(In this first segment of a two-part article, the writer reflects briefly on some books that have had a seminal influence on the shaping of the modern Bengali mind, here in Bangladesh)
In these past many decades Bangladesh's writers have contributed enormously to the growth and sustenance of intellectual thought in the country. In this season of Ekushey and nationalistic resurgence, with all its promise of literary delight and political grandeur, why not go back, a few steps, into the past and recall the individuals who gave us the works that have shaped our thoughts not a little?
So, here we go . . .
Oshleshar Rakkhoshi Belaye
Smritipote Sheikh Mujib O Onyanyo
Syed Najmuddin Hashim
Syed Najmuddin Hashim (1925-1999) remains known as an illustrious man of letters in Bangladesh. His career as a civil servant in pre-1971 Pakistan and then Bangladesh in no way keep him away from the world of aesthetics. In this coruscating collection of essays, or thoughts if you will, Hashim reflects on men and matters he has come across. The essays cover much more than his take on politics, for he goes into a deep survey of literary as well as social trends in times which clearly were a defining moment for Bengalis.
In a very large sense, therefore, Oshleshar Rakkhoshi Belaye can be regarded as key to an understanding of the liberal Bengali mind, bringing within its ambit the various issues and ideas which underpinned the growth of Bengali political and social consciousness in a time span stretching from the 1950s and all the way up to the post-liberation period in Bangladesh. The work is also, in a number of ways, a reminder of what we may have lost over the years through the changing patterns of the seasons, in that figurative way of speaking.
Shwadhinota Shongrame Dhaka Bishwabidyalaya
Dr. Rafiqul Islam
The work happens to be seminal in an enumeration of the role Dhaka University has played in Bangladesh's history. Rafiqul Islam, academic and scholar, provides a detailed account of how the university, historically the take-off point for popular political movements in Bangladesh beginning with the 1952 language agitation, was made a special target of brutality by the Pakistan occupation army in 1971. Indeed, within minutes of the genocide launched by the army to frustrate the search for a solution to the political crisis involving East and West Pakistan, the army went into an operation against the students and teachers of the university. Hundreds of students were murdered and their bodies unceremoniously dumped into a mass grave at Jagannath Hall.
But that was not all. The soldiers, lists of teachers in hand, went out in search of academics whose identification with the cause of Bengali nationalism had never been in doubt and killed them in cold blood. Among those killed was the philosopher-teacher Gobinda Chandra Dev of the department of philosophy and Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta of the department of English. In the weeks and months that followed, the army and its local collaborators would end up killing many more teachers and students.
Shei Shey Kaal
Sardar Fazlul Karim
Sardar Fazlul Karim (1925-) has been a teacher, a politician and a philosopher. You could also put in the fact that he happens to be a brilliant commentator where a reflections on the past are concerned. In this work, basically a long conversation, Karim speaks of his life and career which, in broad measure, are a mirror of how politics and society have shaped up in Bangladesh over the decades.
Sardar Fazlul Karim's involvement with left-wing politics has been deep and committed, which is a good reason why he suffered persecution at the hands of the Pakistan authorities in the 1950s. But the decade was also a time when Karim went into open politics as a member of the constituent assembly. In this book, he reminisces on his political experiences and at the same time dwells on the personalities whose influence has been influential in a shaping of his vision of life and all that it means. Karim refers specifically to that unusual raconteur in academia, Professor Abdur Razzaque, a point which a good number of men and women will identify with.
Shei Shey Kaal is a generation that comes to us in shining microcosm
One of the most authoritative works on the War of Liberation, the book provides a profound insight into the working of the Bangladesh provisional government as it operated in Mujibnagar between April and December 1971. The writer was closely associated with Tajuddin Ahmed and is therefore in a position to throw some much needed light on the trials and tribulations the nation's first prime minister and his government went through in those difficult times. Hasan takes readers through the arduous process of the formation of the Mujibnagar government and then through the arcane alleys of the many barbs and conspiracies the government was assailed by both within and without.
In large measure, Muldhara '71 is a portrait of the perseverance and resilience that defined the politics of Tajuddin Ahmed in those crucial months. It was the first time Bengalis were running a government; and Tajuddin Ahmed, through overcoming all his ordeals, was able to fashion an administration which brought together some of the most brilliant of Bengali civil servants of a fast-vanishing Pakistan. Together these officials, along with the politicians, provided the bare outlines of a government in a soon-to-be free Bangladesh.
An incorrigible disciple of the late G.C. Dev, Aminul Islam (1943-) is emblematic of the philosophical trends which have evolved in Bangladesh since its emergence as a free nation. The writer, a much respected teacher at Dhaka University, attempts in this work to debunk the claim that philosophy and Bengali society have been strangers to each other. Islam goes back to the Bengali past and brings in pre-eminent writers to develop his argument that philosophy has indeed been an integral part of life in this country through the ages.
In a cultural ambience where few have seen the need to expound on philosophy being a background for the development and exposition of Bengali thought, Aminul Islam here brings forth a brave new world which suggests that nearly every Bengali of illustrious note, stretching back to the distant past, has provided the grounding upon which ideas in all their concreteness were to rest in Bangladesh.
Serajul Islam Choudhury
In Serajul Islam Choudhury (1936-) works a process of thought constantly engaged in analyses of history and society. As an academic, columnist and writer, he has for the past three decades and more engaged himself in explaining to the country the various manifestations of nationalism in Bangladesh. In this enlightening work, he goes back into recapitulating those historical facts which have in the course of time led to the growth, often mutilation, of politics in the country.
Any student of history will be hugely benefited by the work in question. It re-examines the Bengali past in relation to events pre-1947 before it moves smoothly into the immediate causes that led Bangladesh to freedom less than a quarter century after it linked up with Pakistan at the time of the partition of India. Choudhury examines the factors involved in the rise of Bengali nationalism in the 1960s and its subsequent success through the departure of Pakistan in 1971. And then he goes into politics in post-liberation Bangladesh and then the regression of politics in times of new disturbance. Nationalism, as Choudhury demonstrates, has been pivotal in the politics of Bangladesh, for all its many manifestations, not all of which has redounded to the benefit of the country.
Lalshalu remains the defining contribution of Syed Waliullah (1922-1971) to the realm of Bengali literature. That Tanvir Mokammel found reason to put the story of Lalshalu, which has also been translated into English as Tree Without Roots, says a good deal for the message it conveys. The plot revolves around the arrival in a village (it could be any village in Bangladesh) of a young preacher who quickly makes a toehold for himself. He does it not through any demonstration of religiosity on his part but by taking advantage of villagers' gullibility regarding spirituality. He falsely accords spiritual status to a nondescript grave, covers it with a lal shalu (red cloth), thus convincing the villagers that the grave they had ignored for so long is actually that of a man of faith.
The false preacher moves on, to grab land, to lust after women, until poetic justice eventually catches up with him. It is a satire you have before you. Or a plain condemnation of villainy.
Amloki'r Mou is proof once more, if proof were at all needed, of the powerful presence Dilara Hashim (1936-) has in the realm of Bangladesh's literature. Despite her being away from the country and taking up residence abroad, Hashim has never missed the pulse of her native land and has continued to write in prolific manner. In this work, she once more brings modernity and things contemporary to her description of contemporary life. There have been the suggestions that in the story she has drawn upon her family, upon certain truths revolving around certain members of her family. The bigger truth is that she has done a marvellous job of it.
It is the story of a rebellious, cigar-smoking, educated Bengali woman not afraid of dealing with the world on her terms. She bases her pursuit of life on the sheer power and self-confidence she possesses. There is a reassurance about her that ordinary women in Bengal, or Bangladesh, may not quite be privy to. And that precisely is the point which seems to serve as the basis of the work. There is pain behind that wall of determination, a pathos that is unmistakable. Even if Hashim had not produced any other work, Amloki'r Mou would have assured her a place in the world of Bengali fiction.
If literature is fundamentally a driving of a message home, Shawkat Osman (1917-1998) does it well. His works were noted for the bitterness of their expression, for the poignant symbolisms they came in. In this work, which has been well translated into English as Laughter of the Slave, Osman throws up an image of raw, unbridled power at work. The slave does not laugh, even when he is commanded to. Absolute silence greets his tormentors and then torment them in turn.
The work is a protest against authoritarianism, an ailment which much of the Third World, Bangladesh in particular, has periodically suffered from. Osman demonstrates the power of resistance to dictatorial rule, that even in periods of intense darkness there is light at the end of the tunnel. The slave will free himself. He will laugh. And gods of clay will end up biting the dust.
The imaginative faculty was strong, in that dynamic sense of the meaning, in Akhtaruzzaman Elias (1943-1997). And yet he wrote only two novels, the one in question and the other being Chilekothar Sipai. In both works, politics is the fulcrum around which the stories move. Khoabnama, the more critically acclaimed of the two works, is a tale set against the background of subcontinental history. It throws the principal characters into the vortex known as the Tebhaga movement of the early 1940s, a struggle that is truly reflective of mass desperation. And yet, as the peasants of Bengal hope that their struggle against the entrenched landlord class will yield victory, into the picture comes the deadly Hindu-Muslim communal divide.
The novel is a wrenching commentary on how a truly popular movement can sometimes be overtaken by political forces that throw up images of chaos, and then more of them. Elias takes readers all the way through the explosive conditions of the latter 1940s, weaving into his narrative the unbridled killing of Muslims and Hindus at one another's hands in the sordid summer of 1946. In essence, Khoabnama is sad history offered on the platter of literature.
Bangali Musalmaner Mon
Ahmed Sofa (1943-2001) had little patience with compromise. Life, he believed, was best lived when it freed itself of compromises and strategies. From that perspective, he was a free thinker and indeed his reputation as a man of letters rested on the liberalism he brought to his thoughts. It is through the prism of such a liberal philosophy that he examines the mind or call it the psychological make-up of Bengali Muslims. Sofa's premise is simple: a people who played so enthusiastic a role in the creation of Pakistan, thus contributing to the communalism that battered the subcontinent in the late 1940s, would within twenty four years would rebel against that very idea as the idea of Bangladesh began to take shape.
Ahmed Sofa analyses the rise of Bengali nationalism in the 1960s and examines it in correlation with the Islamic faith that the Bengalis of East Bengal, subsequently Bangladesh, have historically practised. Bengalis did not turn away from faith, but they did reject communalism. The social and political forces which turned Bengali Muslims towards secularism is profoundly examined in this work.