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A book-stall at the Ekushey Book Fair, the annual month-long celebration of the Language Movement in 1952 led by students of Dhaka University.
© bdnews24.com/Md. Asaduzzaman Pramanik

This is a good time to reflect on Bangladeshi literature, for we have just seen February, the most hallowed month in our cultural calendar. Soon after the Partition of 1947, as the Pakistan government tried to impose Urdu as the sole state language, the Bengali-speaking eastern province rose in protest. On 21 February 1952, students took to the streets and were fired upon by Police; at least five died. The government gave in and accepted Bengali as the alternate state language, but the polity of the fledgling state was irremediably fractured. Resentment over economic disparity between West and East Pakistan led to a movement for autonomy, culminating in the 1971 war of independence. The “Language Martyrs” have been immortalised in the national narrative of Bangladesh; and 21 February has been recognised by the UN as the International Mother Language Day. A month-long Book Fair in Dhaka draws hundreds of thousands of visitors, among whom there may lurk, as the whole world has become painfully aware, assassins motivated by Islamic radicalism. The fair becomes the launching pad for thousands of new titles, all Bangladeshi; foreign publishers have no entry here. Anyone jostling through the Fairground is likely to think that the printed word is thriving in this overcrowded land.

The impression isn’t entirely wrong. More books are being published in Bangladesh than ever before, even though many are self-published; gross sales have also gone up, and a few authors have become best-sellers. Religious books enjoy a steady market. Still, as elsewhere, the overwhelming majority of literary writers make only a pittance from their books; and the numerous self-publishing literary enthusiasts sacrifice some of their savings for the pleasure of seeing their names blazoned on the cover. Professional editing is virtually unknown. All but a few books have very small print run: no more than 500 for fiction; half that number for poetry. Besides, good sales figures may not signify a large readership. Government agencies purchase books for libraries scattered throughout the country, and the selection criteria do not necessarily include quality. Most of these books lie moldering on dusty shelves.

What then is Bangladeshi literature? Is it an amateurish, provincial phenomenon? What are its parameters? Bangladesh shares with the Bengali-speaking parts of India a millennia-old literary tradition that began with the Buddhist Charyapada, and over the centuries encompassed various folk literary forms, ranging from the mystical Vaishnava lyrics to gripping verse narratives like the epic tale centering the snake goddess Manasa, which I have enjoyed retelling in English in The Triumph of the Snake Goddess (Harvard U P). British colonialism in a sense “globalised” Bengali literature; writers educated in English absorbed western influences and adopted new genres like the novel, short story and essay. These developments are a part of the cultural ferment commonly designated by the label “Bengal Renaissance”, whose centre was Calcutta, then capital of British India and the second city of the Empire. The new literature used an idiom derived from the Bengali spoken in a nearby district.

Calcutta, of course, is in West Bengal; East Bengal, present-day Bangladesh, irrigated by the three great rivers Padma, Meghna and Jamuna, comprised the boondocks, culturally backward and valued mainly as source of revenue from agricultural estates. The East Bengali dialects of Bengali were a source of amusement to the sophisticates of Calcutta. The snobbery of the latter acquired a communal dimension as well, for Muslim peasants made up the majority in East Bengal. The “Renaissance” was essentially the creation of Calcutta-based upper caste Hindus. Only a couple of Muslim writers from East Bengal made significant contributions to the “Renaissance”: Mir Mosharraf Hossain, author of Bishad Shindhu (“Ocean of Sorrow”), a saga based on the tragedy of Karbala, of which a translation by Fakrul Alam awaits publication; and the pioneering feminist Begum Rokeya Sakhawat.

As the twentieth century got under way, Muslim Bengalis went in for modern education in increasing numbers; and quite naturally some of them developed literary interests. With the Partition of 1947, Dhaka, now a provincial capital, began to evolve into a new literary metropolis for Bengali writing; and here, as in Calcutta, the trends and movements were roughly parallel to those in global literature. A distinctly modern trend appeared in poetry; both social realism and modernism were evident in fiction; the influence of modern western drama became discernible. The worldwide cultural ferment of the sixties found its local echoes, with protest poetry inspired by the Beat Generation, drama with absurdist and Brechtian elements. Soon after came postmodernist influence, and magic realism. In other words, Bangladeshi writing, far from being provincial, became very much a part of global literature.

© bdnews24.com/Md. Asaduzzaman Pramanik
© bdnews24.com/Md. Asaduzzaman Pramanik

We therefore have two parallel traditions of Bengali writing, one Indian (from West Bengal, Tripura and Bengali-speaking areas of Assam) and the other Bangladeshi. One would expect a healthy, intimate interaction between the two, but that is not quite the case. The relationship between them is conspicuously asymmetrical; the traffic virtually one-way. Bengali books from India enjoy a huge market in Bangladesh; many are pirated. On the other hand, in India Bangladeshi books are as rare as first editions of classics.

The other day I had a chat with a promising young Bangladeshi poet who works for a literary publisher and had come back from a visit to West Bengal and Tripura. He didn’t even try to hide his resentment at the lack of interest in Bangladeshi poetry among his Indian peers; they seemed utterly self-absorbed and wrapped up in the rivalry of cliques. This was truer in West Bengal than in Tripura, which, remote from Calcutta, has always had an intimate connection with its Bangladeshi twin, the district of Comilla. What about fiction, I asked. Fiction writers fared slightly better, it seemed; the works of five or six novelists were available, though not widely.

This was a positive sign, I said reassuringly. Things were changing, albeit slowly. As further evidence of that, I mentioned that Amit Chaudhuri in his anthology of writings on Calcutta, Memory’s Gold, had included contemporary Bangladeshi writers; and Professor Supriya Chaudhuri had in her essay on “The Bengali Novel”, written for The Cambridge Companion to Modern Indian Culture, had unstintingly praised a couple of Bangladeshi novelists, declaring Akhteruzzaman Elias’s Khoabnama (“The Book of Dreams”) to be “perhaps the greatest modern novel in Bengali”. I suggested –and my young poet friend agreed — that the traffic in Bangladeshi books to India could be speeded up if our entrepreneurs were more proactive in making co-publishing arrangements, something fairly simple in this high-tech age.

The role of translation in disseminating literature can hardly be exaggerated. In this area too, much needs to be done for Bangladesh. So far translations have been produced by individual writers or academics with a particular interest in an author or book. I myself have produced several, as have Fakrul Alam and Dr. Niaz Zaman, who has also published a number of interesting titles under her Writers Ink imprint. But there are as yet no professional translators whose chief literary activity would be translating Bangladeshi literature into English. It was awareness of this lack that led Dr. Kazi Anis Ahmed, a writer- entrepreneur, to set up the Dhaka Translation Centre at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. In collaboration with Commonwealth Writers, English PEN and the British Centre for Literary Translation, it organised two workshops conducted by the award-winning Indian translator Arunava Sinha and with young local translators as participants. The outcome is an anthology that awaits publication. Under the imprint of Bengal Lights Books it has also published several books of translations, and launched the Library of Bangladesh, a projected series of twelve novels in translation of which two have already appeared.

In our diasporic age, the place of our literature among non-resident Bangladeshis also deserves attention. Our expatriates not only read but also produce literature. A major poet of our time, Shaheed Quaderi, lives in New York, where he organises regular, well-attended, poetry evenings in his apartment block. Bengali literary magazines come out on both sides of the Atlantic; and every year at the February Book Fair a number of expatriate writers descend to launch their latest productions. The International Mother Language Day also reminds us that there are other languages besides Bengali in this country. According to one count there are thirty-eight, spoken by the many ethnic minority communities. Preserving their cultural heritage is our sacred duty. Then there is writing in English, produced by resident as well as non-resident Bangladeshis, occupying a strangely ambiguous status because the role of English as a second language has not been officially acknowledged. But that is a matter I am not inclined to go into here, having already dealt with it in the last Winter issue of Wasafiri.

Kaisar Haq

Dr. Kaiser Haq – academic, literary critic, poet – is Professor of English literature, University of Dhaka.