After the Bengali poet Jibanannada Das died in a tram accident in Kolkata on a gloomy October day in 1954, an onlooker wonderingly commented that not even a cow could be run over by the slow-moving Kolkata tram: how come then that the Babu (gentle man) became a victim of such an accident! Should we consider this accidental death as the usual way for the poet and writer to cope with others, with the World? Or should we admit that Jibanananda Das failed to cope with the 'others' of his world and submitted himself to his tragic destiny? We may, in the same way, approach and brood over the fatal end of Ernest Hemingway who took his own life. In these two cases, was it a failure to cope with 'others'? Could these 'others' be easily named?
The Writer, like every individual in society, is surrounded by a crowd of infinite others. A few individuals even bear the entities of others within themselves.
These various sorts of others constantly demand attention from them. To respond to this is not easy. When it happens to be uneasy, it becomes a matter of “coping.” It seems that the writer has to face such situations of “coping” more frequently than other individuals in society.
Am I right in considering the writer as someone different from other members of human society? Yes and no. The writer is, of course, a very normal human being with a rather special ability to explore his humanity and that of others. The writer is a highly sensitive person. Additionally, perhaps he has a conscious or unconscious sense of a mission, which could at times become a driving compulsion. And he is unusually endowed with the capacity of self-questioning and social interrogation. The overriding importance to me, at the moment, is the writer's (or for that matter any individual’s) willingness and ability to recognise and empathise.
The situation becomes worse when the writer is a woman, and furthermore, a poet. Poetry hardly brings money or popularity to a writer. In view of the glamour of technological advancement of the 21st century, wise people do not show much confidence in the utility of poetry in human life. So neither the family nor the society, nor even the publisher encourages the writer, specially the woman writer, to write poetry
There is a familiarity that hides and deadens perception, there is a proximity that obstructs vision, there is a force of stereotyping-- traditional, social and psychological--that robs human beings, including our dear ones, of their individuality and humanity. I suppose, I am expected to know my husband, son and daughter, but I wonder whether I know them well enough, and fully! How sincere are we when we recognise one another? How real are we to one another? The writer's problem --not his dilemma --is to break down the various impediments that obscure the reality of human beings. So the writer feels the urge to speak out the truth that seems to be lying beneath the surface of the apparently visible Reality. Like a fisherman beside a river, the writer concentrates all his efforts on searching out the truth he looks for. In his endeavour the writer may come down to the street from the ivory tower of Art. There is Rabindranath going out to the vast open fields of Bolepur to set up a new education system for young people. There is Pablo Neruda talking about people's rights. Bhisham Sahni reveals the conspiracy of British imperialism behind the communal riots in the subcontinent in 1947. Shamsur Rahman protests the inhuman terrorist activities of the fundamentalist activists in Bangladesh.
The writer cherishes a secret desire to change the world he lives in. He has a strong faith in the printed word. But every practitioner of the craft of writing knows that his manipulation of words involves a kind of reordering, subversion and change. The writer does want to change things. But he shares neither the Neanderthal simplicity of a George Bush nor the organised cruelty and indifference of governments to ethnic and religious minority. He recognises grey as well as dark areas. Arundhati Roy has said it all for us already--I cannot do it any better. Incidentally, a brave man in Bangladesh, Shahriar Kabir, attempted to tell his people, in his capacity as a writer, of the dark happenings that took place during the past few weeks. He now finds himself in prison on the charge of treason.
The ethnic groups and religious minorities in Bangladesh could do with more attention and sympathy from writers than they have so far received. Among the SAARC countries, India has a secular constitution while Bangladesh has its strong secular heritage derived from its liberation war. And yet, ironically enough, in neither country do the government and the people seem to really care for secular values. For instance, we find little or no treatment of ethnic or Hindu life in Bangladeshi fiction -- a clear evidence that the minorities are largely absent from our minds. This points to a profound psychological and sociological problem, which is hardly ever discussed in public. We do not yet have a Mahashewta Devi who treats ethnic and minority characters with great understanding and tenderness in her recent novels. I do feel that we creative writers, with some exceptions, are indeed guilty of a serious failure of imagination. Our sense of human responsibility has not extended beyond our own group.
In all these situations, the writer faces a difficulty to cope with the others who are around him. He has to cope with his family members, his friends, and his collogues. At times he has to cope with the State and the government and even with a stronger global power. For example, after the 11th September devastation in New York and Pentagon the writer may have to cope with a powerful international alliance. As in the case of Boris Pasternak, the State did not accept the truth the writer upheld, and inflicted penalty upon him. Sometimes the writer thinks far ahead of the others, and cannot communicate properly with them. History shows that the writer frequently fails to cope with others in such situations. But instances of his success are not at all rare. He carries on this ceaseless effort of coping, and his success is inevitable in the long run.
People like to idealise the writer, to associate an aura of dream with his name. As if he were writing upon a table of sandalwood, his pen were studded with diamonds. May I now turn, with due apology, to another aspect of coping as a writer that is rather mundane and could even be embarrassing to the successful and affluent among you. In reality, like other human beings, the writer too feels hungry, and may have debts to repay. The writer also has to earn enough to keep his body and soul together. There are, in fact, few writers who are fortunate enough to earn their livelihood by writing. To become a full-time writer is still a dream for most of the writers of the world, especially those of the SAARC countries where the people live below the poverty level. It is quite impossible in this region to earn a proper livelihood by writing. So the writer has to do some other job that enables him to earn money. Consequently, writing becomes his part-time or secondary occupation. With a reluctant heart the writer transforms himself into a teacher, a journalist, an insurance agent which marks his identity in society. Thus the writer has to maintain an existence torn by the contradictory pulls of his real passion as a writer and the distractions of staying financially viable.
The situation becomes worse when the writer is a woman, and furthermore, a poet. Poetry hardly brings money or popularity to a writer. In view of the glamour of technological advancement of the 21st century, wise people do not show much confidence in the utility of poetry in human life. So neither the family nor the society, nor even the publisher encourages the writer, specially the woman writer, to write poetry. On the other hand a woman writer’s concern for her children and her household demand has no less priority than her concern for writing. In fact, the woman writer is called upon to fulfill multiple demands.
This is the other part of the dilemma of the writer, whether a man or a woman, a poet or a novelist. No-one seems to possess the magic power to change the situation to the writer's advantage in the near future. Yet the difficult circumstances seem, paradoxically, to give the writer the impetus to carry on his pursuit.
(Read at the SAARC Writers’ Conference, Delhi 2001). Ruby Rahman is one of Bangladesh's leading poets.