Bangladeshis writing in English

L-R: Tahmima Anam, Razia Khan Amin and Kaiser Haq

English is no more the patrimony of the Anglo Saxons. It is now a universal public property. By the British colonial train, it travelled almost the entire world, came in touch with myriad people and their languages, and enriched itself as the world's number one language. Not only as a comfortable means of communication between the peoples of the opposite poles and hemispheres, but also as a medium of creative writing has English been deliberately taken up by writers of the formerly colonized countries. The number is multiplying with the rise of Postcolonial / Diaspora consciousness. The situation is as if the colonizer Prospero (The Tempest) is being written back by the colonized Caliban in the same language the latter was taught by the former. The process of colonization has proved a double edged weapon whose other edge has now been sharper than the one used earlier by the colonizers.
How can we identify this tidal wave of English writing? Can we call it English literature? Would traditional academia accept it? In the name of English literature they are teaching the work of the central (British/ American or a few First World English-speaking country) authors. Anthony Burgess, however, tries to resolve the situation. To quote him: "It (English literature) is not merely the literature of the British Isles, but a vast and growing body of writings made up of the work of authors who use the English language as a natural medium of communication." But, of course, the peripheral authors do not bother their heads about whether they are being able to get into the same line with the central ones. They choose the language to reach a wider reading public, to let the world share their very own feelings. With this end in view, has come into existence African writing in English or Latin American writing in English or South-Asian writing in English. In South-Asian English writing, Indian or Pakistani writings in English have by now proved their own existence. But Bangladesh is lagging much behind. Nevertheless, Bangladesh is not giving a walk-over.
By 'Bangladeshi Writing in English' (BWE), we generally mean the whole corpus of work of writers in Bangladesh and among the Bangladeshi diaspora who write in English but whose mother tongue is Bengali (theoretically their mother tongue can be other language(s) too spoken in Bangladesh). This special stream of writing can also be called 'Writing English in Bangladesh'. But to my thinking, the adjectival use of the country better describes the nature of this writing. This school of writing includes only creative writing in English i.e. poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction.
The legacy of Bangladeshi writing in English should be traced back to pre-independence undivided Bengal. As a matter of fact, towards the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, when English learning gained a firm foothold in Calcutta, the capital of British India, an enthusiasm for writing in English originated in the then Bengal. Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1774 -1833), the father of Bengali Renaissance, was the pioneer in this regard. Five years before the famous Minute of Macaulay (1835), the first book of poems in English entitled The Shair and Other Poems by Kashiprashad Ghose was published. Following this trend Michael Madhusudan Dutt (18241873) took to writing poetry in English. Influenced by English poets like Thomas Moore, John Keats, George Byron, and others, Madhusudan started writing poems in English. He was the father of blank verse in Bengali poetry. Although his genius for English writing was nipped in the bud, his two English poetry books, The Captive Ladie and Visions of the Past, both published in 1849, were well received by the highly educated locals and the English circles. Toru Dutt (18551876) in her very short life caught global attention by writing and translating poetry. Her A Sheaf Glean'd and French Fields was published in 1876 and Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan in 1882.
Bankim Chatterjee (18381894) won wide recognition for his novel Rajmohan's Wife. Rabindranath Tagore (18611941) showed considerable talent in English writing. The translations of Gitanjali (Song Offerings) were made by the poet himself so perfectly that the poems in the original did not lose their ingenuity in the translation. Begum Rokeya's (1880-1932) Sultanas Dream (1905) is also a significant English publication of that time. Nirad C. Chaudhuri (1897-1999), the last flower of Bengal renaissance was the quintessential English writer of Bengal. His English writing reached such a towering height that he is said to have outdone even the mainstream English authors. The demoralizing effects of Madhusudan's failure to sustain English writing were finally conquered by authors like Nirad C. Chaudhuri.
What we call Bangladeshi writing in English has come into being after the emergence of Bangladesh. Although the stream is very feeble, it exists. There is, however, no chronological list of the writers of this school. I have tried to make a rough outline which is, of course, subject to further modifications. The first generation of Bangladeshi writers in English includes a few poets. Razia Khan Amin came up with a couple of collections of poems. Her poetry books Argus Under Anaesthesia (1976) and Cruel April (1977) bear the stamp of her preeminence among English poets in Bangladesh. Farida Majid is another distinguished poet and literary translator. Her Take Me Home, Rickshaw (1974) is a collection of poems by contemporary Bangladeshi poets translated in English. She has edited an anthology of English poems titled Thursday Evening Anthology (1977).
Kaiser Haq is the most leading English language poet in Bangladesh. His poetic output is quite substantial. They are as follows: Starting Lines (1978)-Dacca; A Little Ado (1978)- Dacca ; A Happy Farewell (1994)-Dhaka; Black Orchid (1996)-London; The Logopathic Reviewer's Song (2002); Published in the Streets of Dhaka : Collected poems 19662006) (2008). A freedom fighter himself, Kaiser Haq is a consummate artist who has painted the contemporary Bangladeshi scene with powerful imaginative mind and artistic precision. His work bears all the hallmarks of good poetry. Feroz Ahmed-ud-din is another noted poet. Though not prolific, his poetry is marked by shortness and intensity. His Handful of Dust (1975) vividly portrays the loss of vision in contemporary life. Syed Najmuddin Hashim's collection of poems, Hopefully the Pomegranate, is a valuable addition to Bangladeshi English poetry. Hashem has drawn allusions and references from far-off European mythology and biblical anecdotes, and woven them into the local themes. Nuzhat Amin Mannan's Rhododendron Lane (2004) is enriched with creative imagery and distinctive style.
Rumana Siddique's Five Faces of Eve: Poems (2007) reflects the timeless experience of a woman symbolized by their biblical ancestor, Eve. Rumana's poems are a mix of the pleasures and pains of life. Nadeem Rahman's Politically Incorrect Poems (2004) is a collection of poems dealing with post-liberation war themes. His poetry is typified by highly individualistic attitude, sharp social sensibility, and keen political observation. Fakrul Alam's translation Jibanananda Das: Selected Poems (1999) is of great literary value. Apart from the poets identified, a number of enthusiastic poets are also writing good English poems. Syed Badrul Ahsan is one of them.
The realm of fiction in BWE hitherto is dominated by Adib Khan, a Bangladeshi diasporic author in Australia. He is a writer of real merit. His novels Seasonal Adjustments (1994) Solitude of Illusions (1996); The Storyteller (2000); Homecoming (2005); and Spiral Road (2007) win global acclaim and are mostly concerned with themes of self-identity, sense of belonging, migration, and social dislocation. His style is characterized by lucidity and sarcasm.
Tahmima Anam belongs to the group of writers who were born after the liberation of Bangladesh. Her novel A Golden Age (2007) is set in war-torn Bangladesh. As an English fictional work on the independence war (1971), Anam's novel must have a singular place in the history of Bangladeshi English literature. The storyteller Mahmud Rahman has appeared on the BWE scene with his debut publication Killing the Water (2010). It is a collection of a dozen short stories published by Penguin India and covers a wide range of themes ranging from the liberation war of Bangladesh to the racial violence against fresh immigrants in the USA. A galaxy of promising writers is trying their hands at writing short stories in English. Among others Khademul Islam, Kazi Anis Ahmed, Ahmede Hussain, Razia Sultana Khan, Shabnam Nadiya and Shahidul Alam deserve special mention.
Although Bangladeshi writing in English has a long way to go, it has a bright future too. We may be able to play at least a role similar to that of India. But how? The ongoing mode of BWE has to be liberated from the literary coterie, i.e., the small circle of writers, publishers, and their admirers. It has to be rescued from the narrow confines of academia and the English medium schools. English language newspapers and magazines should allow enough room for literary expression and fresh writings should be picked solely on merit. The King's/Queen's English can better be exploited by the conscious 'Calibans' of our country.

Dr.Rashid Askari writes fictions and columns and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh. E-mail: [email protected]


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