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|Volume 11 |Issue 01| January 06, 2012 ||
Beauty Cupped in Magic...
Syed Badrul Ahsan
Razia Khan Amin was our very first literary window to the world. And we speak of course of a Bengali, here in Bangladesh, writing in the English language and thereby informing the world beyond our frontiers that good writing in English was as much an attribute of Bangladeshis as it was of Indians or, for that matter, others. Those of us who have had the sheer good fortune of reading Argus Under Anaesthesia and Cruel April in the mid 1970s were convinced back then that the chances of our men and women of letters branching out to the wider universe of intellectual achievements were indeed considerable, that English and Bengali were languages we could employ in terms of coming level with the broad global expanse of literature. Razia Khan Amin was, refreshingly for us, indeed for Bangladesh, an intellectual whose thoughts simply swept across the horizon to bring home to our sensibilities an awareness of literature being a composite and integral part of existence. You either lived in literature or you did not live at all. It was an idea reinforced by Argus and Cruel April. The theme was a throwback to western literature, indeed to something of the Eliotesque (April is the cruellest month?), for the particular reason that for Amin literature was as much a matter of a study of western concepts of thought as it was of eastern ideas about life.
A crucial aspect of Razia Khan Amin's life was her ceaseless preoccupation with the Word. She was forever toying with ideas, with images, partly because she taught English literature at Dhaka University, partly because poetry and drama and the novel were or had become for her a definition of the imagination. The Word was the word, in that coruscating sense of the meaning. In the classroom she was forever playing with ideas even as she read from the text and came forth with the necessary, time-honoured interpretations of the meandering nuances dotting the literary landscape. The attitude would put many a student used to conventional learning at a disadvantage or even induce them into a state of disappointment. For the wider section of her pupils, though, Amin's remarks on literature, on the text at hand if you will, sounded and indeed were unconventional. And they were because of the contemporary realities which Amin was forever ready to bring into the image of what she happened to be lecturing on at a given point, put it all in juxtaposition and eventually come forth with an understanding of literature in correlation with the issues of the day. Amin did not overlook literary theory, to be sure. Neither did she ignore the periodicity of the literature she taught in the classroom. But more significant than that was the fullness, indeed the roundness she gave to her explanations of fiction, of the times associated with them in order to have her students comprehend the universality of it all.
The spirit of universality included, of course, a necessary element of politics for Razia Khan Amin. She was never removed from it, for some obvious reasons. In the first place, she came of a political family and married into another. Her father Moulvi Tamizuddin Khan was a revered figure for her. You could extend the sentiment, to suggest that Tamizuddin Khan was a deeply respected figure in Pakistan — because of his courage in challenging the executive branch of the government in the early 1950s as speaker of the constituent assembly and because of the quiet role he played as speaker, yet once again but this time under Field Marshal Ayub Khan, in the 1960s. Tamizuddin Khan died in harness in 1963. Razia Khan Amin's deep attachment to politics, in that academic sense, was a matter of seeing politics work first hand. But despite that environment, she made sure that she remained in control of her life. And she did it in what you could call a feminist way. Her comments on politics, on the state of the nation were blunt but never were intended to belittle others. She was deeply troubled at the violence which claimed the life of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975. It is quite possible that she did not quite empathise with Bangabandhu's politics, but that she held him in profound respect was never in doubt. In politics, as a matter of fact in other areas of life, Razia Khan Amin often came across as opinionated and self-assured. But she made sure that it did not translate into hauteur. If there was a sense of pride in her, it was elsewhere.
That elsewhere was in the literary output she enriched the nation's culture with. She wrote in a bold, no-holds barred manner, plunging into the depths of the relationships which have bound man with woman for centuries. For her time, Amin was a strikingly bold writer. She explored what for Bengalis was unexplored terrain. Her fiction was always an instance of realism on display, with the pathos, the pains, the sex which serve as underpinnings of existence. There was in her that elemental anger which serves as the foundation of modern literary activity. In her poetry, in her stories was a fury not quite unleashed but released in spurts of indignation. Which begs the question: to what extent was Razia Khan Amin disturbed at the human condition? The answer to that question is simple: like every writer of serious intent, Amin carried huge anguish in her being. And like any writer basing her work on an understanding, though not acceptance, of reality, she suffered. Enormously. Writers pay a price for their thoughts. She did.
It was a life she chose in her girlhood. She began writing when she was eight, which again was a huge hint of the path she would take in life. By the late 1950s, a very young and assertive Razia Khan had given her Bengalis a foretaste of what was to be through her fiction Bot Tolar Uponyash. The novel set her off on her long journey into literary prominence, bringing along the way such works as Chitrakabyo, Draupadi, Anukalpa and Padobik. There was the poetry too, alongside children's stories. The ease with which she wrote, in Bengali and English, was a distinctive sign of the cosmopolitanism working in her. She was, in that broad manner, a modern writer. Courageous, unconventional and loaded with self-esteem, Razia Khan Amin was a reminder, to a very significant extent, of what Virginia Woolf might have been. In times closer to ours, one cannot help but feel that Amin and Susan Sontag were of a class. You could also suggest that Amin would have had a whole lot to share with Erica Jong. When you consider all these factors, all these points of light setting the pattern of Razia Khan Amin's works, you are tempted to inform yourself that she was our light unto the wider expanse of necessarily global literature.
The sadness, though, as an admirer put it the other day, is that Razia Khan Amin remains an underrated intellectual in Bangladesh. That is again, in that despairing manner of stating a sad truth, quite in the fitness of things, given that Amin was never one to fall for the shallowness which comes with producing popular literature. Nor was she inclined to self-promotion. She belonged to a generation which was happy to root itself ever deeper in values. Not for her an occasion to launch her books in all the fanfare of publicity. Not for her the urge to be at the centre of all discussions. She was part of an era where quiet achievement was all, where books and papers lay strewn all across a room with a view.
The transition of Razia Khan Amin into memory and perhaps into a world beyond ours, if there is such a world, is but a symbol once again of recurrent loss. She was a beautiful woman. And she was an individual in whom a plethora of thoughts played magic with words and imagery. It is that beauty cupped in magic we miss today . . . even as winter goes by. The winds whistle a tune of mortality, of eternal loneliness etched across the heavens.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
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