Categories
Essay

Neither Tranquil Mandarins, Nor Yellow Devils

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. 

Credits: Collage by Sohana Manzoor

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.

Mandarins

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).

Peasants

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.

Fu Manchu

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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Essay

Remembering Rokeya: Patriarchy, Politics, and Praxis

In this tribute, Azfar Hussain takes 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?

—Audre Lorde

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 Hussain teaches in the Integrative, Religious, and Intercultural Studies Department within the Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Grand Valley State University in Michigan, and is Vice-President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies, New York, USA.

First published in the literary page of Daily Star Bangladesh

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

Broken Glass and Shattered Dreams: COVID 19 in Bangladesh

By Sohana Manzoor

“Dance on broken glass;

Build castles with shattered dreams

Wear your tears like precious pearls.

Proud.

Strong.

Unshakable.”

–Anita Krizaan

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.

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Editorial

Hello World!

Welcome to Borderless — a journal that hopes to role 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 editor@borderlessjournal.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! 

Thank you all for your goodwill and friendship. 

Welcome again to a world without borders!

Mitali Chakravarty