Khan during Aurangzeb's reign. He fought at the ripe old age of over eighty, was defeated, brought to Dhaka in chains, and died in 1665. While his older children were imprisoned with him, his younger progeny were given lands, the bulk of which eventually was located in Savar (mostly in Ganda). And that is my mother's ancestry.
A poignant tale of British India's, particularly Bengal's, peasants is addressed in the satirically titled “Nil-Dangshan.” Wherever the indigo producing plant was
cultivated en masse in vast fields, the accompanying factors of inhuman treatment, exploitation, slavery, and cruelty towards the poor peasants and workers were prominent, and successful in lining the pockets of the colonial exploiters. That is the point – the abusing owners were from Spain, France, and England, who themselves were vying for supremacy over each other in various parts of the world, as a result of which the blue dye climbed high in the global markets, but for which a steep price had to be paid by Bengal's peasants, workers, women, children, and other exploited people in relevant places on the globe.
A particularly interesting piece is on the time when Rabindranath Tagore was placed under the watch of the British intelligence apparatus (“Goyenda Nojordarite Rabindranath”). As a result, he was adorned with the appellation of I.B. Suspect Number 11. He might well have worn it as a badge of honour! Although he was involved in the movement to stop the Partition of Bengal, he was averse to the use of terror and violence as means to an end. The poet-politician had a quixotic experience in the context of him being placed under surveillance. When, in 1913, Viceroy Lord Hardinge decided to award (then) Calcutta University's honorary D.Litt degree to Tagore, a senior officer of India's central intelligence, Charles Cleveland, ICS, objected by claiming that Rabindranath's allegiance to the British was suspicious. Hardinge overruled him and directed Bengal's governor Carmichael to go ahead and award him the degree.
“Kohinoor” traces the fairly well-known account of the Indian gem becoming the crown jewel of the British (India itself becoming the jewel in the crown of the British Empire), while two short essays on the humungous punkha (“Punkhar dinguli” and “Punkha nie aro duchhotro”) include both humorous and poignant anecdotes of the various people affected one way or the other by a massive fan majestically swaying monotonously, though gracefully, being powered by stoic labourers. Alam does not fail to include the observation that the humanist in Rabindranath Tagore deterred from using the services of any punkha-swayer even as he toiled away writing in the unbearable heat at Shantiniketon.
The essay “Ingrej Amole Jelar Chhoto Hujur ba Chhoto Hakim” begins by recounting the folly of Governor General Lord Cornwallis (who had just been defeated by George Washington in the American War of Independence) in putting a halt to the ambition of educated Bengalis in aiming for the highest civilian positions in the empire. The Bengalis, including prominent ones like Bankim Chandra, D.L. Roy, and Nawab Abdul Latif, had to make do with ending up as Deputy Magistrate and Deputy Collector. Only the introduction of the Indian Civil Service examination for eligible Indians enabled the later Bengalis to join the elite service and attain high positions. Latif used the power of his office to ameliorate the lot of the indigo farmers. This is indeed an informative and thoughtful essay.
“Shei Shob Ganeshera” provides an interesting account of scribes (always in the shadows, but they also served) in British India, while “Banglar Palajor” is a short treatise on an endemic disease of India that never failed to take many lives, malaria, and discusses the exploits of Dr. Major Ronald Ross, Nobel Laureate, in analyzing the disease so that its control was facilitated. Itihasher Korcha is not a tome, but a storehouse of snippets of history, of events that might be footnotes or the undercard to the main event, but which are often vital to understanding the core of that occurrence, and to the course of history. The reader could do much worse than going through the slim volume in one short go.
Shahid Alam is a thespian and Professor, Media and Communication Department, IUB.