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‘History can be used to dream of a better world’

  • Published at 05:39 pm November 20th, 2018
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Photo: Collected from Subhoranjan Dasgupta's facebook page

Interview with Subhoranjan Dasgupta

Subhoranjan Dasgupta is Professor of Human Sciences at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata. In conversation with Dhaka Tribune’s Baizid Haque Joarder, he reflects on many aspects of Akhtaruzzaman Elias’s fictional works that he presents in his new book, “Elegy and Dream,” which will be launched at the DLF this year. The interview was taken when he visited Bangladesh in August to attend two sessions organized by the English and Humanities Department of BRAC University.

History is political. Do you feel literary works such as Akhtaruzzaman Elias’s Chilekothar Shepai or Khowabnama can help build narratives for future generations to go back to significant historical points such as Partition and pre-Liberation War struggles?

When people talk about Bengali nationalism or Indian nationalism, there’s a design behind it. Theydo not look beyond it. And then there are authors like Akhtaruzzaman Elias who go beyond and say that they want a human system which is not merely limited to nationalism. As for nationalism’s boundaries, we have the best text: Rabindranath Tagore’s Nationalism, where he points out its shortcomings and paints the crisis of civilization vividly, and how we must seek to go beyond that. 

Therefore, I believe, it is pertinent that we read the works of such literary figures which inspire us to dream. Whatever has happened around us till date—be it revolutions or historical movements—everything started off as a dream. This is why we must read Elias because his texts prompt us to ponder about deeper questions and take action to fulfil these dreams, even if it’s not anything substantial.      

How hard is it for a writer to find a balance between curating the cognition and aesthetics of reality in composing fiction to posit itself as a reliable creative counterpart to history?

For that, you can only rely on masterpieces of great literature because the quickies that get published, they are not usually bothered by history, cognition or anything else. Authors of masterpieces distinguish themselves from others bya distinctive characteristic in their writing—the ability to comprehend and grasp the socio-political reality before they set out their dream. For instance, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is certainly among the best examples of such writing. 

This is a prime example of how history can be used to dream of a better world. Even Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum makes us look back and realize our faults, how the Germans committed ruthless atrocities, and make them aspire to redeem themselves. 

What Akhtaruzzaman Elias wrote can be best viewed as a creative counterpart of our history. In both of his novels, he hands out interesting endings. In Chilekothar Shepai, Khijir walking on an electric wire, with Osman following him suggests that he does not want to provide a facile solution. And in Khowabnama, Sakhina asking for rice reveals a truth about the Bengali race: from Charyapada to what is being written now, rice continues to be a huge part of our culture. The novel, in other words, identifies the demerits that have been imposed by the actual society. 

Why are you drawn to Elias?

My only appeal to every Bengali, no matter where they are located, is to explore the works of Elias. Just like we say that every Bengali needs to read Rabindranath, they must also read Elias. Obliterating the borders between memory, legend, past, present, and the future, Elias’s Khowabnama recreates a number of rebellions which floundered but did not fail to inscribe the promise of hope. Almost all critics of Elias have singled out this passage as the key to Elias’s political aesthetic and creative assimilation of history. That’s why.