In the streets of Dhaka
By Fakrul Alam
15 October 2015
How has the colonial legacy – and the recent past – affected the trajectory of English-language literature in Bangladesh?
English-language writing in Southasia occupies a peculiar position in the region’s cultural landscape – one that has been conditioned by its colonial history but also the last few decades of globalisation. Yet, as the evolution of literary writing in English in East Bengal (and later independent Bangladesh) shows, the trajectory was not a straightforward one. In Bangladesh’s case, it was further complicated by the role Bengali-language nationalism played in the country’s history.
Still, given the quite robust state of English-language writing in India, and the vitality of literature in several metropolises of Southasia, one would have thought that Bangladeshi writing in English would be in full bloom by now. But that is not the case. The handful of writers from Bangladesh who are well-known abroad and have garnered literary prizes, such as Adib Khan, Monica Ali, Tahmima Anam and Zia Haider Rahman, are long-time expatriates. Few English-language writers based in the country are published abroad, if at all. Even the one Bangladeshi English-language poet of real distinction, Kaiser Haq, who makes his appearance in various anthologies and little magazines in the West, has not had a volume of his poetry published abroad. He has been translated sparingly and received relatively little critical attention. Only in the last two decades has there been some signs of movement in the country as far as English-language writing by Bangladeshis based in the country is concerned, but it is too early to tell whether the progress discernible can be sustained or be comparable in vitality and appeal to the literary writing scene elsewhere in Southasia.
Given this context, one is bound to wonder: why has Bangladeshi writing in English been something of a shadowy and tentative presence until very recently. And how good is the quality of the work published in English at this time? When will the rest of the world take note of English-language writing “published in the streets of Dhaka” – the ironic title of a selection of poems by Haq, derived from a throwaway remark made by Gore Vidal?
English-language writing in this part of the Subcontinent has mostly existed in the margins. A colonial centre of power and commerce, Kolkata would exert a gravitational pull on nearly all English-educated, gentrified Bengalis: the bhadroloks and babus of East Bengal found the colonial capital much too congenial to waste whatever English education they had acquired. Moreover, and as the censuses conducted in Bengal tended to show, the Muslims who constituted the majority in the eastern part of the province by the end of the 19th century were not as literate in English as the Hindus. There were only a few colleges and no universities in East Bengal at the beginning of the 20th century, unlike in West Bengal, where prominent Hindus led by Raja Rammohan Roy had asked for English education in Hindu (later Presidency) College by the second decade of the 19th century. The college would go on to nurture the first generation of English-language writers of the province soon after it was established in 1817, over a century prior to the founding of the first university in East Bengal.
Not surprisingly, then, the first generation of Indian Bengali writers of English were centered in and around Kolkata and were almost all Hindus. Even the few Hindu writers from East Bengal who had opted to write in English, such as Michael Madhusudan Dutt, gravitated towards Kolkata. Dutt, of course, ultimately abandoned English to write in the vernacular. Indeed, his aborted attempt to write in the coloniser’s tongue became something of a cautionary tale for Bengali nationalists to narrate by the end of the century to ward off anyone aspiring to do creative work in English!
The first significant writer from East Bengal to write in English was Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, although she too would write out of Kolkata. Her 1905 satiric-utopian and feminist narrative Sultana’s Dream was first published in the Madras-based Indian Ladies Magazine. The novel is a wry and witty inversion of the patriarchal organisation of the world that she had grown up in. In the novel, instead of women being cloistered in zenanas, men would have to stay behind murdanas. She was one of the first utopian, feminist writers of Southasia.
By the third decade of the 20th century, East Bengal had acquired the rudiments of the kind of higher educational infrastructure that could lead to literary writing in English. The University of Dhaka was set up in 1921. Two factors, however, ensured that the university and other colleges of the eastern portion of Bengal would not produce many writers working creatively in the English language. First, Kolkata’s cultural milieu would continue to attract most of these writers to the city. Additionally, with a surge in Bengali nationalism, a generation of English-educated graduates opted for creative work in the vernacular. Thus, Buddhadev Bose and Jibanananda Das, both writers from East Bengal, gravitated towards Kolkata and chose to write in Bengali, although they were both products of English departments (Bose of the University of Dhaka and Das of Calcutta University) and had the capacity to work creatively in the English language, as their occasional prose in the language so amply indicates.
The year of Partition was the landmark year for English writing in East Bengal. That year, Nirad Chaudhuri began work on his most famous work, The Autobiography of an Unknown India. The beginning pages of his 1951 masterpiece capture life in East Bengal and traces his gradual sense of alienation – first from Bengal and then from India. The book itself was published in England. And soon after it was published, Chaudhuri had become a diasporic Bengali-Indian writer based in Britain.
The same year also saw the publication of Men and Rivers by Humayun Kabir, one of the few significant novel written in the first half of the 20th century by someone from East Bengal. The novel was rooted in riverine East Bengal though and portrayed the intricate relationship of people, nature and the rhythms of rural life. Kabir also published a volume of verse titled Poems in 1932. Like Chaudhuri, Kabir had left the eastern part of the province for good by then. However, unlike Chauduri, Kabir decided to move to India and would become its Minister of Education twice.
By 1947, the first generation of Indian writers in English had already made their presence felt in Indian literature – R K Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao had produced some of their best work by this time – but there had been nothing comparable till then as far as writing in English from East Bengal was concerned. Following Partition, the new Pakistani state imposed Urdu as its national language. This not only provoked Bengalis in East Pakistan to react fiercely against this linguistic colonisation, but also made them embrace Bengali as the chosen language for political and literary expressions. Almost all major writers who emerged out of East Pakistan chose to write in Bengali, even if they had the ability to write creatively in English. Syed Waliullah for instance, wrote his novel Tree without Roots in Bengali, published in 1948 as Lal Shalu (meaning ‘red cloth’), but later translated it into English himself.
Another such writer was Sayeed Ahmed, the lone dramatist of consequence till now in Bangladeshi writing in English. Influenced by the modernist tradition of Europe, Ahmed published his first play in English, The Thing in 1961, clearly influenced by playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. He followed this up with two other plays in English, Milepost and Survival, both written in the same decade, but eventually switched to writing in Bengali.
Razia Khan was one of the important literary figures in East Pakistan who chose to write in English. Khan published two volumes of her English poetry in the 1970s, but when her Collected Poems came out posthumously in 2014, three years after her death, it was clear to readers then that she had been writing striking poems in English since 1959. In other words, Khan was like Waliullah in opting to write primarily in Bengali in the 1950s and 1960s, when Bangladeshi nationalism was becoming increasingly powerful. Despite her work in the English language, it was her Bengali work that earned her widespread attention. Like Waliullah, she took to translating her own writing; she rendered her 1979 Bengali novel Draupadi in English in 1992.
For Khan, and many others in her generation, writing in Bengali was a necessary act of assertion of patriotism and difference as well as creativity, signifying her generation’s desire to move decisively towards Bangladesh – the land where Bengalis would use the language as the primary marker of their identity.
Independence in 1971 for Bangladesh meant that the popular emphasis on Bengali would now be institutionalised. English would no longer have a dominant position it had in administration and tertiary education. Consequently, the language was no longer considered to be essential for officialdom and was reduced to being the medium of instruction only in English departments of the few public universities of the country.
Until 1971, it was only a handful of English-medium schools operating in this part of Bengal which produced graduates who used their fluency in the language to not merely get coveted jobs in the bureaucracy or study abroad but also to write in the language. Kaiser Haq, for instance, was a product of Dhaka’s St Gregory’s High School in the 1960s where English was the only medium of instruction till 1947. After that year, Bengali was included as another medium of instruction. In an essay appended to Published in the Streets of Dhaka: Collected Poems 1966-2006, Haq declares unequivocally, and revealingly, “I do not think I would have tried creative writing in English if I weren’t an English-medium boy.”
However, Haq, and others writers like Razia Khan, Feroz Ahmed-ud-Din and Niaz Zaman, constituted a miniscule minority of writers using the English-language in post-liberation Bangladesh. And how could it be otherwise? The English language schools that had shaped them had all been made to adopt the Bengali medium; except in English departments of the very few public universities of the 1970s and 1980s, there was no way for a generation of Bangladeshis to learn the language in a manner that would give them the fluency or absorb contemporary literature in English till it sparked them into creative writing in the language. These writers almost seemed like survivors of a bygone era, for English was being phased out of everyday life.
The two decades post-liberation were therefore fallow ones for Bangladeshi writing in English; no new writer of any distinction emerged for quite a while and there was little to write about the work of the handful that did. But there was quite a turnaround in the English teaching scene in the late 1990 because of a number of factors. The rapid industrialisation of the country, especially the rise of textile exports in the garments sector, led to an increase in the moneyed as well as the middle class. Another factor was globalisation, for many multinationals were now attracted to the country because of a rise in demand for consumer goods and substantial increase in capital flows. These two factors combined to create a third one: more Bangladeshis began to travel overseas, either for business, jobs or education. The advent of internet was another development that would begin to change the English language scene.
Responding to these shifts, private universities springing up everywhere in the country began to stress English teaching. An increasingly affluent class wanted their children not only to study in English-medium schools but also to go abroad for further education. Bangladeshis left for jobs overseas and a few Bangladeshis who had been leading the life of expatriates came to settle down permanently in the country. There was a sudden spurt in English medium schools and an apparently insatiable appetite for Western culture. Satellite television and the digital revolution also gave a fillip to cultural activity that had a pronounced Western flavor.
In other words, almost for the first time in the history of Bangladesh, literature in English was pursued as a subject by many that not only had to be learned but also pursued creatively. There was also a sudden demand for English-language learning. The British Council was only the most visible of many centres offering quick-fix courses in English. The overall result was an increase in English language newspapers and periodicals, many of which began featuring literary pages and giving some space to creative writing in English. A few older bookshops now started to display English-language writing prominently once again and some new ones were opened in affluent neighborhoods. Publishers showed interest in publishing books of poems and fiction as well as academic works written in the language. Those eager to publish English works for the first time found that vanity publishing was not the only option left for them. English-language writing groups such as Writer’s Block, Monsoon Letters and Brine Pickles where writers began to read their works for each other and organise reading events began to flourish. Soon there would be little magazines too, such as Six Seasons Review and Bengal Lights. Capping all these developments, the first Hay Festival was organised in 2011 by a few enterprising Bangladeshis. It was perceived to be so successful an event that the next year it was held in Bangla Academy, the heartland of Bengali nationalism. This signified that English-language writing had now gained acceptance as never before. There were some voices, however, which were critical of Academy officials who had let their hallowed ground be used for an English-language book festival.
By the second decade of the new millennium English-language writing in Bangladesh began to gain momentum. And the momentum went beyond the country. David Shook, an American poet and translator, who was in Dhaka for the 2013 Hay Festival, took on himself to introduce Bangladeshi writing in English to the ‘world stage’ by showcasing poems and fiction in the May 2013 issue of World Literature Today. He was impelled by the belief that this “nation’s literature is poised to extend beyond its own boundaries and the boundaries of the subcontinent.”
And so who are the writers to look out for and what is there of note in the very recent writing in English coming out of Bangladesh?
Most of the works that have been published recently have been short fiction. Syed Manzoorul Islam’s The Merman’s Prayer and Other Stories (2013) tells tales of ordinary Bangladeshis in a manner that mingles the ordinary with the surreal. Kazi Anis Ahmed’s sharply etched Good Night, Mr. Kissinger and Other Stories (2012) offers vivid tales of Dhaka life, although the titular story is that of an expatriate English teacher from Dhaka now working in an upscale New York city restaurant where he is shown waiting on the famous American Secretary of State who labels Bangladesh a “bread-basket case”.
Shazia Omar’s Like a Diamond in the Sky (2010) was also published in India, a sign that writers other than Taslima Nasreen – the one Bangladeshi writer to have caught Indian readers’ eyes till then through her translated works for her feminist, anti-fundamentalist stance – were starting to attract Indian readers. Omar’s novel presents a story of drug addiction in Bangladesh and its impact on relationships and draws on the author’s experience as a social psychologist and observation of patients in a rehab center.
Another fiction writer Munize Manzur’s collection of short stories Voices (2013) deftly depicts men and women from all walks of life caught up in critical situations, portraying their emotional lives with empathy and precision. Shabbir Ahsan’s The Peacekeeper (2007), a fascinating fictionalisation of the author’s stint as a UN peacekeeper in the Republic of Congo, will remind readers in some ways of two outstanding novels about the region: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and V S Naipaul’s A Bend in the River.
But perhaps the most promising of the English-language fiction writers based in Bangladesh is Saad Z Hossain. His impressive debut novel, Baghdad Immortals, first published in Dhaka, has been quickly reprinted in North America as Escape from Baghdad by Unnamed Press. The reviews of the book posted online are remarkably welcoming. Kirkus Review, for example, calls it a “marvelous mix of genres, blending the visceral atmosphere of a war movie with the casual nihilism of Catch-22 or the original M. A. S. H. complete with an Indiana Jones-style treasure quest.”
Unlike fiction, however, English-language poetry in Bangladesh has not come fully alive even in the new millennium. Haq continues to be the dominant voice. His most recent collection Pariah and Other Poems (2013) indicates that this poet of delicate and fastidious sensibility is more than ever alert to the possibilities of poetically capturing life in Bangladesh. Another poet Rumana Siddique’s 2007 volume Five Faces of Eve shows an ironic voice articulating feminist sensibilities in verse. Sadaf Saaz, largely responsible for bringing the Hay Festival to Dhaka, has some passionate poetry in her 2013 collection Sari Reams that reveal her intense involvement with life in Bangladesh, but as with Siddique, one awaits her next collection.
To these writers, all based in Bangladesh, one can add the names of those who are currently resident abroad but who keep coming back to Bangladesh. Prominent among them in poetry is Ahsan Akbar, who published his first volume of poems The Devil’s Thumbprint in 2013. The volume is full of promise and indicates a poet of impressive sensibility as well as sophistication, but with him too one can only look forward to future collections before coming up with more than preliminary endorsement of the poet and the poetry. In fiction the name that comes to mind in this connection is Mahmud Rahman, for his Killing the Water, published by Penguin Books India in 2010 is a notable collection of short stories that deal with individuals coming to terms with events spanning decades of Bangladesh’s history and Bangladeshi lives lived across continents. Drawing on his own experience of the life of an expatriate, Rahman creates engaging characters dealing with issues faced by people of the Bangladeshi Diaspora.
Bangladeshi writing in English, then, is finally asserting itself in the eyes of the reading public at home and abroad. But it is important to stress that these are still early days for it. Short fiction seems to be the genre engaging most creative writers writing in English. The overwhelming Bengali-language culture will ensure that good English-language poetry will probably be written and read by only a handful of Bangladeshis; plays in English will always be a rarity for the same reason. But one can look forward to much more non-fiction prose in the decades to come, for the English-language press is thriving and features young Bangladeshis intensely involved in the country’s future and ready to articulate their views in the language. The new English-language publishing houses and little magazines that have been bringing out books and periodicals regularly, and the Hay Festival where these books are launched with some ceremony, illustrate this trend. Also, the success of Zia Haider Rahman’s brilliant 2014 novel In the Light of What We Know will be inspirational for the current generation of Bangladeshi authors aspiring to have an impact in the wider world as well as Bangladesh. Compared to the English language writing scene in India or even Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Bangladeshi writing scene is still in a nascent state. But the signs are encouraging and one can only predict a steady, if unspectacular, growth in the near future.
~Fakrul Alam is an academic, literary critic, essayist, editor and translator. The Professor of English at the University of Dhaka, his forthcoming works include Gitanjali: New Translations of the Nobel-Prize winning Poems and An Ocean of Sorrow, a translation of the nineteenth century Bengali epic narrative, Bishad Sindhu by Mir Masharraf Hussain.