By Rakibul Hasan Khan
Hasan Azizul Huq (1939-2021), one of the leading Bangladeshi writers, passed away on 15 November 2021, leaving behind him an exceptional body of works. He was mainly a short story writer, but he also wrote three novels and many essays. His first book, Samudrer Swapna (Dream of the Ocean), Shiter Aranya (Winter Garden) a collection of short stories, was published in 1964. Each volume he published since then contributed to cementing his position as one of the most powerful writers of Bangla literature. Therefore, he is supposed to be remembered for long, at least as long as there will be those who care about the lives of the people whose stories he wrote. I wish I could say that he will be always remembered. I sincerely wish that, but the grim reality is that the number of those who care about the lives of the people whose stories he narrated is disconcertingly decreasing. Whose stories did he narrate? Simply put, he wrote the stories of suffering humanity – the oppressed, people at the margins, the outcasts, and most prominently, the victims of the Partition of India.
Huq was not a popular writer in the typical sense; rather, I would say that he was one of the most “unpopular” writers of Bangla literature. This statement may sound outrageous to those who hold him dear to their hearts for the irresistible attraction of his writings, but I consider them the most endangered species as readers, precariously hanging on the verge of extinction. My premonition is that Huq will be mostly forgotten within a not-so-long-time because there will be very few readers left worthy of his works.
On the other hand, the type of society we are heading towards will consciously and cunningly make him irrelevant, and this process has already started. Huq will soon be considered as a dangerous writer, neither because he is extremely revolutionary nor because he is uncompromisingly rebellious, but because his writings make people think, and thinking is a very dangerous activity. Thinking people are considered dangerous for social harmony and progress, and in future they will be treated as criminals. Even so, there will be some such criminals who will try to read him, but ultimately they will throw his books away with utter disgust and horror because his writings, be it a short story, a novel, or an essay, will inevitably fill their minds with profound shame and guilt for being complicit in perpetuating the suffering of those whose stories he wrote. Since hypocritical and insensitive readers will not be able to read him, gradually his works will lose readership in the days to come.
I can imagine how disbelievingly and contemptuously such a dark vision of the future will be received by Huq’s present readers, admirers, and family members. Huq himself would definitely disagree with me, for he had faith in people and their indomitable spirit as we can see it in so many of his characters, perhaps most notably in the character of the old woman in Agunpakhi (Firebird). But I am very optimistic about my pessimism, and think that such a dispassionately passionate writer like Huq will hardly find any reader in future. Some of his works, of course, will be read, especially those which have already got “classic” status in Bangla literature, but his overall readership will be miserably poor contrasting with his greatness. The smart generation of the smart age will spend their time smartly on their smartphones, smart TVs, smart cards, and all the other smart things that the world has to offer them, rather than troubling themselves with the works of a writer who is not that smart. They will hardly find any interest and time to read an “unsmart” and “unpleasant” writer like Huq.
Huq is in his distinct way a truly unpleasant writer, and he never tried to please anybody by his writing, neither readers nor the people in power. This quality makes him different from many writers. Another reason of his unpopularity is his persistence in using Partition as a recurring theme. Probably this particular feature of his works draws more attention in West Bengal than in Bangladesh, for partition is largely a subject matter of distant past for most Bangladeshis, grossly overshadowed by the more recent memories of the liberation war in 1971.
The oppressive rule of Pakistan period from 1947 to 1971 and the struggle for national liberation of the then East Pakistanis resulted in the general amnesia of Partition memories for the post-liberation generation. This is why, many of Huq’s readers, especially those who are a product of the de-historicising process that dominates our culture and curriculum, struggle to connect with his themes. The paradox that pervades the national imagination of the Bangladeshis in general is that they imagine Partition as a distant and altogether different phenomenon residing outside of their “national” issues. Against this backdrop of the general amnesia of Partition memories, Huq’s writings on the theme are like slaps of words to recuperate a recall of the bitter past. And who likes to be slapped?
Yet, there are those who know how overwhelmingly enchanting Huq’s writings are, and they can derive pleasure from the “unpleasant”. Probably here lies the hope. The future of Huq’s readership may not be so bleak after all! However, the opposite of what I feared will not happen automatically, unless some conscious effort is made by those who really care about his works. We should bear in mind that Huq is a type of writer who “educates” his readers in the process of reading him. So, if a reader can overcome the primary challenge of dealing with his unique style of writing and his “weighty” subject matters, they will eventually emerge as a competent reader to relish his works. Therefore, it is important to create an atmosphere that general readers might become more interested in reading his works.
To this end, it is immensely important to create a culture of critical engagement with the works of Huq. Academics and literary critics are the first who should come forward to invest their time on his works and communicate their readings with general readers. Along with them, translators are those magicians who can really give an appropriate afterlife to his works. To prove ourselves worthy of what he has left behind for us, we need to read him, remember him, and try as far as possible to establish an egalitarian and happy society he envisioned through his works.
(First Published in Countercurrents.org)
Rakibul Hasan Khan is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Linguistics at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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