‘Bangladesh has failed to foster an environment that encourages creative and intellectual freedom’: Badruddin Umar
At 91 years old, Badruddin Umar is a fount of knowledge and brazen candour, whose life has run parallel to some of the most formative moments in the history of this subcontinent. As a writer, historian, Marxist theorist, and political activist, Umar has worked unceasingly to document an unfiltered history of Bangladesh, while foregrounding the struggles of the underprivileged in the face of political tyranny. In a career spanning over six decades, his contributions to the Bengali literary and historical canon through publications such as Purba Banglar Bhasha Andolon o Tatkaleen Rajneeti, The Emergence of Bangladesh, and his five-volume autobiography, Amar Jibon, are unmatched.
"I don't like some of these questions," Badruddin Umar says as he holds my phone inches from his face. His eyesight and hearing are not what they used to be. I had handed him the questionnaire, and he tsked reprovingly as he went down the list. "Questions like 'what books inspired me' or 'what five or ten Bengali books I would recommend to others' irk me," he said, handing me back my phone, "I'm not inspired by any one in particular, I've read thousands of things and all of those have shaped my thoughts and ideas. As for book recommendations, the Bengali literary canon is rich. Start anywhere, read the classics; read Rabindranath, Sharatchandra, Tarashankar. I don't have any particular recommendations."
I went to meet Badruddin Umar at his residence in Mirpur, where he lives with his wife and youngest daughter. I was invited into his well-kept but relatively austere living room for the interview. He was dressed casually in a white fatua and lungi, and was putting on his hearing aids as I sat down, although I have doubts about their efficacy. His audiovisual senses might have declined over the years, but his blazing wit and encyclopaedic knowledge of Bengali history and literature seems to have only sharpened with age. He found it easier to read the questions rather than have me verbally ask them—I would hand him my phone, he would read the question, and then proceed to answer. He speaks with incredible clarity, and as he speaks his gaze and gestures seem to follow the individual threads of a tapestry of experiences accumulated over a long and storied life.
How have you seen the writing in Bangladesh evolve over the last 50 years?
How writers and their consciousness evolve in a country is largely dependent on that society's intellectual development, their freedom of expression, and if their intellectual development is encouraged or discouraged. Since the Liberation War, Bangladesh has failed to foster an environment that encourages creative and intellectual freedom. On top of that, our education system has proven to be grossly inadequate to provide children with the tools that allow for creative self-expression. What this means is that we have been unable to maintain the tradition of writing present during the postwar era, and the expectation that we would receive new and diverse writing from young authors in the 1980s and 1990s has fallen flat.
So, the general practice and promotion of culture and education has not only been ignored, but antagonised. The state has largely been responsible for this alarming condition, and it is foolish to expect good or great writing to emerge in this environment.
Does history and its mediation affect people's beliefs and their forms of expression?
One of the biggest mistakes we have made and continue to make is to ignore history, and downplay its significance in dictating the present and the future. History is of utmost importance because it provides perspective. It provides a lens to perceive the world around us, and to better grasp why things work the way they do. History is being severely ignored in our current education system, and I understand why—the study of history reveals unsavoury truths about our current world and the power structures that we are subject to. Progress in every layer of society happens when people understand who they are and where they stand, and this in turn informs literary and artistic expression.
Do you believe our current political climate stifles creativity and forms of expression? How can writers and creators challenge censorship and other forms of oppression?
The current political environment presents many obstacles to free speech and literary expression. How a writer works within these constraints depends on their personal views, how they perceive resistance, and if they are willing to compromise in the face of adversity. Writing in its purest essence comes from individual expression, and individuality is resistance—it is the ability to resist what other people want you to be and do. I have personally held a 'come what may' attitude all my life, and have never let adversity suppress me. A good writer must have integrity, and that means having the ability and willingness to overcome challenges placed before them without compromising their vision.
What is fiction's role in establishing and promoting social ideas?
Fiction absolutely plays an instrumental role in proliferating ideas, and not just writing; people are driven and motivated by songs, paintings, plays, and movies. Fiction might be 'made-up' or imaginary, but they are based on the matrix of realities we all experience, the relationships and conflict between people, and how people address the prevalent issues in the world. If fiction does not reflect social realities, it has no literary value. So, fiction should be imaginative, but even that imagination must be bound within a framework of social and cultural realities.
Are there any Bangladeshi writers of fiction or nonfiction that you believe deserve wider recognition? What kind of writing do you believe is missing from the Bangladeshi literary canon?
There have been a handful of prominent writers such as Hasan Azizul Huq, Shawkat Ali, Akhteruzzaman Elias, and Shantanu Kaiser over the years—but you'll notice that they all pre-date the Liberation War. Except for a few isolated examples, I don't believe any writer born after '71 has produced anything of literary or historical significance. Any literary critic must examine the cause of this vacuum, because a literary critic cannot divorce literature from the society that produces it. Society is a collective and communal entity, and the fiction and nonfiction that has been written in the aftermath of the Liberation War must also be examined within the social conditions that produced it.
How would you like Bangladeshi writing to evolve over the next few years?
Well, what I want is irrelevant, but I could talk about how it should ideally evolve. I would primarily want something that has social value, and this transcends genres. Depending on how it is written, even a romantic poem can have social significance. There are two elements without which no writing, either fiction or nonfiction, can be considered good or worthwhile—substance and artistic merit. A writer must have something to say, and they must say it with an artistic expression of language and form.
I also hope to see writing that reflects social development—good writing should encapsulate progress or the potential for future progress, and avoid unanalytically harping on about the past. So, I want to see grounded writing that elevates human thought and acts as a catalyst for social progress.
In the case of nonfiction, language and how it is used is paramount. Language is the vessel for thought, so the language being used must fit the content and vice versa. This is how language develops—new words are introduced, archaic expressions are retired, and people discover and rediscover novel ways of utilisation. So, just like fiction, you cannot ignore language when writing nonfiction. I often come across Bangladeshi texts where the language that the author has decided to use does not align with the gravitas of the content. To me, it seems that seriousness has disappeared from the Bengali middle class, including their intellectuals.
Interview conducted in Bangla and translated to English by the interviewer.
Shahad Muktadir is a student of the MA in English program at ULAB.