The Marxist critics of Bengali literature fascinate me. The more I read their works, the more the fascination grows. To realise how diligently they work to enrich the field of literary criticism with remarkable research and analyses and how little they get in return, is to confront a truth that many will be hard put to accept, as that diligence never really translates into the kind of fame and recognition they deserve. They write going against the grain, risking not only misinterpretation of what they say but also alienation of a kind that is a by-product of the critical position they assume in assessing a literary work.
Not that every Marxist critic engages with a work in the same way. Jatin Sarker’s way of understanding a novel may differ significantly from Serajul Islam Choudhury’s, or Hasan Azizul Haque’s. But their engagement always digs out gems of analyses that broaden your horizons in ways you’ve never known before.
Consider Ranesh Das Gupta’s evaluation of Jibanananda Das’s poetry, or Jatin Sarker’s take on Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poetry and songs. Jibanananda’s alienation, broadly speaking, has two dimensions: One is set in the riverine southern region of Bangladesh and the other in Kolkata city. Whatever context it arises out of, his alienation never seemed so productive as it did after reading Gupta’s introduction to Jibanananda’s Kobitasamagra
(Collected Poems, this version was edited by Gupta himself, now out of print).
About the question of class position being a deciding factor in Marxist literary evaluations, Ahmed unhesitatingly says in his essay “Ghurnir Taan O Nirabeg Bojhapora” that this is a reductive critical principle that can only yield misinterpretations.
In our early teens when we were just drawn to the leftist circles, we’d hear some overzealous activists call Nazrul a “confused poet” who simultaneously wrote Shyma sangeet and Islami songs. Some of them did their homework. So, they would refer to one of Humayun Azad’s essays in which he sought to establish Nazrul’s inconsistencies in writing religious songs (that too, for two different religions) and revolutionary poems/songs at the same time. I have seen a lot of Marxists, who like to take the easy way for understanding politics, echo Azad in questioning how religion goes with the idea of progress. In this conceptual framework, we see another shallow binary at work, that of religion versus progress, the two conceived of as mutually exclusive. Jatin Sarker, with his fine prose, addresses this concern in his article “Bangalir Loukik Dhormer Mormanweshan” by arguing that Nazrul, unlike Azad, had access to the lives of lower class people and was exposed to many indigenous forms of theatre where different strains from different religions merged to construct a body of work that is as open to Shyma sangeet as to Islami songs. The article was mainly about the indigenous forms of religion.
It was a liberating experience, reading Sarker’s essay (from an issue of Nirantar
, a highly acclaimed literary magazine) -- liberating thoughts from narrow binaries that are still pervasive in many so-called progressive circles. Jatin shows religion has a markedly different face and function in the lives of lower classes, and therefore may not always be an obstacle to progressive change in society.
Those who are still alive have given us enough and continue to write on issues of literary importance. Choudhury, Sarker and Haque are the most prominent among them. One would also add the names of Abul Kasem, Mohammad Rafique, Anu Mohammad and Azfar Hussain. I have sought to limit my discussion to those who have written significantly about literature.
Of those who died already, Ahmed Sharif is the luckiest. Many don't agree that he was a Marxist critic but after reading his essays on the history of our culture and literature, I'm convinced he was one. His works are widely read and his fame persists. One possible reason could be his lingering influence on secular activists and writers.
Gupta’s body of work is vast and an oeuvre of his writing has been published by Bangla Academy in several parts. Nevertheless, I don’t remember having heard his name in any literary discussion in the past 15 years or so. A more unfortunate fate has struck Qayes Ahmed. One bright side, though, is that he is at times mentioned in discussions on Bengali fiction. But I have never heard a word about him as a critic, a Marxist critic with a breadth of mind that makes him one of the most liberal and politically conscious critics of our time, not tainted in the slightest with overemphasis on some aspect at the expense of others.
About the question of class position being a deciding factor in Marxist literary evaluations, Ahmed unhesitatingly says in his essay “Ghurnir Taan O Nirabeg Bojhapora” that this is a reductive critical principle that can only yield misinterpretations. He then examines the depiction of lower class people in the fiction of Manik Bandyopadhyay and Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay. His engagement is as dispassionate as ever. Tersely he observes that Tarashankar came from a land-owning feudal family but his depiction of farmers is convincing and by far the best. Comparing Tarashankar to Tolstoy, he says both of them had aristocrat family backgrounds but they both knew how to walk beyond the lines of aristocracy and mix with real farmers. Whereas, he wonders, Manik’s fishermen never appear real, or convincing, seen as they are through a “looking glass” adopted by a middle class intellectual. On the other hand, the fishermen in Titash Ekti Nodir Naam
are real, he argues, as the writer was one of them. Form and structure in Titas
are not as strong as Manik’s Padma Nodir Majhi
, but the characters in it are raw and the lives they live are real.
If this is not illuminating and liberating as a reading experience, I don’t know what else is. He only wrote seven essays collected in Qayes Ahmed Samagra
(Mawla Brothers, April 2014), none of them long but all of them exquisitely enlightening.
This is by no means an attempt at a comprehensive analysis of our Marxist critics: Their diversity and voluminous body of work make such an attempt impossible even in the span of a book, leave alone in an article, a short one at that. Nor is it an attempt to deny the Marxist critics are beyond criticism -- many of them, in fact, were overpowered by elements of extremism that inclined, and still do, towards reactionary interpretation of history or individual writers.
This is rather a humble attempt to bring their diligence and contribution home to readers because these are difficult times when everyone is prone to forgetfulness; when a cock and bull story about a writer of ludicrous Islamic romance can distract us, even divide us along ideological lines. The funniest part is the most dangerous at the same time. Most people who are exhausting themselves ranting about the issue, either attacking or defending the writer, have not even read any of his books. When such shallowness becomes the order of the day, one has reason to worry about the existence of Marxist writers who usually avoid Facebook or Twitter, and prefer keeping low profiles and dedicating most of their time to reading and writing, interpreting for us the grey areas of history and society and literature.
*Translations from Qayes Ahmed’s essays were done by the writer of this article.
Rifat Munim is literary editor, Dhaka Tribune.