TIME, TIDE, & TALES
Modernisation is not an easy process, but neither is its depiction (or description). Laurence Wylie's Village in the Vaucluse informs us how traditional society can go gently, yet Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart accents a more brutal face.
Syed Najmuddin Hashim's Mosaic of a Lost Era is caught somewhere in between. Though his subject is clear ("our mother tongue and its vibrant aesthetic heritage," 11), the changing context complicates interpretations. Weaving through the Bangladeshi genetic composition and birth-pangs, he softens the brutalities of colonisation and independence, amplifies social-cultural nuances, and ultimately leaves readers a puzzle of their own: what is it that is lost, since his rich cross-cultural comparisons yield only gains? One might begin by asking what he means by "lost": something completely gone, the actual process of going, or resurrecting a theme? The answer might be determined by any author's writing companion, much like it seems to have been with Hashim: the context.
His was shrouded in pessimism. As he acknowledges, his "scribbling" reflects his own "recurring personal crises," set against "a crumbling world of broken columns" (xi). Those "broken columns" involve building Bangalee and Muslim identity, end of colonization, independence from Pakistan, and a "Second Liberation," not only from "inequities, exploitation, misrule, deprivation and destitution" (101), but also a "one-man show" in the 1980s (97). Although a lot of ink has been, and will continue to be, spilled to explain the twists and turns of these "broken columns," incremental knowledge comes from analyzing Hashim's subject.
Hashim's Dhaka "reminiscences" exemplify why the past is not in a zero-sum relationship with the present. Drawn from the pre-and post-partition years, their global reach captures attention: Armenians in Dhaka, English cricket in St. Gregory, and comparisons with Jews, Europeans, the Diaspora, and Holocaust. Placing the country's contemporary Islam-west schism within this framework, for example, adds a new discourse.
His "mosaic" includes paintings, sculpture, music, jewelry, cinema, poetry, and democracy, highlighting a person, place, or predilection. Each riddles with dualities: South Asia-West Europe specifically, local-foreign generally, past-present, men-women, romanticism-revolutionary, abstraction-rhythm, and so forth. Each is multi-dimensional: he fits painters/poets/novelists/sculptors/architects/philosophers/scientists into his collage because they "fused" their respective genre, or, as he called it, "mannerism," with a "school of thought," as preached by "Humanists, Pacifists, Surrealists, Beatniks" (46), and the like. Comparing Hamidur Rahman's painting with El Greco, German Expressionists, as well the works of Donatello, Michelangelo, and others, on the one hand, and on the other, linking his usage of "realignment and correlation" with Renaissance geometry, Hashim shows analytical versatility and intellectual breadth.
He even goes overboard embedding aesthetically advanced European styles into bucolic Bangalee settings. "The bathing ghat is to the village lovers," he boldly proposes, "what the bower and balcony was in medieval Europe" (70). Surely a testimony to his erudition, the observation still begs the question, what is it that is being "lost" when we learn so much from the analogy? Imagine a future Hashim looking back at a "medieval" Bangladesh, using the bathing ghat against another amorous format: the bathing ghat might disappear as a stage, like the balcony, but evolving romantic gestures and liaisons remain will continue, and enrich thinking.
Hashim's "scribbling" is partly autobiographical, partly historical, and partly advocacy. He unabashedly demonstrates his socialist, democratic, and nationalist sympathies. References to Akhlaqur Rahman on p. 21, Maulana Bhashani on p. 100, and Ahmed Rafique on p. 111 convey his admiration of socialism, confirmed by his p. 62 statement that "the fortifications built to safeguard urban power and special privileges should be broken down," for "the toiling masses in the countryside". Democracy, too, is defended against "walls of Jericho," that is, "entrenched autocracy," not only as an independence pillar, but also against our "nightmare phase" of a "nine-year old self-professed 'one-man show'" (97). An undisputed "man of letters," Hashim might easily been a Havel or Shamsur Rahman, in keeping with his philosophy that a "genre" must "fuse" with a "school of thought."
Nationalism robustly holds Hashim's "mosaic" together, but remains conceptually loose. It must share space with his universalistic allusions. His message with poetry ("No song is deemed of a higher order if it does not contain suggestions of the larger world beyond our ken," 66), is extended to language (Bangla within a Sanskrit context, Persian and Arabic through Muslim worldviews, and English through Fort William training and against western civilization nuggets: 32-3); covers painting (comparisons drawn with Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Da Vinci: 44); and applies to conscience-building (Shamsur Rahman in company with Spain's Frederico Garcia Lorca, Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel, and South Africa's Nelson Mandela: 98-9). Absorbing though these linkages are, we still remain lost in finding what is "lost": could not a future Hashim find a Bangladeshi Beckett, Beatles, or Beethoven from contemporary dynamics?
His nationalism could be political (in killing "the two-nation theory," and railing against the post-independence "weakness and vacillation shown by the leadership," 15-6); cultural ("indigenous culture," he argued, "would serve as the blueprint for the future culture," 57); historical ("a keen desire in Bangladesh society to interpret the past in terms of the present," 75); and urgent (the "imperative," he posited, "for us to constantly remind ourselves of our popular roots and origin," 62).
Hashim's nationalism is not compatible with his local-global worldview and manifold local-foreign comparisons, and at times even misses the point: his entire two-chapter discussion of theaters and cinemas, for instance, address any audience but Bangladeshis (85-93). What he postulated about music, in fact, returns to haunt his interpretation(57): " . . . that it was foolish to keep classic music confined within the four walls of the music chamber of the nobleman . . . ." He unwittingly gives a walled conception like nationalism more room to breathe in an emergent age when no single package can remain an island, and when even the most heartbroken "mosaic" must generate optimism since it will itself come under scrutiny of future Hashims, spawn comparisons, and generally increase the food for thought that breeds optimism than become a casualty of time, therefore pessimism. These could not have been easy tasks for a lifelong spectator of bloody transitions with clenched fists yet unquenched thirst.
Pessimism, for a Bangalee, is not an unknown outcome, what with the tumult we have collectively experienced, from almost always ending up on the short end in foreign comparisons, and just from staring into the past. Yet, since flux has not abandoned us, in fact, has deepened and disseminated the world over at the start of the 21st Century, no society can be better prepared to handle this beast than ours. This is the underlying lesson we must extract from Hashim's "scribbling": open new vistas, even if substituting a "lost" for an "emergent" era is needed. His subject demands so; his advocacies would resonate better; and though his context allowed him to interpret the half-filled glass as being empty, we, armed with hindsight from the book, have the luxury to boast that half-filled glass is, indeed, full.
The reviewer is an occasional contributor.