Demonising Rabindranath Tagore, perhaps, is as old a trend as that of idolising him. Those who construct him as a demon are no worse than those who construct him as an idol because both stifle the growth of a critical culture in literature. On one hand, this is a reflection on how our whole culture is caught in the demon-idol binary which thrives on superimposing angelic or demonic qualities on humans at the first opportunity that arises, and on the other, this exposes our deeply rooted unwillingness to graduate from a childish, narcissistic ego state that is terrified even at the insinuation of some sort of criticism, to a healthy adult ego that weighs the criticisms first, then accepts what is valid in them and rejects what is not.
The idol of Tagore
In her book, Ekabinsho Shatabdite Rabindracharcha O Anyanya Prabandha
(Rabindranath in the 21st Century and Other Essays), Ketaki Kushari Dyson discusses at some length how her efforts to research different aspects of Tagore’s relationship with Argentine writer and poet Victoria Ocampo were met with suspicion, and to some extent, contempt. It was because of her book, In Your Blossoming Flower-Garden: Rabindranath Tagore and Victoria Ocampo
, which is a trove of research material about the relationship triangle involving Tagore, Ocampo and Leonard Elmhurst presented in a fictional narrative. Her mistake was not to compromise her research findings in the construction of her novel. So, Tagore, much like Ocampo and Elmhurst, evinced feelings such as jealousy. It didn’t matter much that every part of her narrative and every response of the characters, Tagore included, were sufficiently backed by research. The Kolkata-based Tagore brigades, fortified by several institutions, were infuriated as this book put a big dent in the sacrosanct idol of Tagore they have spent decades building up. Instead of hailing this book as a unique contribution to Tagore research and criticism, the indignant looks and aggressive silences from people told her loud and clear that she -- a poet, novelist, translator and essayist -- should stop right there.
Reflecting on the whole idolised ambience of Tagore, she aptly points out, “The way Rabindranath’s name has become an idol for worship is not favourable to discovering Rabindranath at all ... If someone is turned into an idol, an emblem of national culture, and if he is worshipped with an excess of ringing bells, burning incense and chanting mantras, then it is ingrained in human nature that some people in some parts will turn reactionary to that form of worship.” (My translation)
The demon of Tagore
Precisely so. Reactions to the idol abound. In the 1940s, as Qayes Ahmed points out in his essay,“Shilper dabi, shilpir dai” (Demands of art, responsibilities of an artist), the extreme left launched a scathing attack on Tagore raising questions about his class position and invalidating on that ground all that he’s written. In what was then East Pakistan, the extreme right didn’t lag behind and their attacks on Tagore were adopted as policy by the military junta, General Ayub Khan, who banned Tagore’s songs from government media in two phases, once in 1965 and then in 1967. Jatin Sarker has written wonderfully about this in his book, Pakistaner Janmomrityu Darshan
(A Perspective on the Birth and Death of Pakistan), and Fakrul Alam in his Rabindranath Tagore and National Identity Formation in Bangladesh: Essays and Reviews
. Both Sarker and Alam discuss how this ban, backfiring on the junta, gave rise to a cultural movement of reviving secular roots through Tagore’s poetry, song lyrics and plays.
In these postmodern times, we have entered a new era of demonising Tagore when the extreme left has merged into the extreme right to form a single entity, a kind of juxtaposition which remains beyond our comprehension but the political potential of which, it seems, can best be appreciated if you are a deconstructionist-Marxist-feminist-post-colonialist critic at the same time. The Bangladeshi writer who has combined the two extremes is Farhad Mazhar and the formidable academic who has the luxury and talent of wearing those many academic hats is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a Bengali critic who is now a very influential intellectual in the US academia.
In her long, cumbersome essay, titled “Translating into English,”i parts of which were later incorporated into the book, A Critique of Post-colonial Reason
, Spivak shares her lessons in translation, which, anyone familiar with her work can easily predict, are replete with mention of and quotes from modern and postmodern thinkers. Elucidating her points about the politics of language and thereby, of translation, she brings Mazhar in the discussion and talks about the difficulty of translating certain “tatshomo” words in his poetry i.e. murtad
, which derive from Arabic. The difficulty, she claims, arises owing to the hegemony of a “Sanskritized” Bengali that has purged the language of all its previously embraced Arabic and Persian words.
“ ... from the end of the eighteenth century, the fashioners of the new Bengali prose purged the language of the Arabic-Persian content until, in Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s (1824–73) great blank verse poetry, and the Bangadarshan (1872–76) magazine edited by the immensely influential novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya (1838–94), a grand and fully Sanskritized Bengali emerged.”
“Sanskritized Bengali” has some linguistic affiliation with English which makes the task of translating it into English easy whereas translating Arabic and Persian words into English, she claims, has become something of a challenge for her due to this purging. She goes as far as comparing this purging with ethnic cleansing!
“This was the language that became the vehicle of Bengali nationalism and subsequently of that brand of Indian nationalism that was expressed in Bengali. The medium was simplified, expanded, and diversified into the contemporary Bengali prose that is the refined edge of my mother tongue, which I learned in school, and which did not allow me to translate murtad
Of all the writers, she doesn’t need to be told that absence of relevant reference to her claims actually makes them hollow generalisations that at best might serve to strengthen the propaganda Mazhar has launched. In the 18-page article, she has used 31 footnotes but not a single one to support her sweeping remarks about Bangladesh’s language condition.
As regards Mazhar and his poetry, her thesis is that a translator should be aware of such politics of language. To unmask this politics she shifts to Bangladesh’s “superficial secularists,” inheritors of the “Sanskritized” Bengali, who apparently have imposed on us such a form of Bengali that we’ve been starved of a hoard of Arabic and Persian words that were taken away from us. Her tone, in fact, would have us believe that the Punjabi ruling clique of erstwhile East Pakistan has been replaced by an equally oppressive regime, the “superficial secularists,” that is. It is highly depressing to see the extent to which Spivak can go in making her points: The lies she resorts to, the primacy of relevant reference she ignores. Of all the writers, she doesn’t need to be told that absence of relevant reference to her claims actually makes them hollow generalisations that at best might serve to strengthen the propaganda Mazhar has launched. In the 18-page article, she has used 31 footnotes but not a single one to support her sweeping remarks about Bangladesh’s language condition. Then how does she substantiate her claims? For readers familiar with Mazhar’s Rakter Daag Muchhe Rabindrapath
(Reading Rabindranath Wiping Marks of Blood) and Prostab
(Proposal), though, these claims might not sound very unfamiliar.
“The official language of the state of Bangladesh, 99 percent Muslim, is as ferociously Sanskritized as anything to be found in Indian Bengali. It is over against and all entwined in this tangle that the movement to restore the Arabic and Persian element of Bengali, away from its century-old ethnic cleansing, does its work.”
It is a blatant lie to say there are 99 percent Muslims living in Bangladesh. According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, in 1974 there were about 85 percent Muslims in Bangladesh and as of 2011, the percentage has reached several notches up to 90 percent. This increase in Muslim population owes completely to the state’s repressive policies against religious and ethnic minorities, especially the Hindus and indigenous peoples in the hill tracts. This is a fact supported by literature, journalism and research. But the relevant question that pops up in mind is why one should distort facts in this way. What does it achieve? And why do people so avowedly anti-essentialist would impose a homogenising nature on the language of Bangladesh, by calling it “ferociously Sanskritized,” thus conceiving it as one unitary model. In her opposition to all forms of essentialism, Spivak, in this instance, is actually resorting to what can be considered just another form of essentialism. Isn’t that the most obvious self-contradiction in a writer?
Language of Bangladesh, like any other country, has several strains and they don’t really fit together because they have associated themselves with different, and at times, opposing traditions. Right at the beginning, when the literature of this country had just begun in the early 1950s, there were two very different strains. To one belonged Farrukh Ahmed, Golam Mustafa, Abul Mansur Ahmed, Kazi Imdadul Haq and a myriad others while to the other were Ahsan Habib, Syed Waliullah, Zahir Raihan, Shawkat Osman and Abul Hussain, among many others. The former were for a revival of Islamic literary traditions. Whereas the latter were all for exploring human society from various angles, boring their way into the dark sides of society and individuals, fitting them in realistic narratives, or in modernist ones; their characters were not built on romantic ideals derived from faraway Islamic traditions, and rather were picked up from the streets of Dhaka or from a remote village by the Padma or some other river. The latter were the ones through whose works real Bangladeshi men and women found their way onto the pages of Bengali fiction.
Tension between the two has sustained, both reaching their extremes with Farhad Mazhar on one pole and Humayun Azad on the other. So, there you get two main strains, broadly speaking. But in between these two are many more, some even stronger, some at least equally strong. In poetry Mohammad Rafique is one such name who, from the very beginning, has consciously kept himself away from both the Islamic and modern traditions, carving out his own anti-colonial path, shunning European modernism as much as invocations of Islamic civilisations. In prose fiction, Hasan Azizul Haque, Akhteruzzaman Elias, Rizia Rahman and many more. In essay, Abdul Haq. There is also the rise of a sizable body of Bangladeshi English writing which, much like its Bengali counterpart, resists broad categorisations. English in Bangladesh is no more the preserve of the USA- or UK-educated elite.
We will return to this aspect of the discussion later. For now it suffices to say one cannot justify the claim that there is one unitary form of Bangladesh’s language or that one “Sansrikitized” model is dominant to the point of silencing others. Being so far removed as Spivak is from Bangladesh’s linguistic context, it is indeed easy for her to endorse that one, while writing, should insert as many Arabic and Persian words as possible because it marks a “split” in the language scene which promises immense subalternist potential. I, however, am deprived of that luxury of hollow theoretical exercise. Born and brought up in this country, I’ve been involved with its literature ever since I picked up the fairy and ghost tales written in Bengali as a kid of eight or ten years old. From my standpoint, what Mazhar is doing is the masking of a propaganda campaign aimed at narrowing the heterogeneous field of Bengali language and literature down to one single lens, branding it as “secularist,” accusing it of “purging” the language of its Arabic and Persian words, preposterously calling Tagore its leader, and thereby negating everything that Tagore and others before and after him have achieved.
The underpinning of an extremist stance on Tagore as well as Bengali literature is too obvious in Mazhar to be overlooked. Spivak discusses that Mazhar “de-theolizes” religion in his poetry collection, Asamayer Noteboi
(Untimely Notebook), as he questions many dictates of religion while at the same time using words of Arabic origin very consciously. Seeing things from where I stand, it seems Mazhar is actually communalising Bengali literature by injecting hatred towards Tagore or towards the literature written by the Hindus on grounds that are reactionary in nature, if not totally unfounded. We should also consider if this has something to do with his other mission, that of communalising Bangladeshi politics. Mazhar’s recent paroxysm of emotion for Hefazat-e-Islam is a case in point.
Hefazat is a madrasa-based organisation that put pressure on the current Bangladeshi government to remove non-Muslim Bengali writers from school textbooks, to remove the sculpture of Lady Justice from the Supreme Court premises in Dhaka. In both cases, to our frustration and disillusionment, Hefazat has been successful. Now it demands festivities surrounding Pahela Baishakh and other secular functions be banned. Curiously enough, Mazhar has found immense potential in the rise of Hefazat and this statement requires no substantiating reference as his articles justifying Hefazat’s actions and demands are scattered copiously in the pages of the Naya Diganta, the Amar Desh and the New Age.
Henceforward his argument boils down to what basically is a haunting echo from Ayub Khan’s regime and the ideologies associated with it, circulated to this day in many circles, where the most important question to ask is: Why did such a big writer as Rabindranath not write anything about the Muslims?
I call Mazhar’s literary project “masking of a propaganda campaign” as he does not make his point as sweepingly as Spivak does. He knows it very well that it is impossible to demonise Tagore on flimsy grounds. Tagore himself has addressed many of the concerns Mazhar is raising now. That’s why Mazhar, in Rakter Daag
, takes a tortuous route, beginning with how Tagore himself was against the “Sanskritized Bengali” and how Tagore was aware of the importance of using Arabic and Persian words when using them was necessary. This line of argument is upheld throughout the first three articles in the book but after that, from the fourth article on (“Bangla bhashar ‘nitya prakriti’ ebong tothakothito pramita bhasha/ The constancy of Bengali language and its so-called standard form”), he changes tack. Henceforward his argument boils down to what basically is a haunting echo from Ayub Khan’s regime and the ideologies associated with it, circulated to this day in many circles, where the most important question to ask is: Why did such a big writer as Rabindranath not write anything about the Muslims? Why did he ignore the Muslims altogether? Why do Muslims appear only as orderlies and servants in his stories and novels?
Queries such as these are some of the darkest colonial legacies we carry forward to this day and the route they take is all too predictable. Some unmistakably extend it to another crucial question: Why did Tagore never write anything about Prophet Muhammad? This is the lowest point that such arguments can stoop to.
do we ever ask why Farrukh Ahmed has not written about Shiva the Hindu god, or Manasa the goddess? Do we ever ask why's there a dearth of Hindu characters in Kazi Imdadul Haq’s novels, or in Humayun Ahmed’s novels, for that matter? We don’t. Those questions, we are to believe, are relevant only to Tagore.
In Rakter Daag
, Mazhar tries to establish the premise that excluding Muslims from fiction is as bad as being a racist. But in a poem from Noteboi
, which Spivak herself quotes in her essay, he, too, stoops to that point where one asks why Tagore never wrote anything about Prophet Muhammad. Doesn’t one take the argument to this level at the risk of having a taste of one’s own medicine? Do we bring in the same questions when evaluating other Hindu writers? Is Tagore the only target of such questioning? More importantly, do we ever ask why Farrukh Ahmed has not written about Shiva the Hindu god, or Manasa the goddess? Do we ever ask why's there a dearth of Hindu characters in Kazi Imdadul Haq’s novels, or in Humayun Ahmed’s novels, for that matter? We don’t. Those questions, we are to believe, are relevant only to Tagore.
The question of disappearing an entire community from national literature, or consigning a certain group of people to a meagre presence, has been raised by many writers, as much here as in other parts of the world. One of the most notable essays about this has come from Toni Morrison. In her essay, “Playing in the dark,” she questions the politics of disappearing black people from American fiction which is evidently dominated by white Americans. About ideology and how it leaves its mark on language, she says, “... writers transform aspects of their social grounding into aspects of language, and ... they tell other stories, fight secret wars, limn out all sorts of debates blanketed in their texts.” So, the politics of disappearance is very much there in many literatures across the globe. But we need to consider whether the context in which Morrison’s question is asked is similar to that of ours; whether the politics of disappearance has a different dimension in American fiction than in ours. We will take up this discussion shortly and see how the politics of disappearance is so nuanced in the case of Bengali literature as to render Mazhar’s claim unfounded.
As implied above, Spivak, who is quite famous for taking a point in multiple directions, doesn’t bother much about a prolonged discussion in this particular case. On the contrary, she jumps to a conclusion based on unsubstantiated generalisations, taking things several steps ahead of Mazhar. What in Mazhar remains somewhat in check finds in Spivak ruthless expression. Just note how she addresses Tagore:
“The next poem refers to Rabindranath Tagore, who has already been mentioned as a master fashioner of modern ethnically cleansed Bengali, a language that slides easily into English. Mazhar cannot disclaim his pervasive influence, but . . .”
A “master fashioner of modern ethnically cleansed Bengali” -- isn’t that how Tagore is exactly seen in Mazhar’s Rakter Daag
, though the tone there is balanced and does not, despite accusation of disappearing Muslims from the fictional realm, go as far as superimposing the analogy of ethnic cleansing?
Then she quotes parts of the poem in her own translation:
“The Tagore Kid
Our sir Rabi is a huge big poet, white folks
Gave him the Nobel prize to vet his literary might Just right. His dad and gramps
Ran after the Brits and gathered in the loot
Became landowners by own claim
But family faults ne’er stopped
His verse—he’s now the whole world’s poet.
I salaam him, welcome him heartfelt.
Yet my soul, dear lord, is not inclined
To him. Rabindra had faults. His pen
Remembered many a lucky sage, saint, renouncer, and great man,
But never in wildest dream did the name of
Prophet Muhammad come in shape or hint
To his pen’s point, so I can never forgive.
But dear lord of grace, you please forgive that boy, from Tagore clan.”
The logic that this is an ironic way of resisting the linguistic hegemony of “Sanskritized Bengali” does not wash at all. The inter-textuality of this poem makes the claim of irony sound hollow. By inter-textuality I mean the echoes that this poem has in many communal discourses (some of which are recorded in Sarker’s Janmomrityu Darshan
and Alam’s Rabindranath Tagore and National Identity Formation in Bangladesh
). The quest Mazhar initiated in Rakter Daag
by asking why there are no Muslims in Tagore’s writing has found fulfilment in Noteboi
with the rhetorical question why Tagore has not written anything about Prophet Muhammad. But being the formidable post-structuralist critic that Spivak is, she knows the binary between “secularized” and “Islamized” has to be bypassed. So she takes caution, saying that the movement of retrieving Arabic words in Bengali is not aimed at “Islamization”:
“If the Arabic and Persian elements were purged out of Bengali, how do I encounter them as a translator today? I encounter them as part of a general movement in Bangladesh to restore these components. This is not to be confused with an Islamicization of the language, since there can be no question of transforming the Sanskrit base of Bengali.”
This overemphasis on Arabic and Persian words, in my understanding, is Mazhar's way of metonymically pointing to the absence of Muslim characters in novels written by Tagore and other Hindu writers. True, this has caused in Muslim readers a sense of cultural estrangement that Mazhar is not the first writer to feel or point out. Abdul Haq, in the 1960s, had done that already, with a more liberal mind. Unlike Mazhar, Haq shifts his emphasis on Muslim writers. He mainly considers why some Muslim writers have failed to prove themselves to be Bengalis. Isn’t that exactly the allegation levelled against Bengali Muslims that they are Muslims, but not Bengalis? It was in his essay, “Bangali Musolman: Bhumika O Niyoti” (Bengali Muslims: Introduction and Destiny), he examines these issues.
There is no denying that writers who promoted Hindu nationalism left out Muslims or even if they brought in some Muslim characters, they misrepresented them in ways which reflect their own misperceptions about Muslims as opposed to what Muslims really are. It is also true that such an ideological stance can manifest itself in linguistic choices. This has happened, most notably, in the works of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay. But to say it is true of all the writers of his generation as well as those who came later, is a lie; to say there is no difference between Bankim and Michael Madhusudan Dutt (Muslim women appear in his play, Buro Shaliker Ghare Ro
), or between Bankim and Tagore, is to overlook aspects without which the nuanced politics of disappearance of Muslims in Bengali literature cannot be understood at all.
Serajul Islam Choudhury, in his books, Bangla Gadyer Shamajik Byakaron
(The Social Grammar of Bengali Prose) and Jatiyatabad, Sampradayikata and Janaganer Mukti
(Nationalism, Communalism and People’s Freedom), has worked out the social, political underpinnings of Bengali prose and its renaissance, of how the pioneers and later practitioners, Tagore included, contributed to building up an ideological network through which loyalty to the British Raj was ensured. In Chattopadhyay’s novel, Anandamoth
, set in the time of Sanyasi rebellion against the East India Company, Choudhury shows, loyalty to the British and extremist view against Muslims are infused. But it does not mean Tagore has to be demonised on account of movements (Hindu nationalism or Bengali renaissance) that had affiliation with the East India Company or the British Raj; nor does it mean Tagore has failed to transcend his class, race and gender positions in all his writings. That’s why Choudhury wrote, Rabindranath Keno Jaruri
(Why Rabindranath Is Important); Ranesh Das Gupta wrote “Marxbadi dristite Rabindranath” (A Marxist reading of Rabindranath); Jatin Sarker wrote Amar Rabindra Abalokan
(My Understanding of Rabindranath) and Qayes Ahmed wrote “Shilper dabi, shilpir dai,” to name just a few.
The following excerpts of Nikhilesh’s monologue from Tagore’s novel, Ghare Baire
(Home and the World), go to show how Tagore’s stance on Muslims and the British is entirely different than Bankim’s:
“Some Maulvis from Dhaka are here to preach. Muslims in this area used to hate cow-slaughter almost as much as Hindus. But now cows have begun to be slaughtered in some places. It was one of my Muslim subjects who informed me, and protested too. An artificial fanaticism lies behind it now, but trying to stop it will make the fanaticism real. And that is what the opposition wants.
Summoning my most influential Hindu subjects, I tried my utmost to explain to them. I said, we can maintain our own faith, but we have no control over other people’s faith ... They said, we didn’t have this nuisance all these years, maharaj.
I said, no, but that was their choice. Find a way to make them stop it by choice too. Conflict will not achieve that.
They said, no maharaj, those days are gone, they will never stop unless they are forced to.
I said, force will certainly not stop cow-slaughter, but it may lead to violence between people.
One of them had studied English, he had learnt to chant the latest jargon. He said, look, it isn’t just a matter of tradition. Our country is an agricultural one, the cow is…
I answered, in our country the buffalo also gives milk and is used to plough the land, but we cavort in the temple courtyard smeared in blood and holding severed buffalo heads, don’t we? When we join issue with Muslims for the sake of our religion—our dharma—we make Dharma, the god of justice, laugh. And the quarrel intensifies. If it is only the cow that must not be slaughtered and not the buffalo, then it isn’t a question of faith, but only of blind tradition.”
(Arunava Sinha’s translation)
Bengali literature did assume a communal face in the hands of a few Hindu writers but that reign was short-lived and never went unchallenged.
Discussing the depiction of farmers’ lives in Bengali fiction, Qayes Ahmed, in his essay “Ghurnir taan O nirabeg bojhapora” (The pull of the whirlpool and dispassionate understanding) does not mince his words and says, “Rabindranath, like Tolstoy, came from a feudal family and lived among the farmers by the Padma. But he couldn’t capture their lives in his fiction.”(My translation)
This truth, however, did not lead him on to put forward a reductive attitude so as to negate the greatness or worth of Tagore’s writing. In “Shilper dabi, shilpir dai,” he says, “The way Rabindranath, in his writing as well as through his social and political activity, has played a courageous role in pacifying many crises of our country outweighs the contribution of many big political leaders. Can we just negate Tagore by saying this was a luxurious exercise of a feudal lord and not a reflection on his sense of responsibility towards the people? Such attempts were made in the 1940s. On top of questioning his social commitment as a writer, a section of Progoti Shibir called the entire gamut of his literature reactionary and demanded he be negated altogether. But the first protests against that demand came from right within the same organisation.” (My translation)
Bengali literature did assume a communal face in the hands of a few Hindu writers but that reign was short-lived and never went unchallenged. Madhusudan Dutt’s short play, Buro Shaliker Ghare Ro
, is a satire on a greedy and lascivious Hindu zamindar who preys on his impoverished Muslim and Hindu subjects. Dutt was a contemporary of Bankim. Mir Mosharraf Hossain, another contemporary of Dutt and Bankim, wrote Bishadh Sindhu
(An Ocean of Sorrow), a novel about the assassination of Husayn, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, in the battle of Karbala.
Given that choice of language and words has political implications, every writer translates his own experience into his/her writing. Some of our writers were exposed to Hindu culture and myth (Tagore), some to Muslim culture and myth (Hossain), and some to both (Kazi Nazrul Islam and Mohitlal Majumdar). That’s why one gets in Hossain’s novel plenty of Arabic and Persian words and Islamic myths. Nazrul and Majumdar waged revolutions, using words and myths associated with both Hinduism and Islam. Nazrul was a Muslim, Majumdar a Hindu. The former was vociferously critical of British rule in India and called for freedom not only from British rule, but also from classism, chauvinism, etc. Then there came Jibanananda Das, a Hindu poet, whose first poetry collection, Jhara Palak
(Fallen Feathers), was so heavily influenced by Nazrul that he dealt with the same subject of anger arising from the shackles of British rule, invoking imagery of deserts, using Arabic and Persian words. He found his own distinct voice and style from his second collection, Dhushar Pandulupi
(Grey Manuscript), but anti-communal and anti-classist stance never left him. With Jibanananda came the Kollol
group, ringing the death bell for preachers of both Hinduism and Islamism.
In post-Tagorean prose fiction, Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay, Manik Bandyopadhyay, Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, Bibhutibhushon Bandyopadhyay, among many others, took literature to the doorstep of common people – poor, impoverished Bengali men and women. All of them were Hindus, yet Sharatchandra’s Gafur from the short story, “Mahesh,” and Manik’s Hosen Mia from Padma Nadir Majhi
, are Muslims and two of the richest characters in the entire fictional realm of Bengali literature. There may be a dearth of Muslims in their works but none of them shows signs of any grudge or belligerent attitude towards Bengali Muslims.
Then there was Adwaita Mallabarman and what would Mazhar say about him? There are lower-class Muslims in it, mostly farmers and their wives, and the Hindus who abound its terrain are also lower-caste people. What about Al Mahmud and Syed Shamsul Haq? Both have most successfully depicted, through their poetry, desires and dreams of rural people taking profusely from Muslim cultures (Mahmud’s Sonali Kabin
was way before he changed his tack; he was avowedly a Marxist then). I still remember reading a few poems of a Hindu poet named Kashinath Roy in an issue of Kheya
, a literary magazine published from Dhaka. He used several Arabic words in them but why? Because he was born in this country and grew up here, surrounded by Muslims. So, his use of those words derives surely from his experience and in all likelihood, they came naturally to him when he wrote those poems.
The whole point is about spontaneity as opposed to the imposition of a revival theory on a language or a people. It is also about whether one nurtures belligerence towards a particular group or not. Humayun Ahmed’s novels and stories are mostly about middle-class, lower-middle-class Muslim men and women. Has he stopped on that account being a popular writer in Hindu-majority West Bengal of India? He hasn’t because his characters show no belligerence towards Hindus or their culture. Precisely the same reason is at work when one sees popularity and influence of Sunil Gangopadhyay, Samaresh Majumdar and Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
I don’t disagree that many secularists pose themselves as vanguards of a form of Bengali in which they think use of Arabic words should not be allowed; nor do I disagree that there are extremist elements, among secularists too, who blindly conflate religion with militancy, which is seriously ill-conceived. But to react to that by homogenising all Hindu writers or secularists into a reductive category cannot be justified by any postmodern theory and underlies a response that is far more extreme than what it purports to oppose and annihilate. Opposition must be encouraged but not annihilation.
Opposition opens up newer possibilities for creation but annihilation segregates. It is annihilation that Mazhar’s campaign is aimed at, much like Hefazat, whose way of annihilation is by expunging essays and stories written by Hindus and “atheists” from textbooks. It doesn't come as a surprise that Mazhar has found some kindred spirit in Hefazat.
In one’s opposition to an ideology, going for a reactionary model of jihad by negating all writers associated with a particular tradition will only trigger off more divisive politics in culture as well as literature.
Rifat Munim is literary editor, Dhaka Tribune.