Himal calls from Kathmandu. They want a piece on English writing in Bangladesh. Deadline is not so long away. Is it possible? I suppose so. Dhaka e-mails are all knocked out or virused to death. Infecting global networks and friends. Life is a bit unsettled as usual for me here. I pine for the Valley so much. Never been away from it for so long.
I call Asha Mehreen Amin of Daily Star who runs an excellent weekend magazine. Get a load of phone numbers from her including that of her mother, Razia Khan Amin, who is one of the recognised bilingual writers in town. Asha is putting the magazine to bed and has little time to talk till after the deadline. I start practising being brave about deadlines. The magazine she edits is a good example of what is wrong and right with English writing in Bangladesh. It is a potpourri of columns, some sweet and some pedantic. Travel pieces, belle letteres, art and literary reviews, occasional fiction and practically everything else that fit into the weekend insert of any major daily.
Some of the columns are very popular. The English varies from expat Bangladeshi to the more home-grown chatpatti. Asha herself is very good. Genes? But the essential weekend nature of the magazine determines style and ambition. It serves the purpose of the newspaper and goes no further. Most of the contributors write modern, and one believes that given a chance at least some could graduate to more sustainable stuff. But most offerings are primarily one-two pagers. Heavier stuff has to look for other parking lots. Still, to say that it’s the best place to catch mostly correct English is saying a lot.
Poems, fiction and translation, and, increasingly, ‘lifts’ and excerpts figure in the literary section of Daily Star every Saturday. It’s managed by Ziaul Karim but he proves elusive. Ten calls later, he is still just in and just out. Wonder whether he will figure in the piece.
A few evenings later, I talk to Razia Khan Amin. She is a writer taken seriously by all and sundry, and to top it all, teaches English at Dhaka University. Years of toiling without a satisfying readership appears to have taken its toll. Who would read English, she asks? Not a single ‘serious’ review of her work, even in her own land. “A lady in India wrote a piece on me but it went unnoticed in Bangladesh. Did you read my English novel Draupadi?” I confess I had not.
She asks about a few other books. Some I have, some I don’t. The novelist Adeebuzzaman who won the Commonwealth Writers Award for his novel, Seasonal Adjustments, was her student. Yes, I have read that. His father looked like Ashok Kumar and would sit in the Calcutta University hostel and sing Ashok’s hits. A friend of my father’s.
Adeebuzzaman Khan is the most internationally successful novelist whose ‘roots’ are in what is now Bangladesh. At least we can claim him though his passport can’t be carrying that dreadful green which promises no hope but stony rubbish. Adeeb is now settled in Australia and irregularly commutes to his homeland. Seasonal Adjustments, based on the coming to terms / adjustment with being an outsider in one’s homeland and a shattered home life, was reprinted in Dhaka but, as expected, found few readers. The valiant publisher was Taher Quddus, a retired columnist and businessman, owning the largest security services company as well as a bookshop called Bookworms, which stocks a solid list of English language books from different lands.
Few know about Adeeb and his achievements when I ask around. Notices appeared in the dailies after his prize, a few pieces also, but cricket, cinema and politicians stole the very sky in which his star shone. And of course he isn’t exactly your leisure writer.
Syed Monzurul Islam, also of Dhaka University’s English Department, is a big help, as always. One of the most prolific writers in the country, he walks with ease in both English and Bangla genres and in many other fields. Arguably the country’s most sought-after art and literary critic, he has three collections of Bangla short stories published, including one from Calcutta. Teaches English to admiring students year after year. Mentions names, telephone numbers and flags me an article by Niaz Zaman of DU’s English Department, exactly on the topic I am working on.
Argus Under Anaesthesia
I call The Independent’s magazine section. Jamal Arsalan, hacking at English literature for the last 30 years, promises to hold on to a copy of the Niaz Zaman issue for me. Learn from him that his collection of short stories When Swans Sail was published in 1970-71. Is he our first published writer in Albion’s tongue at the beginning of the 70s? Why don’t you write anymore? I do, he says, but who will publish my work? And who’ll read? Tough questions to answer. It’s a refrain I will hear as I talk to more and more people.
Couple of evenings later I talk to Manzurul Islam again. He is dismayed at the lack of quality of English writing here. He laments the absence of a “culture of culture”, the cosmopolitanism that is so essential in nurturing a global language literature. I don’t ask whether the vernacular writer is also burdened by the same sin. But we all know how powerful provincialism can be. Why are there so many celebrated writers from West Bengal while the Eastern version seems to be trailing behind? Manzurul Islam has one answer: “In India all the people learn to use English well because that’s the common language of a billion people. We have no such situation. So the language rusts and decays.”
Not too many users. West Bengal, part of India, us in a state of isolation. List the writers, the poets who show an early promise and then disappear: names like Firoze Ahmeduddin, Nuzhat Amin, Azfer Hussain and a few others. Showed promise, showing promise, knows will show promise. Nuzhat is good and is writing. Teaches English at DU. How many will make it in the end? This land shouts down the poet?
The nature of the state determines the trend of literature. The language demands undivided loyalty, and literary expressions are close to political identities. Post-modern, postcolonial, pre-globalised literary landscapes. One imagines the agony of the unread writer. Yet people push on. And so he pushes on. Niaz Zaman is one of the most committed English language writers in Bangladesh. In 1996, the country’s largest publishing house, UPL, published a collection of her short stories, The Dance and Other Stories. She has been noticed abroad and topped an Asiaweek literary contest. I read a piece by her which was a summary of a paper she read at a conference. “One might date the beginning of English creative writing from the mid-1970s which was also the time that Razia Khan published two books of English poems, Argus Under Anaesthesia and Cruel April…”
The Inner Edge
She mentions four more: Nafisa Jamal, Feroze Ahmeduddin, Khawja Moinul Hasan and Kaiser Huq. The first two have apparently disappeared. Writers’ Workshop in Calcutta published Khawja Moinul’s The Inner Edge a few years ago. But it’s only Kaiser Haque who rows on. I call Kaiser. His answering machine answers back. We then take another look at Niaz Zaman and a few others. In fact, except for Kaiser, the rest have faded out into private oblivions. The US swallows so many of the possibles who could have added a line here, a paragraph .there. Obscurity in Macdonald-land has its own joys. Must be the vending machines which act as a balm for the lesions caused by exile and writers’ block as large as Manhattan.
As I gather the few facts resting like crumbs on a table here, I see that English writing is certainly clustered around the campus. Niaz Zaman notes that many of the major Bengali writers are/were themselves students of the English Department. Manzrul Islam had echoed that feeling too. Called it the “dividend(s) of exposure”. The world expands with the right language it seems.
Niaz Zaman mentions in her article what many also see as a critical point. The standard of learning and teaching in the English language has declined. For a long time after 1971, it wasn’t the language to be close to, and Bengali was the kosher medium of learning. “But between 1981 and 1990 there was a perceptible change. The small coaching centres had become full-fledged schools offering O levels and A levels. There was an increasing English reading public.”
These are facts. The better stuff is written by children with English medium schooling, whether in this city or in colder climes. They have a natural advantage, and it’s common to step into any office and hear various twangs which belong to boroughs running from the Queen’s in New York to Brick Lane in East London. But Dhaka’s schools haven’t done too badly either. A girl barely past her teens has already made a mark as a journalist and writer of promise. She has a novel titled AVA. Nothing teenage about the book. A tale about women in the seriously feudal era of the past. And she hasn’t entered university yet. But Sayeem Hasan Tori has been writing for more than half a decade. Future?
So located too are the many who populate the magazines. They rarely get the nod for quality. Who reads whom? Who is a writer? Perhaps the enormous burden of being successful in a socially, politically and mystically sanctioned language overwhelms. Razia Khan Amin talks about the propensity of Bangladeshis to dislike complex narratives. She became famous while still in university with a novel called Bat Tolar Uppanayas. It would best translate as “The Penny Novel”. Nowadays, simple love stories or narratives of small middle class crises which don’t disturb the lunch hour are hot favourites. Middle-aged fathers and school-going daughters enjoying the same literary innocence. English writers in Bangladesh haven’t caught that fish as yet. It’s literature with a meal.
Nobody mentions or remembers Thomas Ansell, a solitary Englishman who settled in Bangladesh and taught in schools, and later wrote editorials, ultimately dying in misery hounded by cancer and poverty. Was a mentor to many young ones including Azfer whose first collection, Chromatones, has a foreword by him. Was influenced by Wordsworth. Oh, well. Houseman too?
Got Kaiser Haq just before midnight. Primarily a poet with an occasional jab at translations. Starting Lines and A Little Ado were his first two volumes of poetry. Dhaka 1978. In 1994, UPL published A Happy Farewell. In 1996, Black Orchids was birthed by Aark Arts of London. Arnold’s Anthology of Post-colonial Poetry (1997) included him as did an OUP collection. London Magazine publishes him regularly and so do others. He is on anthologies in the States and he adds, a little amused, one in Norway.
Kaiser looks like the proverbial man who has tigers for breakfast. He is a war hero. Returned to mufti life after 1971 to return to his studies. Strange that such men should be gentle as lambs. “I write because I want to. There is a simple urge to write. Face the fact that we don’t learn the language from the womb. It will be different from the natural writers. Environment, culture, other factors influence. Must know limits.”
He laughs easily and there is no self-pity, disappointment or resentment in his voice. I feel the dismay that I have collected dissipating a bit. Just write on. Nobody has to write to win a prize or even a large number of readers or even recognition. “If you ask me about the future fate of mankind or life itself I would give a pessimist answer because I am that. But within the frame of individual realities, I must do the best I can, relate to the realities.” He is undeterred by the enclosures, he enjoys writing a little more than the fact that he will have to find a few readers as well. Or maybe not. He sounds like his poetry. Laconic, illusionless but not cynical, emotional but not ear-bending. Knows the facts and keeps his counsel to himself. One last attempt to locate Ziaul Karim fails. I decide the extra day didn’t help get him. Must send the stuff on. Might have left out many published/self-published authors who care about writing, but Himal can’t wait.