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Poetry of Jibananda Das

All Afternoon Long

Poetry of Jibananda Das, translated by Fakrul Alam

ALL AFTERNOON LONG
All afternoon long I saw Bashir inside the paddy field.
All through the afternoon the skeleton of that three-storied red brick building
Besides the paddy field was being set up.
				(Everything is turning urban!)
Who owns that building? Why is it being built?  
	In the minds of the birds perched on this shore in fading evening light, 
		Or unlike the birds, or the boatmen in the boats plying here or the other shore
With their usual outcries,
The blue sky looked on impassively, its mind vacant. 
	In my dream at night, I saw Kolkata’s tram company getting ready to be here as well.
		Bashir’s bullocks twain out in this day’s sun look for a break  
As domesticated quadrupeds of the world will.
		Which country’s what animals’ and which tribes’ sketches will they resemble
		In becoming museum tales for the high-born and in being immortalised?
						The truths about them will be lost steadily!
			And yet in this land of museums, in the soundless but open room of one of them,
Could it be they would go up in flames without making civilisation any poorer
				Despite its stupendous piston?
Here the only story everyone still knows is of the jackdaw and the fairy tale princess, Shankhamala!
There are innumerable bird, nests and eggs on treetops here but still they haven’t been able to build
 this day a scientific poultry shop!   

(These translations are from Jibanananda Das: Selected Poems with an Introduction, Chronology and Glossary, translated by Fakrul Alam, published by The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1999. Republished with permission from the original publisher.)

Jibonanada Das (1899-1954) was a Bengali writer, who now is named as one of the greats. During his life he wrote beautiful poetry, novels, essays and more. He believed: “Poetry and life are two different outpouring of the same thing; life as we usually conceive it contains what we normally accept as reality, but the spectacle of this incoherent and disorderly life can satisfy neither the poet’s talent nor the reader’s imagination … poetry does not contain a complete reconstruction of what we call reality; we have entered a new world.”

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibanananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).

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

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Interview

At Home Across Continents

In Conversation with Neeman Sobhan

Neeman Sobhan is an expat who shuttles between Italy and Bangladesh and writes. She has a knack of making herself at home in all cultures and all spheres. Having grown up partly in Pakistan (prior to the Liberation War in 1971), Bangladesh and completed her studies in United States, she has good words about time spent in all places. Her background has been and continues to be one of privilege as are that of many Anglophone writers across Asia. Her stories have been part of collections brought out to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bangladesh.

One of her most memorable stories from her short story collection Piazza Bangladesh, located around the 1971 war takes on an unusual angle, where the personal seems to sweep the reader away from the historic amplitude of the event into the heart-rending cries of women at having lost their loved ones in a way that it transcends all borders of politics, anger and hate. The emotional trajectory finds home in a real-world event in the current war. The fate of innocent youngsters dying while not being entrenched in the hatred and violence wrings hearts as reports of such events do even now. I find parallels in the situation with the young Russian soldier whose mother did not know he was in Ukraine and who was killed while WhatsApping his mother his own distress at being there. And yet her stories stay within certain echelons which, as she tells us in the interview, are the spheres that move her muse.

When and how did you pick up a pen to write?

I have always written. The written word has always held a powerful fascination for me, which has not dimmed at all. From my childhood through my teens, I was a voracious and precociously advanced reader, as well as a passionate writer of poetry, and a keeper of a daily journal. My poetry was regularly published in The Pakistan Observer’s Junior page.  I don’t dare look at them now to even assess whether they were embarrassingly bad or surprisingly good enough to be salvaged and resurrected now! I preserved them as the earliest evidence of my continuing evolution as a writer and a poet today.

During those early days, I also won the first prize in a national essay writing competition sponsored by the newspaper. The Pear’s Encyclopedia I won still holds a precious place on my bookshelf.

English was my favourite subject in school and college, and I knew I would study English literature at university. I started out at Dhaka University in 1972 but by some perverse logic, I actually enrolled in the newly opened International Relations department and not the English Department (in which I had applied and been accepted). The reason, I now recall is because the English department was over-flowing with students, while the International Relations department was something exclusive and admitted a handful of students. However, after a few months I realised I had made a disastrous choice.

Meantime, my marriage was arranged, and I was whisked away to Marlyland, U.S. My husband, Iqbal, an ex-CSP officer (the Civil Service of Pakistan) was a Ph.d student of Economics at the University of Maryland, and in no time I enrolled as an undergraduate student and blissfully went on to study English and Comparative Literature, graduating eventually with a Masters in English Literature.

That I was going to be a writer was for me, even as a teenager, like a pre-ordained and much desired fate. I never wanted to pursue any other vocation.

What gets your muse going? 

Anything, and everything.  A view, a scent, an overheard conversation, a line of poetry, a memory……If I’m angry and seething, I write; if I’m sad or grieving, I write; if I’m joyous or ecstatic, I write; if I feel aa surge of spiritual bliss, I write; if I’m confused, I write. What form that writing takes is unpredictable. It could become a poem, or a paragraph in my notebook, which later could be part of my fiction, or a column. I wrote a regular column for the Daily Star of Bangladesh.

Writing is my food and nourishment, my therapy, my best friend, my passion. The writer-Me is the twin that lives inside me. It’s my muse and guide that defines my essential self. I am a contented wife of almost 50 years of marriage, a mother of two sons, and a grandmother of four grandsons (aged 5-4-3 & 2). These gratifying roles nourish my spirit, give me joy and inspiration, teach me lessons that help me grow as a human being. But my writer-self exists in its own orbit, proceeding on its solitary journey of self-actualisation, following its inner muse.

You have written of Italy, US and Bangladesh. How many countries have you lived in? 

Yes, I have lived in Italy, US and Bangladesh, which makes 3 countries. But, in fact, I have lived in 4 countries.

Remember that I was born not just in the undivided Pakistan of pre-71, when present day Bangladesh was East Pakistan, but I was actually born in West Pakistan, present day Pakistan, in the cantonment town of Bannu, near the borders of the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan, (formerly, the NWFP or NorthWest Frontier Province, presently KPK or Khyber Pakhtun-Khwa). Although my parents were Bengalis from Dhaka, my father’s government job (not in the army but under the Defence department, ‘Military Lands and Cantonments Services’) meant being posted in both wings of the then Pakistan. So, during my childhood and girlhood, I grew up in Karachi (Sindh), Multan and Kharian (Punjab) and Quetta (Balochistan). As a family of five siblings and our adventurous mother, we always accompanied our father on his official tours, by car or train, over the length and breadth of that country.

In the English medium school I was enrolled in, I had to choose Urdu as the vernacular subject, since Bengali was not taught in West Pakistani schools, though the opposite was not true! Anyway, I have no regrets. I am proficient in both Urdu and my mother tongue Bangla/Bengali, which I learnt at home from my mother, who in Quetta actually set up a small Bengali learning school for Bengali Army officers’ children. I am proud of the fact that I carried my mother’s tradition when I taught Bengali to Italians at the University of Rome, many decades later!   

What is it like being an immigrant writer? Which part of the world makes you feel most at home? Why? 

To start with, and to be honest, I do not really consider myself a true immigrant — someone who bravely and definitively leaves his familiar world and migrates  to another land because he has no other options nor the chance or means to return; rather, I feel lucky to be an ex-patriate — someone who chooses to make a foreign country her home, with the luxury of being able to revisit her original land, and, perhaps, move back one day. In fact, I have dual nationality, and am both an Italian citizen, and continue to hold a Bangladeshi passport. I might be considered to be an Italian-Bangladeshi writer. I consider myself a writer without borders.

I feel equally at home in Italy and in Bangladesh. Before the pandemic, my husband and I would make an annual trip to Dhaka for two months from December to February end, since my classes started in early March. Presently, I am back in Dhaka, after two almost apocalyptic years.

Despite the continuing hurdles of mastering the Italian language and trying to improve it constantly, we love our Roman home as much as our Dhaka home. Still, living away from ones’ original land, whether as an expatriate or an immigrant, is never easy, beset by nostalgia for what was left behind and the struggle to create a new identity of cultural fusion within the dominant and pervasive culture of a foreign land. But in this global age, it’s quite usual to live in a mix of cultures and live in a borderless world where ones national or cultural identity is not so clear cut. (I have a daughter-in-law who is Chinese, and another who is half-English, half-Thai! And my grandchildren are the heirs to a cornucopia of cultures and are true global citizens). Nevertheless, in the four and a half decades of my living away from Bangladesh, the eternal quest for that illusory place called home has shaped the sensibility that nourishes my creativity and compels me to write. Often, it’s the pervasive and underlying theme in my columns, stories and poetry. There is a poem of mine, “False Homecoming” which underlines the poignant sense of displacement a person can feel, not in a foreign land but in ones’ own motherland, or the version from the past. After all, many people who live away, exist in a time-warp.So, no matter which part of the world you feel at home in, it’s temporary. For me, as a writer between countries and homes, it is an external and internal odyssey.

It is the endless journey of a writer in constant evolution.

Tell us a bit about your journey. 

I realised early on that our real world being increasingly borderless, it’s not a tract of land that makes me feel at home. It’s my writing. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once said, “Words became my dwelling place.” This has always resonated deeply with me, because for me, too, language and literature have been my sanctuary and true homeland. I have lived in that comfort zone at the heart of my creativity, imagination and writing: my dwelling place of words.

Of course, there are as many shapes to the sheltering place of language as there are literary forms. My nest of words was also feathered by my particular exigencies, followed a particular route and journey.

Though I speak various languages, my mother tongue is Poetry. For as far back as I can remember I have always written poetry, like writing in a journal, considering it to be the shorthand of my heart, a secret language. I am a reticent person, and there are writers like me who are content to use writing, whether poetry or prose, as a tool for self-exploration, self-knowledge, self-definition, with no thought of being published. At least, not my personal poems.

Yet with poetic irony, despite being a private person, my career as a writer started when I was jettisoned into that most public form of literary expression: the world of weekly column writing. At the urging of a friend, the editor of the Bangladeshi national daily The Daily Star, I turned into a public chronicler of the minutiae of my world, my life and times. Now I discovered my professional language, my father tongue if you will, the language of prose and my journey as a writer started.

When one reads your writing, it is steeped in a number of cultures. Which culture is most comfortable for you while writing and which one for living? 

There’s no place as beautiful and pleasurable to live in as Italy. Except for two or three months of winter, the climate during the rest of the year is perfect; the natural beauty and historical and artistic richness are unsurpassable, the food is delectable whether it’s based on nature’s bounty or the simple elegance of its distinctive cuisine. But for a writer who is also a housewife, the most comfortable country to write in, for me, is Bangladesh. With the culture of household helps abounding, I often get more writing done in two months of living in my Dhaka apartment than a whole year in Rome. My domestic staff are like family to us, and valued parts of our life. They sustain us and we sustain them, helping them educate their children to stand on their own feet. I miss this support network in Italy.

What are your favourite themes and your favourite genre? Expand on that a bit. 

My favourite genre to both read and write is the short story, poetry, humorous essays, travel writing and insightful book reviews. I read fewer novels now, and I have been writing and struggling to finish my first novel for years. I suspect, this is because I am temperamentally more attuned to the short sprint dash of producing a discrete work of imagination than the long-distance run of a lengthy work. But I am determined to conclude this opus before it becomes an unfinished relic.

I never approach fiction-writing through themes. But in non-fiction prose writings, like essays and articles for columns, I love to write about certain topics, or about books, places, and people, from all walks of life. I also love to write about nature, food, history and traditions, about how to improve our world, our lives and our relationships; and the happy, hopeful moments of life. As far as reading goes, I love reading about travel, love and friendship, human compassion, and anything with a happy ending.

You seem to have centred much of your work on people who are affluent. What about the rest — especially the huge population who serve the affluent? Have you written on them? Tell us why or why not.

That is an incomplete picture, and a wrong perception of my writing. To start with, as a writer I am more interested in the richness of the inner lives of human beings, and less so in the outward, economic and class differences. To me, no one is merely affluent or poor, but human and worthy of a compassionate gaze. The diversity and motivations of characters, whichever strata of society they belong to moves my imagination. I do not write to either preach or disseminate ideas of social justice or to right wrongs, but to explore and present the world we live in, in all its complexities and subtleties, the joys and ugliness, the small dreams and grand passions, the disappointments and triumphs of individuals and generations. I like to delve into the psychological or political motivations of human behaviour, especially within the domestic sphere, the family, an ethnic community.

I have many stories about those who serve or are not from privileged classes. My story ‘A Sprig of Jasmine’ is about a sweeper woman at a school in Bangladesh. Then there is the story ‘The Farewell Party’ about a temporary domestic help in a Bangladeshi home in Rome, suspected of stealing. I also have a sequel to that which explores the life of the same Bengali help now working as a nurse-companion to an old Italian woman.  These and many more are awaiting to be published soon in another collection.

But I never consciously choose a subject or set out specifically to tell the story of an under-privileged, oppressed, or marginalised person. It can happen that the story turns out to be about them, but for me a story reveals itself randomly, through an image or scent or a view or an overheard conversation, once I witnessed a slap being delivered, etc, and I follow its trail till it leads me to an interesting bend where it starts to shape into a story. I never know how a story will start or end. It grows in organic but unpredictable way. That is the challenge, and adventure of writing a story.

For example, one of my most newest stories, titled ‘The Untold Story’, (published in a recent anthology for Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary, When the Mango Tree Blossomed, edited by Niaz Zaman), is two parallel tales of two Birangonas (‘war heroines’ or raped victims during the Bangladesh liberation war ), but it came to me more as a way to explore the craft of storytelling, which is something that always engages me: how a story is narrated, as much as what the narrative is about.

By and large, I like to write stories about the world I know, and the people in my own milieu because no one writes about the expat society of Europe. I like to write about my world in all its details and extrapolate from its larger truths about humanity in general.

Jane Austen wrote about the landed gentry and her corner of England, but the stories ultimately reach our hearts not merely as stories of the affluent but of human foibles. John Updike wrote about his American suburban world. Annie Proulx writes about Wyoming. Alice Munro about the middle-class world of her neck of the Canadian world. Henry James focused on American aristocrats. But what is human and vulnerable, or worthy or unworthy, transcends class barriers. People are interesting, subtle, unpredictable, noble or wicked, no matter whether they are affluent or of straitened means. Tagore’s tales of women trapped in their roles in rich households are just as moving as those among the poor and underprivileged.

There are plenty of writers with a sociologist’s background who can chronicle the lives of the downtrodden whom they meet. I applaud them. My younger son works with the Rohingyas; my brother-in-law, a doctor worked for years with children of addicts. They have their stories to tell. I have mine. I’m interested in humanity, wherever I find them.

In the little I have read of your stories, Bangladesh is depicted in a darker light in your narratives — that it is backward in values, in lifestyles etc. Why? 

I don’t know which particular story or stories you have in mind where you felt that this impression was consciously created. Unless the story was indeed about a backward area, like the dingy alleys and neighbourhoods of old Dhaka in the 60’s and 70’s. Or, the murky values resulting from the explosion of wealth and the rise of corruption, undermining civic and ethical values in the rampantly urbanised zones.

In which case, it’s an unavoidable fact and not a depiction.

However, since I write more in a nostalgic light about Dhaka past rather than the reality of the present, I actually have not really written about the darker sides of the country; and which country or society does not have its seamy side. A good question would have been why I have not depicted Bangladesh in a darker light as contemporary writers of Bengali fiction do, dealing courageously with sinister aspects of politics and corrupt moral values at every level of society.

There is much in the Bangladeshi culture that we are proud of, beautiful traditions, and so much beauty in our natural world. I like to weave these into my narrative. So, I’m surprised that you found my stories to be dark.

 What are your future plans?

One of my most urgent projects is to get my novel-in-progress published.

I’m also planning to come out with another collection of stories, and a collection of my columns on travel, and an Italian and Bengali translation of my fiction.

So far, my three published books, and all the stories that have appeared in various anthologies are just a few milestones but do not define my journey as a writer. Daily I grapple with the insecurities of a writer, and daily I learn new things that help me grow towards being the writer I aspire to be. It’s still a long way to a full flowering, but each passing day I dabble in words, I feel the creative petals unfolding, slowly but surely.

Thank you for your time.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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

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Poetry of Jibananda Das

Leaving the World behind

Poetry of Jibananda Das translated by Fakrul Alam

Painting by Sohana Manzoor
Where Have All These Birds Gone	

Where have all those birds gone now—and those horses --
		And the women in those white houses?
Wet with the fragrance of acacias-tinged with golden sunlight
Those birds—and those horses--have left our world behind;
My heart, tell me where -- where have they all gone now?
		Darkness, like that dead pomegranate—silence.


On the Pathways for Long…
(Prithbir Pothe Aami Bohu Din from Ruposhi Bangla)

Having lived in the world’s pathways for a long, long time
I know many stressful, hidden tales of the heart now.
In forests, branches and leaves sway -- as if
Djinns and fairies conversing! On greying evenings
I’ve seen on their bodies a drop or two of rain dripping down.
Like parched paddy will. White specks of dust soften in rainwater.
A faint scent suffuses farmlands. From frail bodies of Gubur insects
Indistinct, melancholy sounds dip into the dark river water;

I’ve seen them all -- have seen the river immerse in the sloping dark;
Shapmashis fly away; In Asuth tree nests, ravens flutter their wings
Incessantly; someone seems to be standing in the lonely, fog-filled field.
Farther off, one or two straw-roofed houses lie scattered.
Why do the frogs croak on in Nolkhagra forests? Can’t they not stop?
Freshly laid crow eggs slip and slide into the Sheora bushes. 

(These translations are from Jibanananda Das: Selected Poems with an Introduction, Chronology and Glossary, translated by Fakrul Alam, published by The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1999. Republished with permission from the original publisher.)

Jibonanada Das (1899-1954) was a Bengali writer, who now is named as one of the greats. During his life he wrote beautiful poetry, novels, essays and more. He believed: “Poetry and life are two different outpouring of the same thing; life as we usually conceive it contains what we normally accept as reality, but the spectacle of this incoherent and disorderly life can satisfy neither the poet’s talent nor the reader’s imagination … poetry does not contain a complete reconstruction of what we call reality; we have entered a new world.”

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibanananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).

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

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Tribute

The Thrice Born

Commemorating fifty years of Bangladesh which struggled for the right to freedom from oppression and succeeded finally on 16th December, 1971

Landscape in Bengal. Painting by Sohana Manzoor

Bengal went through three Partitions, the final one being in 1971, when Bangladesh came to be its own entity. The first Partition of Bengal was in 1905, when Lord Curzon sliced it along the lines of faith, which as Ratnottama Sengupta points out in her musing was the result of the colonial policy of divide and rule implemented along religious lines for earlier when Hindus and Muslims had combined forces against colonials, it took a year to quell the revolt of 1857. Due to opposition from many, including Tagore, the colonials were forced to revoke the Partition in 1911.

In 1947, the subcontinent was again divided along religious lines. So, technically, there was Pakistan and India. Pakistan included East (Bengal) and West. As Fakrul Alam tells us in his essay, the Bengalis resented the imposition of Urdu by Pakistan. After a struggle of three decades, and a war in which India supported East Pakistan and America supported West Pakistan, Bangladesh gained complete independence in 1971 with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of the country, at its helm.

We present to you a glimpse of this part of history as told by various contributors on our forum.

Interview

Professor Fakrul Alam, the translator of Bongobondhu (friend of Bengal) Mujibur Rahman’s autobiography, to takes us on a journey to the inception of Bangladesh and beyond. Click here to read the interview.

Translations

Poetry & Prose of Nazrul extolls the union of all faiths. Known as the ‘rebel’, now the national poet of Bangladesh, he has been translated by Fakrul Alam, Sohana Manzoor and Shahriyer Hossain Shetu. Click here to read.

Prose

The Birth of Bangladesh & the University of Dhaka

Professor Fakrul Alam takes us through the three Partitions of Bengal which ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh, with focus on the role of Dhaka University. Click here to read.

Joy Bangla: Memories of 1971

Ratnottama Sengupta recaptures vignettes from her past, from across the border where the same language was spoken, some in voices of refugees from East Pakistan to India. Click here to read.

The Voice that Sings Hope through Suffering…

Rakibul Hasan Khan pays a tribute with a twist to a recently deceased Bangladeshi writer, Hasan Azizul Huq, a writer who wrote of the Partition victims. Click here to read.

Golden Bangladesh at 50: Book Review by Aruna Chakravarti

Aruna Chakravarti reviews Golden Bangladesh at 50: Contemporary Stories & Poems edited by Shazia Omar, bringing to focus the Partition between 1905-1911. She also explains the story of the creation of Aamar Shonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal, the Bangladesh National Anthem) by Tagore around this period. Click here to read.

Flash Fiction: In Search of a New Home

Marzia Rahman shares a short narrative about refugees in Bangladesh. Click here to read.

House of the Dead

Sohana Manzoor gives us a glimpse of contemporary Bangladesh in a poignant short story. Click here to read.

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Essay

The Birth of Bangladesh & the University of Dhaka

Professor Fakrul Alam takes us through the Partitions of Bengal which ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh, with focus on the role of Dhaka University.

In Dhaka University: the Convocation Speeches, a volume compiled with an introduction by Serajul Islam Choudhury in 1988, we read that the university was established by the British as a “splendid imperial compensation” for the Muslims of East Bengal (Choudhury, 26). They had wanted the current rulers of India to make up through it for the loss, they felt, they had suffered because of the reunion of Bengal in 1911. Delivering his inaugural speech as the Chancellor of Dhaka University (DU) in 1923, Lord Lytton had not only made this point but had also expressed the hope that it would soon become “the chief center of Muhammadan learning” in India and would “devote special attention to higher Islamic studies” (26). However, Lytton had ended his speech by urging graduands to conceive of the institution “as an Alma Mater in whose service the Muhammadan and the Hindu can find a common bond of unity” (Choudhury, 29). The subsequent history of the university reveals that while some of its future students would viewed it as a site for cultivating Islamic values and consolidating the Islamic heritage of the part of Bengal in which it was located, others would claimed it as a space where a democratic and secular notion of being Bengalis could be disseminated.

DU started playing a decisive role in Bangladeshi national identity formation almost as soon as the Islamic state of Pakistan was born. It became the center of the movement that would lead to the creation of the country born out of the ashes of East Pakistan in 1971. The key issue here was language and the catalyst was the insistence by the central government of Pakistan that Urdu should be the lingua franca of the country, regardless of the fact that only three percent of Pakistanis actually used it in their everyday lives. For two successive days on 5 and 6 December 1947, teachers and students of the university demonstrated on campus and the streets of Dhaka against the government decision and in favour of Bengali.

The Pakistani government, however, paid no heed to the protests and went ahead with its decision to impose Urdu as the sole official language of the country. In response to this ruling DU students mobilised on 26 February, 1948 to form an “All Party Language Committee of Action.” Not daunted, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Governor General of Pakistan, and identified as the “Father of the Country” by the official media, reiterated publicly while on a visit to Dhaka on the 21st of March that “the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language” (Islam, 224). When he made the same point in addressing the DU Special Convocation on the 22nd of March, Bengali students present at the convocation protested. On March 11, 1950 the Dhaka University Language Action Committee was formed. In essence, the movement that was being spearheaded by university students and that soon spread across East Pakistan, ultimately led to the break-up of Pakistan, a state built entirely on Islamist nationalism.

A direct outcome of the language movement was that the government that had been held responsible for bruising the Bengali consciousness was voted out of power in East Pakistan in 1954. Instead, a short-lived but popular coalition government that was viewed to be pro-Bengali took over up the administration of the province. Students had played a major part in the election and the tradition of student activism in the cause of Bangladeshi nationalism became very noteworthy in national politics from this point onwards.        

In retrospect, we can see the Pakistani period was one which had witnessed a continuous tussle between successive Pakistani regimes wielding state power to curb Bengali rights and impose an Islamist state at the expense of Bengali language and culture and Bengali nationalism. DU teachers and students played a crucial part in the confrontation. It was mostly because of them that the Pakistani state apparatus failed to suppress Bengalis and prevent them from expressing themselves. The campus was at the heart of activity that promoted an awareness of secularism and brandished democracy as a goal to be achieved in national life.

It was to be expected, then, that when the Pakistani state made one last desperate attempt to suppress Bengalis clamouring for full autonomy and democracy on March 26, 1971 they would do so by targeting DU and attempting to mow down Dhaka university faculty members and students ruthlessly. When the Pakistani government decided to postpone the National Assembly meet, where the Awami League had got an absolute majority and where they were in a position to claim self-rule for East Pakistan and dominate Pakistani politics for the first time in that nation’s history, the campus broke out once again in loud protest. On the 7th of March, when the Awami League’s chief, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, gave his historic speech claiming full autonomy and threatening to launch an armed movement that would drive away the Pakistanis from East Pakistan forever, DU student leaders were at his side as he spoke in Ramna Park, which borders the university.

What happened on 26 March was nothing less than a calculated bid to blast DU to smithereens, murder student leaders and selected faculty members, and drive out all students from the campus for playing leading roles in the movement against the Pakistani state. The Pakistani Army was nothing short of murderous in attempting to neutralize dissent. Inevitably, DU bore the brunt of their initial fury. Anybody found in the university that night was mowed down and dorms, faculty residences and the DU Teacher’s Club were shot at indiscriminately. The Shaheed Minar was razed to the ground and Bangla Academy was subject to artillery fire. Even university non-teaching staff and cafeteria officials were not spared. Madhu’s canteen – the favorite haunt of student politicians throughout the sixties – was attacked and Madhu – the benign owner of the cafeteria – was murdered. The huge bot tree (banyan) which provided shade under which student leaders delivered speeches and from which they had given the declaration of independence on one of the turbulent March days – was blasted out of existence.

It was clear that the Army had decided that DU was the ultimate symbol of the unacceptable form Bangladeshi national identity formation was assuming. As Professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury observes in “Ekattor O Dhaka Visva-Bidyalaya (1971 & DU),” the university ambience encouraged people to not merely dream about freedom and equality but to create an environment where the dream seemed to come close to reality. Also, the University had been consistently a site of resistance in its efforts to impose a theocratic or monolingual state on Bengalis, as on-campus happenings from the time of Jinnah’s 1948 declaration about making Urdu the only state language and the protest movements of the fifties and sixties that culminated in the month-long protests of March 1971 demonstrated. The six-point program proposed by the Awami League for financial and political autonomy had been drafted by DU professors.

In the nine-month liberation war that followed the Pakistani army crackdown on DU and the rest of Bangladesh, the university once again became a microcosm of the country in that almost all of its entire faculty and students fled it. Academic activities came to a standstill and it became a campus bereft of students who had deserted it along with most of their teachers since they were unwilling to kowtow to the Pakistani design to create a quiescent institution run by quislings and were not inclined to impart or acquire education in line with proto-Islamist and/or totalitarian concepts of nationalism. Many students died in the course of the next nine months fighting for liberation or suspected of doing so. When the birth of Bangladesh seemed imminent at the end of the year, the Pakistani Amy and its local collaborators carried out a systematic search of faculty members on, and outside, the campus to murder the ones still around, holding them largely responsible for the breakup of the country they had not been able to prevent from cracking up.

When independence finally came to Bangladesh on December 16, it was fitting that the Pakistani Army would surrender in the open space adjacent to the university known as Ramna Park. The many teachers and students who had been murdered since March 26 as well as the resistance put up by them were later commemorated with structures erected all over the campus, the most prominent of them being the “Aporajeyo Bangla” or “Invincible Bengal” sculpture in front of Kala Bhabhan or the Arts faculty building, the martyrs plaque put up opposite the central mall, and the sculpted figures of the freedom fighters erected in front of the Teachers-Students Centre. December 14 became from then on the day when the DU Liberation War martyrs were to be ceremonially remembered and December 16 the day when DU faculty and staff joined the rest of the country in celebrating Victory Day.

Aporajeyo Bangla” or “Invincible Bengal” sculpture. Courtesy: Creative Commons

(First published in Daily Star, Bangladesh)

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibonananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).

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Review

Golden Bangladesh at 50: Book Review by Aruna Chakravarti


                                                                   

Title: Golden Bangladesh at 50, Contemporary Poems & Stories

Editor: Shazia Omar

 Publisher: The University Press Ltd, 2021

The title of the collection of poems and short stories under review is apt for two reasons. First, that it derives from Rabindranath Tagore’s lyric Amaar Shonar Bangla … the national anthem of the country. Second, that the book has been published in 2021, the Golden Jubilee year of the formation of Bangladesh.

The political partition of Pakistan in 1971 caused one of the greatest convulsions in the history of the subcontinent. The Bengalis of Pakistan suffered barbaric violence and bloodshed because they valued their distinctive identity above everything else and refused to submit to a harsh regime’s determination to quell and subdue it. Civil wars have been fought before but never, in the history of mankind, over a language and culture.

Interestingly, Rabindranath’s poem, too, was written as part of movement led by him against Lord Curzon’s infamous Partition of Bengal bill in 1905. The intention of the government was clear. Bengalis were waking up to a sense of nationhood and coming together through the growth and spread of the Bengali language and literature. A blow had to be struck to curb it. And what could be more effective than division based on ethnicity and religion?

The editor Shazia Omar deserves our congratulations for bringing together a vast range of voices. Some are new and unknown, some old and established and some culled from across a wide diaspora. From New York, Chicago and San Francisco. From London, Rome, Toronto and Hongkong. This anthology, to use her own words is, “a way of honouring all that we have learned, yearned for, found and let go. To give our readers a sense of who we are now.” Accordingly, itencapsulates the joys and sorrows, hopes and aspirations, losses and anxieties of two generations of Bangladeshis both from home and abroad.

That partition trauma continues to shape the literature of Bangladesh is apparent from this volume. But the new enquiry has moved away from a nationalistic obsession with the horror of the event to a closer probe into people’s history through recollections of lived experience. Social, familial and personal attempts at restoration of identity seems to be the primary concern in these stories.

The contributions are all in English. The last few decades have been marked by a great deal of discourse about the decolonization of the language. In the past, much colonial creativity has felt throttled by the dominance of English as written and spoken by the ruling class. Today the fragmented pieces of the old empire are striking back with a vengeance. Each erstwhile colony has come up with its own brand of English. This book is a triumphant vindication of Binglish… tried and tested in the literature of West Bengal and Bangladesh. The volume is replete with cultural nuances. Phrases like eta ki, amaar kukoor, or naam, madhur hanshi and names of seasons and festivals phagun, boishakh, agrahayan, eid, nabanno are used freely without footnotes or glossary. The writers have felt no compulsion to translate kinship terms, exclamations and natural phenomena. English has triumphantly broken its original grammatical and syntactical mode and become a hybrid — both a native and a foreign language.

The issues examined in this collection are varied. Class struggle, patriarchy, dogma, superstition, displacement, loss and reclamation of identity. The characters are culled from a wide spectrum of society. From the very rich to the very poor; from the shamelessly privileged to the shockingly deprived. Such yawning gaps, some of the writers seem to imply, are a reality in Bangladesh even in its 50th year of Independence.

 Some stories depict a polarisation of power along the lines of gender. Women are victims of exclusion and varied forms of subjugation. Some are seen as trapped in the iron fist of a feudal order. A few others, westernized and seemingly empowered, share the same fate though the mode of suppression is refined and sophisticated.

Yet, that is not always true. Many of the stories are set in the bustling metropolis of Dhaka where women from all religions, classes and persuasions roam freely. The city is seen as a place of pluralism and diversity. One senses freedom of thought and action as well as a strong sense of belonging to larger whole.

The book is a rich multi-site ethnography that spans continents and traces personal histories and movements of Bangladeshis. It is a notable addition to the literature of the diaspora in that the stories present sensitively nuanced accounts of the East West encounter. In ‘Neighbours’, Nadeem Zaman explores the dilemma of a Bangladeshi woman trying to make a life in Canada during the Liberation war. Struggling against a harsh climate and what she considers an unloving culture, she is forced to pause and reflect when she becomes friendly with her next-door neighbour. She finds his identity troubling, since he seems to combine a sensitive, warm and compassionate outlook with a violent relationship with his wife and indifference to his daughters. The Other seems embodied in paradox.

 Neeman Sobhan’s ‘Bengali Lessons’ is a poignant diaspora story stretching across space and time. Employing a seamless mix of three languages, English, Bengali and Italian, she moves her story between two worlds and timeframes. Two eras run parallel. War ridden Bangladesh of 1971 and Covid afflicted Rome of 2020. The central character, a professor teaching Bengali to a group of Italian girls on Zoom, remembers her traumatic childhood, trapped in her grandfather’s house in 1971, and finds it astonishingly similar to her present-day situation in another country and another time. It is a severed world she remembers but one in which a Muslim child saves a Hindu soldier from an excruciatingly painful death.

Another excellent examination of child psychology is contained in Fatma Ahmad’s ‘Phultokka’ . Childhood is often considered to be the happiest phase of a person’s life. That the notion is far from the truth is seen in the mental struggles, failed aspirations, jealousies and misunderstandings suffered by the intelligent and sensitive teller of the story. She is called Taalgaach (palm tree)a derogatory reference to her height and complexion, by the school bullies. Why do bullies bully? Why can’t some children, especially exceptional ones, cope with the real world and retreat into an inner one, while others have no difficulty in merging and being part of a larger whole? These are some of the questions raised in the story.

 ‘Charaiveti’ and ‘Kalpanta Sthayina’ by Lubna Mariam, derive from the ancient Hindu texts Rigveda and Hitopadesha. The first describes an undefined urge to go on a journey without a destination. Man’s existential freedom drives him towards an imagined Utopia. Keep going,” the sages say, “because life itself is the journey; an inner journey from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge”.

Kalpanta Sthaniyah is a Sanskrit phrase meaning enduring till the end of the Universe. A grandfather’s replies to his grandchild’s innocent question about where the river comes from and where it goes, encompass deep philosophical concepts. He speaks of beginnings and ends, past and present, old and new…flowing in an unbroken stream. A glorious merging in the free flow of time. An unending celebration of life.

I conclude with a few words on the poetry section. From the whimsical effusions of ‘Ode to a sari’ to evocations of sights, sounds, smells, taste and feel of their beloved country in ‘Daydream’ ‘Midnight blues’ and ‘For you’, the writers offer a carpet rich with colour and design, light and life. Capricious and fanciful at times, a glimpse of truth is invariably offered at the end of each poem.

 Zeesham Khan’s ‘Banglar desh’, one of the best of the collection, portrays the generosity and compassion of nature as against the callous brutality of the human race. Here is a personification of nature that is amazingly poignant, graceful and symmetrical. The world pulsates with life. Trees have flesh and blood. All organisms speak; feel pain and pleasure. An achingly immediate, hauntingly sensuous, world! The all too real river under a canopy of moon and stars. Paddy fields, bamboo shoots, wild flowers, butterflies and moths. Should not all meld together with humans to make a complete whole? But does such a whole exist in the universe? The writer thinks not. He deplores…

I have seen blissful harmony pause
To give way to aggressive survival
And humans being homo sapiens
Unencumbered by unnecessary compassion.

Glossary:

Amaar Shonar Bangla –My Golden Bengal.

eta ki, amaar kukoor, or naam, madhur hanshi – what is this, my dog, or name, sweet smile

Phultokka — A game played by children. Phool means flower and tokka, touch. One child is blindfolded while others touch the youngster lightly. The blindfolded child has to guess who the person is.

Aruna Chakravarti has been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels JorasankoDaughters of JorasankoThe Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Suralakshmi Villa is her fifteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.

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Slices from Life

Three Men at the Lalbagh Fort

Marjuque-ul-Haque explores a Mughal fort left unfinished in Dhaka, a fort where armies were said to disappear during the Sepoy mutiny of 1857

Lalbagh Fort, Photo Courtesy: Marjuque-ul-Haque

We decided suddenly to visit the Lalbagh fort. Normally, I would never have considered going there, except the night before we had been discussing with our cousin how nice it would have been if our whole extended family could go on a trip together somewhere. So, the next day the three of us —  my brother, my cousin and I — decided on a day long visit to the famous Lalbagh fort.   

The fort was an architectural complex from the Mughal era in the late 17th century. The three main structures of the fort included the tomb of Pari Bibi, the diwan-i-Aam (the hall of audience) and a mosque. The story of the fort’s creation begins with Muhammad Azam Shah, the son of the emperor Aurangzeb who was then the subahdar (governor of a subah or province) of Bengal. He was recalled and he left the construction to Shaista Khan, the later subahdar of Bengal. Khan also discontinued work on the fort after the death of his daughter Pari Bibi, who lies buried there. The bereaved father halted construction, believing the fort was cursed. It remains abandoned and unoccupied to this date.               

The walk leading to the fort’s compound is lined with gardens in neat rows and patterns on both sides. Parallel to it runs a long strip of pool. The entrance is several feet long and domed at the top. The walls are grooved with rectangular recessions for decoration. The tomb, being a few hundred years old, seemed pinkish and off colour. However, the mausoleum with its high red dome was the most impressive of the three monuments. It housed the grave of Pari Bibi.   

The Grave of Pari Bibi. Photo Courtesy: Marjuque-ul-Haque

We next went to the diwani-i-aam. The interior is far more impressive than the exterior. Inside are exhibited various Mughal weapons of war and everyday artifacts from the same period lined the walls of the museum. Swords, shields, spears, hand cannons, chain maces, clubs and other interesting things are part of the exhibits.

The last of the three monuments we visited was the mosque. This proved to be a disappointment, owing to the fact that the interior was not open to visitors as indicated by a placard. From the entrance, we peeped and saw clotheslines with garments drying on them and men in tupi (cap) and jubbah (a gown worn by Muslim men). Apparently, it seemed that they had a madarsah (Muslim school) and the students and staff resided inside. As we were but outsiders, we could not enter. However, we were able to climb atop a roof (or was it a verandah) to get a view from above. Up on that ledge, the breeze was light and frequent. We took a few pictures and spent some time before heading down.   

Sauntering away from the mosque, we noticed a woman, a foreigner, a European tourist no doubt, dressed in pinkish white, quite absorbed in photographing of one of the buildings. Unfortunately, three eve teasers started making remarks in English near her. In the sunlight, she had shades on as she ceremoniously took pictures pointedly ignoring the three miscreants as they occasionally walked around her. The three of us felt embarrassed and discussed how this experience would impact the way she would describe Bangladeshi people to her friends and family. We were dismayed by their bad behaviour.

We had completed two circuits of the compound. It was five in the evening and the microphones blared an announcement that the place would close in forty minutes and that the visitors needed to leave the precincts.

The evening sky that swathed the nearest monument in a bluish glow was different from the one I had seen in the light of the afternoon. I recalled a few instances when buildings evoked a distinct aura. In fact, the buildings had been in a state of flux at all times but I had only been present to observe it at certain moments. The protagonist of the translation of Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion had been shown as obsessed with the building’s beauty, reflecting in the same manner as me. In seeking respite from his imperfections, the protagonist of the novel had endowed the ancient temple with unattainable beauty. Unfortunately, his obsession with its appeal led him to set fire to the monument with himself inside; thus hoping to prove the mutability of the Golden Pavilion’s beauty. The Lalbagh Fort has endured a long stretch time and no doubt grown in beauty like the temple, but hopefully its beauty will only serve to inspire.

The Lalbagh Fort. Photo Courtesy: Marjuque-ul-Haque

Marjuque-ul-Haque is an MA student Department of English at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

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Stories

Magnum Opus

By Ahsan Rajib Ananda

Rony was all by himself, waiting for an airplane to pass overhead as he twiddled the knob of his DSLR* camera. He was sitting on a stool in his balcony. The railings were about waist-high, and one could have easily toppled over. He aspired to be a photographer of extreme proportions, but he believed his magnum opus had yet to be captured. He took pride in his work because it was only photographers who could keep a moment in time infinitely suspended. They stopped not only a tide on an ocean but the very fabric of time from wilting. He just needed to capture one great moment.

None of his photographs had ever been selected for any exhibitions but he was somewhat well known in the community for he was very sociable. He did manage to get a fair number of paid jobs, but not of the artistic kind. He usually got gigs for taking landscape and architectural photography, a lot of them for calendars. Whenever he talked about getting his photos into an exhibition, the curators somehow brushed the topic off.

Even though he made a generous sum of money every month, he was quite jealous of the younger photographer from his university. This person left his studies because he could not afford it, but somehow, he became very well-known. His work was often displayed at the best exhibitions across Asia. He rose to be regarded as a young talent. Everyone seemed to be talking about him. Rony craved that kind of attention, but he was not a peacock, flaunting his talents from a distance, and concealing them in front of others, to establish a fake sense of humility. Zaid was like that, pretended to be humble, but he was one of the most arrogant men. He flaunted and lured people to himself, and then masqueraded as if they flocked of their own accord. 

Rony recalled an event that he would never forget. He was taking photographs near a train station that night. He noticed a man in a black shirt inconspicuously dragging a dog down the rail tracks. Upon closer inspection, he noticed the dog was battered, and almost dying. He stealthily moved towards the injured dog. The man in the black shirt quickly turned on hearing his footsteps and indicated that he needed help. Rony could not see the man’s face clearly as it was too dark and the man wore a hat with a wide brim, but he drew close to pick up the dog. As soon as he touched it, he heard some clicks. The man had taken some photos of Rony reaching out to the dog. Rony also noticed there was a machete on the ground beside him. The man laughed out loud and said in a strange, muffled voice, “Haha, the dog butcher of Kamalapur!” as he stared at the photo in the camera’s viewfinder.

Rony got up and tried to attack the man with bare fists, but he stopped in his tracks when he heard a train approach. He did not even get the time to get the dog off the tracks. The two men saved their own lives, as the blood of the dog splattered all over them. Rony heard a few more clicks as he stared dumbfounded at the train that passed by. He felt enraged and helpless. It was late but he noticed a few people, staring at them. The man beside him had disappeared too. He later discovered the man’s identity when “The Dog Butcher of Kamalapur” was exhibited. The photo showed Rony’s back, so his own identity remained a secret.

But with time, Rony did become better known. He met Zaid more often, mainly at big exhibitions across town. Their encounter from that night etched Zaid’s smug and proud face into his memory, and he had always hated the sight of him every time they met. For Zaid, on the other hand, Rony was almost non-existent. Zaid did not reveal the identity of the so-called butcher, and neither did Rony, for obvious reasons. Rony did not know what to do about Zaid, he simply silently abhorred that man.

He still did not know why Zaid’s was so cruel to the dog. Obviously, he had not wanted to save him. Perhaps, he wanted to take a photo, but Rony’s presence had interfered. As usual he turned it to his advantage. Rony often wanted to ask him, but he hated him, and he was scared that he would harm him more, not actively, but perhaps do something that would cause Rony to harm himself. Rony looked down on himself partly for the unreasonable fear he experienced.  

Rony detested Zaid’s shrewd characteristics, and his drive to rise to the top. Zaid was not a talented photographer, and he lacked the pristine technic that Rony possessed, yet he could speak with his photography.

Rony could not give up, he decided.  He needed to shoot the greatest photo he had ever taken. He had decided to rise above notions of morality like Zaid because if it meant he could win against Zaid, it would be worth it. However, Rony could not bring himself to shame or hurt to another person or even an animal. If guilt and shame were to come at a certain time in his life, it should not be of an act harming others. An artist must make sacrifices to achieve greatness, and he knew what he could do. He needed to get over his fear as only the ones with the courage to make sacrifices achieve greatness.

So, Rony turned on the timer of his camera and turned the lens towards his face, holding the camera as far as he could with his two hands. He presses the shutter button. 

When the timer started ticking, 10, 9, 8…, Rony jumped off the balcony. He would have captured a moment perhaps no artist could ever have done. That would be his magnum opus — an expression that could only be captured within a brief frame of time. His fame would be posthumous; a man like Zaid would never be able to top this. This would be the greatest photo of the year.

Falling was not easy and uniform, and Rony realised his mistake as his camera fell from his grasp. It was exactly that moment that he experienced extreme fear for the first time in his life. Even more fearful than death was the sight he had under his eyes, a man with a camera taking continuous shots of his fall. 

Zaid had again won that year, he has captured an expression no photographer ever achieved before; he calls it, “A Portrait of Terror”. He said the photo embodies the terror of facing death, and he hoped it would make people to think twice before committing suicide. Zaid planned a series of anti-suicide campaigns, which were later acknowledged internationally as a humanitarian. 

The photograph is still known as Zaid’s magnum opus. Even though Rony failed to create a masterpiece himself, he had become one.

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*D-SLR: Single-lens reflex (adjective): Denoting or relating to a reflex camera in which the lens that forms the image on the film also provides the image in the viewfinder

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Ahsan Rajib Ananda is a music teacher and composer from Dhaka, who writes poetry and fiction as a hobby. He completed his Masters from University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh with a focus on Creative Writing.

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Slices from Life

Pohela Boishakh: A Cultural Fiesta

Sohana Manzoor shares the Bengali New Year celebrations in Bangladesh on April 14th, pausing on the commonality and differences with Poila Baisakh, the Indian version of Pohela Boishakh celebrated in the Eastern part of India

Happy & Prosperous New Year or ‘Shubho Nabobarsho’ in Bengali script

“Shubho Nabobarsho” (happy and prosperous new year) is the traditional greeting for the Bengali new year. The upcoming April 14 will herald the beginning of the Bengali year 1428 in Bangladesh, but in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, Odisha and parts of Assam it will be the 15th of April. In Bangladesh, Pohela Boishakh is one of the biggest occasions of celebration, next to perhaps the two Eids.

Whereas the celebrations of Pohela Boishakh is now a regular thing, its history is somewhat unclear. According to most historians, the Bengali year or Bangabda was introduced by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. In those days, agricultural taxes were collected according to the Hijri Calendar. But then the Hijri calendar is a lunar calendar and naturally, it did not coincide with the agricultural year. The tax collecting time was not a time when the peasants and farmers could pay the taxes. It only added to the confusion of the people who tilled the land in various capacities. To streamline the tax collection, Akbar ordered a reformation of the calendar. As a result, in 1584 Bangabda was born. But the year started from 963, the Hijri year it was modeled on. According to some historians, however, it was adopted by another Muslim ruler called Hussain Shah of Bengal. There is yet another group that alludes to Shashanka, a seventh-century King of Bengal, for inventing Bangabda. It is quite possible that it existed before Akbar’s time and the Mughal Emperor reinvented it with the help of his royal astronomer and other pundits of his court.

An interesting aspect of Bangabda is that the names of the months were different in those times. The story of how the months of Farwardin, Urdibahish and Khordad became Baishakh, Jyoshthyha and Ashar is lost to us. But we do know that just as he had helped in modernizing the Bengali language, Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah helped in modernizing the Bengali year. Partially accepting his reformative suggestions, the Bangla Academy saw that the first six months had thirty-one days each and the last six, thirty. Hence there is no further confusion about which day of the Gregorian calendar Pohela Boishakh coincides with. In Bangladesh, it is always 14 April. But in West Bengal and other parts of India, it can be either 14 or 15 of April.

When the Bengali new year was first introduced, the most important activities on the first day of the year involved halkhata, opening of a new book for zamindars who would treat their tenants with sweets. On the last day of the old year, there would be Chaitra Sankranti, a day celebrating the end of the year. Actually, in rural areas, this day was more colourful than Pohela Baishakh. Charak Puja, a Hindu festival honouring the god Shiva is central to this celebration. The actual puja used to take place on the midnight of Chaitra Sankranti, and it was a very special kind of ritual and not too many people even know about it anymore. The preparation would start a month ahead of the actual puja and a total of twelve devotees would take part in it. There would be different kinds of festivities through the day, and snacks like puffed rice, ground gram called chhatu,  dry sugary sweets like khoi, murki, batasha, kodma, and many varieties of leafy vegetables would be available. In today’s Bangladeshi scenario, Chaitra Sankranti has almost disappeared except in some distant villages. Only lately, some initiatives are being taken in Dhaka to reintroduce the fair, even though it looks like any other fair and very different from the original Chaitra Sankranti.

With urbanization, the more secular Pohela Boishakh became popular. However, some elements from Chaitra Sankranti have been integrated in Baishakhi celebration. For example, there are fairs that still showcase puffed rice, khoi, murki, batasha and kodma. There are products made by rural artisans. Performances on musical instruments like ektara, dotara and dhol by rural artists are show cased. Riding the nagardola (a mini and wooden version of the Ferris wheel, reminiscence of the charak) is a central attraction of the fair.

It is impossible to conceive of any Bengali festival without food. The first food item that comes to mind regarding Pohela Baishakh, is hilsa fish. Different preparations of mouth-watering taste are prepared with hilsa. Then there are panta bhat (fermented rice) with green chili, all kinds of bhartas (mashes) starting with potatoes to tomatoes, sweet pumpkins, lentils, beans, shrimps and different types of fish, chutneys, shutki (bitters), authentic Bengali sweets, savoury snacks like fuchka, chotpoti and even traditional ice-creams, kulfi. Bigger cities find fairs and programmes in almost every locality.

Chhayanaut, an institution devoted to the propagation of Bengali culture, started celebrating the Bengali Nababarsha under the Ramna Botomul (a historic banyan tree) in 1967. Since the Liberation War of 1971, Pohela Boishakh has grown into a national festival for all Bangladeshis irrespective of religions. In Dhaka, the Pohela Boishakh procession begins from the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka. The students start taking preparation for the procession from days ahead. They make masks and banners and wear elaborate costumes. This is known as the festive Mangal Shobhajatra, translated procession showcasing good fortune. In 2016, this festivity organized by the Faculty of Fine Arts was listed as UNESCO cultural heritage. Specific roads around Dhaka city are decorated with white and red alpanas, elaborate designs made with rice flour mixed with water.

At the break of dawn on Pohela Boishakh, people gather at the Ramna batamul festival ground. The day starts with singing the famous Tagore song, “Esho he Boishakh*” along with many others. The whole day is spent in celebration. Radios and TV channels air special programs on the day too. People dressed in white and red and other colourful attire flock around the city. It is also observed as a national holiday and a fun-day for everybody.

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor of English at ULAB. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.

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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.