Elias, Bankim . . . and perspectives
Akhtaruzzaman Elias is arguably the most radical novelist of Bangladesh. Although he had written only two novels, he is recognised to be among the most critically acclaimed Bengali novelists. To read or confront his writing is to go through an experience that radically changes our worldview and questions carefully constructed rationales and dogmas. In the canon of 20th century Bengali fiction, no one's writings are more unsettling yet fascinating than Elias's. However, it is beyond the scope of this article to give what is usually called an overview of Elias's writings. In what follows I attempt to present some of my observations on his second novel Khoabnama (1996).
Khoabnama is set in a time that is profoundly significant in the development of modern Bengali nationhood. The novel roughly captures the period when English colonial rule in India was coming to an end. Considering the history of Bengal, we can fairly assume that the novel covers a period when the country was suffering from the legacy of Governor-General Warren Hastings. The region had just suffered through a devastating famine that claimed the lives of almost one third of the population. The first successful Bengali novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's Anandamath (1882), a very significant novel in the socio-political history of Bengal, is also set around that time. A juxtaposed reading of the two novels can be very revealing, as literary critic Ahmed Sofa once suggested.
Anandamath is widely recognized to be a historical novel in which Bankim put forth his political views and articulated his vision of India as a Hindu state. It is, in fact, a novel with obvious roots in history; but it is instructive to note how Bankim buries an elementary truth of our history to reach his political ends.
The rebellion of Hindu sanyasis (ascetics) and Muslim fakirs united against the rule of the British East India Company adds a glorious chapter to the rich history of our resistance against imperialism. The Islamist fakir Majnu Shah and the Hindu sanyasi Vabani Pathak put together an army of their disciples and declared a war against the company administration and fought the British soldiers. This episode of our history is important not only because it is inspiring for the people who care about freedom, but also because it shows how the people of Bengal, despite their differences in religion and customs, organized a secular resistance movement against the imperialists.
However, in Anandamath, Bankim appropriated this episode by depicting only a Hindu ascetic army fighting the soldiers of the Nawab of Murshidabad. The book calls for the rise of Hindu nationalism to uproot the foreign Turko-Afghan rule of Bengal and then, in the long run, drive the British away from India. Ahmed Sofa suggests that it was Bankim's conscious effort to deprive Bengali Muslims of their legacy in the history of dissidence.
Akhtaruzzaman Elias's Khoabnama, on the other hand, opens with a description of fakir Majnu Shah and sanyasi Vabani Pathak fighting together on the front against the British soldiers. If we place Khoabnama in its historical context, we can see that the accomplishment of this novel is remarkable: it stands in defiance of a scholarship that had cast an impenetrable gap between the two people of Bengal. Sofa observes, 'Bankim and some other conservative 19th century thinkers had often sent their contemporary readers on the lunatic fringe and sparked many acts of communal violence' [my translation]. One of the reasons why I think Khoabnama is a remarkable feat of Elias in that it begins with a proper approach to our history.
The most distinguishing aspect, in my opinion, of Elias's novels is the representation of political activism and organised popular struggle as the only way to bring about positive changes in society. It is mostly evident in the actions, decisions and predicament of Haddi Khijir, Osman and Chengtu in Chilekothar Shepai and Tamij in Khoabnama.
History offers numerous examples to affirm that the major positive changes in society do not come as a gift from governments or people with power and privilege. The changes are rather results of the ongoing struggles and sacrifices of countless ordinary individuals.
However, social organising and political struggle are virtually absent and studiously ignored in the works of some of the most celebrated contemporary writers. In addition to this growing lack of representation of political struggle, we find the efforts of resistance movements often being undermined or ridiculed in many literary works.
This tendency shows either a reckless cynicism or an inability to understand elementary phenomena of human history.
Khoabnama manifests the underlying radical coherence of Elias's critical mind from his views on history and politics to his use of regional dialects and slang diction. Middle class sensibilities and the taste of readers constantly stumble over the shocking images.
Several decades ago, the sight of many people, mostly women, suffering from goitre (enlargement of the thyroid gland, locally known as ghag) was a common in this region. But women suffering from goitre are hardly represented in literature. However, in Khoabnama we find Tamij, the protagonist, being drawn to the beauty of a woman with goitre. What is more striking is that the woman is, in fact, presented as desirable.
The plot of Khoabnama evolves around a couple of historical episodes -- the partition of 1947 and the Tebhaga Andolon -- that shaped the identities of nations in this region. But it did not really make much of a difference to the majority of the population, who remain underprivileged to this day. Nevertheless, the spirit of resistance it enkindles is remarkable.