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Slices from Life

Dhaka Book Fair: A Mansion and a Movement

Ratnottama Sengupta writes of a time when a language freed itself and a palace called Bardhaman House became the centre of a unique tryst against cultural hegemony. The Language Movement of 1952 that started in Dhaka led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In 1999, UNESCO recognised February 21 as the Mother Language Day.

The window at Bardhaman House. Courtesy: Kamrul Mithon

All through the day Kamrul Mithon was standing in front of this window, waiting. He was waiting to be allotted a stall in Ekushey Book Fair 2022. This year the annual book fair in Dhaka is being hosted by the Bangla Academy from February 15 to 28. 

This window is a part of the Bardhaman House. The first boimela or book fair had started under the banyan tree facing this very window. Kamrul Mithon, who earns his bread and butter by the click of his camera, is a book publisher by passion. The freelancer for National Crafts Council of Bangladesh is the Associate Visual Editor at Nymphea Publication who have just published titles like Cannes Diary and When the Mango Tree Blossomed, in the ongoing book fair. The day he spent facing the window was the day the lottery was held – so the best way to while his time was by clicking away, capturing all that captivated his fancy. 

Later it occurred to him that he could post the pictures on Facebook to announce the forthcoming boimela. And when he did so, he captured my attention. “Is this a painting? A poster? A book cover?” My curiosity was piqued. “Neither,” Kamrul replied. He went on to give me a brief history of ‘Burdwan House’ – the architecture from the British Raj when Dhaka, the second biggest city of Bengal Presidency, housed estates of many erstwhile royalties including the Raja of Burdwan.

Maharajadhiraj Bahadur Sir Bijay Chand Mahtab (1881-1941) was the first in the Burdwan family to obtain formal education qualification, tour England and Europe, write his memoirs. Adopted at the age of six, he was bestowed the title of Rajadhiraj at the coronation in the Delhi Durbar. Though only eighteen then, he had the savvy to build a Gothic style gate to welcome Lord Curzon when the Governor General visited Bardhaman. That gate continues to be a historical landmark in the Indian state of West Bengal. 

In 1908, when Bijoy Chand Mahtab risked his life to save that of Sir Andrew Fraser from a Nationalist bullet, Lord Minto elevated him to the title of Maharajadhiraj. He represented the Bengal zamindars in the Bengal Legislative Council and in the Imperial legislative Council for years. President of the British Indian Association, this philanthropist in education and health welfare was part of the committee that recommended replacement of Zamindari by the Ryotdari or tenancy system. After all this, though, he extended hospitality to Gandhi in 1925 and to Subhash Chandra Bose in 1928. Did he sense that the sun was soon to set on the British Empire?

The mansion in Dhaka was one of the many palaces of His Highness of Burdwan: the one in Darjeeling was his Summer Palace. Through the year he resided in the Burdwan House in Kolkata’s Alipore area. That stately home is now rented out for weddings and other occasions. So, I was especially happy to learn that Dhaka has transformed the classical architecture into a centre for research and preservation of Bangla. “Indeed this was where the Bangla Bhasha Andolan spread out from,” Mithon cues me in, “since this was where the instruction went out on the evening of February 21, to fire on the students of Dhaka University.”

Mithon further leads me through the various chapters of the Movement. “In 1952, being the residence of Nurul Amin, the Chief Minister of East Pakistan, Bardhaman House witnessed the escalation in our demand that Bengali be accorded equal status with Urdu as State Language of Pakistan.”

I remember hearing the backstory of the movement from my father, writer Nabendu Ghosh: he was forced to leave Kolkata, the home ground of Bengali literature, theatre, cinema, art – indeed, of Bengali culture – and live in Bombay after the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. Because? The readership of Bangla literature had been halved as had the viewership of Bengali films. Keen to build upon its Islamic genes, the government of the newly formed Pakistan decided that Urdu would be the state language. And to impose that decision even in East Pakistan, its eastern wing separated by 2000 miles of land and rivers, language and culture, it decreed that even Bengali, its lingua franca, must be written in the Arabic script!

Mithon encapsulates the story of rebellion against the firman – the decree — that took the masses unaware. 

“1947, December 5. The working Committee of the Muslim League was meeting in Bardhaman House. The students and teachers of Dhaka University were stunned by the unfair decision that would impact the lives of the 44 million Bangla-speaking citizens who formed roughly 2/3rd of the 69 million population. They took out a procession to demand that Bengali be made the language of education and administration in the state — and at the Centre, it should be accorded the same dignity as Urdu, adopted by the Western wing of the divided India that encompassed large part of Punjab and Sindh, where the lingua franca was Pubjabi and Sindhi.

“1948, January 8. Evening at Bardhaman House. Leaders of the Language Movement met Prime Minister Najimuddin. The purpose? To protest the arrest and torture of the Bhasha Andolan (language revolution) activists — under section 144 — for demanding that they be allowed to freely read write and speak Bangla.

“1948, March 15. On the eve of signing the State Language Agreement, the then Governor Khwaja Najimuddin met the students involved in the Andolan. The next day a procession set out for Bardhaman House to demand the cancelation of the draft agreement. The police were let loose on them, for disobeying the orders under section 144, and the students and teachers were severely wounded. 

“February 21, 1952, was Phalgun 8, 1358 on the Bengali calendar. Governor General Nurul Amin sent out the order that took the lives of Rafiq, Salam, Barkat, Abdul Jabbar, Shafiur Rahman, teenaged Aliullah, 17 other students, teachers, progressive intelligentsia and non-communal individuals, rickshawallahs and labourers… The tower that came up overnight in the University campus was not the only direct fallout of the inhuman firing: The symbol of Power, Bardhaman House became the target of people’s anger. 

“After the heinous bloodbath, the demand to turn it into a Centre for Language Studies gathered momentum. And four years later, in 1954 it gained formal sanction prior to the elections. The 21-point Charter of Demands put forth by the Jukta (United) Front spelled out that the Prime Minister move into a less luxurious residence, leaving the mansion to be used as a Student’s Hostel and, subsequently, to be turned into a Research Centre for the language.

“Eventually the Pakistan government had to bow to the unrest: On May 7, 1954, Bengali was adopted as one of the state languages in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. And on December 3, 1954, the Chief Minister of East Pakistan, Abu Hosain, inaugurated the Bangla Academy in the Burdwan House.” 

Quite naturally, along with research and nurturing of the language, Bangla Academy has taken care to perpetuate the memory of the Amar Ekush (eternal 21st) martyrs. The first floor of the Bardhaman House is home to the Bhasha Andolan Museum. Inaugurated on February 1, 2010, it preserves historical photographs, newspapers, memorial documents, cartoon, letters, publicity leaflets, manuscripts, book covers and memorabilia of the language martyrs. And in the ongoing Boimela, Nymphea has brought to the reading public volumes like Ekush: A Photographic History of the Language Movement (1947-1956) and Kaaler Kheya (The Boat of Time) about passing on Bangla from generation to generation. 

The events of February 21, 1952, shed a long shadow that culminated in the emergence of the sovereign nation of Bangladesh which sings, Moder garab moder asha – Aa mori Bangla bhasha (Our pride, our inspiration, O sonorous Bangla!)… The love for its language has seen the nation adopt Tagore’s creation as its national anthem, Aamar Sonar Bangla. And even before that, Renaissance personality Satyajit Ray saluted the language by penning Moder nijer bhasha bhinna aar bhasha jaana nai … O maharaja, we speak no language other than our own, and we celebrate through that very language, Mora sei bhashatei kori gaan

Indeed, the world salutes the struggle and sacrifices of the people of Bangladesh to be able to sing their songs. In November 1999, UNESCO paid tribute to Amar Ekush, the movement for safeguarding Bangla – with all its proverbs and poetry, myths and songs — by declaring February 21 as the International Mother Language Day.

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Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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Categories
Review

A Sagacious Tale of Oppression & Turmoil

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Two and a Half Rivers

Author: Anirudh Kala

Publisher: Niyogi Books, 2021

How do we understand a land and its people? How do we look at its history, at a phase of turbulence which once ravaged the lives of its people? At the social structures rarely talked about? And how do we make sense of it? Can the perception be whole if only selective truths are voiced?

The Partition of India in 1947 had left Punjab with only two and a half rivers out of a total of five. From the early 1980s onwards, a state which had witnessed much violence and bloodshed at the time of Partition, began to be devastated by the spread of militancy again. This period of unrest spanning almost a decade was the time when common people, who had yet not recovered from the trauma of partition, faced the torment of not only terrorism but also counter insurgency. And though there are numerous reports on the violation of Human rights during counter insurgency in Punjab, both the Central and the State Governments have continually refuted such reports.

Two and a Half Rivers is a fictionalised account of those troubled years of Punjab through the lives of three main characters — a clinically depressed doctor, trying to take on life one day at a time, and Shamsie and Bheem, both Dalits, struggling to make their dreams a reality. Writing with keen perception, the author, Anirudh Kala, not only offers a striking account of the many ordeals that people went through that period and the solidarity which helped them keep afloat but also of the less addressed issue of oppression of lower castes and their sufferings.  

Kala is a psychiatrist by profession. His aim is to educate people about mental health and mental illness, focusing on eradicating stigma, labels, and prejudice. His debut fiction The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness was published in 2018. Two and a Half Rivers published by Niyogi Books is his second work of fiction.

In this novel, he juxtaposes the situation of state with that of the mental illness of the doctor who is also the narrator. As the fog of depression descends on his mind, the state is also veiled by the layers of sorrows and anxieties from which no escape seems visible. With the increase in terrorists activities, the rivers start filling with the dead again as if to devour those who had somehow survived the Partition. An increase in extortion, abduction and killing by the terrorists leads to the nabbing of common people on doubt by police. The custody, seldom resulting in the release of those apprehended. Jails become torture centres and those captured subjects of experiments for effective torturing. The unrest that follows compels Shamsie and Bheem to shift to Bombay in search of a peaceful life only to return back few years later in the aftermath of a crackdown on Dance bars.

Following the timeline of those difficult years, the author looks at the tragic events which made the ‘Punjab problem’ worse in succeeding years. He takes into account Operation Bluestar, the assassination of the Prime Minister (who he names as Durga), the pogrom of November 1984 and counter insurgency. The novel offers a commentary upon the inept tackling of the situation by the state including ruling dispensation and police. The narrator minces no words while observing that the State and Army had conveniently forgotten that there were to be a large number of pilgrims in the Golden Temple at the time of that operation as it was the celebration of the martyrdom day of a Sikh guru or that more common people began disappearing after the police chief announced incentives and rewards to curtail terrorism.

While the narrator narrowly escapes the custodial torture after being picked for alleged connection with militants, Bheem isn’t that lucky. His identity becomes the final noose around his neck. Shamsie suffers assault too, a punishment for escaping advances of an upper caste boy in her teenage. Whilst common people die and more disappear, Punjab is steeped in sorrow of losing loved ones from which only the tears of grief bring some respite. We are told that more than eight thousand young people have not come home, and never will.

With the poignant telling of this tale, the author also prompts the reader to ask why the lives of those from lower castes are far more easily dispensable, why are they inconsequential, why this malaise is so deeply ingrained in the minds of upper caste and why is it a normal way of life. In a religion which believes “Awwal allah noor upaya qudrat keh sab banday, aik noor toh sab jag upjaiya kaun bhale ko mande” (All humanity was born from a single divine light, and everybody is born equal. All are the children of nature, and no one is good or bad), how can there really be a discrimination based upon caste?

Sensitive is one word that can be best used to describe Kala’s writing. He writes not only from a place of awareness but perhaps also pain and anguish. His description of the distressed years of Punjab carries a rare sensitivity which warrants a deeper understanding of the place as well as its people. That he chooses to tell it through the lives of two Dalit characters, also bring forward his focus on the otherwise lesser talked about issue of caste discrimination in Punjab. The narrative voice is subtle and sometimes seems distant, which works well for the reason that it gives the narrative a sagacious tenor, making it compelling and very moving.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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Categories
Interview National Day Special

In Conversation with Kirpal Singh

Dr Kirpal Singh
we are known globally
as a nation of multi-cultures
but we are united as one people.

not an easy goal to realise
knowing how differences divide
and make unity problematic.

-- Reaching Out... Kirpal Singh, 2021

Kirpal Singh is a poet and a literary critic from Singapore. An internationally recognised scholar whose core research areas include post-colonial literature, Singapore and Southeast Asian, literature and technology, and creativity thinking,  Singh has won research awards and grants from local and foreign universities. He was one of the founding members of the Centre for Research in New Literatures, Flinders University, Australia in 1977; the first Asian director for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993 and 1994, and chairman of the Singapore Writers’ Festival in the 1990s. In 2004, he became the first Asian and non-American to be made a director on the American Creativity Association’s board. He retired dean of Singapore Management University.

Singh was born as a part of Malaya in 1949 to a father of Sikh descent and a Jewish-Scottish mother. He lived through three regimes in this part of the world: colonial, Malayan and Singaporean. His poetry is perhaps what best tells us about his faith in the little island state that came to its own in 1965. In this interview, he shares his life story with us, the last being a huge donation of books that he is making to the National Library of Singapore – a donation of 3,000 books collected over decades.

You are an academic, critic and writer who stretches out across SE Asia. When did your ancestors move to Singapore from India and why?

My paternal grandparents moved to Singapore from Punjab in 1901. They came to the then Federation of Malaya in search of a better life.

You have never lived in India but shuttled between Singapore and Malaysia. Probably at that time it was all part of Malaya. Can you recall Singapore/Malaya during your childhood?

Yes, though born in Singapore in March 1949, I was taken back to be with my dadiji (paternal grandma) in Malaya when I was two months old.  However, I was brought back to Singapore when I was seven to begin school. My grandparents thought Singapore was a better place to receive an English education.

Your mother was Scottish and father, an Indian. What languages did you grow up speaking? What language is most comfortable for you to write in? 

I grew up speaking bits of Punjabi, Malay and, of course, English. In my teenage years I also picked up some Chinese dialects. Though I did study Mandarin in school, I am not too good at it. I can only speak a smattering of it. I am most comfortable writing in English.

You have seen Singapore move from infancy to its current state. Can you tell us what this journey has been like?

It has been an astonishing journey. When I was young-preschool age — Singapore was a British colony. In 1963, Singapore joined Malaya to become part of a new entity then known as Malaysia. However due to basic differences, Singapore pulled out of Malaysia and became an independent, sovereign nation in August 1965.

You are an academic who retired dean of Singapore’s major management institute. And yet, you write poetry. Can you tell us a bit about your journey?

At the then newly established Singapore Management University which I was invited to join as Founding Faculty in 1999, I was told to introduce Creative Thinking as a new mandatory module for all undergraduates. I helmed this exciting and new programme for ten years. SMU was the first University in the world to make Creative Thinking a compulsory course for all undergraduates. Sadly in 2010 this was made optional.

You have a huge collection of books —25,000. How long has it taken you to collect these books?

It has taken me more than 50 years.

Tell us a bit about your book collection. What are your favourite books?

My collection is eclectic. Most of my books, however, belong to the humanities, and within this, most belong to the literary genre. I loved reading from a very young age (being alone at home, reading brought me solace and also knowledge). Among my favourite books, the tragedies of Shakespeare and Sophocles feature prominently. Some 20th century books (those of D H Lawrence and Aldous Huxley in particular), I value tremendously. I should also add that I have been very blessed to have met many of the more well-known/established writers of the 20th century and blessed to have been given signed copies by these wonderful authors: among them Doris Lessing, William Golding, Brian Aldiss, and numerous others.

Did your reading impact your writing?

Quite naturally, yes. I think it’s hard not to be affected by what one reads when it comes to one’s own writing. Even with writers who consciously try to ensure that no clear influences obtain, critics have frequently found far too many disguised references not to infer which authors influenced those writers.

Recently, you made an announcement that you will donate 3,000 books to promote love of reading in Singapore. Do you think donating these books will be enough to make book lovers of non-readers?

I doubt if the mere act of donating will create readers. However, I feel that having a few thousand additional books in a library will, hopefully, draw at least the attention of a few readers and maybe among these will be new readers.

Most people read bestsellers.  What do you think will attract more to appreciate literature like EM Foster, DH Lawrence, and Coleridge?

Yes, in the age of commercialisation, classic writers may not obtain immediate readership– hence schools and colleges/universities play a vital (and necessary) role to ensure that our graduates are educated– at least minimally– in the works of writers who helped change and shape new sensibilities.

Thank you for your time. 

Click here to access poetry by Kirpal Singh

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