It was on a beautiful afternoon on 4 December, 2018 in S. M. Nowsher Ali Lecture Gallery at East West University Campus, Aftabnagar, Dhaka that Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam stood up to deliver the second of the annual Nehreen Khan Memorial Trust Fund lectures (the first was delivered by Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury last July). Nehreen (1977-2016) was a former and outstanding student of English at EWU, and late daughter of Dr. Akbar Ali Khan — renowned Bangladeshi economist, educationist, and ex-bureaucrat and Adviser to one of our caretaker governments, and the late Mrs. Hamim Khan, a respected teacher. Dr Islam's lecture was in Bengali and his topic was “Subalterns in Literature and Society: Encircled Lives.”
Professor Islam, who had taught Nehreen as an adjunct faculty member of EWU, began by noting that he had chosen to talk on a topic that he felt Nehreen would have approved, since he knew that she had empathized with the lives of subalterns as well as lives lived in diasporas — the topic of her M. A. dissertation.
Moving to the theme of the lecture itself, Professor Islam began autobiographically. He told the audience how after completing college education in the mid-60's and getting admitted to the University of Dhaka, he began to envisage the world through socialist lens and the ideas of Karl Marx. Being a product of his time, thoughts of nationalism, identity, liberal ideas such as human rights, fraternity, equality and freedom of expression gripped him. The likelihood of the rise of proletariats against capitalist oppressions was a possibility too important for progressive people of his generation not to contemplate. Professor Islam remembered the discussion group called 'Praxis' that he and his friends had formed where they considered the relevance of Marx and the concept of praxis issuing from a core belief of Marxism—the thought that the thing to do with the world was not to accept it as it was but to change it.
As for the direct/indirect influence of Marxist ideas in literature and the portrayal of subalterns by great writers, he discussed in some detail leading writers he encountered in his university years who also shaped his thought, namely Shakespeare, Rabindranath Tagore, and Kazi Nazrul Islam. Highlighting Shakespeare's contribution in making the subaltern heard, he praised the Renaissance Bard's faith in the 'changeability' of human beings. Professor Islam noted some Shakespeare's depictions of the condition of subalterns, whom the great Elizabethan writer often portrayed as victims of economic inequality.
Professor Islam then went on to explain how in the works of Rabindranath Tagore, who memorably depicted Bengali lives in his fiction as well as his poems, stories of subalterns and their subjugation abound. In this context he elaborated on how in the South Asian context 'subalternism' is too complex a phenomenon to be defined too precisely because it is not about the exploitation of one particular class by the other, but a labyrinthine stratification of classes within classes, castes within castes, and spheres within spheres. He affirmed that Tagore showed in many of his works, as in, “Shasti,” “Dui Bigha Jomi,” or Chandalika the ways these man-made divisions can perpetuate class divisions. To Professor Islam, Tagore's portrayal of contemporary society surely manifests class struggle as a 'permanent' presence marking Indian history.
When he began to talk about the Empire writing back in terms of the subcontinent, namely India or Bangladesh, Professor Islam showcased Kazi Nazrul as an even more successful speaker of the voiceless than Tagore. Describing Nazrul as more of an 'activist' than the Nobel prize winning laureate, Professor Islam commented on Nazrul's active participation in the Communist Movement of India and his close relationship with Mr. Mozaffor Ahmed, one of the founding fathers of contemporary Marxism in India. Professor Islam noted that Nazrul always aimed at pointing out the shackles which imprison the subalterns, and in his poems a sense of rebellion can be detected to break those barriers both implicitly and explicitly.
Dr. Islam ended his lecture by posing two rhetorical questions, “After all's said and done, should the subalterns remain in the same old circle and relive it all, again and again? Or will they answer the question themselves? Only time will tell!”
Earlier in the program an introductory speech was delivered by Dr. Fakrul Alam, the Pro VC. He introduced Nehreen and described how being a direct teacher of her, he could closely observe the passion she had for literature and teaching. The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dr. M.M. Shahidul Hassan also shared his recollections on Nehreen Khan. A worthy daughter of worthy parents, Nehreen was a keen learner, he mentioned. The program concluded as Mr. A.Z.M. Shafiqul Alam, the Treasurer of EWU thanked everyone who put efforts to make the program a success.
Motiur Rahman is a Lecturer in the Department of English at East West University.