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Walking with Shyamanga and Lilabati

  • Published at 06:48 pm February 9th, 2018
  • Last updated at 05:33 pm February 28th, 2018
Walking with Shyamanga and Lilabati
“Have you read Shawkat Ali’s Pradoshe Prakritajan?” asked Mohiuddin Ahmed, my foremost mentor for anything concerning book publication, gesturing towards an old painting hung from the top of the wall. Sometime in early 2013, we were sitting in his spacious room at the UPL’s Motijheel office where the air was filled with a thoroughly refreshing smell of both new and old books. I followed his finger and tried to find the spot on the wall but my view was blocked by giant book shelves guarding the walls on all sides and books of all kinds were flashing their spines in neatly arranged rows on them. While I was standing on my feet to get a better shot at the painting, Mohiuddin bhai continued, “That is the first draft of the cover for Prakritajan.” The painting was in red and black ink, outlining figures of half a dozen men and women caught, as if, in postures of a festive dance. A touch of the ancient was vivid in that frame. “Now that is one of those books that you can pride yourself on publishing. “It takes you to one of the biggest watersheds in our history,” he added. He was explaining to me what had prompted him to get into the business of books in a country where people love to read books but prefer not to buy them. The talk then took its own course, charting through the difficult history of Bangladesh’s book publication industry, some of which I remember and some others I don’t. But I distinctly remember the grand introduction to Prakritajan, the way my mentor made a case for it. I bought the book from the UPL stall during the Ekushey Boi Mela in 2014 and spent a whole week over it – a 197-page novel. I was then a slow reader, which I still am. I got even slower trying to get into it as the language choice did come as a bit of a shock: The whole book is written in a high-sounding standard Bangla. All characters, irrespective of their age and class and religion, speak this language. Though written in the standard form of spoken Bangla (as opposed to sadhu Bangla) with heavy doses of archaism in the choice of words, the novel reads like it was written in the times of Bankimchandra or, say, Sharatchandra, when there was barely any difference between the narrator’s description and the characters’ dialogues. Choices for the proper nouns (with which description of the time and place is done) are too formal for anyone’s taste in the 21st century. For “janala” (window) is used “gobakkho,” for morning “pratyushe,” and for rui fish “rohit,” to cite just three examples here. Once I was used to the language, I found Shyamanga and Lilabati, and Mayabati and Basantadas – the main characters. Shyamanga, a sculptor, has been walking for days since he was taken to task and released by his master under whose supervision he was working on sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses, especially those worshipped by the Brahmins. But Shyamanga cannot help it: In his carvings and sculptures, flesh-and-blood men and women appear holding each other in intimate postures. This is blasphemy – at least that’s how his master took it and drove him immediately out of the temple. In the whole novel readers find him walking from one place to another, sometimes to flee while some other times to find a new place with Lilabati. Their sexual union is forbidden by the law of a rigid caste system, so they walk from place to place. This image of walking also applies, to some extent, to Basantadas and Mayabati. Why are they all walking from time to time? Where are they headed to? All of them come from the lowest tier of a kingdom when society is experiencing one of the biggest transitions in our history: Reeling under a socially stratified system, the untouchables and those from the lowest tier are fuming in revolt against the Sena dynasty and its ruling clique – the Brahmins and the Kayasthas. Following the dialogues and descriptions, anyone can tell that the time was the beginning of the thirteenth century, 1204 to be precise, when the Muslim invasion in Bengal had succeeded. The more I was into the book, the more I was being aware of the difficulty the novelist must have faced. I was reading it in a time when there was a huge revival of interest in ancient and medieval history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The tide has yet to ebb (consider Shazia Omar’s Dark Diamond, Bloomsbury India, and Bappaditya Chakraborty’s Samudragupta: The Making of a King, UPL). Maybe my reading was influenced by the tendency of my time, which explained why I was so focused on how history was being presented and also how much imaginative liberty Shawkat had taken in writing the novel; characterisation and other stylistic devices were of secondary importance. So, in a way, I was reading Shawkat Ali’s magnum opus in terms of Niharranjan Roy’s Bangalir Itihash, Romila Thapar’s Early India and Richard Eaton’s The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, sometimes even losing track of the storyline but always taking notes on the margins about important events and places such as Magadh, Gaur, Varendra, the Karatoya river etc. This is by no means the only way of creatively reading a book; there of course are other and better ways. In the short span of this essay, I’m just trying to describe how I read it and why I read it the way I did. So, the first objective was to understand how much of Shawkat’s own time and politics was consciously or unconsciously imposed on the time he was recreating. This is the most common thing that happens to historical novels. In recreating a time gone by, real history is often lost to tendencies prevalent in the writer’s time. I was awestruck by the sheer objectivity with which Shawkat has dealt with his subject matter. One might not find in it a one-to-one correspondence with Niharranjan’s or Eaton’s or Thapar’s book as Prakritajan is a fictional account whereas the other three are historical accounts of the same period or more. But if you combine the insights culled from Niharranjan, Eaton and Thapar, and then read Prakritajan, you too will be awestruck to find out that Shawkat is presenting history from a vantage point that leaves nothing or no one out, tilting neither towards the Muslims nor the Hindus, highlighting the inevitable tension existing between different classes and castes, and fictionalising what it meant for the untouchables and the wandering Buddhist minstrels to live outside of the town walls under the Sena dynasty. Much like Eaton, Shawkat too negates all the propagandist theories (some of them demonise the Hindus while some demonise the Muslims) about the rise of Islam in Bengal. Shawkat, writing a full decade earlier than Eaton, rightly holds that the myth of forced Islamisation of Hindu masses, actualised by ruthless Muslim rulers, is as much spurious propaganda as the myth of only 17 horse-riding soldiers, led by Bakhtiyar Khilji, vanquishing the army of Lakkhan Sena in Nudiya, which, according to Abul Kalam Muhammad Zakaria (referred in Eaton's book), is in Western Rajshahi.
But as an intellectually oriented and historically conscious writer, Shawkat did know the pitfalls of poor research and how it might turn into an instrument of despicable propaganda in the hands of those who believe in myth and segregation rather than truth and equality
I wonder to this day about the thorough research that Shawkat must have done before he got down to writing his novel. Though Eaton pays little attention to the atmosphere of a social upheaval triggered by injustices perpetrated by a caste system, Thapar talks about this aspect at some length in the chapters: Threshold Times and The Politics of Northern India. Under the sub-heading of A Perspective of the New Politics, she even touches upon the hostility between Brahman priests and Shramanic sects (followers of Jainism and Buddhism), which was common to most small kingdoms in the latter part of the 12th century when the Sena rulers in Bengal were in power. Shawkat’s research, thus, stands on strong foundation which is matched perfectly by the dialogic framework that he provides for his characters: There are not only ruthless Kayasthas but there also are the kind ones who protect; there are not only Muslim usurpers but there also are the ones like Ahmad, a saint-like Muslim trader with a grasp of science, who saves numerous Hindu lives; there are those from dispossessed groups who plan on helping out the Muslim invaders to get in and conquer, and then there are those from the same groups who believe in resisting the invasion as they are highly suspicious of the political intentions behind such an event. Both Shyamanga and Basantadas remain suspicious of the Muslim invasion and refuse to convert. For Eaton, the real point of departure from Shawkat is the time-frame of mass conversion to Islam. Eaton argues that mass conversion to Islam happened mostly and notably among the peasant communities in the eastern part of what is now Bangladesh and it could not have happened before the Mughals took over Bengal in 1574. In Shawkat’s fictional realm, the historical conditions for conversion were almost contemporaneous with the time of the invasion. However, Shawkat’s insight about Muslim saints-cum-preachers drawing large crowds of indigenous peoples to their religion perfectly holds water. Eaton, too, makes the case that the Muslim rulers had very little to do with conversion to Islam and therefore, it was carried out mainly by Muslim preachers better educated and equipped with a more scientific grasp of things who stayed back in the hinterland, away from the northwestern part, the centre from where the Turks or Afghans ruled. The time-frame of the conversion, then, marks the imaginative leap for Shawkat. Literature is not meant to reflect high-powered research works such as Thapar’s or Eaton’s. It should rather light up our imagination and spur us on to a liberal, humane interpretation of history as opposed to the propagandist ones. But as an intellectually oriented and historically conscious writer, Shawkat did know the pitfalls of poor research and how it might turn into an instrument of despicable propaganda in the hands of those who believe in myth and segregation rather than truth and equality. That’s perhaps why he not only took the imaginative leap but also fulfilled the demands of research required of a work of fiction. What makes his work a grand success, in my opinion, is that his imaginative leap did not jeopardise any of the fundamental historical truths. Nor did it turn any group into the villainous scapegoat of history. Having finished the book, when I was turning the events over in my mind, the language choice Shawkat made, turned out to be the most successful as there is virtually no other way of indicating it to readers that all of it was happening several centuries ago. It was also after I finished reading that the motif of walking made perfect sense: It is Shawkat’s symbol to articulate that they are headed to the unknown, desperately trying to reach a better place with promises of a better life. The symbol becomes all the more powerful when you realise that the people taking this apparently never-ending walk are the ones who in today’s theory-heavy jargon are called the “subalterns.”
Rifat Munim is Literary Editor, Dhaka Tribune.