In April 2016, I was asked to present a paper on Post Colonial Bangladeshi literature at the AWP conference and book fair. In an effort to understand what that actually is, I had to delve into why we are so cut off from the world.
Unlike our other South Asian counterparts India and Pakistan, we are a relatively unknown quantity to the Western publishing industry. What I have discovered is what I suspected: there is no such thing as Post Colonial Bangladeshi fiction per se – not in English. I’ve identified what I feel to be some major factors.
My title is a play on the great Satyajit Ray movie Ghare Baire, (Home and the World), which was very much about being South Asian under the yolk of colonialism. Being Bengali means being political. It might just be in our DNA.
The first serious stirrings of Twentieth Century anti-British agitation originated in what is now Bangladesh, in a place called Chittagong, where, for one heady moment, Indians wrestled control from the mighty Raj. Our isolation is ironic, considering that one of the very first novels from the Indian subcontinent ever written in English, the language of the coloniser, was written in 1905 by a Bangladeshi (then East Bengal) Muslim woman named Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain.
It was called Sultana’s Dream, set in a feminist utopia where the women ruled and the men were content in the kitchen. In other words, science fiction. The West credits Salman Rushdie as the progenitor of South Asian magical realism, yet it is arguably Hossain who deserves that title, and she beat him by 70 plus years.
Another writer, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, born in what is now Jessore in Bangladesh, is considered the father of the Bengali sonnet and one of the pre-eminent voices of the Bengali artistic renaissance. Though skilled in Bengali poetry, he longed to be taken seriously as a poet who wrote in English as well.
Dutt travelled to the UK in the 1840s and later married a woman of English descent. While his fellow Indians were attempting to eject the British, he was attempting to assimilate into British society, even converting to Christianity – though he eventually found British racism unbearable and left for France. He was inspired by English poets, Byron in particular, and translated many works into Bangla, never straying too far from his Bengali linguistic heritage.
Post-Partition brain drain and Urdu
In 1947, when India finally gained independence, East and West Bengal were divided, with the East being predominantly Muslim and going to Pakistan. Thus, the Hindus fled en masse and an intellectual and literary brain drain ensued. Our Bengali identity, so closely tied with out literary traditions and our Hindu roots, was now co-opted by a Muslim one.
We were being ruled by a theocracy a thousand miles away. A new language was now being imposed upon us – Urdu. A beautiful language, to be sure, but not ours. The Bangladeshi language movement was born in the face of this imposition and people died to protect the mother tongue.
Thus, we crept even further away from our affinity for English. Now we were forced to fight for our independence again, this time from Pakistan. This led the way to a nationalistic fervor, within which we are still ensconced. The Pakistani government systematically targeted intellectuals for execution and imprisonment – including my father. I am an American because of this.
Thus, a second brain drain occurred in 1971, with writers, intellectuals and artists fleeing death. Pakistan was defeated, at the cost of 3 million lives in nine months. Those left behind became mired in nationalism.
Where children were earlier taught both English and Bangla, now people only wanted to send their children to Bangla medium schools. The very wealthy opted for English, but this was a small percentage. The negative side effects of not having a generation able to speak and write in English is that we cut ourselves off from the rest of the world.
Nationalism and the lack of translations
Bangladeshi literature has not been translated until a few outliers like Tagore took it upon himself to do so. The national poet of Bangladesh, Kazi Nazrul Islam, has not been widely translated into English. We are not actively trying to bring Nazrul to the world.
What India benefited from was that English was its unifying language. It is a country run in English. Moreover, it is the third-largest English speaking country in the world, with a thriving, educated middle class, a market heaven for publishers .
Two long decades of military rule has also made the citizens of Bangladesh very protective of their language and culture. After prolonged military rule, dissent was forcefully stifled. Many writers went underground as a result.
In the early 1990s Bangladeshis, starved of things, started thinking only of themselves, not culture or literature itself. It was about wealth accumulation and their version of the American Dream. Culture felt to the wayside. Only recently are people seriously translating great works of Bangladeshi literature at a level that rivals that of Garcia Marquez’s or Pamuk’s translations. Two people I know of personally, Mahmud Rahman and Shabnam Nadiya, are doing this imperative work regularly. The newly minted Dhaka Translation Centre has also been set up to properly train people to translate.
Class: an English education versus a Bangla education
Right now it is a particular class writing in English. On the one hand not many have their finger on the pulse of what it means to be an average Bangladeshi struggling to live – and on the other they are mimicking or drawing liberally from western traditions. Those writing in English usually have the advantage of being able to study abroad. This only widens the chasm between the classes and muddies what Bangladeshi literature could be.
The two best-known English language writers of Bangladeshi origin, Zia Haider Rahman (In the Light of What We Know) and Tahmima Anam (The Good Muslim, The Golden Age, The Bones of Grace) cannot be considered post-colonial. Though Anam’s novel The Golden Age is about the 1971 war for independence, I would not qualify it as a reaction to a colonial past. Both these writers were educated abroad and their work is not informed by colonisation.
Post-colonial literature is all in Bangla, and mostly untranslated. It hasn’t been read by us widely, the ones who are going into the world and are considered its emissaries. I am going in blind. This is only the beginning.
Thus, I posit there is no such thing as post-colonial Bangladeshi fiction in English. We are still inventing who we are as Bangladeshi fiction writers, and slowly coming into the world. We have a history, we have tradition, we have craft, but will we ever find our place in Western literary firmament? Do we even need to?
Sharbari Zohra Ahmed is a writer of fiction and plays and TV, all the while living in Connecticut, US, with her son.