|Volume 6 Issue 01| January 2012|
CHAD BAKER-DIGITAL VISION/GETTY IMAGES
Going Diasporic in One's Own Country
Our nation's promise of an indivisible identity has split into several contesting ones, argues RIFAT MUNIM.
Jhumpa Lahiri should rewrite one of her short stories. In her story 'When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine', set in Boston in the year of 1971, she makes an issue of India's partition and Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan. But what lends her story a different dimension is the careful handling of diasporic existence, the essence of which lies in a cultural transformation. With this transformation one sloughs off his/her original culture to cope with a newly found one. Education policy in a foreign land, especially the status and content of history as a subject in it, is given a very special treatment in the story. A child in a foreign land is pedagogically disallowed access to his/her motherland's history. S/he is rather compelled to learn history of the country s/he has migrated to. This particular condition is shown to be a defining moment of diasporic identity as it marks the beginning of that inevitable transformation. Conversely, Lahiri develops a potential image of a newly liberated country where one is able to retain his/her cultural identity sloughing off any hegemonic influence whatsoever; where one is entitled to learning his/her own history. The country Lahiri has in mind is no other than independent Bangladesh in its nascent democratic state. A contrast between one's foreign and Bangladeshi identity is thus construed to indicate what one loses in a foreign land can well be retained in a country such as Bangladesh. After 40 long troubled years of its existence, the contrast so conspicuously projected in the image of Bangladesh seems to have blurred into a mere speckle. Far from being that ideal country where everyone retains and upholds his/her own cultural identity, our beloved Bangladesh has itself turned into a land that nurtures all the mechanisms necessary to safeguard the diasporic process of cutting someone off from their roots, from their own Bengali cultural elements.
Fiction writers do not, at least in this post-modern age, imitate reality as such. They rather mould it into their imagination to create something new, perhaps some new realities. It is with their creation that they provide newer visions and guide people to move forward along familial, social and historical lines. So, one should not expect fiction to translate into reality. Even so, it is revealing to note that the essence of diasporic identity, as articulated in Lahiri's story, needs a redefinition in so far as it is differentiated as a uniquely alien experience. Only a cursory look at the status and content of history in our education policy will reveal how thousands of Bangladeshi students are pedagogically disallowed access to their own history given they are studying in schools that are situated in their own liberated country, not in the USA. But before that, let us know a little more about Lahiri's story and then relate it to the present context of Bangladesh.
Having originally hailed from West Bengal, India, a Bengali diasporic family in Boston, USA desperately looks for people from a similar cultural background to easily relate to. They find one named Pirzada at Boston University and invite him to their house. Pirzada is completing his higher studies after receiving a grant from the university while his country, the erstwhile East Pakistan, in the face of one of the deadliest genocide campaigns is fighting back for political and economic emancipation. Lilia is the only child of the family in focus. As one day she unknowingly refers to Pirzada as the 'Indian man', her father tells her off because despite being a Bengali Pirzada has become a Pakistani national after India's partition in 1947. This apparently trifling incident elicits different responses. Young Lilia wonders why people who are culturally at one are put historically at odds, implying the preposterous nature of India's partition. Her father, on the other hand, comes to the realisation that a family's diasporic existence is one of cultural alienation, of being one but becoming the other. Pirzada, however, turns out to be the one who does not fit into this self-alienating process. In the end, he returns to his liberated country that promises an egalitarian society in the map of South Asia and epitomises in the sphere of the story an ideal state that refuses to let its national identity split on religious or linguistic grounds.
Pirzada's free country has since spent 40 eventful years with all the vicissitudes that a country's political spectrum can offer. But the promise of an indivisible identity has split into several contesting ones best reflected in the three divisive mediums of education, of which only the Bengali medium seems to correspond to the spirit as it had been projected at independence. Growing presence of madrasas and English medium schools makes a mockery of that promise. Apart from this, the numerous indigenous groups, in the process, have been left out on the margins being deprived of an identity of their own. Quite ironically, the country that had once stood against tyranny and cultural repression has itself become tyrannical in treating groups that are different from its own. But that is an issue best left to be dealt with separately. For the present purpose, let us see how the status of history in education policy has bigger implications.
JORDAN SIEMENS-DIGITAL VISION/GETTY IMAGES
Pedagogic policy of madrasas and English medium schools does not include our national history: the long-drawn-out stretches of historical periods that have seen the curious mix of three major religions - Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam; and those glorious days of undivided Bengal ruled by the Buddhist rulers in the seventh century; and how from there we finally ended up as a separate country where Muslims are the majority and Hindus minority. Students studying in the aforementioned mediums are children of this land, born and brought up here. Yet, they are pedagogically alienated from their own history, hence from their own culture, in much the same way as young Lilia. This obvious similarity of their position with Lilia's, vis-à-vis an alien education policy, puts them on the same ground with all the supposedly contrasting features totally obliterated. There, however, is one stark difference: Hers (Lilia's) is an alien context which only makes the resultant alienation a very expected event.
History in English medium, as it exists in Bangladesh, is dealt with a step-motherly attitude for the fact that it does not fetch expected grades. As a matter of fact, students in O' and A' levels barely opt for this course and when some courageous ones dare to take it out of passion, s/he has to learn either British or European history. It barely comes as a surprise because this system is but a distorted imitation of British education system, or Australian for that matter, and over which the government of Bangladesh has no control whatsoever. Students, however, enroll in O' level after completing the eighth grade. Till the eighth grade, they are taught courses which will help them perform better in the next levels. So logically, they are not offered a course like the history of Bengal since it will not bring them better grades. In spite of this, school authorities during this time can exercise relative freedom in matters of choosing various courses as core or optional. Even then, history is not offered at this stage; and even if it is offered at all, it is again European history. It is only recently that many schools have introduced a course styled “Bangladesh Studies” which incorporates Bangladesh's history, geography, etc.
National history thus is selectively left out of the curriculum of this medium even when there are no strings attached from foreign authorities. This manifestly points out the little value this system pedagogically attaches to national history. But be it before or after the eighth grade, both forms of excluding history are completely unacceptable in view of the promise of oneness this country had made at birth. Nor can such exclusionary practice be condoned on the grounds of the system's extrinsic operation.
To be continued in the next issue of Forum . . .
Rifat Munim works with the editorial department at The Daily Star.
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