Deborah Baker’s book The Last Englishmen (published in 2018) is, among other things, a shocking hatchet job of Hoseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy.
The book is an account of the last two decades of colonial India, seen through the lives and work of John Bricknell Auden and Matthew Spender. John was the elder brother of the poet W H Auden (arguably the most influential poet of the 20th century), who had worked for the Geological Survey of India. Matthew Spender had also conducted mapping surveys of the Himalayas, and was, coincidentally, the older brother of Stephen Spender, part of the famed Thirties poets orbiting around W H Auden. The passages in the book detailing their explorations of the remote, icy wastes of the Karakoram range and of the glacier-bound Himalayas are brilliantly written.
A lot of the action takes place in the Calcutta of that era, rendered through the high-minded "Parichay adda" overseen by the “handsome and quick-witted” poet-critic Sudhindranath Dutta, a member of “the higher echelons of the Anglo-Bengali elite, otherwise known as the Set.” Otherwise also known as the bhadralok. Hassan Shahid Suhrawardy, “one of Sudhin’s closest friends,” attended some of the adda sessions. Recently returned from Russia, he was under the close watch of “both Scotland Yard and Special Branch, who found it impossible to believe that a man with such a villainous appearance was not a Bolshevik.”
Villainous appearance notwithstanding, Hassan “was not to be confused with his younger brother, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy… a rogue and a scoundrel, "a natural gangster ready to dabble in strike politics and to make money and political capital out of the most exciting and disgraceful situations". Political intrigue, often involving sexual blackmail, was the air he breathed. He had acquaintances from all walks of life and made good use of them. No sooner had he secured one political post than he schemed to find a better one.” When the book moves on to Calcutta politics, increasingly defined by the conflicts between rising Muslim political power and an entrenched Hindu elite, the assault is renewed. Suhrawardy is “the ‘Muslim League gangster’” with “an honour guard of goondas from the bustees of Howrah,” and is even condemned for signing the Lahore resolution calling for “Muslim majority states to be carved out of India like choice cuts of meat.” The attack culminates in the book’s postscript, where Shaheed Suhrawardy is “‘the Butcher of Bengal,’” held wholly responsible for the 1943 Bengal famine and the 1946 Calcutta Killings.
Deborah Baker, an American, came to Calcutta in January 1990 to get married to Amitav Ghosh, the Calcutta-born Bengali author of numerous works, including the celebrated Ibis trilogy. When her mother came for the wedding, Deborah wrote, she took a long look at a Calcutta that “in appearance was a city circling the drain,” and said to her daughter, “You must really love him (Amitav).” Over the following years, that love seems to have been extended to the historical bhadralok of Calcutta, that mythical tribe that, though nearly extinct today, lives on as the object of a lavish worship by their descendants dispersed in various habitats far from present-day Kolkata.
Thus this book, where the author is “personally grateful to those who saw to my Indian education”—an impressive list of Mukherjees, Chaudhuris and Ghosh-es. Thus the ghastly replication of bhadralok historiography, where, as Jaya Chatterji noted in her book Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition 1932-1947, blaming Suhrawardy for the famine and the killings is “a well-established tradition.” Thus a work where, in marked contrast to the overwrought, interminable and at times dewy-eyed representation of the ever-sentient bhadralok, there exists not a single Bengali Muslim thinker, scholar or leader of the time. Thus A K Fazlul Huq is wholly absent; thus Nawab Salimullah Khan makes an appearance as a Muslim notable bribed by Curzon to bring about the 1905 partition of Bengal. Thus a book reliant on a very many unpublished and inaccessible texts, making it near impossible to check if the dividing line between authorial fancy and fact is being maintained. Thus the tone, language and the lack of restraint in portraying Huseyn Suhrawardy, going beyond the normal bounds to evoke the essentialist, communal construction of Bengali Muslims as itor jaat, the lowest of the low, creatures beyond the pale.
Kaiser Haq, in his introduction to The Collected Poems of Shahid Suhrawardy, portrays a lively, engaging Shahid at the "Parichay adda". He was also subjected to hostility, as when “Sudhindranath used Bishnu De as a hatchet man to attack” the latter’s book or manufactured a “scurrilous” story about a lecture on literature. Kaiser’s scholarly examination of the charges against Suhrawardy as art historian and author of The Art of the Mussulmans in Spain is a rare act of restoring the historical creditability of a major literary-cultural figure. The greatest service he renders to Shahid Suhrawardy, however, noting that the latter’s “reputation in India has become a victim of the Partition,” is to make an eloquent case for “a wider recognition of his place in South Asian letters.”
Huseyn Suhrawardy occupies a similar, if not higher, place in our national history. His grave, alongside that of Fazlul Huq and Nawab Salimullah, at the national mausoleum at Suhrawardy Udayan is testimony to that fact. While there is no denying that he was a hard-charging politician with a kinetic overreach endemic in his political career, Huseyn Suhrawardy too is entitled to the kind of resistance to historical distortion and bias as his elder brother.
Otherwise the continual stain on his character and legacy, and by extension on Bangladesh, will never ease.
Khademul Islam is editor, Bengal Lights.