Bangladesh occupies a strange place in global literature today, peculiar rather than exotic. The haughty entitlement of an unshakeable belief in peerless cultural, literary and intellectual heritages setting literary genius as a birthright in stone is offset by the reality of dwindling interest in and practice of the art of literature, widespread anti-intellectualism, and contemporary literature being in the throes of a self-congratulatory celebration of mediocrity that takes sadistic delight in its lack of self-awareness. Added to these contradictions between blind faith and reality, perhaps even because of them, is the status of Bangladeshi literature on the margins of global discourse, feeding off the scraps of a dearth of opportunities, an almost-maybe-ran desperate to avoid being an also-ran before the race has started.

Set against this backdrop, as the state enters its second half-century of independent existence, Rifat Munim’s editorial efforts in the anthology of stories translated from Bengali to English, Bangladesh: A Literary Journey Through 50 Short Stories, is either an audacious act of masochistic lunacy, or a selfless, ambitious attempt to put Bangladeshi literature centre-stage and in the spotlight. It is as much a process of massaging and managing over-inflated egos in a deeply unprofessional environment as it is a literary endeavour.

That it was published in neighbouring India simultaneously speaks to the woeful states of publishing and readership in Bangladesh, and, published a year before a general election that is likely to reaffirm authoritarianism in India, is a defiant reminder that “Bangladeshi” is more than the communal insult it is effectively deployed as in far too many parts of India than any self-respecting Indian should be comfortable with.

A book of this nature invites being judged on how representative it is. Amit Chaudhuri’s The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature is a seminal, if not the definitive text on the subject. It is wide-ranging and thorough to a fault, but even in its comprehensiveness, it cannot lay claim to having covered every possible aspect of modern Indian literature. What it is, however, is an exceptionally detailed, scholarly, representational summary.

Measured against this bar, other similar books, such as the tokenism-oriented Niaz Zaman-edited The Demoness: The Best Bangladeshi Stories 1971-2021, failed by keeping its contents ensconced in elitism and exclusivity. While it, like Munim’s anthology, did not reach beyond South Asia – a fact that demands reflection from the doyens, gatekeepers and well-wishers of Bangladeshi literature – at least the latter promises a literary journey rather than the reductive best. If nothing else, it greatly reduces the risk of ignominy for the editor.

The many Bangladeshes

This, then, is a book that sets out to authentically chart a course through the youngest post-colonial state born of Partition. To that end, Munim succeeds in showcasing the rural, the urban, the rural to urban migrations of people, ideas and beliefs, and the urbanisation of Bangladesh. Moreover, the obscured shadow of Partition is as present as the long ones of the Language Movement of 1952 and War of Independence of 1971 – the latter view a necessary and unabashed corrective to the dominant Indo-Pakistan War narrative that erases the Bangladeshi people who, together with their suffering and right to self-determination, were at its centre. Not one to rest on those laurels, Rifat goes further, bringing the dictatorships, military regimes and democratic struggles that have plagued the nation to the page.

The clash of progressivism and Islamism at the heart of Bangladesh’s social identity crisis, together with leftist politics and the humanitarian struggles for fundamental rights including freedoms of speech and expression, are featured prominently too. From a socio-political perspective, this is a reflective, critical and comprehensive volume, bringing important moments of a socio-politically charged and volatile nation in from the cold where they were cast by cultural elites, from an editor who proves himself to be politically conscious and knowledgeable.

Munim makes the bold decision to include popular, commercial writers alongside literary heavyweights. This may be a representational step too far for purists, an over-zealous interpretation of balance. Nevertheless, whether future volumes are more critical of Humayun Ahmed’s misogyny, Muhammad Zafar Iqbal’s vacuous populism, or Taslima Nasreen’s recent Hindutva nationalism apologia, their stories appear as reminders of their popularity and contributions to Bangladeshi literature.

The pantheon of the greats is well-represented by Akhtaruzzaman Elias, Hazan Azizul Huq, Syed Waliullah (in his own translation), Shawkat Ali and Shahidul Zahir, overlooked or forgotten greats by Mahmudul Haque and Zakir Talukdar, contemporary greats by Syed Shamsul Haq, Syed Manzoorul Islam, Selina Hossain and Wasi Ahmed, recent award-winners by Shaheen Akhtar and Mashiul Alam, and new voices by Afsana Begum.

The translators tell a more significant story about representation. From the lack of professionalism in a domestic publishing industry that does not believe in acquiring rights before translating books originally written in or translated into English, to Bengali en masse without assuring, let alone aiming for high standards, to the failure to develop the discipline and craft of translating from Bengali and indigenous languages to English, in an effort to bring Bangladesh’s much-vaunted literature to a global audience, translation has been the bane of Bangladeshi literature.

The translation landscape

Translators are anonymous, misfiring machines. That the Indian luminary pair of Arunava Sinha and V Ramaswamy – who are both, rightly, represented in this book – remain the biggest names in translation from Bengali to English even for Bangladesh, is indicative of this. When added to the socio-economic and the socio-cultural pseudo-intellectual elitisms rife amongst those writing in English and Bengali respectively, the production and celebration of mediocrity becomes a self-perpetuating, perpetual cycle.

Munim’s inclusion of the stellar Shabnam Nadiya and Mahmud Rahman, two Bangladeshi writers at the vanguard of translating into English, the elusive Khademul Islam and Zubaer Mahboob, and Kaiser Haq, Shawkat Hussain, Israt Jahan Baki, Syeda Nur-E-Royhan, and his own work breaks translation free from the scheming nepotism of Bangladeshi academia and throws down the gauntlet to literary-minded Bangladeshis.

The overriding global tendency is to have little but scorn for Bangladeshi literature. The Indian dismissal of it as a satrapy’s sub-standard, meagre offering, has started to filter into the navel-gazing of Bangladesh’s upper and upper-middle classes. Bangladesh: A Literary Journey Through 50 Short Stories, with its imperfections, is a stand against that stacked deck, one for Bangladeshi writers and translators to rally behind if their work is to live up to the belief of their universal greatness.

Disclosure: Arunava Sinha is the editor of the Books and Ideas section of Scroll.

Bangladesh: A Literary Journey Through 50 Short Stories, edited by Rifat Munim, Bee Books.