Sohana Manzoor explores the social relevance of a dance drama by Tagore, Natir puja
Quite a few of Rabindranath Tagore’s dance dramas and poems develop around the idea of Buddhist philosophy that induces people to lead a simple life, to gain an understanding of the injustice and inequality prevailing in society, and to acquire knowledge and develop a deeper insight into the universe. Such a major problem reflected in Tagore’s work is the class and caste system of the Indian society.
It would be relevant to recall that one reason that Gautama or Buddha left home is because he recognised that the traditional religions practiced during his time were unable to absolve the dissatisfaction and frustration that abound in life. The class and caste system that divided and segregated people troubled him deeply. Little wonder that all the principal religions of the world rose for emancipation of people from such bondages.
Unfortunately, the corrupt human heart does not allow such practices to go unhindered. Even though at the root of any religious faith there is a high ideal to free people from evil practices and oppression, they also are used as ideological weapons to control mankind. In every age, therefore, figures like Christ and Buddha rise to remind humanity that there is a law beyond the one practiced through selfishness and pettiness of everyday life. Hence, peace and faith are required to be restored at the price of a sacrifice that shows the significance of selfless love, the futility of social class and caste. Actually, the truth is ever present, but sometimes it just takes one act to see that there is a truth higher than all the material wealth one can ever accumulate.
Tagore explored various perspectives of Buddhism in many of his works. Malini, Chandalika and Natir Puja are three dance dramas that deal with this theme. Natir Puja (Devotion of the Court-Dancer) has at its centre the pure soul of a mere dance-girl who is jeered at as a fallen woman, and who considers herself unworthy of even attending to the words of Buddha. But her humility reflects one of the core ideals of Buddhism and she is called upon by the devout followers of Buddha to perform the rituals of a priestess before the altar of Buddha. In the process, her devotion is preferred over the offerings of the royal princesses some of whom feel insulted.
One of them, the princess Ratnavali, takes measures to punish the court-dancer by throwing a choice before her — either to dance in front of the altar as an affront to Buddha, or to face death. The dance-girl Srimati accepts the royal order of dancing before the altar, but she succeeds in revealing herself as a devout follower of Buddha and embraces death. The storyline also focuses on the nature of the faith of Buddhism through the figure of Lokeswari, the wife of the former King, Bimbisar. Lokeswari’s only son Chitro had left home to follow the path of Buddha, and his mother, who used to be a follower of Buddha, emerges as a frenzied woman. She cannot accept that her only son had left home, and her husband renounced the throne when another son Ajatsatru wanted to be the King. For the first time in her life, she questions the validity of a belief that might want human beings to renounce all their precious possessions.
Through an intricate series of events Natir Puja unfolds and delves into several significant aspects of human dilemma. First, through the figure of Srimati and Lokeswari, the nature of devotion is explored. Second, the problem of caste system is brought out through characters such as Ratnavali who cannot accept that a lower caste man or woman could be considered more pious than the royal followers in the eyes of God. Third, that the gravest sinner could seek forgiveness and repentance is always a possibility.
Natir Puja is a tale elaborated from another longer poem by Tagore titled, “Pujarini” (The Worshipper). At the centre of both tales stands Srimoti, who claims to be “Buddher dashi,” or a handmaiden of Buddha. The term “dashi” should not be considered derogatory here but one that focuses on the nature of humility in Buddhism. The meaning of “Buddha” is teacher and in the traditional Vedic ideology, a teacher claims the highest status in society. Therefore, the chance of serving the teacher is indeed a privilege. And as Srimoti says, “My days of false modesty are over. I would not sing falsely, but you did not grasp what your eyes witnessed.” She points out how the faithful see and hear with their heart. The eyes might see, but they would not always recognise what they perceive.
Lokeswari, on the other hand, reminisces how once she was an ardent follower of Buddha, but it becomes clear from her words that she had thought more of distinction than salvation. And yet, Buddha preached freedom from avidya (darkness of ignorance and limiting of consciousness). A man living the life of avidya, spends his life in a spiritual slumber. Therefore, devotion to Buddha requires spiritual awakening, which Lokeswari fails to comprehend. Her very name, Lokeswari, actually suggests her dilemma — the Queen of the World — and naturally, she could not give up the ownership of the materialistic world. In the end, however, Lokeswari realises her error of judgment, and honours Srimoti’s sacrifice. After all, Srimoti is able to show that for faith and truth one should be ready to offer the highest price, one’s own life if necessary.
As a court-dancer, Srimoti might have received a lot of attention, but her position is still that of a high-class courtesan. There are quite a few references where the royal family members make fun of her. Even the elderly Queen Lokeswari scoffs at the idea that Srimoti might turn out to be a priestess of Buddha and the princesses will be her attendants: “Disciple of this dancing girl! That’s what will happen indeed! Now it’s up to the fallen woman to arise with words of salvation.”
From the onset, the Princess Ratnavali, too, makes fun of the calm and quiet nature of Srimoti who is frequently affronted by the princesses but rarely replies. It is almost as if Ratnavali senses her superior nature and takes her to task by insulting her in whatever way possible. The situation escalates when Srimoti is honoured by the Buddhist monks. At that point, Ratnavali makes snide remarks about the Bhikkhu Upali born of a barber family, or Sunado, the son of a milkman, or Sunit, an untouchable. She forgets that Buddhism is a faith that nullifies class and caste system. Her words also reveal that human psychology is deeply steeped in pettiness, jealousy and arrogance, and it takes sufferings and remorse to do away with them.
So, we come to the last point—the theme of repentance and forgiveness. The figure of Lokeswari is an everyman or woman. She is not an evil person, but nor is she convinced by the words of the bhikkhuni who attempts to make her see that there is a difference between the value of gold and that of the light. In today’s world this is where most of us stand. The materialistic ideology has taken over the ethical and philosophical aspects of life. As a result, we keep on asking for more and there is no end to our craving. In the process of worshipping Mammon, we overlook humanity and humility. We not only forget to look at the sufferings of other, but we choose to ignore them. Lokeswari’s humanity returns to her when Srimoti prepares to dance in front of Buddha’s altar. She offers her poison so that she dies before committing a sin. And when, Srimoti unfolds through her dancing that she never meant to insult Buddha but to honour him, once again Lokeswari joins her in reciting,
Buddham saranam gacchami (I submit to the Buddha for refuge)
Dhammam saranam gacchami (I submit to the Dhamma for refuge)
Sangham saranam gacchami (I submit to the Sangha for refuge.)
Even the Princess Ratnavali, who had insulted Srimoti earlier and is responsible for bringing out the royal order, finally kneels down before the dead body of the dance-girl to pay respect. The play ends with Ratnavali chanting the words of Buddha.
Tagore’s dance drama has played out beautifully to bring out a historical aspect of the Indian culture. The story of Bimbisar and his son Ajatsatru may not have been represented the way history records it, but the tale certainly brings out the tension and the hostility that poison the world at every age. The corrupt and selfish human heart tends to assume that property and wealth hold the key to success and happiness, but ends up in welcoming segregation, arrogance and jealousy. So, should we consider love, affection and sacrifice as mere human follies, or should we abandon the idealistic notions and consider wealth and control as our ultimate gain? Perhaps, the answer lies in the wasteland of our postmodern civilization, which has already sacrificed or butchered its saviours and is still waiting to be atoned.
Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities, ULAB. She is also the literary Editor of The Daily Star, Bangladesh. This essay was first published inThe Daily Star.
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(The raindrops fall drip drop, the tide rises in the river.)
Ratri looked at the small nakshi kantha on the wall. The letters were uneven as if they had been stitched by some unsteady hand. But the bright green leaves and the blue droplets were neatly embroidered. She never remembered it in the last seven years, and yet it had been so much a part of her childhood. She recalled tracing the letters on a small piece of cloth and bringing it to the old lady who was her great grandmother. She had given her a needle with dark red thread and Ratri had made her first embroidery. Her Boro Ma had stitched the leaves and raindrops. The piece had yellowed slightly over the years; Ratri felt numb and stricken.
Why didn’t she remember it all these years? Is it because she always avoided the prospect of coming home? Now the only person who loved her was gone. She looked around the room of her great-grandmother—it still had her smell, faint but it was that intoxicating smell of jarda, incense, and contentment. She noticed her prayer beads hanging by the clothes rack. She took in the peeling green distemper which the old lady preferred to any other colour. The walls of her room were always green. Once it was painted white by mistake and her Boro Ma was furious. “Are they planning to make me blind or something? I need the green to soothe my eyes.” Two days later the walls were repainted.
When Ratri was young, she always felt safe and happy around her great-grandmother. Her mother was a classical dancer with a busy rehearsal schedule and frequent performances. Her parents had separated when she was an infant. Her grandmother had a big family and was busy fussing around the household. Everybody was too busy—only Boro Ma had time for Ratri.
Ratri did not know how her mother smelled—that is, how she really smelled. She saw her from a distance when she was dressed to leave the house or returning from a show. When she entered a room, everyone noticed her, and she wore a tantalizing perfume that Ratri thought was mysterious—just like her. Many years later she recognized the perfume in a famous fashion house in London as Miss Dior. Sometimes she petted Ratri absentmindedly, in the same absent-minded way she petted the house cat Minni. She practiced early in the morning in a room downstairs. She had a beautiful figure and Ratri thought that she danced divinely. Her grandmother often joked that they must have had a baijee in the family tree, and her daughter Nazma had inherited the talent.
Even though she had been married before and had a small child, she had no dearth of suitors. Ratri clearly remembered the bevy of men who came to court her—as one courts a queen, without any expectation of return. They often brought presents for Ratri too. Nazma had a charming smile for everybody, a smile she used to practice before the mirror in her room. She was a consummate artist—everything she did was practiced and trained. Dancing was the only thing she cared about. There were times when Ratri tiptoed to the room where her mother practiced and stood outside the door to listen to the ringing of her anklets and the tak dhin dhin dha – tak dhin dhin dha—na tin tin ta—tete dhin dhin ta that accompanied the music her mother danced to. Some evenings, there were other dancers who joined her, and they danced together. Ratri remembered one night they were all rehearsing a Tagore dance-drama. She thought her mother was some princess or queen and she was ordering her attendants to summon somebody:
“Bol ge nogor paley mor naam kori, Shyama dakitechhe taray.”
(Tell them at the town centre taking my name that Shyama is calling out to you)
Ratri did not understand the words but was enchanted by the rhythm and the spectacle of the performance.
She did not notice Naina Auntie approaching. Her aunt found her entranced by the door and dragged her away. “What are you doing here, Pichchi? You know that your mom doesn’t like to be disturbed during rehearsal. Come with me!” Ratri turned toward her aunt, “She is sooo pretty! Is she a princess?” Naina laughed, “No, she is who she is. A court dancer.”
When Boro Ma heard about the incident, she looked at the child and commented in a stern voice, “Nazu should spend some time with Ratri. She needs to make time for her daughter.” Naina Auntie replied, “She looks so much like her father that Apa does not even want to look at her.”
Boro Ma shook her head. “She should have allowed him to take her then,” she said. “What is the point of keeping her and then neglecting her?”
Ratri had not known then what the word meant. But over the years, she grew up learning all its nuances. She survived because of Boro Ma, the only one person who actually cared. And yet, Ratri would eventually take her for granted, imagining that the old lady would always be there. The years went by so fast—the rainbow years of childhood, the reckless years of youth, and she wondered what she did with them.
“Boro Ma!” the little girl came running. The old woman was just done with her midday prayers and had opened her large closet. “Yes, my darling?” she smiled at the upturned face of her great granddaughter.
Usually, Ratri loved to sniff around her Boro Ma when she opened her closet. There were things from the past like her bridal sari that dated from before the Partition, and old embroidered pieces that she had made as a young woman. Curious little sandalwood boxes, and dainty silver trinkets tarnished with age. And there was that mysterious and intimate smell of incense and naphthalene. But today Ratri was too preoccupied to notice.
“Toton Uncle says that I cannot take on a big journey because I am a girl.” Ratri had a frown on her small forehead. “That’s not right, is it?” she asked.
“What do you think?” asked her great-grandmother.
“I think he is wrong. I plan to look for my prince rather than the prince searching for me,” pouted Ratri.
“A ha,” smiled Boro Ma, “so that’s what the journey is about!”
“Yes, but I want to take on the journey. I don’t like that the prince finds the sleeping beauty. Why can’t the princess go in search of the prince herself?” asked a rather peeved Ratri.
Naina, who was poring over a dense medical text, snapped the book shut and laughed out loud. “I guess you do have to look for your prince, Pichchi. No prince will be happy to find you. You are so dark!”
Boro Ma barked, “What kind of talk is that Naina? There are a lot of girls who are dark.”
“But not princesses,” said Naina. “Princesses are pretty and fair, while Ratri is—”
Before she could finish, the old lady intercepted coldly, “Draupadi, the most sought-after woman of ancient India was dark. And Ratri will be no stupid princess, you heard her. She has a mind of her own and will make her own choices when the time comes. Now get out of here before you utter any more nonsense.”
Naina left the room meekly, but Ratri was looking at her arms and legs which were rather dark compared to Naina’s and most of the people in the house. Even her Boro Ma was very fair despite her wrinkled skin.
She looked up at her Boro Ma. “Does dark mean ugly, Boro Ma?” she whispered. She hesitated a little before adding, “Is that why Ammu does not love me?”
“Who told you that your Ammu does not love you?” asked the old lady with a gleam in her eyes.
“Nobody,” replied Ratri. She looked at her feet and examined her toes. She did not want to say that she overheard one of her uncles talking to his wife. She said lamely, “Naina Auntie says that’s why I was named ‘Ratri,’ meaning ‘night.’”
Despite the arthritis in her joints, Boro Ma bent down and grasped the little girl’s face with both of her hands and lifted it toward her. Ratri looked at the liquid grey eyes of her great-grandmother. They were bright and somber.
“Listen, my pet, you are very beautiful. Your skin may not be as fair as your mother’s, but you are lovely just as you are. But even more important is that you are also very brave. You have a beautiful spirit. You want to make a journey of your own—how many little girls want to do that, do you think?” She got up slowly and smiled. “Now, run along and play. Don’t worry over silly things. And don’t listen to Naina.”
Ratri walked out into veranda with her coloring books. It occurred to her that Boro Ma did not actually contradict the notion that her mother did not love her.
A week after Ratri’s eighth birthday, her mother married again. She thought her mother had gone on some tour, but Nazma had actually left for her honeymoon, and then to live with her new husband. She had married a business magnate and launched a new life. Nazma had not informed Ratri and had not of course considered taking her to live with her and her new husband.
Ratri’s grandmother thought it odd that the girl did not ask even once about her mother. But Ratri already knew that her life would be different from all her cousins who lived with their parents and siblings. Most of her maternal uncles and aunts had married and moved out by then but visited frequently with their children. Only Toton Uncle and Naina Auntie still lived in the sprawling old British-era house in Lalbagh. Ratri lived there too, along with her grandmother and Boro Ma. She kept mostly to herself, held court in a sun-drenched roof top, and laughed with the birds. She had few friends at school. The only person she could actually share her thoughts with was her Boro Ma. And she did not miss her mother much even though she often wondered why her mother was not like other mothers. But the mysteriously beautiful woman she used to admire from a distance soon became a faded memory.
“Ratri, come down. You have a visitor,” yelled Naina from the bottom of the stairs. Their two-storied house was built in the 1920s and large enough to have once housed all six of Ratri’s uncles and aunts.
Ratri did not hear her the first time. She was buried with a pile of books, several guavas and pickles in the attic. The red tabby Minnie with her two kittens dozed nearby. It was afternoon and she was diving under the deep seas with Nautilus and Captain Nemo. She planned to make a painting of the blue ocean and Nemo’s submarine at some point. She was looking for more details when her aunt Naina called to wake her up from her reverie.
Naina yelled again, this time from the first-floor landing. “Ratri! Where are you? You have a visitor, I say!” Ratri thought she must be mistaken. Who on earth would come to visit her? “I’m coming!” she yelled back and dragged herself out of the sea.
She went all the way down to the ground floor. The drawing room, which was usually locked, was now resplendent with the light from a chandelier. Her grandmother and Toton Uncle were talking to somebody. They all turned to look at her and the visitor exclaimed, “Oh, there she is! She does not look like her mother at all.” He sounded surprised but not vexed as people usually were after finding that she did not resemble her gorgeous mother. She never told anybody about her mother, and nobody at school knew that the celebrated classical dancer Nazma Nehreen was Ratri’s mother.
Ratri looked at the stranger. He had a kind face, a slight stoop, and a touch of grey at the temples. She wondered if she had seen him before as his face seemed faintly familiar. He smiled and beckoned her, “Come here, child. Do you not know me?” Ratri made no reply but continued staring at him. She heard a voice behind her, the very familiar voice of her Boro Ma. “How can she know you when you never came to see her once in thirteen years?” She sounded brittle and hostile.
The gentleman stood up. “Nanu, you are still here, I see,” he said with a nervous smile.
“Yes, I am alive and well,” came the answer. Boro Ma entered the room and placed her hand on Ratri’s shoulder. “Why have you come? What do you want?” she asked.
“He has come to see Ratri, of course,” Toton uncle intervened. He smiled and looked at the stranger. “And perhaps take her with him too?”
Ratri was totally confounded. Why would an unknown man come to take her away? Who was he? He wasn’t her mother’s husband, she hoped. She did know that they had a daughter. Nazma came with the child once, a very pretty child in a frilly baby-pink dress. Ratri had seen them from afar and taken refuge in the attic. She wanted no part of their life. Perhaps her Boro Ma had said something stern, and Ratri never saw the child again. Even Nazma rarely visited anymore. She often sent her daughter costly dresses, but Ratri never even tried them on. Did they want her as a baby-sitter? she wondered.
Now she concentrated on this stranger who looked at her earnestly. At length, he said, “I am your father, Ratri.”
At first the words did not make sense to Ratri. Then she suddenly realized that this man was her father, her very own father whom she had never seen, not even in a photograph. A sudden sense of unreality seized her, and she was not sure who she was, or where. She seemed to be somewhere outside her own body.
Boro Ma spoke up, “And where were you all these years, Mahtab? Why are you here now?”
“I—I live in Cyprus,” Mahtab mumbled. “I have a small business there. I only returned to Bangladesh last week. But I came here as soon as I could.”
Ratri’s father seemed to diminish before her Boro Ma’s withering gaze. “I wanted to come before but couldn’t find the time. The business was growing …” He did not finish his sentence but looked at Ratri with an agonized expression. “Nazma made it clear that she did not want me to see Ratri…. But I have finally come. I want to re-establish a relationship with my daughter.”
Ratri could not understand the tight feeling in her chest. She whispered, “Abbu!”
“Yes, yes, I am your Abbu,” Mahtab took off his glasses, his eyes bright and wet with unshed tears. “Ma, you look exactly like my mother.” He held out his arms to Ratri and she found herself ensconced in arms full of love and longing.
They all sat together, and for the first time in her life Ratri felt that she might have a normal life like her cousins and classmates. She may not have her mother, but now she had her father. She suddenly realized why her father’s face seemed so familiar. It was because she looked like him.
Her grandmother cleared her throat and asked, “So, you have come to take Ratri away?”
Mahtab was still misty-eyed, and he said, “I have to figure out how to take her to Cyprus. She will need a passport first.”
Ratri looked at her Boro Ma and said falteringly, “I cannot just leave, right? I live here.”
Her Boro Ma said nothing. But her grandmother and Toton Uncle said in unison, “Come on, he is your father. And you need a proper family.”
When Mahtab left after dinner that night, Ratri felt very strange. Her father! Where was he all these years? And would she really be able to live with him? Like a regular child? She looked up Cyprus in an old atlas that belonged to her late grandfather. She imagined the blue waters of the Mediterranean, and warm sand between her toes.
When it was time for bed, she turned to her Boro Ma and asked, “Boro Ma, what are people like in Cyprus?”
Her Boro Ma did not say anything. After a while she said in a hoarse voice, “I don’t know. Let’s see how things go.” She turned on her side to face the wall and pretended to go to sleep.
Mahtab did not come the next day as he promised, but two days later. He seemed disheveled, but Ratri did not notice. She was overjoyed to see him. She sat beside him holding him by the arm and smiling broadly. And then her father said, “Ma, I’m afraid I can’t take you with me. You have to stay here for the time being. Maybe when you grow a little older…” he stopped seeing the ashen face of Ratri.
“Why?” asked Ratri. “Why can’t I go with you now?”
“You are too young,” said Mahtab lamely. “I will take you when you become eighteen.”
“But why?” asked a bewildered Ratri again.
Her father seemed to be on the verge of tears, “I have a family in Cyprus.”
Ratri snapped up to look at her father who seemed to have shrunk in stature. He looked at her imploringly, “Ma, I re-married and I have two sons. Since we don’t have a daughter, I thought Amalie would not object. I told her about you before and that I came to see you. She did not seem to mind then.”
Ratri sat stonily for a few seconds and then slowly disengaged her arms from her father’s. She slowly picked herself up and walked out of the room without looking back. She went straight to the attic.
She heard her great-grandmother on her way out, “That was cruel, Mahtab. Did you have to get her hopes up? Her mother never even looked at her. And you came to tell her of fatherly love, only to abandon her? Shame on both of you.”
Mahtab sat with his head bent.
Ratri never answered any of the letters she received from Cyprus. Even when her mother had cancer and wanted to see her long neglected daughter, she felt no urge to visit her. They were both strangers to her.
She was a rootless tree, she thought. She preferred to remain that way.
Ratri made it to the College of Fine Arts thanks to her Boro Ma. She loved that part of town with its tea stalls and flower shops, the imposing façade of the National Museum, and the mystique of the World War II era crater just behind the College itself. It was another world, quite apart from anything else in Dhaka, and even set apart from University of Dhaka’s main campus. By the time she was 17, she was sure that’s where she wanted to study.
Her uncles and aunts thought it was a terrible idea. “What is the point of studying art? Will she become an artist?” Ripon Uncle had asked disdainfully.
“I didn’t ask for your permission,” retorted Ratri.
“Sure,” jeered Maliha Auntie. “Who will pay for it do you think? It’s quite expensive—I hope you know that!”
“And all sorts of weird people go to Art College,” supplied a giggling Naina. “Do you know they often have nude models? And drugs too.”
Ratri felt indignant, but also helpless. “I will pay for her education,” her Boro Ma said quietly.
“You?” Toton Uncle gaped at her.
“Yes, I still have the money Ratri’s great grandfather left me. I also have some property in Faridpur. I will sell it all, if necessary,” she said with determination.
Suddenly, the room went quiet. Nobody missed the old lady’s use of “Ratri’s great grandfather” rather than “your grandfather.” Ratan Uncle, who was the eldest among his siblings and had been listening quietly to all arguments so far, finally said, “I think we all should contribute. She is our niece, after all. We have a duty toward her. Also ask Nazma. She has neglected Ratri too long.”
Ratri wondered why Ratan Uncle suddenly felt responsible. Didn’t they all think of her as an outcast and burden? She felt an immense gratitude toward Boro Ma. She was the one who always stood up for her. Ratri tried to swallow the lump in her throat. She did not cry when people humiliated or hurt her. But love was something she rarely had. And that made her cry.
Boro Ma was ill when Ratri got the scholarship to England. She was more than 90-years-old, and her body was starting to betray her. Ratri wondered if she should turn down the scholarship and stay with the old lady. But in her heart, she was already soaring high and wanted to get out of the old house which had become more prison-like than ever. Her uncles and aunts jeered at her artistic talents, her irregular habits and idiosyncratic tastes. Naina Auntie thought she could join a hippie camp. It was the early 2000s, and she wore kurtas and jeans instead of sarees or salwar kameezes, and hardly wore jewelry like other young women her age. She was good looking in her own way, even though she did not have her mother’s exquisite features or complexion. If anything, she tried to distance herself from her mother in every way possible.
Can one grow up and flourish somewhere without feeling any kind of attachment? Boro Ma was her only tie to this house. But even she was not enough to keep her here for the rest of her life. Her life would not really begin until she left, and her great-grandmother seemed aware of the fact.
“Go, my pet,” she said. “This is the chance of a lifetime. Don’t waste it.” She smiled as she added, “We’ll meet again when you return.”
Nobody came to see her off at the airport except their old driver. And Ratri was glad because she was not used to expressing emotion. She felt happy and free. Her palette and paintbrushes were all she needed. She had a new canvas before her, gloriously open to the sky and the horizon, and she would paint to heart’s content.
The next four years were the happiest in her life. She met people who took her as she was. There were no expectations except that she excelled in her work. She learned different techniques, experimented with various media, took part in contests and exhibitions, and even won acclaim as a young artist. Mahzabeen Nishat Ratri, the talented young artist from Bangladesh, she thought with pride.
That’s when she met Irfan. They often travelled together and participated in exhibitions jointly. Sometimes they were competitors, but eventually he became her adviser as he was twelve years older than her. She didn’t mind him being older—she felt he was more mature as a result. He had been through a lot in life, just as she had herself. When Irfan proposed, she readily accepted. He had told her about his previous marriage and why it had not worked. “I badly wanted a child. But all Shila wanted was her career,” he said.
Ratri understood. Her mother too only thought of her career. She had heard that even her half-sister, the baby girl she saw with her mother, had had a tough life. Nazma was too much of a careerist to give up anything for children. She sent her daughter to Shanti Niketan at the age of eight.
“O my pet! How are you? When will you come home?” She could hear Boro Ma crowing with joy and longing.
“Did you get my letter, Boro Ma? The one about getting an artist’s residency in France?”
“Of course! I’m so proud of you. But aren’t you coming to see me? I’m getting old,” she sighed.
“I’m planning to.” Ratri paused. “I will bring Irfan with me. We are getting married.”
The phone went quiet on the other end.
“Boro Ma—I told you about Irfan, remember? He is a great guy. You will like him, I promise.”
“He’s too old for you, my pet.” Boro Ma’s voice suddenly sounded like that of a stranger. “And he looks like a catfish. You won’t be happy with him.”
Ratri was dumbfounded. She had always been supportive of Ratri, not hurtful like the others. She tried to reason with the old lady. “Boro Ma, do looks really matter? I am not pretty either. But he is loving and supportive, and he genuinely cares.”
Her Boro Ma was unmoved by Ratri’s remonstrations. She said that she felt in her bones that Irfan was not to be trusted.
The next couple of days Ratri felt lost and depressed. Finally, she decided to tell Irfan about the conversation. Irfan was taken aback, but then he laughed out loud. “I think your Boro Ma is jealous,” he said.
“Boro Ma jealous?” Ratri thought that was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard. But the more she thought about it, the more it made sense. After all, Boro Ma would no longer be the center of Ratri’s life, and perhaps it was natural for her to feel jealous. Poor Boro Ma!
Ratri felt awful, but proceeded through with the wedding plans, which she felt was her one chance at happiness.
She returned to Dhaka with Irfan and took him to see her relatives. Her uncles and aunts now appreciated her since she was starting to make a name for herself. The Bengal Gallery had invited her to take part in an exhibition later in the year, and she hoped to get a spot at the Alliance Française as well. One of her younger cousins even took her autograph. They all congratulated her—except Boro Ma. She simply looked at her and then turned to face the wall.
Ratri remembered the night after her father’s first visit. She had turned to face the wall at the prospect of Ratri’s departure. For the first time, Ratri wondered about the nature of Boro Ma’s love. Did loving someone mean to possess them, and not let go? She wondered if all love was like that.
A couple of days before their wedding, Irfan asked Ratri to take a walk with him and share a plate of fuchka at Shahbag. It was February, and the weather was cool and pleasant.
“I want you to meet someone very special,” he said smiling. On the grassy lawn in front of the College of Fine Arts, he beckoned to a young girl of about twelve. Ratri was sitting under a champak tree wearing a green saree with yellow sunflowers. She did not usually wear a saree, but that day she did.
“My daughter, Laboni,” he said. “She is the light of my life. And Laboni, this is Ratri. She is the lady I told you about.”
Ratri stared at the lanky young child-woman who stared back at her with open hostility. The girl turned to her father. “She is not pretty like you said, Papa,” she said.
Irfan apologized after Laboni had retreated into the Central Public Library that she frequented. Irfan and Ratri were walking from the TSC toward the Kala Bhaban. “She is young and sentimental. I hope you understand.”
It was early spring. Around them, the krishnachura trees blazed their vermilion blossoms, and the shonalu flowers hung like molten gold. They would be imprinted in her soul forever. The sound of her mother’s anklets flitted through her mind. Tak dhin dhin ta, the tablas intoned. The pain of rejection, the elusive happy family.
“Why didn’t you tell me about Laboni?” she asked.
“I was afraid. I thought you would not agree to marry me.”
“So, you deceived me.”
Irfan laughed a little uneasily. “You’ve missed so much love in your life, Ratri! I am sure you will understand her pain.”
“Yes,” Ratri agreed. “I do understand.”
Irfan was relieved. “I knew you would.”
“But you don’t understand either of us, Irfan. That’s the problem.” Ratri took a deep breath.
“What do you mean?” Irfan was taken aback.
“I was in her position once. That girl wants her father. But not her father’s new wife.” Ratri paused. She turned to look at Irfan. “And I want a man to love me wholeheartedly. Without being deceitful.” She took another deep breath and said, “Our marriage is off.”
“No!” Irfan gasped. “The wedding has already been announced, and all my friends and family have been invited. I cannot call it off now.”
“You are not calling it off. I am,” replied Ratri calmly.
“You are insane, Ratri!”
She shrugged. “All the more reason for you not to marry me.”
Nine years had passed since then. And she had tried not to remember.
Ratri sat in her old hole in the attic. The night sky was clear, and she could see stars even though tall buildings loomed over their old home. Buildings that had risen while she was away. Towering apartment complexes had replaced many of the old and crumbling homes. But a few remained, including this one.
Ratri had not gone back to live in the old house in Lalbagh after the breakup with Irfan. She taught at the College of Fine Arts and lived in a women’s hostel nearby. She withdrew into herself like a snail. She ate, slept, and worked like an automaton. If people gave her odd looks, she did not notice. When she won a scholarship to France two years later, she broke all her ties with her family.
Only last month she met an elderly lady at one of her exhibitions. “Your work is very moving, you know,” she said. “Oui,très émouvant. It shows your knowledge of the human soul.” Ratri was drawn into the pool of her liquid grey eyes. “You have a beautiful spirit.”
Ratri thanked the woman politely, but her world was crumbling. What knowledge did she have of the human soul or of its depths? “You have a beautiful spirit.” The words echoed from the faded corridors of the past. “Boro Ma!” the child in her cried out. And Ratri could hear her incessant sobs.
“She cried for you a lot during her last days. She kept on asking for you,” said Toton Uncle sadly. “She wanted only you. We did not have any contact information, Ratri. I understand you had no reason to remember us. But how could you forget your Boro Ma?”
Ratri looked at the small nakshi kantha. Boro Ma had asked that they give it to her when she came back. “She said she knew you would return, and she asked us to give it to you.”
Yes, of course, thought Ratri. Boro Ma was the mother she never had. How could she forget her? She whispered into the nakshi kantha, “Boro Ma! I am sorry. I was angry. I was so hurt. I am sorry, Boro Ma.”
She held the small nakshi kantha close to her chest and thought of the days when they did so many things together. Her body shook as spasms of overwhelming grief engulfed her entire being. The raindrops in the nakshi kantha melted before her eyes and finally Ratri cried.
Ma : An affectionate way of addressing someone younger, technically, mother.
Fuchka: A savoury snack
Oui,très émouvant : Yes, very moving. French
Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor at the Department of English & Humanities, ULAB. she is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star. “Elusive” was first published in an anthology, It’s All Relative, in 2017.
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A mysterious woman in a lonely house… a story by Sohana Manzoor
The ride from the train station to their old house would take about fifteen minutes. Tana’s eyes tried to understand the changes which did not seem to be too many. Things in the cities change fast, but here, in the backwaters of their old town, the houses and the narrow alleys seemed pretty much the same. There were a few changes, of course. The famous Neeldubi Pond seemed to have shrunk in size and the waters did not seem as clear as before. She also noted that even though it was around noon nobody was washing at its banks. Tana could understand that the old custom of washing and bathing at the pond was probably gone.
The auto-rickshaw turned to the very familiar lane where her grandparents’ house was. And her heart stopped beating for a few seconds. The small brick house of the red witch down the alley was there still.
Tana had not been to Tushapur for over ten years now and even this visit too was purely out of necessity. Their old ancestral house was being sold. It has been many years since she and her siblings had moved out. After her grandmother died about eleven years ago, Tana had not had a chance to come back. The years went by too fast, but the memories of Tushapur were frozen in a globe of timelessness. The shuttered house made of red bricks where once upon a time a lone woman lived did the magic of opening the memory box.
Tana had not thought about her any time in the recent past. She had lived there as far as Tana could remember. When Tana was a little girl, the woman never came out of the house. But once every month a man used to visit her and buy packets of things. He would also deliver some large packages and boxes. Once, someone had whispered that she used to sell herbs and magic medicines. She did have a small garden at the back of her house where she grew vegetables, flowers and strange smelling plants.
Tana and her friends found this lonely woman really strange. Everybody knew her but avoided her for no palpable reason. Moreover, she lived just by herself. There were no children, no husband and no elderly parents. In those days, there was no other woman in their vicinity who lived all by herself. It was strange indeed. There was some kind of secret, the children could sense it, but nobody told them anything. The adults and children might have lived side by side, but they always had their very own secrets which they jealously guarded against the other.
Hence one dove-cooing noon, three curious children jumped over the mossy brick wall to walk around the strange grove. The cluster of mango and tamarind trees had cast a spell of shadows and light in the garden. A tall acacia seemed out of place with sunlight reflecting on the topmost branches. There was a bushy bokul at the corner of the garden with small pale-coloured flowers which one could smell from afar. They wondered what the creeping vines of orange and blue bulbs were. Then there were those herbs that emitted strange smells– some pungent, some intoxicating and some dizzyingly sweet. They all recognized amla and bay leaves. Shojon whispered the named the haritaki tree because his grandmother used to have the fruit on a daily basis. But what were the others? Then, Husna, who was always a bit jumpy, noted the bats hanging upside down in the branches of a shaggy tree. And a strange voice said, “Wookkuuu!”
They ran for their lives. Tana looked at the house one last time and saw a black cat sitting on the sun shed as if keeping vigil of some kind.
Later Husna swore that she saw a small dome-like thing sticking out of the ground. Stories grew after that– strange stories that made no apparent sense. Rokon said that creatures walked upside down in that garden. Piyal was sure he had seen a large caterpillar the size of a side-pillow crawling on its walls. Nobody wanted to go around that house after dark. They called her ‘the woman who lives down the lane’. Mushfique was ready to swear that when he was passing by that house late one night with his father, both of them had heard sounds of crying. His father had later said that it was either a kitten or a bat, but they all sat silent with apprehension as Mushfique regaled them with his tale. Some went as far as calling her ‘the red witch’.
As years passed, the stories grew longer and darker. However, no matter what they said, the adults seemed either unconvinced or oblivious to their fears. But she was nobody’s aunt and only once Tana’s mother had mentioned casually that her name was Surma and in a long forgotten past they used to go to school together. Then Tana’s grandmother hushed her up. The information sounded so foreign to little Tana that she pretended not to have heard it. She certainly did not want to destroy the web of enchantment they had woven around her. So, the little shabby house down the lane grew shabbier and darker while its lone inhabitant continued to be an enigma.
Tana reached the two storey-house, where she had spent her childhood. Two of her cousins still lived nearby. Tana was supposed to live with them till the papers were signed. Her other siblings lived abroad, and Tana was carrying documents that gave her the power of attorney to sign on their behalf. Ruby, a daughter of her phuppi (paternal aunt) had mentioned that she had a few trunks that belonged to her parents and Tana would have to go through them to see if there was anything valuable. Tana went to stay at Ruby’s house that was right beside their old home. After lunch, they sat down for a cup of tea at the veranda. Tana asked, “Does she still live in that house at the end of our lane?”
“What house and who?” Ruby seemed to have forgotten all about the red house.
“That old red brick house. Remember, we used to call her ‘the red witch’?”
“Oh, her!” Ruby said. Then she shook her head. “She died two years ago.”
Tana said, “And her house?”
“The house has been sold. They are going to demolish it soon and turn it into a fancy cottage we hear.”
“Who sold it?” was Tana’s quizzical question.
Ruby knitted her eyebrows as she said, “There was quite a hubbub, actually. It seemed that she was a cousin of Mahbub chacha(uncle). But for some odd reason, there was no connection. But after she died, his mother started to cry claiming her as her niece. And some of the older people seemed to know all about it. So, they buried her in their family graveyard and Mahbub Chacha’s sons later claimed the property as theirs.”
Tana was suddenly at a loss. All those stories of ghosts and witches around that house suddenly had such an ordinary ending!
“But why were they estranged?”
“I have no clue,” Ruby shrugged.
Tana looked at her cousin a little distastefully. Ruby never had any imagination. Even now as she was telling Tana the tale of the strange woman, there was no excitement.
“Such a bore!” Tana muttered to herself.
The few days that Tana stayed at Tushapur were devoid of any extraordinary events. People seemed to have accepted that the mysterious woman whose real name was Shahanara Khatun, and who went by the name Surma, was a cousin of Mahbub Talukdar. Apparently, there was some kind of family feud. Then her husband died as did her baby boy. But she continued to live alone.
Tana felt there was a missing link somewhere. And what about all those weird creatures and crying in her house?
As Tana was going through the trunks, she wondered at the discolored brass trinkets with greenish hue. Some of them were ashtrays and ornate cups. An antique coffee pot with turquoise stones raised its head from the mass of junk. There were some wooden dolls and boats. She touched the trays of dull silver and wondered if they were real silver. At this point, she espied a diary. A leather-bound diary that was faded with age. The front cover was badly discoloured, as if someone had spilled liquid on it. Tana’s eyes widened as she opened and saw the name on the first page — Gul Nahar Sultana. It dated from the 1980s, more than thirty-five years ago. Gul Nahar was her mother’s name. But Tana could not recall ever seeing the diary before.
Finally, when Tana left Tushapur, she had reduced the three trunks into one. She still was not sure why she was even taking this one back, but she did. The relics of the past were not easy to give up.
After another month and a half, Tana finally found some time to look into the things she had brought back from Tushapur. The first thing she picked up was the diary. Two poems. A fragment of a story. There were some sketches of human figures. Tana felt a pang as she knew her mother once wanted to be an artist. Most pages were clean, just slightly yellowish. She thought that was it. But then she saw some pages at the end, filled up with closely knit writing.
The name “Surma” caught her eyes.
“I went to visit Surma yesterday. Amma tells me not to go again. She is an outsider now. A high price to pay for marrying a man of a different religion. But I had to go and help her with the last rituals of her baby. They did not allow her to bury the child in the graveyard because his father was not Muslim. With Tapan dada gone, what can she do by herself? She buried the poor thing under the Bokul tree in her garden. I can hear her cry at night. And all those cats in her house wail through the night too. Sometimes I think, I can hear the baby cry. She could not even get a doctor for the mite. Am I going crazy? Perhaps I should not go. Sometimes, it is wiser to shut our eyes and not see others suffer. That’s the only way to be happy, they say.”
Tana sat there immobile. The mystery of the woman who lived down the lane was finally solved. But how will she ever remember the magical childhood now without feeling guilty? The days of innocence are not so innocent after all.
Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts bangladesh. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.
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While the impasse over the McMahon Line continues and the outgoing POTUS rages over not only the election results but also the Yellow Peril, John Drew gives us an interesting perspective on the perception of both these giants, US & China.
Many centuries ago, Chinese pilgrims came up the Bay of Bengal on their way to Buddhist sites in the Subcontinent. We have no record of their conversations with the people of Bengal but it was the accurate accounts of early Chinese travellers that enabled archaeologists in the 19th century to rediscover the lost Buddhist sites like that inside a hill at Paharpur (Bangladesh).
A more modern Chinese settlement in Bengal that has left us the word chini for sugar was largely curtailed sixty years ago by the dispute over the Himalayan border, the McMahon Line above Bengal, a remnant of aggressive British imperialism earlier in the 20th century.
Today, Bangladesh, like other sub-continental countries, has its Chinese neighbours within the gates, driving the building of the prodigious rail bridge across the Padma, developing a port hub at Chattogram and proposing a rail link across Myanmar. The Celestial Empire is once again a superpower but this time expanding as never before to the Indian, and perhaps every other, ocean.
The people of the Bengal delta have suffered greatly from empires, whether Persian, Portuguese, British or Pakistani: empires are not a win-win situation and never will be. But while it is as well to be wary of empire-building, also important is to be wary of the stereotypes that invariably accompany it.
When the Japanese were at the gates of Imphal in 1944, they presented themselves as liberators, a clever, ingenious people who were successfully freeing Asia from European rule. The British rulers of India pictured them as cunning and cruel. Both images were stereotypes that served the purposes of those producing the propaganda for or against.
What images does Bangladesh have of the Chinese? No doubt, given the colonial legacy, some of these have, willy-nilly, been bequeathed to us by the West. It is instructive to see how the stereotypes change with the times.
For Europe unlike India, China remained off the map until the 13th century when Marco Polo, among others, made his epic journey to Cathay and reported on a China full of marvels. This report chimed nicely with a superstitious, religious European culture already given to believing in the miraculous and fantastic.
The European Enlightenment in the 18th century ridiculed this farrago, offering a very different view. Leibniz, Voltaire and Quesnay, most notably, canvassed the idea of China as an ideal Confucian state where civil harmony and stability prevailed. Ironically relying on the researches of their opponents, the Jesuit missionaries, rationalist European thinkers used this image to show that a society did not need any religious sanction to be ethical.
Oliver Goldsmith wrote his Letters of a Citizen of the World (1760-1) in the guise of a Chinese visitor, satirizing Europeans for preferring to acquire Chinese frippery rather than to try and understand China. He mocked the way that even the uses of fashionable trinkets, including the pots for infusing a popular new herb, tea, were generally misunderstood.
The idealised view of Chinese civilisation was never uncontested. Moreover, the older images often resurfaced. Coleridge, famously, in his poem “Kubla Khan” returned to the medieval travellers’ image of China as a marvellous place: “It was a miracle of rare device/ A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice”.
Likewise in the 20th century, Lowes Dickinson, following Goldsmith’s epistolary method with his Letters of John Chinaman (1901) adopted the 18th century Enlightenment outlook on China. So did Vikram Seth in his mannered sonnet sequence, The Humble Administrator’s Garden (1985).
Less happily, in the 19th century as European capitalism and imperialism destroyed the old feudal order at home, feudal China was increasingly dismissed as decadent and backward, its largely symbolic fleet destroyed by the British. Bangladeshis need no reminding of the wretched history of the cross-border trade in tea and opium.
Thereafter the dominant image of China that emerged was of the cunning peasant, especially following the “Boxer” uprising against the foreign imperialists and missionaries. Chinese labourers came to be used as cheap labour across the world, building the American railroads, for instance, and, after being conveyed secretly in sealed trains across Canada, providing labour battalions for the Allies in World War I.
Masters have a way of blaming slaves for their own condition and so was born the ugly racial concept of the Chinese as a Yellow Peril, perhaps a subconscious fear that the roles of masters and slaves might one day be reversed. In one frequently reproduced lithograph, even the meditating Buddha was enrolled as the Peril’s presiding genius!
The peasant figure that displaced the mandarin still belonged to the same feudal order. Ah Sin, a comic stereotype created on page (1870) and stage (1877) by America’s most celebrated writers, Bret Harte and Mark Twain, was shown as debased and thievish. Whatever the intention of the writers, the effect, at a time of anti-Chinese rioting on the West Coast, was pernicious.
Jack London’s portrait of the peasant Ah Cho in The Chinago (1909) was something of an exception to the general run. The French colonial authorities in Tahiti are exposed for the racism that hangs a man even when they find he is the wrong one, so cheap is the life of a Chinese coolie.
That the image of a sly Chinese peasant is not necessarily untrue can be determined from the way it was also used by Lu Xun, China’s foremost short story writer in the 20th century. Ah Q (1921) tells the story of a bully and coward who prevaricates in the face of, among other things, revolutionary change. For Lu Xun, a peasant uprising in China would not be successful until the peasantry was properly educated and genuinely spirited.
In the 20th century, while China underwent almost permanent revolution in an attempt to free itself from feudalism and foreign domination, the single most influential and lasting image Western culture threw up in response was that of Dr Fu Manchu who, with the manners of a mandarin and the craftiness of a peasant, was a perfect fusion of the two previous stock figures.
For almost the entire century Dr Fu Manchu filled the minds of first book and comic-reading and then film-going and television-watching public. Urbane and fiendish, he was involved in gambling and drugs as part of a plan to bring Europe and America under Chinese control. Historically, of course, the opposite had been true.
As Sax Rohmer admitted, he made his name as the creator of Fu Manchu because he “knew nothing about the Chinese” (depicted in his books as “the most mysterious and most cunning people in the world”). He got no closer to China than the East End of London but his fevered imagination has proved as contagious as any virus.
It is indicative, and also ironical given the British treatment of China in the Opium Wars, that such virulent dreams of a racist, imperialist China seem to have originated in the drug-fuelled nightmares of Thomas De Quincey, the English Opium-Eater.
Pretty Much Alike
When the incumbent President of the USA describes the racially-indiscriminate Covid-19 as the Chinese virus he is evidently trading on the 19th century image of the Yellow Peril, updated as that became in the 20th century to the Red Peril. It is an old trick to deflect attention from your own shortcomings by blaming somebody else.
The images of China they elaborate tell us as much about Western culture as about China. As we saw with the stock image of the peasant, the image is not necessarily untrue: it is that it is inadequate, incomplete. The real problem is that a stereotype essentializes a vast and various place. People and places are diverse.
Timothy Mo, in his novel Sour Sweet (1982), parodies the silly prejudice that “all Chinese look alike” by having his Chinese protagonist Lily complain that all the “bland, roseate occidental faces” look the same to her compared with “the infinite variety of interesting Cantonese physiognomies: rascally, venerable, pretty, raffish, bumpkin, scholarly.”
In the 21st century we could do worse than let an 18th century English mandarin have the last word. Lord Macartney, Britain’s first Envoy to China (1793-4), wrote: “The Chinese, it is true, are a singular people, but they are men formed of the same material and governed by the same passions as ourselves.”
Goldsmith, in the introduction to his Letters, had written: “The truth is, the Chinese and we are pretty much alike. Different degrees of refinement, and not of distance, mark the distinctions among mankind.”
But Macartney went further. He suggested that before we looked at others we had better take a good look at ourselves. If the English found the Chinese proud of themselves and contemptuous of others, it was because these were the characteristics the English themselves displayed when travelling the globe.
The world we see mirrors us. The first place to look for the Yellow Peril – and the Red and the Black – is in Whitehall and in the White House.
John Drew has been a university teacher on both sides of the Himalaya and of the Atlantic.
First published in the literary page of Daily Star, Bangladesh.
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In this tribute, Azfar Hussaintakes us on a journey into the world of Madam Rokeya who wrote more than a century ago in English, Urdu and Bengali. Her books talked of women, climate and issues related to patriarchy.
I repeat the same truth, and, if required, I will repeat it a hundred times.
— Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain*
What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?
December 9 marks both the birth and death anniversaries of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932). The Rokeya Day in Bangladesh also falls on December 9. Indeed, Rokeya has by now been institutionalised, iconised, and, for that matter, even reified. This means a certain misappropriation and depoliticisation of her work as well. But there are now several biographies of Rokeya and scores of books and articles on her. Although I do not intend to recount Rokeya’s biographical details here, I should stress the point right at the outset: Rokeya’s life as a Muslim woman — lived courageously and even dangerously — illustrates nothing short of sustained struggles against religious bigotry, lack of education, shifting vectors and valences of colonialism, patriarchy affecting the practice of everyday life, and other forms and forces of oppression in colonial Bengal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Theorist-activist, essayist, fiction-writer, poet, translator, journalist, educationist, organizer — and an organic intellectual in her own right — Rokeya produced a remarkable corpus of written works, making distinctive contributions to Bangla literature while articulating with full force the cause of women with a particular, if not exclusive, focus on their education and emancipation. Roushan Jahan already characterized Rokeya as “the perceptive feminist foremother,” given the ways in which she anticipates a constellation of feminist questions and concerns broached later, although Rokeya and what a whole host of third-world feminists have called “Western, white feminism” do not go hand in hand.
Rokeya’s important works include Motichur, vol. 1 (1904); Motichur, vol.2 (1921); her only novel Padmaraag (1924); and Aborodhbashini (date uncertain), among numerous others. Rokeya knew five languages — Bengali, English, Urdu, Arabic, and Persian — while she directly wrote in three of them — Bengali, Urdu, and English. Her work Sultana’s Dream — a novella first written in English and later translated into Bengali by the author herself — is usually described as “a feminist utopia” that, as Roushan Jahan rightly points out, “antedates by a decade the much better-known feminist utopian novel Herland by [the American novelist and poet] Charlotte Perkins Gilman” (1860-1935).
Yet another work in English by Rokeya is instructively titled “God Gives, Man Robs” (1927). It’s a powerful essay that carries her famous words: “There is a saying, ‘Man proposes, God disposes,’ but my bitter experience shows that God gives, Man Robs. That is, Allah has made no distinction in the general life of male and female — both are equally bound to seek food, drink, sleep, etc., necessary for animal life. Islam also teaches that male and female are equally bound to say their daily prayers five times, and so on.” Some contend that this work advances Rokeya’s nuanced version of what is called “Islamic feminism” at a conjuncture that witnesses androcentric and colonialist abuses of religion itself. Rokeya of course already puts it clearly and simply: “Men dominate women in the name of religion”*.
Although it is impossible for me to characterise or summarise the entire range of Rokeya’s written works, I can readily call attention to one particularly predominant concern that prompts, energises, and constitutes the very production of her words and her world: the woman question relating to the question of the total emancipation of humanity — of both women and men. And the woman question itself is constitutively and irreducibly a revolutionary question insofar as in the final instance, it prompts us to interrogate, combat, challenge, and even destroy the historically produced system of male domination called patriarchy on the one hand, and, on the other, those systems of domination and exploitation that variously support and even enhance patriarchy itself. And Rokeya’s specifically revolutionary stance decisively resides not only in raising the woman question but also in making that question integral and inevitable to the entire horizon of her work — literary, pedagogical, organisational, social, familial.
Let me return to Sultana’s Dream (1905), because a number of its aspects still continue to remain ignored, although these days this work often gets discussed by those who claim to do postcolonial studies. I think this work is more than just a subversive and satirical intervention in the genre of what might be called “political dream-fiction” or “political science fiction.” And I read it as a work offering—through a radical reversal of the patriarchal or male-dominated order of things—a social imaginary that looks forward to, or even creates in imagination, a space and a place in which not only patriarchy spells out its own death but in which also science, political economy, ecology, and the forces of nature and the forms of justice remain adequately responsive to one another in the best interest of not only all humans but also all living beings themselves. And, thus, this work remains opposed to the destructive and oppressive logic of colonialism, militarism, and masculinism—and even anthropocentrism—profoundly interconnected as they are. In Sultana’s Dream, Rokeya also brilliantly anticipates a version of feminist science, offering a critique of colonialism’s relationship with science as a power/knowledge network. Indeed, “Sultana’s Dream” is, thematically and stylistically, the first work of its kind in the entire history of literary productions in Bengal.
Rokeya is also an early but powerful theorist of women’s liberation, a tireless organiser, an exemplary pedagogist of hope, and even a revolutionary in her own right. And her revolutionary moves reside in ways in which she gave voice, at the beginning of the twentieth century, to an entire generation of women struggling in confinement, or struggling against the purdah system itself, against the abuse of religion, against the shackles of not just double but multiple colonisations of women by patriarchy and colonialism and ‘feudalism,’ for instance.
Rokeya’s work Aborodhbashini is often reckoned the locus classicus of the discourse surrounding the purdah system, but does Rokeya combat the system of women’s seclusion and segregation à la Western feminists? No. For Rokeya, purdah is not just a floating signifier but heavily meaning-loaded, conjunctural, contextual; it’s more than an external veil covering a face or any part of the body, but it refers to an entire system of both mental and physical imprisonment to which the questions of colonial patriarchy and patriarchal colonialism remain relevant. Rokeya says: “The Parsi women have gotten rid of the veil but have they got rid of their mental slavery* [manosik dasattya]?”. It’s here where Rokeya not only anticipates Kazi Nazrul’s own formulation of “mental slavery” (moner golami) — but she also accentuates — way before Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire and Ngugi wa Thiong’o — the need for anti-colonial, emancipatory education for both women and men.
Last, Rokeya is also a politically engaged satirical poet whose apparently playful wit and sarcasm could be devastatingly subversive at times. Some of her famous poems include ‘Banshiful’, ‘Nalini o Kumud’, ‘Saugat’, ‘Appeal’, ‘Nirupam Bir’, and ‘Chand’. And her poetic but satirical interventions at various levels keep making the basic point about praxis itself: your silence is not going to protect you. Notice, then, a stanza in a poem she wrote as a response to those sell-outs, those middle-class bhadralok collaborators of the Raj who not only resorted to silence, but who were also nervous about losing their “honorific title”s, in the face of the Indian nationalist movement gathering momentum in 1922:
The dumb and silent have no foes
That’s how the saying goes
All of us with titled tails
Keep so quiet telling no tales
Then comes a bolt from the blue
Passes belief, but it’s true
All of you who did not speak
Will lose your tails fast and quick
Come my friends and declare now
In loud and loyal vow
Listen, ye world, we are not
God’s truth, a seditious lot
(quoted in Bharati Ray’s Early Feminists of Colonial India)
I’ve so far quickly contoured only a few areas of Rokeya’s interventions but honouring the legacy of her work calls for rereading, remobilising, and even reinventing Rokeya in the interest of our struggles for destroying patriarchy and all systems of oppression.
* These phrases have been translated by the writer, Azfar Hussain.
Azfar Hussainteaches in the Integrative, Religious, and Intercultural Studies Department within the Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Grand ValleyState University in Michigan, and is Vice-President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies, New York, USA.
At such a time as ours, I can identify with the first three lines, but not the last three. As I read the poem, I utter instead, “Ah, what dark tunnels are we crossing?”
I can’t believe that it has been six weeks since I have been to my office at the university. It has been more than a month since I was at my newspaper office. Things have been shifted online — without any of us having any preparation or training whatsoever. With the number of coronavirus affected patients rising rapidly in the country, sometimes I pinch myself to see if I am awake or if it’s only a nightmare. As I drift through one day exactly like another, I wonder if it is actually the beginning of a dystopic age. I recall all the science fiction books I have ever read and the movies that I have watched. This reality is more horrific than any of those because I am living in it. According to WHO, the worst is yet to come. And I wonder, I really wonder how my dear Dhaka city will look like after another month. How will Bangladesh feature in the world map after six months? Or next year this time how will the world function?
The governments across the world have declared lockdown and curfew of one kind or another. The situation in Bangladesh is really at a problematic stage. Being one of the most densely populated countries in the world, if not checked, the pandemic will cause a devastation that nobody has yet encountered anywhere. The close proximity and the number of people also are the reasons behind our tension—how to control this mass? The city of Dhaka is home to 160,000,000 people. Even though some have left for their hometowns, the larger portion still abides here. But we are so many in number and most live in such congested houses that it is difficult for them to continue indoors through days and nights. So, at the slightest chance, they slip out of their dilapidated shanties and cluster around half opened tea stalls and shops; they whisper to one another over a biscuit and half a cup of tea about the strange epidemic they can barely comprehend.
They look in apprehension and curiosity at a said narrow street that has been sealed because a family living there has been identified as COVID-19 victims. Then the police arrive with their batons and sticks and start beating people and they run to hide into their holes. Except for a few residential areas, this is the general scenario in Dhaka. People are prohibited from going to work, but who can take away their addas? The Bengalis can go without food but they cannot live without adda and gossip.
Hence, even though the government is dictating social distancing, ours is a culture that disapproves of such distances. The month of Ramadan has begun and for the first time in history, people are not going to the mosque for mass prayer. In all probability, the Eid Jamaat will not be held on the morning of Eid-ul-Fitr. But there is this group of religious leaders that continue to claim that if one dies after going to the mass prayer, they will go straight to heaven. No wonder that just over a week ago, around 100,000 people turned up at the funeral ritual of a senior member of Bangladesh political party, Khelafat Majlish. Some people will always benefit from any kind of disaster and such incidents only testify to that. One might ask, what can one benefit from such mass gathering that might result in extreme suffering and death? Well, the answer is — the ultimate objective of any system is to wield power over others. If it leads to death even, so be it; you have power over the dead and for some leaders at least, human life is expendable.
The biggest problem for us in Bangladesh right now is that in spite of the wide accessibility of the news channels, we are not fully aware of what we are dealing with. I was reading an article just this morning quoting the Director of Transparency International Bangladesh, who observes how the country has failed in protecting its citizens from Coronavirus. The system is so debased that even at this stage of the pandemic, some government officials are busy making money and compromising the situation by buying lower quality equipment for doctors and patients. The public announcement says that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has been bought for all doctors and medical staff, but in reality, those have been distributed selectively. The doctors outside of the capital city of Dhaka are mostly purchasing PPE out of their own pockets. Across the country, about 120 doctors have been affected by COVID-19, and among these only a handful are from those chosen hospitals.
There are all sorts of rumours, and because of those, people are ready to ransack hospitals as COVID patients have been admitted there. No wonder that a number of people are refusing to reveal that they are carrying the virus. When even the educated and conscious segment of the society does not know what lies ahead, one can only assume how the working class, who live from hand to mouth feels. Their daily living has been wrenched away from them by an unknown force.
Strangely enough, amidst this chaos a group of people are hopeful that this cannot last forever and something good will surely come up. Many will develop awareness of what they have done wrong. For me, that is only a distant possibility. More prominently looming in the near future are scarcity of jobs, lack of provision, budget cuts and trauma. How hopeful can we actually be when we know at heart that there is nothing bright and hopeful in the coming months?
Sitting at the heart of the city’s posh area, some are congratulating themselves as a few trucks of relief goods are distributed to some lucky ones. What about the rest of the country? How do we know that they are getting to eat? But then, some might counter that these people are half dead anyway and hence it would not matter much if they actually die now. It might sound atrocious and something we do not want to face, but it is the reality.
I used to be a workaholic. But I have not really been able to be productive since the lockdown began. This might be the beginning of a different set of thoughts for me. But I do not yet know what that might be exactly. I certainly am able to concentrate on work or creative writing. I am watching movies and keeping track of the COVID news. I fall asleep at odd hours and keep awake through the night.
On rare moments, I dream of a cloudless blue sky and endless green pastures, of the not so crowded roads and streets of the late 80s and early 90s, of the people I have lost over the years. I might lose some more in the near future. How do I stand proud, strong and unshakable when the ground under my feet is giving away and I feel that I am drowning?
Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author and not of Borderless Journal.
Welcome to Borderless — a journal that hopes to roll out an invitation to all those who are willing to venture into the vastness of wonders, ideas and creativity. It seeks out thoughts that can soar above borders not just like birds but also like clouds. Clouds waft without pausing at differences, join together and bring water to the parched lands across all terrains as do writers and readers who look beyond differences. The writing will be like raindrops that create a downpour of love, tolerance, kindness, wit and humour. With a little soupçon of such values, we hope to unite into a world that can override differences, hatred, angst, violence and COVID-19.
In these pages, we welcome hope for a future that makes us happy; we welcome all writers of all ages to come and revel in words and ideas and we invite readers to come and read and give us comments and write to us about what they would like to read at email@example.com. They are also welcome to try their hands at writing. In a world forced to segregate for the sake of survival, this is a way to connect with ideas.
We start the journal with some input from the team from the editorial board, constituting a few writers who are outstanding and eminent in their own areas. You can read about the team in ‘About Us’ and savour some of their work under the different subheads: essays, reviews, stories and poetry.
Dustin Pickering, somewhat of a rebel poet, a Pushcart nominee and a brilliant essayist, columnist and publisher, has contributed a scholarly essay on ‘Poets as Warriors’ — I love the idea even though I differ with some of his surmises. Maybe a war of words can convince people eventually that war with weapons is not the best way to maintain peace. Meenakshi Malhotra, a specialist in gender studies, bring us an essay on whether solidarity between women is possible. What do you think?
Namrata, a writer who hides behind fuchsia curtains and spills out lovely reviews, has a tempting review on a book edited by Sarita Jenamani and Aftab Husian — Silences between the Notes. Curious? Read and find out.
Sarita Jenamani, the PEN Austria general secretary, herself has contributed poetry — like the tinkling of crystal chandeliers evoking an evening in Vienna where she lives. Sohana Manzoor, the literature page editor in Daily Star, Bangladesh, has contributed a story, the title of which brings a smile — ‘Parul and The Potato Prince’ — reminded me a little of an O’ Henry in a Bangladeshi setting!
Nidhi Mishra, a successful publisher of children’s stories, rolled out a fabulous piece on corona that hovers between an essay and a slice of life. It is in a grey zone — and that is why there is a new name for it — Musings. In Musings, you will also find Debraj, a popular columnist and an associate professor in Delhi University, with an unusual piece — again hovering between multiple genres. That is partly also what we hope do in Borderless, we explore genres and non-genre based writing to create new trends.
Read it all and tell us what you think.
I look forward to Borderless as ‘your’ journal — a site that hosts contributions and looks for readership from all of you!