(This article was published in our quarterly issue ‘The Bangladesh Paradox‘. Also part of our web-series on the issue.)
English-language literary magazines in Bangladesh have been shaped by the complex history of the nation’s mother tongue, Bengali. The struggle to defend its language was a root cause of Bangladesh’s War of Liberation and Independence. This bitter, protracted fight, and its aftermath, significantly shaped the role and place of English in Bangladesh. That, in turn, determined the course of creative writing in English, making the story of Bangladeshi literary journals in English really a tale of two languages.
Bangladesh was colonial East Bengal before 1947, where English never did get firmly planted. The bulk of its population was Muslim peasantry, inching painfully towards political power and modern education. Hindus were the educated elite of the region, playing cricket with the sahibs, engaging in debates over civic issues, and teaching in the schools and colleges. But it was Calcutta (now Kolkata) that they looked to for divination – a city that was the center of the Bengal Renaissance, with its glittering cluster of writers and literature, the reformist shocks of Brahmo Samaj and with the ‘Young Bengals’ of Hindu College scandalising their elders by carousing and writing English poetry.
In contrast, Dhaka (then Dacca) was the scorned capital of a ‘hinterland’ populated by rustic Bangals. The point is perhaps tellingly illustrated in From the Delta: English Fiction from Bangladesh, a book edited by Professor Niaz Zaman, that spiritedly attempts to present “a hundred years” of Bangladeshi short fiction. It begins with a famous short story written in 1905 by Begum Rokeya Sakhawat, Southasia’s first feminist writer, and then perforce has to jump to 1959 for the next one. The intervening fifty years had produced no English writing of note, and Begum Rokeya’s gracious, emancipatory voice was the exception that proved the rule.
East Bengal became East Pakistan after the 1947 Partition, yoked to West Pakistan a thousand miles away to form Pakistan, the new nation state for Muslims previously under the Raj. Very soon, however, there was trouble in paradise as the governing elites in West Pakistan began to define the Islamic contours of the new state. They declared that Urdu – a language alien to the majority in East Bengal – was going to be the national language, triggering an explosive, popular movement in defence of the mother tongue. It gained density and momentum throughout the 1950s and 1960s, becoming full-throated demands for equality and democracy, leading in 1971 to independence after a bloody nine-month War of Liberation. Bengali became the official state language of the affirmatively secular new nation. But the triumphalism also translated into a narrow linguistic nationalism.
Sweeping changes of government policies on language and education all but wiped out English from public discourse and national life, as well as squeezing the space for the nation’s minority languages. School syllabi, curriculum and teaching were radically redirected. Creative writing in English was stifled, where, during its darkest hours, the random poem or newspaper ‘feature article’ could be glimpsed flitting ghost-like across the Bengali-planked floorboards of the country. English became even more the preserve of the English departments of a few public universities – especially at Dhaka University, the principal keeper of the flame in the ensuing three decades.
Ironically, it was the 1947 Partition and the carving out of East Pakistan that had brought a measure of English to Bengali Muslims. Partition meant Hindus departed en masse for India, and in its place emerged, blinking and hesitant, a native Muslim elite. As the-then head of the English department of Dhaka University, Professor A G Stock, wrote in her memoir of those times, “severance from West Bengal… conscious of its differences with West Pakistan,” made East Pakistan “vividly conscious of its identity and of the need to find an outlet to explain itself.” One such outlet was an English literary journal called New Values (NV) brought out by K S Murshid – then “in his twenties” and later a hugely respected academic. NV, Stock wrote:
kept a high standard of writing; kept it, in matters literary and artistic, above the mutual admiration level which would have made it a ‘little magazine’… [tempering] its Bengali preoccupations with good articles from overseas and translations and critical discussions of modern writing from other Islamic countries.
This, historically, is where it began for us.
Other developments accelerated this encounter between English and Bengalis. Oxford University Press (OUP), based in Bombay and Calcutta during colonial times, now came to Pakistan. In a symbolically powerful move that ‘severed’ Calcutta’s control of East Bengal’s publication market, it opened a branch office in Dhaka. In 1958, strongman Ayub Khan came to power in Pakistan, and enacted new educational policies: English now was to be a compulsory subject in schools. OUP prepared the necessary English course books, and later also published university textbooks. It also published specifically for the East Pakistan market, and gave English translations a boost by bringing out works such as that of revered folk poet Jasimuddin – The Field of the Embroidered Quilt: A Tale of Two Pakistani Villages.
By the mid-1960s, the Dhaka office was humming. East Bengali Muslims were now doing things they had scarcely done before – run an administration, teach at colleges and universities, travel abroad, play cricket. And aspire to write in English – Syed Waliullah’s short stories appeared in Miscellany, the publication of Pakistan PEN, in the 1950s. Razia Amin, of Dhaka University, also wrote fiction in English. Academics wrote essays and literary criticism. Newspapers and magazines opened up their platform to poems and other writing.
Even as the ground beneath their feet was giving way, connections were being made. Kaiser Haq, Bangladesh’s leading English-language poet (and professor of English at Dhaka University) went to Lahore in January 1971 to participate in an all-Pakistan poetry contest. In Dhaka then, with streets raging, the government’s writ did not run beyond the cantonment. His hastily-scribbled submission bagged him a winning position, followed by cordial exchanges with the Pakistani poets. Decades later, some of them still recalled him – memories of a literary meeting alive across war and borders.
Then, on the night of 25 March 1971, the Pakistan army launched ‘Operation Searchlight’, its blueprint for the genocide of Bengalis, and the fight was on. The East Pakistan phase of our English was over.
Revolutions, as was once famously pronounced, are not dinner parties. After so much bloodshed, victory for Bangladeshis was a joyous release, and understandably enough, in the tumult nobody noticed that the English baby was getting tossed out with the bathwater. English had such shallow roots that it easily died on the vine. Some idea of those bleak years for English can be gained from the writings of Fakrul Alam, professor of English at the Dhaka University, charting the decline of standards at the English departments of various universities. It is a slide that continues unabated till today.
But even in prison there is jailhouse rock. All you need is Spider Murphy on the sax and Little Joe on the trombone… So my memories from my student times in the mid to late 1970s are of Kaiser Haq’s first book of poems coming out on ratty newsprint; of Holiday, a Maoist weekly hospitable to the oppressed, publishing pieces by a classmate and I. There were literary throat-clearings by dignified Anglophiles here and there. Poems by Khawaja Moinul Hasan. Endeavour magazine ran a tongue-in-cheek piece I had written on ‘English-medium women’. The issue sold out in ten minutes flat – in hindsight, perhaps much more a comment on the male student readership than on the women.
After Independence, OUP packed up and left, but the local University Press Limited (UPL) took its place and was headed by the genial Mohiuddin Ahmed, ever ready to lend a sympathetic ear to unfounded rumours of English writing somewhere out there on the darkling plains. And, since the itch was rich and would not go away, in the early 1980s there was Form, brought out by the faculty members of the English department at Dhaka University – Shawkat Hossain as editor, and backed by Kashinath Roy, Firdaus Azim and Kaiser Haq, with the helping hand of Yasmeen Haq (department graduate and classmate). Form was the classic little magazine – a scrawny street kid, no money, ready to feed off scraps if need be – that published poems, translations, lit-crit and memoir. And once, memorably, a letter to the editor in demi-Hatterer (G V Desani’s outrageous Anglo-Indian character) mode, mocking publications such as Form itself and eliciting knowing guffaws from… well, those in the know. Form expired after four issues. I remember one issue with a noirish black cover. It might have carried a cringe-worthy articulation by me on Pynchon T. – he of Rainbow Gravity’s fame, reclusive shaman of sizzling rocketry… you, aargh, shudder, get the idea!
But all for the cause.
Change came in the late 1980s. Economic liberalisation, cable television hotly beaming tens of dozens of foreign channels into Bangladeshi homes and the boom in travel (the upper class to Bangkok for shopping cures, workers to the Gulf and Southeast Asia, and business folks and students to all places) exponentially increased Bangladesh’s contact with the outside world. A younger generation came of age tuned in to the hip wavelengths of FM radio, while a new paper, the Daily Star, brought a fresh energy to the media scene. In literature, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children had burst on to the stage and Indian writing in English took off on afterburners. Manmohan Singh unshackled the Licence Raj in India. Next door, we noticed. All these waves crashing on the shores, dissolving the sands of the past, could not be ordered back.
A widening interaction with the outside world, a broadening of horizons, meant English – some of it in strange hues, ranging from standard to rickshaw pidgin – began to make a comeback.
Once again unto the breach. Six Seasons Review came out in 2001, underwritten by UPL and brought out by a ‘Quartet’ of the usual suspects from English Department, Dhaka University. They declared, in a statement that covered all bases and then some, the “need for an English language Bangladeshi Indian subcontinental” journal of the arts. Three gallant issues later, it folded as unsold copies piled up with the publisher. Bangladesh’s market for English books and literary publications was far too small to sustain the venture. English was making a kind of comeback, but the pasting it had taken meant there were not enough readers, and to paraphrase V S Naipaul, without readers there are no publications.
So what is the scene now?
It was in 2011 that the Hay Festival – literature as global brand and marketing franchise – was brought to Dhaka through the agency of London-based Bangladeshi novelist Tahmima Anam (A Golden Age). The festival was held on the British Council library grounds on Fuller Road, smack dab in the middle of the university area. As I stood on the grass beneath a flawlessly blue sky, I went back a couple of decades. There is a very well-trodden path that, back in the day, quite a few of us took every day from the university’s arts faculty building to the library. To read about Auden in the Times Literary Supplement. Or smoke and check out the women. And it was in the to-and-fro-ing on this path, in and around it, that many a plan to publish, to write in English, to do something, was hatched. This was a path where hope sprung, if not eternal, at least some of the time. With the crowd milling about at that first Hay, a small conversation took place between me and the novelist Kazi Anis Ahmed (The World In My Hands). With his financial support, and Kaiser Haq on board, was born Bengal Lights, the latest iteration of Bangladesh’s English literary scene. Then, in 2013, Six Seasons Review resurfaced with new patronage but under the old guard of Fakrul Alam as editor.
Hay Dhaka was held for the next three years, growing in size and attracting big-name writers. In 2015, it is being re-launched as the Dhaka Literary Festival, under the aegis of Anis Ahmed and the alliteratively-named poets, Ahsan Akbar and Sadaf Saaz Siddiqi. Gone were the old days of isolation for Bangladeshi writing (both English and Bengali) as the festivals enfolded it within a larger frame and drew in the gaze of foreign publishers based in Delhi. Some of the latest attention is due to the waves generated by the Bangladeshi-born, UK-based author Zia Haider Rahman – author of In The Light of What We Know, the winner of the 2014 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. There are others at work in the Bangladeshi diaspora – Mahmud Rahman, Neeman Sobhan, Shabnam Nadiya, Ikhtisad Ahmed and Abeer Hoque. There’s Neeamat Imam in Canada, and Adib Khan in Australia. There are many younger writers toiling away in Dhaka, among them Shazia Omar and Srabonti Nameen Ali, and others such as Ahmede Hussain, Farah Ghuznavi and Saad Z Hossain. It is a busy, buzzing scene.
At the end of the second day of Hay 2013, I sat with a well-known artist at the Dhaka Club. Over drinks he smiled and said (translation mine), “So the circus is in town, the crowd is loving it. You guys enjoying yourselves?”
“Things seem to be going all right.”
“And this festival, the bells, the bling – is it the real thing?”
English readership is stagnant here. It’s only the generous financial support of the patrons that keeps Dhaka’s two English-language literary journals afloat. There are small, independent publishers for English books – including our own Bengal Lights Books – sustained by interests other than financial. Professor Niaz Zaman is the pioneer here, founding writers.ink which is now is crippled by unsold books. Looked up close, the buzz is based on some hard realities. It is the diaspora – the desis based abroad – that is cranking out the books getting the attention. Tahmima Anam, Zia Haider, and way back, Monica Ali – Harvard, Oxford, and Oxford. The latest is Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam from Brooklyn. The writers who are in Dhaka, who show promise and potential, are again those who have gone to universities abroad. So, to me, it looks like the wholly ‘native schooled’ writers – the products of the local system – are plain out of luck. Unless they get that requisite exposure and firepower, it ain’t happening for them. English writing is a privileged affair, and that old path to the British Council library from the arts faculty building looks tapped out.
So at the club, looking down into my drink, I muttered, “Don’t know, only time will tell.”
And we both left it at that.
~Khademul Islam is a Bangladeshi writer and translator. He is at work on a non-fiction book to be published by Bloomsbury, UK.
~ This article was published in our quarterly issue ‘The Bangladesh Paradox‘. Also part of our web-series on the issue.