Writing the Region
On the second day of the Hay Festival Dhaka 2014, literary minds from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan explored cross border connections in regional literature. Indian writer Namita Gokhale, Bangladeshi academic and translator Professor Fakrul Alam, and Pakistani short story writer and critic Aamer Hussein engaged in a lively session on “Writing the Region: Is there a South Asian Identity?” Mahrukh Mahiuddin, an adjunct faculty at the James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University, moderated the session.
The session focused on the question of a South Asian identity in literature. Namita Gokhale began with the complex identity issues of South Asian people. She observed that surrounded by the Himalaya in the North, this subcontinent has one geographical identity and also people of this region have similarities in their culture, food habit and festivities, and even their languages share the same root. She held that borders are drawn with rulers. And to support her statement, Gokhale directed her conversation towards the similarities between Hindi and Urdu, before pointing out the shared literary and cultural heritage of India and Bangladesh.
Prof. Alam spoke about the connections among languages of this region and how people from one linguistic background can comprehend another language without knowing it. He said people of Orissa and Assam know Bangla and Bangla poets. While talking about Bangladeshi identity, he observed that our nationality is marked by 'three divisions'.
Aamer Hussein highlighted how literature from this region is labelled as “South Asian” in London and America. He said that Urdu is spoken in both India and Pakistan, and even though Indian readers seek Urdu books, getting books across the border is often a problem.
Gokhale observed that Urdu is a secular language born in India but later an identity was imposed upon it by the demarcation of borders. She talked about the influences of border in language and culture, while Prof. Alam discussed the rise of language-centric nationalism in Bangladesh starting from 1952. To him, there's both connection and division between the literature of West Bengal and literature of Bangladesh.
The panelists moved on to speak on the influences of language in shaping perceptions of the writers. Gokhale observed that writings of authors like Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh and Salman Rushdie have influences of their nativity. However, Professor Alam opined that a good writer transcends regional boundaries.
Discussion again shifted to a South Asian identity and the panelists observed that a regional identity is possible, as the diasporic populace is interested in literature of their own region. The insightful session came to a close with an urge to go beyond nationalism and opt for internationalism. The panelists believe that the convergence of identity is in the process.