From Mississippi to Ganges
Sumaiya Ahsan Bushra
To many of you who are not entirely familiar with American literature, the name Samuel Langhorne Clemens will not strike you as much as the pen-name Mark Twain will. Samuel Langhorne reincarnated as Mark Twain and is much celebrated today because of his creations, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. Through this sequel and many other great works of literature, he conveyed a moralistic message to his young readers. Despite the fact that he used keen wit and sharp satire, he spoke strongly about slavery, capitalism, materialism and all other stimulating factors of transformation that led to the creation of the America we see today.
With this notion in mind, the English Department of the Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB) in collaboration with The American Centre organised a conference aptly titled “Revisiting Mississippi: The Adventures of Mark Twain”, which focused on the in-depth analysis of Mark Twain's works and how they are read and interpreted by the readers in Bangladesh. The programme was divided into two sections with the first one highlighting “Reading and Re-reading Mark Twain” while the second incorporated a more mind-boggling theme titled “Mark Twain in Bengal”. Both the sessions had question and answer rounds, which were made lively and interesting with the co-operation and participation of the audience.
The Vice-Chancellor of IUB, Professor Bazlul M Chowdhury, the Pro Vice-Chancellor, Professor M. Omar Rahman, and the Director of the School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Professor Nazrul Islam graced the occasion. Dr. Razia Sultana Khan, Head of the Department of English, and the Director of the American Cultural Center, Ms. Lauren Lovelace, spoke on the occasion. Alongside them, other distinguished professors and faculty members from different universities were also present at the conference as speakers and guests.
The keynote paper was presented by Dr. Fakrul Alam from the English Department of Dhaka University. He began with the following quotations from Hemingway and Faulkner on Mark Twain - “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn” (Hemingway) and “Mark Twain is the father of American Literature” (Faulkner). In reference to the latter quote, Dr. Alam expressed his favouritism towards Herman Melville's Moby Dick and said that he was not entirely willing to call “Huckleberry Finn the greatest but rather the second greatest novel ever written in American literature”.
He spoke elaborately of both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and other works prior to the creation of these two. In addition, he focused on Twain's journey through life, from a steamboat pilot to becoming one of the greatest writers of all times and also emphasised the peak points in Twain's life.
Mark Twain began his career writing humorous stories using Jonathan Swift's tradition of satire, but soon evolved into a 'chronicler of the vanities, hypocrisies and murderous acts' of mankind. With Huckleberry Finn, Twain blended rich humour and social criticism. Additionally, as a master of rendering colloquial speech, he was able to create and popularise a unique literary piece. Twain, through his experiences of travelling to Nevada via Utah, observed the odd details and eccentricities in people - most of which are often depicted in his writings.
Dr. Alam concluded his paper by talking about two kinds of Americans, the optimist and the pessimist. He further stressed Mark Twain's views on different aspects of life. He pointed out that Twain was a “red-hot imperialist”, an adamant supporter of abolition and emancipation (“freedom of slaves”) as well as a feminist supporting women's suffrage movement.
The end of Dr. Fakhrul Alam's presentation proceeded to mark the beginning of the first session of the conference titled “Reading and Re-reading Mark Twain”. Mazharul Islam, Assistant Professor, Dept. of English, IUB, was the moderator. Andaleeb Choudhury, Jr. Lecturer, Dept. of English, IUB, presented the first paper, “Gender and Transformance: the Role of the Female in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer”. Her paper focused on the close text analysis of Twain's most celebrated children's novels and the transformative effects that the female characters created in these novels have on Twain's youthful protagonist. She emphasised how the feminist critics have often dismissed Mark Twain's ideas, despite the fact that one is likely to find women all over his work. Elaborating on this Ms. Choudhury added “Women ruled his heart, his home...”. She also pointed out the issues of feminine sexuality and how each female character is portrayed as idealistic compared to the ugly, superstitious and hypocritical male characters. She concluded by noting how Twain subverts the traditional roles of gender and reassigns the power to women in his two novels.
The other presenter of this session was Saara Zabeen, Lecturer, Dept. of English, IUB who presented a paper on “The introduction of Tom Sawyer's adventures to the students of IUB to develop their reading habit”. The idea of the paper was mainly on encouraging students to develop a healthy reading habit and she attempted to do so by introducing 'Tom Sawyer' in the course “English Reading Skills”. Alongside this, her paper also aimed at portraying the reaction of the students to reading of the original version of this book. Ms. Zabeen also shared some of the comments made by the students on this book before she concluded.
At the end of session one, the audience asked questions to the speakers based on the papers they presented. Ms. Lauren Lovelace showed great enthusiasm and bombarded the speakers with her questions and shared her own theories as well. Alongside Ms. Lauren, Prof. Niaz Zaman, Supernumerary Professor of Department of English, DU, and Advisor of Department of English, IUB, humorously pointed out a picture of Mark Twain wearing a dress and asked questions on Twain's view on cross-dressing. In response, Andaleeb Choudhury explained how Twain endorsed cross-dressing and gave examples of how he classified men and women.
After a short tea break, the second session titled “Mark Twain in Bengal” kicked-off, with Dr. Niaz Zaman as the moderator. Dr. Akimun Rahman, Associate Professor, Dept. of Modern Languages, IUB, presented her paper “Reckless Boys: A Comparative Study of Protagonists of Mark Twain and Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay”. She explained in Bangla that the aim of her paper was to dissect the texts of these two famous writers and draw a comparative study of the protagonists in Mark Twain's novels and Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay's 'Shreekanta'. The aim of this paper was two-fold - firstly to compare the heroes of Mark Twain and of Sharatcandra Chattopadhyay and secondly, to inspect whether Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay was influenced by Mark Twain.
Next came Sayyeda Tun Noor Sameera's paper on “Huck and Himu: Two nations; two visions”, where she talked about the two characters Huck and Himu while extensively comparing and contrasting them. She said, “Himu is a modern version of Huckleberry Finn”. She further stressed on this point by adding that both the stories are contributions to the development of heroic figures and explained that even though the authors did not intend to employ a moralistic message, both have in some ways become the most prominent and influential stories of all times.
Lastly, Nabila Huq, Lecturer, Dept. of English, East West University, presented her paper, “The Reading of Mark Twain in Bangla: How truthful are the translations?” Ms. Huq began with the question, “Should non-professional readers in Bangladesh, children mainly, be deprived of Mark Twain's genius only because they are not proficient in English? She mentioned that for years, Sheba Prokashoni and Bishwa Shahitya Kendra have been trying to preserve both flavours in their lucid translations of literary work. But despite that, they have been inaccurate several times. She explained the pitfalls of Bangla translation and pointed out that they are often done with inaccurate or wrong adaptations and remixes as well as other occasional mistakes. She describes a large number of quotations from the Bangla translation of Huckleberry Finn with emphasis on the linguistic features of the sentences in English. She concluded her paper by saying that despite the large number of inaccurate translations, these publishing houses still produce a good sum of excellent translations from time to time, such as the “The Prince and the Pauper” by Mark Twain.
The critical issue of being able to successfully bring Mark Twain to Bengal was completed by the outstanding and original presentations of the speakers in this exciting round, the conclusion of which ushered the end of the first session of the conference. Dr. Razia Sultana Khan wrapped up the programme by thanking all the people who helped make the occasion a success, including all the guests.
The second part of the daylong programme started after lunch and was conducted by The American Centre. Readers presented selections from various works of Mark Twain. Representatives from the American community in Bangladesh were present at this event and they shared humorous quotes, ideas and anecdotes on Mark Twain.