I was not surprised when I learned about YouTuber Raba Khan’s attempt to become an author, neither was I surprised by the reactions it incited. What surprised me was how quite a few people of note jumped to blindly defending her work. I am particularly stumped by an opinion published on the Daily Star by Arafat Kazi, titled “Defending my Bandhobi”.
It’s important to remember that whatever the quality of work is, bullying or harassment of any type isn’t commendable. Criticisms should be constructive and restricted to the work itself. With that being said, it seems that we, as readers, are not allowed to express how we feel about what we read. I was under the impression that once a piece of creative content is released for public consumption, it opens itself up to praise, criticism, and everything in between. If I’m able to talk about why I like a certain thing, I should also be able to talk about why I do not like it. Apparently, being a teenage fan of Raba Khan somehow makes that person immediately unqualified to criticize a piece of literary work. What qualifications must we attain to be able to review this work? Am I only allowed to share what I think after getting a bachelor’s degree in literature? Or a PhD, perhaps?
The op-ed uses examples of Rabindranath Tagore and William Shakespeare, both of whom revolutionized the language they spoke. Supposedly, Khan is following into their footsteps by reflecting how our usage of language has evolved over time. While we’re at it, let’s note that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump speak the same language. There is eloquence, then there is incoherence. My interpretation of Masnoon Khair’s meme with the caption “Thakur and Shakespeare review Raba Khan's latest book, visibly shocked at the massacre of two different languages” was that it pointed out how both of these languages failed to make sense - not that they were used together.
Some critics did believe her usage of two languages (three, if you count the occasional Hindi in the book “Bandhobi”) crossed a line. Yes, this reaction is quite puritan. I agree with Kazi that language belongs to its users, and it evolves over time. Khan can write in whatever language(s) she wishes to. Most bilingual writers use words, phrases, even sentences from another language. Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Tahmima Anam are a few writers of South Asian origin who have masterfully accomplished this. The article also brings up examples of negative reactions to cultural innovations in Bangladesh that have stood the test of time. Let’s give Raba Khan the same test and see if the quality of her work can withstand it, shall we? However, this point of contention is so trivial that making this about our national insecurities appears to be a ridiculous overstretch.
Speaking of ridiculous overstretches, Raba Khan is then compared with Jane Austen. I’m not entirely sure how anyone who has read Jane Austen and hopefully some other stellar literary works can possibly connect them with Khan’s book. But then an answer to my query is ready with an infallible logic: “Like Austen, Khan is a woman, writing about issues of traditional femininity.” This comparison was so mind-boggling that I don’t have anything to say to refute it - the same way I wouldn’t be able to say anything if someone compared a speedbreaker to the Himalayas. Both a speedbreaker and the Himalayas are elevated planes, but the similarity ends there. Khan’s comic timing is praised but the quality of her prose is brushed over.
Here lies the core of the problem: despite numerous attempts, even the staunchest defender couldn’t ignore that the written form did not work well enough for the comedian. She should not be barred from venturing outside of comedy or into the literary world, but we, as her audience, also reserve the right to criticize her work when done poorly just as we praise it when done excellently. Why should one defend her writing just because she is a successful comedian? Does being good at one thing immediately give us a license to get celebrated for producing lackluster work in any other domain? The opinion piece repeatedly highlights puritan gatekeepers and pays little attention to valid criticisms of Khan’s work - but this does not bode well for anyone, certainly not for Khan herself. There is nothing wrong with accepting reasonable feedback and using it to improve your work. She is welcome to experiment, but she should do so with her eyes open. This entire debacle should serve as a learning opportunity.
We are told to celebrate Khan’s accomplishment of entertaining millions, and while telling us to do so, Kazi takes a jab at our content ecosystem that is filled with unoriginal content and not-so-great comedians. It’s hilarious because everytime someone attempts to criticize the quality of these content-makers, outcries of “At least they’re doing something! How dare you criticize someone for doing something?” are heard. Ironically, this is the exact defense used for Khan’s book. As a member of the audience who did not like “Bandhobi”, I can tell you that it’s not because of her gender or due to her not being a part of the establishment. Readers like books that are well-written, they don’t like books simply because they were written by a celebrity. The reason for people not liking this book is not that she thinks she can do everything, it’s because she doesn’t do things as great as she thinks she does.
Our inability to be open to any sort of criticism to creative work and blindly praising anyone who has tried anything has allowed sub-par content to flood all creative channels in Bangladesh: be it books, TV, YouTube videos or movies. There are many talented people out there, let’s open the floor for them and publicize quality content instead of defending things that are better left alone. We need to stop excusing and celebrating mediocrity.
Moneeesha R Kalamder is the Editor-in-Chief of Rantages. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org