Anisuzzaman, the unexpected heir | The Daily Star

Anisuzzaman, the unexpected heir

Thomas NewboldJune 07, 2020

Some legacies are merely handed down, transferred to a presumptive next-in-line by the inert push of the past. Other legacies are earned – and thus more truly owned – by those who, unforeseen and perhaps even unwelcome, rise up to claim them. With no testament to vouch for the legitimacy of their possession, and with no recourse to the profession of a real or presumed descent, the relationship of these unexpected heirs with what they chose to claim rests upon the sincerity of their singular, audacious wager: that the significance of any tradition is never simply given by the past, but bequeathed by the future one may be willing to imagine for it.

The late professor Anisuzzaman's first attempt at writing a literary history of Bengal, back in 1955, forced the budding literary historian (then only eighteen!) to make the case for one such unforeseeable passing of the torch. Haunted by the "communal question" (his family had left Kolkata for Khulna in 1948, in the wake of Partition) and inspired by the critical possibilities of the historical materialism then in vogue (he was, if only for a time, affiliated with the underground Communist party), Anisuzzaman sought to tackle the question of the relationship between "communalism" and literature head on, and to explore the legacies of the foundational chapter of modern Bengali literary history: the nineteenth-century Bengal "Renaissance." With the heedless clarity of youth, the young Anisuzzaman presented a paper at a special gathering of the Pakistan Sahitya Samsad on what he understood was the explosively entangled point of origin of three singularly modern problems: communal partisanship, anticolonial politics and the modern Bengali novel. He did this by turning to Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay's (1838-1894) controversial nineteenth-century classic, Anandamath ("The abbey of Bliss", 1882), and published his investigations in that year's thick Eid special of Sangbad.

Anisuzzaman had chosen to discuss Anandamath in light of Bankim's extraordinary standing. On the one hand, Bankim was the revered father of the modern Bengali novel and a forerunner to Bengal's illustrious tradition of anticolonial politics. On the other, he was seen as the execrable prophet of the narrow sectarianism and majoritarian politics that had just torn Bengal apart. This dual role of Bankim was as widely known then as it is now. In the early twentieth century, Nabanur had noted the representational injustices that marred Bankim's prose, vigorously objecting to the unsympathetic depiction of the Mughal and Nawabi past that "Bankim Babu" had relied upon in order to imagine a new, anticolonial future for India. The literary circles to which Anisuzzaman's grandfather (the one-time Moslem Bharat editor Shaikh Abdur Rahim) had belonged in had helped sharpen the critique of Bankimchandra's limitations, suggesting new creative directions.

Bankim's legacy had been further exacerbated by recent events: in 1937 Vande Mataram, the iconic hymn sang by Anandamath's protagonists, had been officially consecrated as the definitive slogan of Hindu majoritarian politics by the Hindu Mahasabha itself, while the following year activists objecting to the fanfare accompanying the centenary celebrations of the novelists' birth staged a controversial public burning of his works. Given Bankim's extraordinarily controversial status, it is no surprise that Anisuzzaman's sympathetic discussant, Hasan Hafizur Rahman (1932-1983), wondered privately whether Bankim's novels constituted an admissible topic for Bengali Muslims to discuss at all.

Rahman's fears were on the mark: the discussion of Anisuzzaman's paper turned into an acrimonious, angsty exchange, and the audience questioned the very admissibility of Bankim as a topic of scholarly inquiry. The distinguished Dhaka College folklorist, Professor Muhammad Mansuruddin (1904-1987), most openly objected to the subject at hand: given the paper's topic (and its avowed Marxist commitments) the professor contented it would be for the best, as Anisuzzaman later recalled that "I renounce the shelter Pakistan offered me and get out of the country."

Disowned by Bankim and largely ignored by his successors, the "Renaissance" had bestowed upon Bengali Muslim readers the paradox of a literature wherein – in the memorable quip of journalist and litterateur Abul Mansur Ahmad (1898-1979) – the "Eid moon is never sighted." Against such a dispiriting point of origin a number of Bengali Muslim intellectuals had laboured to produce a literature that did not owe Kolkata the purported ignominy of its birth-certificate, and thus sought new avenues of literary fulfilment. There were many ways of seeking new beginnings in 1950s and 1960s Dhaka: literary scholars and philologists had turned to the wealth of Bengal's premodern literature, underscoring the creativity of premodern authors such as Daulat Kazi and Alaol and the enduring inspiration that could be drawn from their works. Others, such as professor Mansuruddin, had found inspiration in "folk" traditions: between 1942 and 1967 the professor published the canonical anthology of Lalon and Kanai songs, Haramoni. Others still had demanded a new and reinvigorated modernism, experimenting with the creation of new literary forms. Some managed to combine the search for the new, the retrieval of the old, and the quest for the folk all in a single creative move.

Anisuzzaman's originality lay in a completely contrarian maneuver to all such imaginings, and his unparalleled insistence that there is no freedom to be gained in the repressive disavowal of what has already been. In an illuminating 2014 interview with Sajjad Sharif for Prothom Alo, he spoke about his early entanglement with Bankim. "If all Bengali literature is mine," he told his interviewer, "then why not Bankimchandra"? The words he chose for the interview echo his 1955 defense of his choice of Bankim as a matter of intellectual enquiry. In this moment, he stated explicitly to a bemused Hasan Hafizur Rahman: "Bankimchandra amader oitijjho – Bankim is our tradition", a statement that left even his friendly discussant perplexed. Why would Anisuzzaman even wish to be embroiled in Bankim's controversial legacy?

Anisuzzaman offered a lengthy elaboration of such a shocking and unexpected protestation of inheritance in his Dhaka University doctoral dissertation – a work which eventually became the classic 1964 literary history, The Muslim Mind and Bengali Literature (Muslim Manas o Bangla Sahitya).The title, a subtle reversal of Arabindo Poddar's 1951 study of Bankim's literature and its limitations (Bankim Manas) – a text which the young Anisuzzaman had patiently read cover to cover – ultimately asked: how may one make a place for oneself in a domain of literary modernity subtly marked by one's exclusion? And, by becoming its unexpected heir, make it truly universal, enriching it with one's particular histories? How does one inherit the Renaissance, despite the Renaissance itself?

Anisuzzaman feared – alongside his senior and close friend Munier Chaudhury (1925-1971) – that in the search for new forms of literary belonging, and in their advocacy of the premodern treasures of Bengali literature, Bengali Muslims were forgetting what they had already achieved: that their conquest of modern Bengali literary forms had already taken place. The result was paradoxical – turning away from the "Renaissance" ensured that the "harvest that bloomed at the hands of Muslim authors in the field of modern literature" had been at the very least "neglected", if not devalued altogether.

In their attempt to turn away from the present and its problems, contemporary intellectuals were failing to understand the anticipatory courage of those who had already risen to take ownership of modern forms, in defiance both of the inheritance of those older forms they were expected to perpetuate (for instance, the metrical practices of "puthisahitya", the lexical practices of "dobashi") and against their unwelcome and unanticipated entry into the practice of modern literature, whose practices had been framed by those who had never imagined them as readers – let alone as writers. It was Anisuzzaman's daring wager to ask that the audacity of such unforeseeable claimants to modern Bengali literature be remembered anew, and to craft a literary history that placed them centre-stage.

Accounts of Bengali Muslim literary modernity in the 1950s and 60s were a somber affair. Most of them continued to assume that modern literary belonging was either something yet to be achieved, or was given in the past but now lost, awaiting a redemptive retrieval. As Dr. Mohammad Shahidullah had influentially put it in 1911, the discussion of modern Bengali literature inevitably carried, for Bengali Muslims, the shameful feeling of poor cousins turning up at a wealthy relative's wedding. Anisuzzaman creatively and forcefully reversed such presumptions. Drawing on a growing critique of the Renaissance to drive home a different point, Anisuzzaman noted that the modern Bengali literary forms pioneered in the Renaissance carried the traces of the colonial encounter.Yet for Bengali Muslims, the ultimate achievement of Bengali literary modernity occurred, Anisuzzaman argued, in a distinct and original way. If the dislocating encounter with the colonising English and their literature formed the grounds for literary modernity for the Hindus (a dynamic to which Bengali Muslims remained impervious for long), literary modernity for the Muslims took place through a more intimate encounter with the nineteenth century "Renaissance" literature authored by their fellow Hindus, and thus was marked as a moment of elective choice, enacted, as Anisuzzaman stated, "by our own hand." In other words, if, as leftist critics in Kolkata were increasingly arguing, the "Renaissance" was marred by its limiting, colonial point of origin, Bengali Muslims had the peculiar freedom to claim that their belated engagement with modern forms was elective and willed.

No figure signified the singular courage of such an unforeseeable claim to the practice of literary modernity more than Mir Mosharraf Hossain, whom Anisuzzaman made the chief protagonist of his literary history. Hossain's literary journey started – Anisuzzaman tells us – with the otherwise "unremarkable" novel, Ratnabati (1869). It was made remarkable only by the Calcutta Review's calumnious insinuation that it had to be the work of a Hindu and that "Mir Hossain" had to be a pseudonym. For Anisuzzaman, the problem made manifest by such comments was crucial: in choosing to write a sadhubasha novel, Mir Mosharraf Hossain was choosing to participate in a particular literary modernity whose protocols had been already set by Hindus. The condescending astonishment of the Calcutta Review that a Muslim could not possibly write following such protocols revealed the implicitly exclusionary character of existing literary practices. And yet by writing Ratnabati, the Mir had opened up the possibility that Bengali Muslims could make such literary modernity their own, no matter how unexpected and unwelcome. In doing so, they both exposed the existing limits of Bengali literary modernity and stood ready to grant it a wider, more universal future.

Anisuzzaman underscored just how conscious Mir Mosharraf was of his own path-breaking role. In the opening scene of his 1873 play, Basantakumari, a dialogue between actor and actress tackled the vexed question of whether Muslims could write modern literature in the "new, Bhadra society" head on, offering a pointed rejoinder to the Calcutta Review's slander. The chattering performers praised the play's innovative, daring script – but their praises stopped immediately upon learning of the playwright's Muslim identity. "Chi! Chi!" the lead actress explodes suddenly "in front of such an esteemed audience, you mention a drama written by a Muslim!". Taken aback, the actor insists there is no necessary relationship between creative forms and historical belonging: a Muslim can indeed write a great, modern play, and thinking otherwise is an ethical failure of the highest order. But the actress remains stubborn: "In the end, whatever you say, he's a Muslim".  In an incredible moment of meta-theatre, and one of the most poignant critiques of social narrow-mindedness written for nineteenth century Bengali drama, Mir Mosharraf Hossain revealed the daring, radical content of his literary aims: to make modern Bengali literature a space where such a line of thinking would eventually cease to be meaningful.

Hossain's "The Ocean of Grief" (Bishad Sindhu, 1885-1891) marks the culmination of Anisuzzaman's narrative of a modern Bengali literature transformed through its unexpected and unforeseeable uptake by those not born to receive it as a tradition, and yet willing to claim and transform it. The poet's most celebrated work, and a text contemporary to Bankim's Anandamath, Bishad Sindhu is the epic retelling of the Karbala tragedy, and offers a rendering of Shah Gharibullah's Janganama in modern Bengali prose. It was truly modern, Anisuzzaman insisted, in so far as Mir Mosharraf Hossain never presumes a reader similar to himself, even while courageously maintaining that the tragedy of Karbala was a story of universal import, and all may read it. Against all expectations, the Mir imagined a new future for the Bengali Muslim literary past, and a courageously universal role for the modern Bengali novel form. The late Anisuzzaman's literary history did much the same, and bequeathed to Bengali Muslims a precious inheritance: all that which is written in Bengali is theirs, should they wish to claim it.


Thomas Newbold is a PhD Candidate in the Departments of History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago and a former lecturer at BRAC University.

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