|Volume 6 Issue 01| January 2012|
The Missing Fifth Book
JYOTI RAHMAN turns pages in search of books that best tell the story of Bangladesh.
An online forum called The Browser (www.thebrowser.com) claims to be creating 'a 21st century library of Writing Worth Reading'. One of their regular features is the interview of a renowned authority discussing his or her area of expertise and providing a list of five essential books on the subject.
I would not presume to be a renowned authority on anything. But as a student of Bangladesh's history, while celebrating the 40th anniversary of the victory in the Liberation War, I have been wondering -- suppose I was asked to list five books on Bangladesh, what would I say?
Of course, there is no definitive list on any subject. Five books chosen by any two individuals, expert or otherwise, will likely differ. Therefore, I begin with the obvious caveat that this is to start a conversation, and is not the final word, on the matter.
I should also stress that there is no particular way of deciding what makes the cut, and what is left out. I assume in what follows that the reader is an educated layperson who is familiar with the broad outline of Bangladesh's history. For any reader for whom this assumption does not hold, I would recommend Willem van Schendel's A History of Bangladesh.
While this is perhaps the best single volume introduction to Bangladesh, it's not in my list because of my assumption of familiarity. My approach is going to involve taking the familiar history and asking some not-so-familiar questions.
The first such question is, how did this land end up with a Bengali Muslim population?
One doesn't have to believe in any variation of the two nation theory or any kind of historical inevitability or any particular brand of nationalism to acknowledge that the Muslim majority nature of eastern Bengal played a crucial role in the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state in the form that it exists today. That is not to say that any of the alternatives had there been no Muslim majority -- a state of the Indian federation, or a Bengali republic -- would have been better or worse.
And to any reader thinking 'Bangladesh's emergence was not about religious identity' -- I ask for patience, because the complicated story will be covered in due course.
The simple point here is that eastern Bengal became a Muslim majority area, and this development had crucial implications for Bangladesh's history. Plus, any such implications aside, how this easternmost tip of the Ganges delta came to become Muslim is an interesting story in its own right.
There have been two broad theories about the emergence of Muslim majority in eastern Bengal. One theory holds that the indigenous peoples of this land, long suppressed by the Brahmins and other upper caste Hindus, embraced Islam because of its egalitarian ethos. The other one suggests that most Bengali Muslims are descendants of Muslim colonists / settlers / migrants from West and Central Asia.
But both theories beg the question, why eastern Bengal?
It's not like the caste system was unique to this region. If anything, Bengali Hindus appear to have less caste tensions compared with other parts of the subcontinent. If the 'caste oppression' theory is true for Bangladesh, then why isn't, say, Bihar predominantly Muslim?
And if the 'settler' theory is right, then the question is, why didn't they settle in North India, where the Muslim rule started much earlier than in Bengal, and had lasted for a century longer.
Richard Eaton's The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 provides an intriguing explanation to this puzzle.
According to Eaton's thesis, much of today's Bangladesh was uncultivated (though not necessarily uninhabited) forest and marshland until the advent of the Mughal rule in the 16th century. It was around that time that an earthquake changed the flow of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra to the Padma and the Jamuna respectively, opening up the land for agrarian settlement. And under Mughal patronage, much of the land was settled by adventurers and frontiersmen, whose followers found succour in an indigenised form of Islam, which was articulated in Bangla and synthesised Abrahamaic monotheism with local folklores.
In this fascinating telling, there was a very South Asian drang nach osten to the golden land of Bhati. Isn't it the same story we read in Manik Bandopadhyay's Padma Nadi'r Majhi?
Eaton's story ends with the John Company's power grab. Obviously Bengal, indeed India, went through wrenching changes in the two centuries that followed. From the Battle of Plassey to the Great Uprising of 1857, the anti-British mass movements through to partition, language and autonomy movements eventually culminating in the Liberation War of 1971 -- the story would be familiar to most readers. Less familiar, particularly to those readers schooled in the nationalist history that teaches the inevitability of the emergence of Bangladesh, would be the nuances and detours in the journey of self-discovery undertaken by generations of Bengali Muslims.
Tazeen Murshid tells the story of Bengali Muslims' experiences and experiments with identities in the aftermath of the British colonisation. Her The Sacred and the Secular: Bengal Muslim Discourses, 1871-1977 is perhaps the most comprehensive narrative of the intellectual, social, cultural and political evolution of Bengali Muslims over the course of the century to the 1970s. And yes, this is notwithstanding Ahmed Safa's trenchant soul searching in Bangalee Mussolmaner Mon.
There are two particular features of Murshid's book that stand out.
First, she discusses intriguing questions about the way Bengali Muslims wrestled with concepts such as secularism or liberalism. And second, unlike anyone else of her ideological milieu -- in the Bangladeshi parlance, decidedly pro-1971 -- she claims no 'inevitable march of history' to the glory days of the early 1970s. In fact, her story ends in 1977, not only after the birth of Bangladesh, but also following the setbacks suffered by the secular and liberal forces in the Mujibist era and its tragic denouement.
Murshid shows how the generation that rioted in Calcutta and Noakhali in 1946 is the same one that adopted Tagore and his language as their own by 1961. No one made them do it. In fact, there were tremendous establishment pressures against it. And yet, through their conscious choice, Tagore has become an integral part of Bangladesh -- so much so that no list like this can be complete without him.
At this point, let's pause and categorically reject the notion of equating Bangladesh with Bengali Muslims. This land is not exclusive to any ethnic or communal group. Its history is replete with many 'others', of whom Hindu Bengalis are perhaps the most significant. Rabindranath Tagore's Ghare Baire is in my list not because I have to include a Tagore book, but more importantly, the novel is one of the most insightful analyses of the follies of nationalism that has repeatedly hit our land. Indeed, not just nationalism and its discontents, but the novel also tackles changing place of women and marital dynamics in the modernising Bengal. And, of particular importance to this writer -- whose day job is in economics -- this is perhaps the only Bangla novel that discusses the role of productivity in the context of the lack of industrialisation in Bengal.
Between Murshid and Tagore, one gets a clear understanding of the fault lines that divided Bengal in the first half of the 20th century. Partha Chatterjee's A Princely Impostor? The strange and universal history of the Kumar of Bhawal, JH Broomfield's Elite Conflict in a Plural Society: twentieth-century Bengal, and essays and memoirs of Annada Shankar Roy, Abul Mansur Ahmed, Jatin Sarker and Tapan Roy Chowdhury cover much of the same ground from different perspectives.
From partition to liberation, the broad story is well known. But are the nuances well understood? Rounaq Jahan's Pakistan: failure in national integration is as good a narrative as any on why the break up of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh became inevitable by 1971. But a comprehensive, single-volume analysis of 1971 in its many hues is yet to be written. Of course, one might argue that no single volume analysis can do justice to the multitudes of that year. Afsan Chowdhury's several volumes -- both as part of the government's archive of documents as well as his own research -- are a must read for any serious scholar.
But for the lay reader, I cannot think of a better book than Jahanara Imam's Ekattorer Dinguli that captures the triumph and tribulation of the citizens of the occupied Dhaka in 1971.
Of course, history didn't end in 1971. In the past four decades, we have seen assassinations, civil and military dictatorships, and a cycle of elections and political gridlocks. But we have also seen steady economic growth that has translated into unprecedented improvement in every measurable indicator of living standards. We have seen natural disasters, and the effect of climate change looms over us. But we have also seen creativity flourishing at every aspect of the arts. The past four decades have been the best of times, just as they have been the worst of times.
And sadly, I cannot think of any book -- fiction or non-fiction, in either English or Bangla -- that captures today's Bangladesh. I cannot think of a book that picks up where Murshid leaves off. I cannot think of a book that tackles how the social fabric has changed in the past few decades the way Tagore depicts social changes of the 1920s and 1930s. I cannot think of a book that travels the travails of the post-1970s Bangladesh.
That's a book that hasn't been written yet.
Dedicated to the memory of Jalal Alamgir, friend and ally who might have written the fifth book.
Jyoti Rahman is a blogger and a member of Drishtipat Writers' Collective. This article benefitted from several online discussions including at his blog (www.jrahman.wordpress.com).
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