Naeem Mohaiemen discusses ‘Midnight’s Third Child’ at ULAB and Bengal Institute

Photo: Prabir Das

Midnight's Third Child by Naeem Mohaiemen is a collection of essays on Bangladeshi art and artists, focusing particularly on cinema, literature, and visual arts. The title is, at the same time, the author's "polite translation" of a common Bangla idiom — chagol'er tritiyo baccha lafay beshi — and a sly allusion to Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, intending to highlight Bangladesh as the titular third child. The book was published by Nokta Arts, in association with ULAB Press.

Discussions centering Mohaiemen's anthology took place at the ULAB Research Building Auditorium and the Bengal Institute on the 24th and 25th of May, 2023, respectively.

The first event, a book launch, began with introductions by Shamsad Mortuza, adviser to ULAB Press, and Zafar Sobhan, founding editor of the Dhaka Tribune. The former introduced the book as an anthology "dealing with cosmopolitanism and consumerism", and a "multidisciplinary work" that incorporates elements of anthropology, visual arts, and more. Zafar Sobhan then briefly spoke about Naeem Mohaiemen, the writer and the essayist rather than the award-winning visual artist, in light of their decades-long relationship as writer and editor. "Naeem has always put Bangladesh, Bangladeshis, and the Bangladeshi intellectual world at the heart of his writing and the heart of his art," he admired.

The program continued with Naeem Mohaiemen's own introduction of the book and its contents, and readings from the introduction and an essay titled, "Documentary: Social Realism's Reality Quest". "One final thing may tie things together—that is to emphasise that all of these texts came about through friendships and mentoring, conversations in private and public, through debates and arguments. As the fate of cultural workers grows ever more precarious, within the petri dish of capital accumulation, we must hold fast to friendships," the Introduction read.

Passages from the essay discussed how photography had developed as a central part of development discourse in Bangladesh, Western lenses, and the "distinct grammar in social documentary work" that had come to be. The essay poses thought-provoking questions throughout: "But after all this time, we still have to ask—why, so often, does our wheel of history seem to restart its rotation when a western photographer (or curator) arrives in town? When exactly will our internal, indigenous strands be able to flow without external assistance?" It then goes on to ask, "Have we broken the paradigm, or replaced a westerner with ourselves?"

Following the readings, Zafar Sobhan reached for his heavily pink-tabbed copy of Midnight's Third Child, which he had been poring over for the past few days. An engaged conversation between the two then ensued, as they discussed photography and loss in regards to the cover of the book, how Mohaiemen chooses his subjects and the audiences he writes for, and the palpable lack of criticism in the Bangladeshi art scene. The discussion was followed by an interactive question and answer session which delved further into the conversation surrounding criticism and the need for more discourse, as well as the patronage of art and the future of younger generations in art in the country.

Organised by Bengal Institute and Nokta Arts, the discussion at the Bengal Institute focused more on the architecture-based essays among the collection. Naeem Mohaiemen and Salauddin Ahmed, the founder and lead architect at Atelier Robin Architects, led the discussion. Mohaiemen mentioned that he was not trying to write a new book with Midnight's Third Child, but it was instead a collection of essays which were previously published in English dailies such as The Daily Star and the Dhaka Tribune between 2007-2022; the selection had been "heterogeneous, sporadic, and random" and was not intended to be a full picture of the local art scene by any means.

The event once again included readings from certain essays, such as "Sangsad Bhaban: Fortress of Solitude" and "The Trouble with Tribbles", an essay about trees being cut down and the capital's anti-people city planning. The latter piece is particularly relevant to our times, considering the ongoing protests and demonstrations about trees being cut down in Satmasjid Road and other areas. The reading of the essay, which was Naeem Mohaiemen's discussion with Salauddin Ahmed, involved the two reading their own parts as if recreating the conversation that had been transcribed.

Salauddin Ahmed had said, in regards to a project they had proposed to recover the green belts around Dhaka streets, "So you could design sidewalks wider than the roads, and plant greenery. Not only people could walk home during rush hour, but in late hours or other times, people use that to just enjoy the city."

To this, Naeem Mohaiemen had replied at the time, "Wait, a second, you proposed a design that was going to give pedestrians priority over traffic? I can completely see why they rejected it! I mean just in terms of our city elders and where their priorities are, they are never going to prioritize food traffic over cars; because after all they don't walk."

A more extensive version of this conversation, talking about the inaccessibility of the parliament building and development projects that cut down trees, makes up the rest of the essay.

The discussions both before and during the question and answer session touched on a multitude of other subjects, such as the western gaze, whether or not "Bengaliness" was a "meaningful container" if one took indigenous peoples' struggles and representation into consideration, and where the history of Bangladesh as a nation began.

In his closing statement, Naeem Mohaiemen called the book and its selections, which comprise fairly short essays and editorials on contemporary matters, "an argument for somehow recording all that seems ephemeral, so we can then look back and trace what was happening." He continued, "Maybe this is just an appeal to hold on to these small things."


Amreeta Lethe is an intern at Star Books and Literature and the Editor-in-Chief at The Dhaka Apologue. Find them @lethean._ on Instagram.