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.
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 Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko, The 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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