Why I started writing in English | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 13, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 13, 2018

Why I started writing in English

I am Bengali. I am a writer.

Being a writer is hard. Being a Bangladeshi writer is even harder. 'Writing is a side business, a hobby; it cannot be a full time job'—that is what most people think in Bangladesh. The term “Professional writer” is still foreign to their ears.

Thus, professional Bengali writers are a rare breed. It is said that the few who tread this path might see the light of success only if they can write with two hands. They must author two to three books a year to survive. Because they must produce publishable prose quickly, they hardly have time for literary efforts. Usually their work falls into the category of 'popular writing.'

Do I want to be a pop writer? No. I want to produce literary works. At the same time, I long to be a full-time professional writer. Is that possible in Bangladesh? Writing in Bengali? Not that I have ever heard of. A day job is a must.

In 2001, I am a twenty-year-old-freshman at the University of Dhaka. I cannot not imagine myself being anything other than a writer. I want it so badly that focusing on studios is a challenge. John Steinbeck never graduated from university. William Faulkner and Ray Bradbury never even attended college. Then why should I take classes when I could be using the time writing? Yet, I decide to knuckle down and do both, complete university studies and write for publication, even if it means lower grades and being published without any payment.

In the final year of my bachelor's when my fellow students have not a second to breathe outside of their studies, I start a serial translation of a novel from English to Bengali. Free of honorarium. Just to see my name every week in a literary page. The reward is worth its weight in gold – even though it means I pass my courses with lousy grades which will forever forbid me from applying for regular jobs.

I take a position in journalism. The pay is miserable, but it is a writing job, after all. My papa steps in, gives the typical Bengali expectations his best shot. ''You want to write, fine,'' he snaps. ''Get a good job. Get filthy rich. Then write in your spare time.''

My papa, like most Bengalis, considers money to be the measure of success. Nonetheless, he is unwilling to belittle my writing habit—a healthy hobby indeed. ''No penny, no dignity,'' he warns. ''You can write whenever you want. But once you are old, you are old. You will be a loser.''

If writing is a losing business, it's fine. I want to be a loser then. I am adamant.

Seasons come and time carries on. I watch my friends grabbing good jobs. Gaining respect. Going abroad. Getting all the fun in life.

I feel depressed.

I think to myself: I need to change my life.

I fly to London.

I survive by doing all kinds of odd and menial jobs. Two years pass. It is early January 2012. I am frustrated. I have suicidal thoughts. Since landing in London, I have written nothing at all. The muse has left me, I begin to believe.

Then one late evening I have a dream. A speck of light in the distance waves at me. The speck becomes a ball of light. The ball of light moves, creeps in. When it is around a corner, it becomes a creature, dressed in black robe, a Black Monk. The only thing visible about him is the blazing light ball—which is his face. As the creature closes in I begin to pant, then I start to scream.

How long did the dream last? I am unsure. I open my eyes to find my flat mate shaking me: Hey, what happened?...It's okay, it's okay… Calm down.

I stop screaming. Calm down. Suddenly I realize that I have been screaming out the name of God. This is unusual since I'm not a religious guy. Fear is a strange thing. It made my unconscious seek help from a celestial being.

For days afterwards, I get lost in my nightmare—analyzing the blazing ball of light and Black Monk. What is that light supposed to mean? I am not a dreaming man. The moment my head hits the pillow I am asleep. If I dream at all, I do not remember.

I buy a book titled 10,000 Dreams Interpreted. It doesn't help. I plunge into an extensive online research. Finally, I piece together an interpretation. The light is my anxiety—my drifting goalless living in London. So my swelling depression broke into a cold sweat and turned into an uncanny fiery-ball.

In the summer of 2012, five months after that nightmare, I return to Dhaka. For around three years I breathed British air. Now I am in Dhaka again, Bangladesh's capital, a boisterous booming city where traffic eats away one third of its residents' time and with every dusk comes buzzing mosquitoes to kick off their evening concert. Yet I feel happy and bubbling with excitement. I will write again.

This time, I decide to write in English. In the decade before moving to London I'd written in my native tongue, Bengali. There was barely a leading Bangladesh newspaper or literary magazine in which my name hadn't appeared. So was I a pop writer? No. Bangladesh has a bizarre literary environment compared with the rest of the world.

Here, newspapers happily maintain a 'no pay for writers' philosophy. There are exceptions, but exceptions are not the rule. The reason is not that newspapers are on the rocks. It is just a bad practice in this country. With the arrival of every new parliamentary government, media gets pregnant with reporters and news outlets breed like mice. They seduce bright journalists with fat salaries. A few years go by, everything is peaceful, subscriptions fall, outlets are about to close. Pay becomes irregular, and staff is laid off.

There is a cruel joke about being a poet in Bangladesh: A poet visits a doctor. Constipation, the poet explains, is his problem. The doctor prescribes him medication. A week later, the poet is back. No improvement, he whines to the doctor. The doctor prescribes a different medication. The next week, when the poet is back again, the doctor is taken aback.

''Tell me, what do you do for a living?''

''I am a poet.''

''That's it? No other job?''

''That's it. I only write.''

''Oh my! You should have told me that earlier!'' The doctor offers him a TK 100 note and asks him to go fill his stomach. “No food, no faeces. Simple as that.”

Another joke is about a would-be debut-novelist. The author has decided to self-publish his work. His friend hears this and suggests that he has his book printed on heavy offset paper. Why? “Because years later, the book be sold in stacks, by weight,” the friend chuckles. “At least then it will be worth something.''

I don't want to wind up like the poor poet or the aspiring novelist, so I think and think and think. Where the problems lie is not difficult to dig up. On the one hand, for financial survival, most writers writing in Bengali tend to (or have to) focus on quantity rather than quality. They cannot afford to spend time laboring over word choice and imagery. Most prize-winning foreign authors, on the other hand, spend two to three years on a book. And, unlike the international publishing houses which pride themselves on the quality of their catalogs, Bangladeshi publishers lack professionalism. No editing is done here, whatsoever. An author submits a manuscript, the publisher has it proofread, and that's the end of it. The book then goes to press.

Another consideration: Many Bangladeshis, subscribing to colonial mentality, think: Anything local is low-grade, anything foreign is fabulous. 'West is best' is their belief. There are religious, cultural and historical bases behind these value judgments.

One day, as I am pondering these things, I discover why foreign books in translation are in huge demand and I am overwhelmed with hope. Often, the amount of royalties a native writer receives is far lower than those earned by a translator of that same work. Additionally, literary editors and book publishers are extremely interested in publishing works in translation. ''Translations sell, native writers don't,'' publishers acknowledge.

So I take my decision: I will write in English.

As word gets out about my switching from Bengali to English, my writing friends christen me "another Madhusudan." They laugh saying that I have got the Madhusudan Syndrome. Born in 1824, Michael Madhusudan Dutt is considered to be one of the greatest poets in Bengali literature. But in his younger years, he wrote in English and wanted to be recognized as an English language poet. He was so dogged that he converted to Christianity to fulfill his ambition. Since then "another Madhusudan" has been a catch-phrase for the Bengal writers venturing into English.

The world is not the world it used to be. 'The sun never sets on the British Empire' is no longer true or meaningful. I debunk my friends' prejudice. Madhusudan Dutt, I explain, was born in colonial times, the untimely period for a non-white man to treasure a dream like that. So the poet inside him went through a miscarriage.

Any beginning is critical. I adapt myself to writing in a second language, finish a number of short fiction works, and add a few foreign publication credits to my name. Confidence grows. I embark on my first novel. This is the summer of 2014. I am married, with a child, and I am a full-time author writing in English.

My wife is okay with my preferences. My extended family is not. Their surprise is unmistakable. Do you have a screw loose in your brain, they ask. Or think. I can read their faces. They want to assert either that I am simply straightforward or I have a mental disorder.

Trouble arises at social gatherings. The dreaded 'What do you do?' question. The moment I answer that I write, they ask me rightly 'What else do you do?' My reply 'I write full time' raises eyebrows. Ears seem to cock, cannot discern my words. How can a man with sound body and mind do nothing but write all day, they wonder. Once in a while I make up stories, telling them that I work with a foreign online news outlet.

Eventually, I isolate myself. Although writing in a small room for month upon month is tiring, frustrating, time slips by. Three years. I finish the first draft of my novel. I am flat broke. My family is struggling. I apply for the £10,000 Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia.

One gloomy weekend afternoon, I open an email and then run screaming to my wife. The email announces the fellowship has been bestowed upon me. In the application, for the writing sample, I had included an excerpt from my novel. In the email, the fellowship granter bowled me over with the comment: "The judges were impressed by the lucidity and power of your prose and by the strength of the story you have to tell.’


Rahad Abir is a fiction writer from Bangladesh. He is the 2017-18 Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia.

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