Here's hoping 2021 will be all about new landmarks in our literature
It has become something of a ritual that the pages of Arts & Letters celebrate, on the one hand, the arrival of young writers every year and on the other, pay tributes to the poets, writers, playwrights and critics who leave us for ever. In a bid to broaden the horizon of the literary landscape, we commission pieces or work out reprint arrangements to publish tributes to writers from around the world, especially those from the South Asian, African, and Latin American countries, whose writing we feel is relevant to readers in Bangladesh.
On the national front, the number of tributes we usually commissioned each year in the past was three, or four at best. That small number did leave us feeling dejected. But never were our hearts as heavy as last year when the number, once daily Covid-19 cases began to rise, kept on hitting new heights every month. The losses were so frequent that a leading Bengali newspaper in Bangladesh aptly called what in a rough translation would appear as "the march of death".
Not all of them had been infected with Covid-19. Yet we never witnessed anything even remotely close to this in the past several years. In fact, it would not be altogether unreasonable to make the case that the disruptions the healthcare system went through, due to the pandemic, were responsible for the unprecedented surge of deaths.
It all started when one fine morning we heard of the news of Professor Anisuzzaman’s passing. We could barely believe our ears. It was then a question started hovering over our head—would it happen so abruptly if it were not for the Covid-19? No one knows when this question will leave us but if death rates are anything to go by, one could say with some degree of certainty that it is here to stay.
Professor Anisuzzaman’s departure plunged us into depression. His research work stripped the history of Bengali prose of its colonial tendencies while his memoirs captured our literary, cultural and historical journey towards attaining our own identity as a nation in the most inclusive as well as progressive way possible. That’s why his departure hit us so hard, especially at a time when Islamist extremism is not only raising its head but also expressing itself as an undeniable cultural force. A budding writer, Ashabori Mayurakkhi, aptly noted in her tribute, “His illustrious life was entwined with the most momentous cultural and political events of our nation that paved the way for the birth and growth of Bangladesh ... For readers like us who grew up in the new millennium, his memoirs were like priceless chronicles of our political and cultural origin.”
Before we could even process this shock, news arrived that fiction writer Debesh Roy passed away on the same day in Kolkata. Debesh Roy was an influential fiction writer who was equally respected in both parts of Bengal. Never in his life did he stray from his Marxist inclinations. The way he combined reportage and fiction in his novels significantly broadened the vistas of Bengali fiction.
The “march of death” was not to stop. Kamal Lohani, another colossal figure in the country’s secular tradition, died in June. A former director general of Shilpakala Academy, he worked as chief news editor of Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra in 1971. Though mostly known as a cultural organiser who had taken a leading role in all the progressive movements, he was also a writer in his own right.
Arun Sen died in the first week of July. A critic and researcher of fine literary sensibility, he made it a mission of his life to promote Bangladeshi literature throughout his career. His selection of poems by Mohammad Rafiq continues to be the best compilation of the poet’s work while his collection of critical essays on Selim Al Deen remains to the best scholarly work on the playwright.
In the first week of August, we lost Manabendra Bandyopadhyay whose status as a translator and an academic was legendary. It was through his superb translation Bengali readers were introduced to the fictional work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Towards the end of August, we lost Rahat Khan whose contribution to both fiction and journalism was immense. He was a celebrated writer of fiction both in its short and long forms, and he was a widely respected newspaper editor in Bangladesh.
In October came the death of Rashid Haider, former director general of Bangla Academy. He was a brilliant fiction writer who dedicated his life to editing and compiling memoirs of 1971 written by martyrs’ families and friends. Perhaps that’s why, in a tribute published in a Bengali daily, young writer Pias Majid aptly called him the writer who spent his life digging through his own and others’ memories.
In November, as abruptly as the others before him, esteemed literary editor Abul Hasnat passed away, ending an illustrious career as a literary editor that spanned five decades and leaving a lasting imprint on our literature. It would indeed be difficult to find a writer or poet in today’s Bangladesh who was not published, inspired, and mentored by Hasnat. He took literary editing to a height that would always remain unsurpassable. The accompaniment of literary pieces with compatible as well as aesthetically pleasing illustrations was something he had initiated back in the 1970s. He was also a poet and fiction writer of considerable repute.
In December, we lost Manzur-e-Mawla, who, too, was a former director general of Bangla Academy. Widely known for his illuminating essays on Bengali poetry, prose and folklore, he was a poet and literary researcher.
In March we had lost Borhanuddin Khan Jahangir and Ashraf Siddiqui. Then came “the march of death” along with the pandemic and here we are, standing on the threshold of a new year. We fill our hearts with hope that the new year will usher us in a new era, that we will start afresh and leave all this behind us, marking the literary calendar with remarkable achievements to fill the void created by our losses.
Right then on Janaury 3, we came to know that Rabeya Khatun had died, too. The pall of gloom we were so determined to remove in the new year descended down again and we found ourselves weighed down by questions: Will 2021 also be marked with the bleak “march of death”? With a second wave setting in, will 2021 be founded on an inheritance of loss?
We hope not. We hope this year will be all about new landmarks and successes.
It would be unfair to say that there were no achievements in 2020 that made us proud. The Dhaka Literary Festival, the country’s biggest literary event, was postponed, much like the other festivals in South Asia and beyond. Yet many events that are integral to the DLF moved online, such as the Gemcon Sahitya Puroshkar 2020.
Another event also marked the otherwise lacklustre calendar last year. In November Shaheen Akhtar won the Asian Literature Award 2020 for her 2004 novel Talash. The award, which was preceded by the release of a Korean translation of Shaheen’s book, was a very big achievement for any writer from South Asia. With this award, Talash crossed its national as well as regional boundary and found its much deserved place in the history of war novels written from the points of view of women.
Yet there is no denying that the universal rules of life and death were disrupted last year. We hope the balance that was turned upside down with a surge of deaths in 2020 will be counterbalanced in 2021 by tremendous productivity in literary writing and events.
Rifat Munim is Literary Editor, Dhaka Tribune.