<%-- Page Title--%> Nothing if Not Serious <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 145 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

March 12, 2004

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My brother DB is a prostitute

Shawkat Hussain

Last Thursday I started to teach one of my all-time favourite novels, J D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. What a great pleasure it is to simply teach a novel that you love. The pleasure of teaching has now been suspended for some time. On Friday night, around 10.30, I met a colleague in the campus who whispered to me, "Humayun Azad has been stabbed. He is now in the hospital." I walked home stunned by the news. Many of us in the campus have been unable to think of anything else.

At the beginning of my Thursday class I asked the students how many of them were planning to take the course: there were about a half-dozen show of hands. At the end of the class over twenty students showed interest. I think Holden Caulfield, the 16-year-old narrator of the novel must have seduced the class. In the very first page of the novel, Holden says, "My brother DB is a prostitute." What he means is that DB who used to be a terrific writer had gone to Hollywood to become a rich, popular movie script-writer. In other words, DB had become a prostitute selling his soul for material gains.

Holden Caulfield's indictment of his brother, once a "terrific" writer, and by extension, all writers who sell their souls, is very strong indeed. Holden's vision is that of an adolescent whose own purity makes it impossible for him to accept the inevitable corruption that is part of the adult world, the world of DB. Most of us have no such illusions. We know many writers are like DB, fallible, and not even terrific. I sometimes feel like telling some friends who are writers: "You too, my friend, have become a prostitute like DB." I am unable to pass that judgment because I too am fallible, and not even a writer, in the sense they are writers.

We know that writers are vulnerable to the many seductions of the vocation: the money, the fame, the glamour and the spotlight, the women (if you can play the game right), the autograph-signing, the interviews and the awards. Nothing makes a writer more eloquent than money. Big-name poets can be paid to write poetry for presidents who like to pretend they are poets; big-time intellectuals sell their names to political parties not always out of conviction, but motivated by thoughts of profit and position; and writers, big and small, sometimes lend their names to second-rate glossy fashion magazines, because, "hey, the money is good." The lure of the lucre is so very strong, and so many of us fall for it. If Holden Caulfield could, he would catch us from falling but we are too old to be caught. Instead he wishes to catch innocent children from falling off the edge of a field of rye; he wants to be the catcher in the rye.

Writers suffer from another kind of vulnerability. They are vulnerable to physical assaults on their lives. Who can protect writers from being vulnerable to attacks from assailants in the dark? Poet Shamsur Rahman recently said in a TV interview that he was just an ordinary vulnerable human being and could do nothing if someone wanted to kill him. Humayun Azad walked alone at night, never seriously thinking that what he might have written might lead to his death. A suicide bomber knows that death is the inevitable outcome of his action; a religious martyr willingly lays down his life for his faith. I do not know of any writer who knows that death is the outcome of his writing. Yet writers have died for what they have written.

Hamlet had said, "I could be bounded in a nutshell and still consider myself master of infinite space." The writer's mind may be infinite, but the space within which he operates in this country is not. The writer is circumscribed and limited. There is a certain invisible line one cannot cross: how much one is willing to push the line back is the writer's call; how much one allows what is written to go unchallenged is a test of the tolerance of society. And we have failed that test. The image of Humayun Azad fighting for his life in the hospital, maimed and inarticulate, is a chilling reminder of how vulnerable we are as individuals and how vulnerable we are as a nation.


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