DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, JANUARY 5, 2014
ARTS & LETTERS
D H A K A T R I B U N E S U N DAY, JA N UA RY 5 , 2 0 1 4
POETRY Losar Greeting Tenzin Tsundue
Tashi Delak ! Though in a borrowed garden you grow, grow well my sister. Editor Zafar Sobhan Editor Arts & Letters Khademul Islam Assistant Editor Pushpita Alam Artist Shazzad H Khan
This Losar when you attend your Morning Mass, say an extra prayer that the next Losar we can celebrate back in Lhasa. When you attend your convent classes, learn an extra lesson that you can teach children back in Tibet. Last year on our Happy Losar, I had an IDLI-SAMBAR breakfast and wrote my BA final exams. My IDLIS wouldn’t stand on my toothed steely fork, but I wrote my exams well. Though in a borrowed garden you grow, grow well my sister. Send your roots through the bricks, stones, tiles and sand. spread your branches wide and rise above the hedges high. Tashi Delek!
Tashi Delek – a greeting in Tibetan, said especially on New Year Losar – Tibetan New Year, in February or March on the Christian calendar Idli-Sambar – A South Indian rice dish From Kora, reviewed in these pages.
The New Spring Abul Hussain
(Translated by Syed Sajjad Husain) Last year’s spring is now a painful memory Of heavy rainfall and claps of thunder Of birds bedraggled by sudden tempests And signs of green erased utterly. Where are those women, young and luminous, Who filled my world with moonlike brightness, When the nights were dark and the days all clouded? Have they abandoned the lamps they lighted? I see no trace of those scented blossoms Whose odour gave my nights their ardour, Nor the cloudless blue of the wide horizon. The lamps lie shattered, soiled and tarnished.
The seasons’ cycle will bring the spring back, The sun once more fashions new splendours. I know the birds will wear fresh plumage, And sport again on boughs and branches.
But will my bruised, so tired and weary, Relive its dreams and shake off its stupor, Or hear the birds as they call from treetops, And awake and stir to savour the blossoms? n From Abul Hussain Early Poems: A Selection published by writers.ink, Dhaka.
ARTS & LETTERS
DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, JANUARY 5, 2014
LETTER FROM LONDON Ahsan Akbar
Christopher Hitchens: A Tribute
aving been brought up in a Bengali household where any form of dissent or challenge to authority was tantamount to beyadobi, i.e., talking back with one’s elders, Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011) was a liberating force. It started with his book The Missionary Position, in which, in typical Hitchens’ fashion, he systematically took apart one Agnes Bojaxhiu, otherwise known as Mother Teresa. I had tried some modified rebellion at that time, arguing with the maulana teaching me Arabic that if Mother Teresa could not make it to heaven because she was not Muslim, then none of us on Planet Earth deserved to. But Hitchens’ radicalism was of a different order than mine, and in one fabulous stroke he blew away the Bengali middle-class bhadralok mindset I belonged to. I left home soon afterwards for England, where I landed amidst its ‘shires.’ Here, especially back then, it was easy to be cowed by the pressures of feeling and looking alien. Reading Hitchens was an antidote to such alienation, and I’ve been a fan of Hitchens since my college days. Little by little, he introduced me to some great dissenting minds, to Zola, Parks, Orwell, et al. Part of his charm for me was his ideological but non-dogmatic style, the fluent, anti-academic flow of his writing, a combination that made his complex ideas relevant in the modern context. At the university and afterwards, this attitude resonated with me, at attitude that refused utterly to kowtow to anyone, to treat a blueblooded Etonian no differently than the school janitor. I had always been a friendly creature, but now in England my responses were tempered by how the Other behaved. In Hitchensesque fashion I would forthrightly put any and all in their place if they tried to put one over me as yet another ‘brownie!’ Hitchens showed me something that my parents did not, or perhaps, could not – which was how to not automatically defer to anyone or any authority without being a beyadob! Funny to think that Hitchens the white man gave me racial confidence, but then typically he would be the one to get the greatest kick out of it! Something else I found engrossing about Hitchens was his intellectual combativeness. He was never one to back away from a good fight, crossing swords with anyone he thought was being mendacious, or worse, second-rate. But more than content, it was again style that was decisive for me, a style that allowed him to be flexible in his thinking. I am particularly fond of his debate with the Respect Party MP George Galloway at Baruch College. Galloway, an equally pugnacious debater, pushed Hitchens to re-think his points, and at times when Galloway’s points appeared indestructible, Hitchens would rebound with an answer. It was exhilarating to watch. He also was the first, as far as I am aware, to turn his scalpel on Henry Kissinger. As a Bangladeshi, I (and all right-thinking Bangladeshis I am sure) remain particularly indebted to Hitchens for exposing Kissinger for what he was, aiding in the massacre of millions and trying to suppress a people’s struggle for freedom. Read The Trial of Henry Kissinger if you haven’t and survey Hitchens raging in indignation at cold-blooded policies of extermination. Yet another aspect, though it could be said to be a combination of the two above, would be the ‘Hitch’ persona: For me, it completely re-defined the notion of a public intellectual. Far too many intellectuals come across as bloodless academic types. Not Hitchens. His showmanship was unique. One may not be swayed by his arguments, but he made sure one was never bored. He was much admired by all of us who were part of the debating club at college. It is a style I still search for in public speakers. To me, Hitchens remains the model.
This style was the reason I wrote to Steve Wasserman, the New Yorkbased co-executor of the Hitchens estate, requesting that Hitchens’ public speeches be released in CD, DVD and MP3 formats. Carol Blue-Hitchens, his wife of 30 years, was not too keen on the idea. Though disappointed at that time, in retrospect I found the decision commendable. London, especially during pre-Christmas festivities, is all about consumerist frenzy, and perhaps it would not have been too edifying to see massproduced box-sets of ‘Hitch discs’ on sale. I’m sure the Hitch wouldn’t have approved of the ‘cashing-in’ either. Hitchens, ever the contrary figure, made sure that admiring him would be no cakewalk. His support for Bush’s war on Iraq, with arguments close to what the neocons were baying about, was dismaying, to say the least. It felt like betrayal. How could he visit the White House and have tea with Bush? Hitchens outlined his reason: he had been a member of the International Socialists from his Oxford days, had always been opposed to fascist totalitarianism, and thusly the Iraq war was about ending Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, and restoring freedom for the Kurdish people. Hitchens did point out that he had been supporting the Kurdish struggle before Bush waged the war. It was not an argument that found much support among his old socialist friends, nor did it deflect charges of Islamophobia from Hitchens. At the 2008 Hay Festival in Wales I was in a long queue for Hitchens. He had just come off stage after a raucous session and sat down at a desk at the author’s lounge. My conversation with him ran as follows: “Hi … (shaking hands) Ahsan from Bangladesh.” “Hi, Christopher from Portsmouth – now, (laughingly) that didn’t sound half as sexy, did it? Are you from Dacca or Chittagong or … ? You know it’s a bloody shame I travelled as far as Calcutta but didn’t cross the border to visit your country. ” I immediately wanted to invite him, and asked how to get in touch. “You can look me up in the Yellow Pages. I’m the only Hitchens in the Washington DC metro area and my number is not classified,” he said while simultaneously writing his digits on one of those postcards ubiquitous at events such as the Hay. “This is my home, and this is my agent’s – choose your phone date, young man.” “What would you like to see or do in Bangladesh?” I said, grinning from ear to ear. “Can you please get your country’s top Muslim scholar to debate God and Islam with me? That’d be fun. Or anything you want - you tell me. We can go visit the tigers, if that’s safer … ” A tweed-jacketed fellow standing just behind me began to make rude noises to a fellow-tweedy that I was ‘hogging’ space. Hitchens, attentive and quick as ever, put him in his place: “Manners, sir (longish pause) manners,” he said firmly, with a raised hand, accompanied by a stern look that brought pin-drop silence.
is the author of The Devil’s Thumbprint (Bengal Lights Books, 2013), a collection of poems.
Hitchens once wrote, “I do not especially like the idea that one day I shall be tapped on the shoulder and informed, not that the party is over but that it is most assuredly going on – only henceforth in my absence… Much more horrible, though, would be the announcement that the party was continuing forever, and that I was forbidden to leave … ” I like to think he is at the center of the Party Upstairs, scotch in hand. He would not be anywhere else! n
3 DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, JANUARY 5, 2014
ARTS & LETTERS
On Eliot Weinberger Zahid Khan
Zahid Khan is an aspiring playwright in Boston currently visiting South Asia. He attended the Hay Festival, Dhaka.
liot Weinberger came to the Hay Festival, Dhaka, and was primarily introduced to the audience as a teacher and translator. That is a pity, though Eliot rightly should be applauded for work in those areas. However, the man is much more, representing a kind of American intellectual voice and man of letters that is a dying breed in the USA’s arid public environment of narrow specialists and policy wonks. More is the pity, therefore, that perhaps hardly in Dhaka’s audience could have known, as far as I am aware, of his 10,000 word prose poem published in 2005 – ‘What I Heard about Iraq’. It is a compendium of the lies, truths, and propaganda about the Iraq war that were generated by the Bush regime for over two years. It is a celebrated piece now, much in demand in festivals, demos and protest meets, and has even been turned into a play by Simon Levy. I have seen it performed in Boston and it was stupendous experience for me. Eliot Weinberger’s An Elemental Thing is a collection of essays, and a strange collection it is. It consists of pieces on a single theme – on one image, idea, object, or name, but working, and re-working that single image or idea to create the effect of multiple looks at the same thing. So, for example, an essay called ‘Changs’ gives capsule biographies of twenty-
nine men who share the name. ‘Lacandons’ is a catalogue of dream interpretations from Chiapas, and anaphoric in that nearly every line begins similarly, “If you dream...” An Elemental Thing is a rescue effort, a salvaging of things from remote corners of intellectual history, a prolonged dip into classical times. And as such, deeply fascinating. As it would have been equally fascinating if the audience in Dhaka could have heard Eliot’s poem declaimed on the stage: I heard the vice president say: ‘I really do believe we will be greeted as liberators.’ I heard Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister, say: ‘American soldiers will not be received by flowers. They will be received by bullets.’ n
Wadjda: ‘Don’t let the men hear you laughing.’ Waqar Ahmed
I Waqar Ahmed is currently nearing completion on a novel and a collection of short stories.
n a clear reference to Vittorio De Sica’s famous neorealist film The Bicycle Thief, Haifaa Al Mansour structures her movie Wadjda around the quest for a bicycle that, like its predecessor, carries implications far greater than we normally associate with such a quotidian object. Yet, while Mr. De Sica’s film employs the trope to show the hardships endemic to the lives of the poor in postwar Italy, in Ms. Al Mansour’s hands the symbol works toward quite different ends. Wadjda’s protagonist, for whom the film is named, is a young Saudi girl who desperately longs for a bicycle with little concern for her family’s financial situation or society’s norms; it is a quest that can only directly collide against the expectations of women in Saudi Arabia. Older girls in her school are punished for wearing makeup. Her mother is trying to prevent her father from taking a second wife. One of her preadolescent classmates is arranged to be married. Nevertheless, Wadjda’s singular purpose causes her to disregard the social issues surrounding her, thereby making their presentation even more poignant. With her breezy doggedness, Waad Mohammed, the young female lead in Wadjda, ensures that the first film shot in Saudi Arabia is a good one. Where her mother tries to ward off a rival by using unimaginative tactics such as the purchase of a flattering dress, Wadjda is lovably subversive in attaining her goal. She cannot raise the money for a bicycle with her savings, and after a number of small entrepreneurial failures such as delivering letters to admirers who otherwise cannot meet, Wadjda decides to enter into a Qur’an contest at school that promises a large cash prize to the winner. With what little money she has, she purchases Qur’an tapes to practice. In young Wadjda, Saudi Arabia is presented with a hopeful vanguard of feminism. Here, Ms. Al Mansour has taken a page out of Iranian cinema which frequently uses children to comment on social inequities. Iranian child films of the nineties (The White Balloon, Children of Heaven, Color of Paradise) were a popular vehicle for directors to circumvent the mullocracy’s artistic restrictions. We suspect Ms. Al Mansour had the same idea with Wadjda. By shooting through the dreamy lens of its young heroine, the director is able to keep the Saudi government’s censors at bay (Wadjda was selected by Saudi Arabia as its foreign language Oscar entry). Perhaps the authorities in Iran and Saudi Arabia hope that audiences will take these movies at face value. Razieh in the
The White Balloon simply wants an expensive goldfish. Zahra is worried about her missing pink shoes in Children of Heaven. And Wadjda schemes to purchase a bicycle. While the film sometimes suffers from hackneyed dialogue bemoaning the restrictions on women (“Don’t let the men hear you laughing,” “A woman’s voice is her nakedness.”) it does not contain any outright protest language, thanks largely to Wadjda’s focused ambition. If there is one weakness in the film, it is its treatment of South Asian migrant workers. Wadjda’s family driver is a Pakistani. Her mother i s perpetually late getting ready for her job in the morning. This somehow draws the ire of her Pakistani driver who berates her and repeatedly threatens to quit. In another scene, an Indian worker makes catcalls at Wadjda, going so far as to say, “Come play with us! Let me touch those apples.” Having lived in Saudi Arabia for over twelve years, I can say without hesitation that neither of these incidents would, in reality, ever occur. Poor South Asian workers could not muster the gall to behave in such a manner towards a Saudi national, regardless of their social or economic class. Wadjda is the first film made in Saudi Arabia and it is an important film. In depicting the restrictions placed on Saudi women in the kingdom, Ms. Al Mansour should have remembered that the position of migrant workers there is, in fact, several rungs below them. Instead, in a ploy to lump in South Asian laborers as part of the Male class, she dishonestly characterizes a suppressed class of people with few rights as bullies and perverts. Despite this curious flaw, Wadjda is an achievement on many levels, not least of all because it continues the promising trend of women’s liberalization in Saudi Arabia. Today, a woman makes the first Saudi film. In 2015, we look forward to women standing and voting in local elections there. n
ARTS & LETTERS
DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, JANUARY 5, 2014
Dharamsala: Exile on Back Street Khademul Islam
Tenzin Tsundue, Kora: stories and poems; New Delhi: Vee Enn Print O-Pac; 2003; Fourth Edition. Bhuchung D. Sonam, Yak Horns: Notes on Contemporary Tibetan Writing, Music, Film & Politics; Dharamsala: TibetWrites (funded by Blue Boeddha: Poets for Tibet, Netherlands); 2012.
e all know about the Chinese occupation of Tibet. We know far less about the writing that is being produced as a result of it. In 1950, Mao Zedong’s Red China decided to extend its rule and ideology into Tibet by force. The People’s Liberation Army (a misnomer if there ever was!) invaded Tibet, forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to Dharamsala in India where he set up the Tibet government-in-exile. Since then the Chinese have consolidated their occupation of Tibet. The Party and the PLA work hand in hand; the army keeps the ‘law and order’ while the party cadres spread the gospel of communism. A vigorous campaign of assimilation with China proper has demolished Tibet’s feudal society, destroying as a consequence the country’s ancient Buddhist language, culture, heritage and past. An unstoppable stream of Tibetans have since followed in the Dalai Lama’s
footsteps to Dharamsala, and today what was once a sleepy Raj hill resort has turned into a mini-Tibet, housing the growing community of Tibetan exiles, many of whose later generations, born in India, have no living memory of the country their parents and grandparents fled from. The books under review are a product of this setting, and reveal the especial anguish of exiles and refugees, those without a homeland. Kora is a book of poems and prose pieces, while Yak Horns is a collection of the author’s writings on personal and political themes plus reviews of movies, music and books on Tibet. ‘Kora’ in Tibetan means a circumbulation around a sacred object, a pilgrimage, and Tenzin Tsundue’s slim volume represents a circling around Tibet. He is a prominent Tibetan exile poet, political essayist, and ardent freedom activist, termed by Pankaj Mishra as “the new and most visible face…of the restless children of the Dalai Lama.” Tenzin’s prose has an attractive directness – ‘My Mumbai Story’ engagingly intertwines the personal with the historical while his poems are simple, yet stay in the mind. Yak Horns is a compendium of reviews of books, music and movies connected to Tibet as well as reflections on politics of, and writing in, exile. Bhuchung D. Sonam, who is also a poet and a product of Dharamsala, writes in the introduction that his purpose is to wrest control of the Tibetan narrative from “outsiders,” to reclaim “ownership over many aspects of our lives.” While one cannot definitively say that this book completely fulfills its objective, it does provide an alternative, and Tibetan, view of the varied cultural, artistic, journalistic and literary output of the Tibetan community in exile. There is a fascinating piece on the evolution of Tibetan English writing, while other articles show the force that nature (in the form of mountains and valleys, monasteries and temples) still exerts on Tibetan life and imagination, and the changing nature of Dharamsala from pure exile camp to a settled township. Bangladeshi readers will perhaps be startled to know that Tibetans fought on their side in the 1971 war of liberation (extract given below). All in all, these two volumes provide a vivid introduction to this community, its deep pain, and the many voices within it searching for identity and self-expression. One wishes them well. n
Extract: Tibetan Soldiers for Bangladesh in 1971
ndia’s dismal performance in this high-altitude battleground of the (1962) Sino-Indian war prompted the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to raise the Special Frontier Force … Its main goal was to conduct covert operations behind the lines of the PLA and to engage its soldiers in the uber-tough terrain of the Himalayas … Member’s of the SFF numbering around twelve thousand mostly came from ChushiGang-Druk, a resistance group founded in Tibet by Andrugtsang Gonpo Tashi, a Tibetan businessman. Three columns of SFF led by Gyato Dhondup, Ratuk Nawak and Pekar Trinley, who were simply identified as ‘political leaders,’ infiltrated into Bangladesh, then called East Pakistan. In collaborations with the Mukti Bahini … an armed group fighting against the Pakistan army, the SFF conducted raids destroying infrastructure such as bridges and communications lines – especially in Chittagong, where an important naval base was located – that enabled the Indian Army to advance into East Pakistan. However, this operation by around three thousand Tibetan soldiers was so secret that even the Indian army knew nothing of it. ‘‘We knew that they were there. But what they were doing I had no idea,’’ admitted MajorGeneral K K Tewari, who was Chief Signal Officer during the war. One of the biggest achievements of the SFF was the demolition of Do Hazari Bridge that connects Chittagong to Burma. On 16 December 1971, Lt General Niazi of the Pakistan Army signed the Instrument of Surrender and over ninety thousand troops surrendered to the Indian forces making it the largest military surrender since World War II. However, thousands of these defeated soldiers were planning to escape into China via neighbouring Burma by crossing the Do Hazari Bridge. A day after the signing of the surrender, the SFF received an urgent message from the chief of Indian Eastern command, Lt General J S Aurora, ordering them to destroy this strategic bridge. This was one of many successful missions that the SFF undertook in the Indo-Bangladesh War. Over the course of their covert operations, the three Tibetan columns lost fifty-two soldiers, including one of their commanding officers, Gyato Dhondup. Hundreds were injured. Tibetan Guerrillas in Exile, a documentary by Kalsang Rinchen, a young Tibetan filmmaker, tells the stories of the SFF and these Tibetan veterans who today mostly live in old peoples’ homes, playing carom and making noodles to make ends meet. n
DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, JANUARY 5, 2014
ARTS & LETTERS
Ugliness All-Round Kaiser Haq
Syed Waliullah, The Ugly Asian; Edited by Niaz Zaman; Bangla Academy; 183 pages.
Kaiser Haq – poet, essayist, translator, professor of English (Dhaka University/ ULAB) – is the author of Published in the Streets of Dhaka: Collected Poems (UPL).
t is a curious paradox of cultural history that the demise of the British Raj was followed by a renaissance of Anglophone writing in the subcontinent. Postcolonial Southasia claimed the English language for its own. It was the same in other parts of the erstwhile empire. Derek Walcott memorably sums up the situation following the empire’s ‘guttural death rattle’: “It’s good that everything’s gone, except their language/which is everything.” It is certainly everything to the greatest postcolonial writers: Walcott, Naipaul, Achebe, Soyinka, Narayan, Rushdie. Interesting evidence of the new attraction held by the ex-colonial tongue is to be found in two of our major writers, Sudhindranath Datta, arch-mandarin among Bengali modernists, and Syed Waliullah, who was hailed in pre-partition Calcutta as a promising new talent. Both worked as journalists for The Statesman for some years. And in postcolonial Southasia both tried to morph into Anglophone writers but died prematurely, leaving their ‘Indo-Anglian’ potential unrealized. Datta left behind a hundred beguiling pages of an autobiography titled The World at Twilight, numerous essays, and the blueprint for a literary journal he wanted to call The Asian review. Waliullah wrote a couple of stories in English – ‘The Escape’ and ‘No Enemy’ – in the 1950s. Domiciled in Paris from 1960 till his death in 1971, besides a short story collection and two novels in Bengali, he published Tree Without Roots (London: Chatto & Windus, 1968), an English translation of Lalshalu, in which he made substantial additions, so that it can be regarded as an original work in its own right. Also, under the pseudonym Abu Sharya, he completed an English novel titled The Ugly Asian, and was 70 pages into another, curiously titled How to Cook Beans. The typescript of The Ugly Asian was found in two portions left with his widow and a friend; put together, a page in the middle was found missing, so the novel now appears with a small lacuna. The editor’s introduction provides useful information on the novel in the context of the novelist’s entire career. Obviously, Waliullah took the cue from The Ugly American (1958), a novel set in a fictional Asian country called Sarkhan, and made into a film starring Marlon Brando in 1963, which suggests that Americans fail to check the spread of Communism because they don’t understand the culture of the land. The Ugly Asian is set in an anonymous postcolonial republic (obviously in Southasia) that has just voted for a change of government, replacing Nanavi, member of the colonial upper class, with Abdul Qader, leader of a United Front that has successfully tapped into popular sentiment with a promise of neutrality in the Cold War. This sets off alarm bells in America. In the Manichean framework of the Cold War, as in the egregious scheme of George Bush – “You’re either with us or against us” – neutrality is suspect. The editor of a weekly sends one of his journalists, Abel Johnson, to see if the policy change is the outcome of American bungling. Johnson is conspicuous
from beginning to end as a string of personages flit through the pages, academics, young students, a promiscuous society lady called Mrs. Krim and nicknamed Doll, Qader and other politicians, expatriate Americans – diplomats, Peace Corps volunteers, a representative of the propaganda outfit American Friends of the East, an engineer building a hydro-electric plant. The American ambassador and his staff have only one agenda: how to perpetuate US influence. Indeed, the novel might well have been titled Ugly Asians and Ugly Americans. Qader goes back on his election promise, willingly becomes America’s stooge, and ruthlessly suppresses protest, thereby qualifying for the appellation in the title. But as events spin out of control his principals start looking for a successor while the possibility of prolonged martial law looms. Idealistic youths partly inspired by a charismatic academic launch a new party advocating a socialistic economy but eschewing an anti-American foreign policy. Government agents burn rice sent by America to a famine-stricken area and put the blame on Communists; but the people aren’t taken in and resort to an armed uprising. The novel ends inconclusively. Johnson understands the complexity of the situation, at least to an extent, but it is doubtful if he can communicate his understanding to his compatriots. The last chapter is an authorial essay, a plea to America to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of the people of backward countries. The Ugly Asian is a roman à thèse. The chapters are short, bite-sized, effectively carrying the dialectic forward. Unfortunately, the thesis overwhelms the novel; the texture of everyday life hasn’t been worked in, and everything works at an abstract level. Mrs. Krim or Doll is quite a siren, it seems, but we don’t even have a dollop of sex. The characters consequently don’t come alive, and when they die the deaths – and there
Mrs. Krim or Doll is quite a siren, it seems, but we don’t even have a dollop of sex. The characters consequently don’t come alive, and when they die the deaths – and there are quite a few too – seem inconsequential. At a more basic level the novel is flawed by the unevenness of the language. are quite a few too – seem inconsequential. At a more basic level the novel is flawed by the unevenness of the language. The dialogue is often ponderous, and there are embarrassing slips of idiom (“A fan was turning there”) and even an instance of sheer absurdity when the novel’s sexpot introduces herself: “Mrs. Krim. Like Crim but with a K.” What on earth does she mean? Ah, ‘cream’; she ought to have spelt her name ‘Kream!’ Or is she using the Aussie/Kiwi slang for ‘criminal’? Would anyone do so in Southasia in the 1960s, and with an American? Some explanation would be in order. Clearly, the novel was completed but it wasn’t finished; it remains a draft. I must add that there are fine flashes as well: “The whole evening appeared to him like a puppet show without a story.” “Where do you find a country, he asked himself, and where does it begin?” “The wire nets at the window, which kept out the noisy, bloodthirsty mosquitoes, also kept out the cool night air…” And all in all, one must acknowledge that this is a brave attempt to deal head on with the problem of international power play as it impinges on the aspirations of a poor country. I don’t know of another Bangladeshi novel of which this can be said. The book’s production is shoddy, the font reader-unfriendly, and the cover hideous. Did the designer take the cue from the title? n
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DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, JANUARY 5, 2014
Vintage Chugtai: A Selection Of Her Best Stories Ismat Chugtai (translated by Tahira Naqvi), Vintage Chugtai: A Selection of Her Best Stories; Delhi: Women Unlimited; 2013.
smat Chugtai (1915-1991) first came to the notice of readers of Urdu fiction with her shocker of a lesbian-themed story, ‘The Quilt’ published in 1942. Yet, for somebody outside the North Indian Urdu-Hindi framework reading Ismat Chugtai even in this day and age can still be a bit of a shock. The world she depicts, though not so far off in terms of decades, seems wholly medieval in its thought and practice. In a feudal Indian Muslim society that historically came into being around the Delhi throne, class and lineage were all that counted. The privileges of high-born men seem not so much privileges as a license to do as they pleased. Women were bought and sold, used freely as concubines, their children born out of wedlock thrown in the dust, all done with an insouciance that today seems unbelievable. Class overrode everything in that society, where aristocratic ladies thought nothing of purchasing concubines for their sons to test manhood before a ‘proper’ marriage took place, or sisters steered their brothers towards more socially ‘acceptable’ ta’waiffs. Ismat Chugtai wrote about this world. So did many others, but Chugtai wrote with a realism so pure that that society was laid bare like it never had been before. No wonder she is persistently termed an ‘iconoclast’ and branded a rebellious feminist far ahead of her time. But one suspects that, yes, while the above is true (spurred by her university education and her association with the Progressive Writers group in the 1930s) it also came about because she was determined to be a writer who told the truth no matter what, for whom integrity of word and commitment to truth was the most basic credo. When combined with the fact that her material – though it came in the guise of fiction – was largely autobiographical, and by necessity confined to the otherwise hidden women’s world, the resultant mixture was explosive, at least for that time and society. In these stories, therefore, sex and class are ever in ferment. After the initial shock the stories are entrancing – outsize characters abound, as do jealousies, potions, prayers, amulets, lovemaking, matchmaking, conspiracies, elopement, noble fools and dullards, the rare principled man, and some of the most magnificently malevolent matriarchs ever seen in print: “She had three brothers, but she had fought with them all. When she battled with one, she reviled them all. The oldest was a devoutly religious man; she referred to him as a beggar and a vagrant. My father was a government official so she called him a traitor and a slave of the British (because the British had put an end to Mughal rule.) … ” The storieswork because of the real life feel to the narrative and the vividness of the telling. Nothing in life, whatever was human, no matter how vile, escaped her scrupulous attention, perhaps because she felt that writing truly had to hold the mirror to life. Chugtai is also frequently called as the chronicler of this lost world, and all her novels and short stories deftly illustrated the mores and ways of this vanished culture: courtyards, windows, ‘sharia-compliant’pyjamas, bungalows, tinkling bracelets, Persian cats, muffled laughter, and for some reason,
foul-smelling socks (which keep turning up!) Her Urdu is praised for its directness, and its volatile colloquialism, but in English unfortunately sometimes comes close to the language of bodice rippers: “Whenever she started crying, the muscles in Chaudhry’s jaws quivered violently, the bridge on his nose went askew, the brushes in his hand danced like fire-crackers … ” Nobody writes like this in English anymore and it takes getting used to. At other times, unaccountably, Tahira Naqvi leaves the original Urdu word in when there is a perfectly fine English word for it: ‘basant’, for example, for ‘spring’ season. At other times there are sudden jumps in the stories which forces the reader to slow down and retrace steps. In conclusion, readers, both those familiar with Chugtai and those new to her, would do well to read this fine collection of her stories. n
Qader Imam lives in Dhaka, and is currently at work on a collection of poems.
ix Seasons Review, a literary journal, is being revived by Bengal Gallery. It first came out several years back, when it was published by University Press Limited, Dhaka. It is to be published twice a year, and will focus on writing by Bangladeshis. The first issue contains short stories, poems, photo essays, and book reviews. The editor is Professor Fakrul Alam, of the English department, Dhaka University. n
7 DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, JANUARY 5, 2014
ARTS & LETTERS
Samira - part 7 A New Year Awrup Sanyal
Awrup Sanyal is an ex-advertising professional and a fiction writer.
am’s invitation to the New Year’s party came from unlikely quarters. The brusque-mannered Creative Group Head – who always lounged around in his Bermuda and stank like a skunk – had shrugged his shoulders, shook his frizzy headful of hair, and said, “How about you join us for the Silly in Black New Year’s party at the Radisson?” The festive mood had set in; party plans were being hatched all around her. Themed parties in Dhaka, it seemed, were quite le dernier cri. Dhaka has a few unpredictable surprises it seems, thought Sam. After coming back to Dhaka she had been a bit of a social recluse; in fact she had been turning down a few invitations, even from the old network. She had been quite intrigued by the Skunk’s unabashed approach. They were not really on the best of terms. They hardly saw eye to eye on any matter. The traditional ‘The Suits’ Vs. ‘The Creative’ war was very much on as far as they were concerned. Only last week they had an ugly confrontation. The team was still working on the 5-way pitch that was slated for first week of January, and she was putting together the presentation – incorporating feedback from Rumi and Jon, fixing the inevitable typos, inserting the vox pop videos, and checking the flow. The creative plans were still sketchy, and nothing had come in for review. When she approached the creative team, Mr. Skunk – the sobriquet she had chosen for him, both for his unbearable BO, and as a diminutive of what she thought was a rather pompous name, Sikander – had shrugged his shoulders and said, “A few more days and you will get the hang of things. The creative files will reach you when they are supposed to reach you.” A supercilious nobody is what you are Mr. Skunk! She had thought, but had kept her cool. Now she wondered if the invite was his way of holding out the olive branch, or was there something more to this? “You seem quite conflicted, Ms. Murshid. Let me put it simply. I thought you could do with a break. Feel free to ignore … ” “I am in,” she cut in. In retrospect she was quite perplexed at her own response. I can really do with some unwinding, she justified. “Fine, it’s decided. I’ll be your escort and ride.” With that Sikander walked away before Sam could accept or dissent. Exactly at 10, on the night of New Year’s eve her phone had buzzed. The caller was Mr. Skunk. Mr. Punctual, I must say. Despite the initial antagonism Sam felt drawn to this oddball. He is definitely good at his work…probably the next big star in the creative horizon of Bangladeshi advertising. Original ideas and shameless plagiarism, his euphemism for wisdom, and of course, full of himself too! But, still … She had carefully chosen her attire. In fact, she had been quite reckless. A black halter-top koshered with a stole, a long, black skirt, and red stilettos were not what she would normally choose for a night out in Dhaka. But, somehow, she threw all caution to the chill of the cold wave that swept through the
country that night, killing quite a few, the reports said. She pranced down the stairs – she hated the elevator – nimble as a Spanish dancer. Once outside the apartment building she expected a car, but instead a motorbike – emitting a low growl – and a Black Knight atop it awaited her. The night seemed heady; the moon almost beckoned a howl. She walked crisply towards the motorbike. As she drew level, their eyes met. His helmeted head nodded her on to the empty pillion seat. She hitched her skirt and straddled. Tonight the rules don’t apply, Ms. Murshid, tonight is the beginning of something audacious. At the party Sam took in the scene, maintaining a studied distance. Seeing all, revealing nothing. There were quite a few known faces, mostly from the office, and a few from the old network — the high school classmates and their spouses. Sam stuck mostly with the crowd from work, with whom she felt less judged. Mr. Black Knight was nowhere to be seen though. After some conversations with random people and a few cheesy numbers later she started looking for him. W-t-f does he think he is? Promises to be my escort and disappears? Finally, having found him – deeply engrossed in a conversation with two men, one who sported a fake American accent and the other a smatter of Urdu – she tapped his shoulder. Black Knight turned around, and for some reason seemed antsy at Sam’s presence, but quickly recovered and said, “Ah! Ms. Murshid! May I introduce you … ” Why does he look like he has been found out? Sam interrupted, bringing her mouth close to his ears, “I need to talk to you. Now!” “Catch you guys later!” Black Knight turned around, “You look pretty distressed. What might be the reason, Ms. Murshid?” “What do you think you are playing at? What’s the meaning of leaving me all alone and disappearing? And, please call me Sam. This Ms. Murshid thing is extremely tacky!” “Hey … hey … hang on … hang on ... I hope you are not under the impression I am your date, Ms … erm … Sam? I brought you along because I thought you’ve been working too hard. Kindness should be rewarded, not scoffed at, no?” His comeback caught Sam on the offbeat. She inhaled and with certain equanimity said, “I am not delusional about us being on a date, but you were supposed to be my escort. Your words, those! And at least have the decency to have a drink, a conversation, if not a dance!” “Hmm. In my defense I wanted you to have some time and space to yourself. Please accept my apologies. I see your glass is empty. Let me get you a drink and what would it be?” “Gin and tonic, please.”
Deep inside Tejgaon Industrial Area, in front of a warehouse, a Cayenne dipped and dimmed its headlights at the gate. Stray dogs barked; maybe it was the moon. The darwan opened the gate after his torchlight had scanned the license plate twice over. The Cayenne parked beside a BMW X5 M50d. The driver killed the engine. But no one stepped out of the car. After about ten minutes a man in a white suit and matching shoes knocked on the window. The driver of the Cayenne got out and walked towards one of the warehouse sheds with the man in white. Inside, the Cayenne driver lit up a slim cigarette with a gold lighter. His IWC reflected the overhead lights. White SUIT nodded to a group of men waiting around a crate. As they crowbarred the crate open, the two men peered inside and inspected the stash. Doffing the ash with a flick of his thumb the Cayenne driver said, “Hope all’s watertight? Any faux pas and you’ll be dead meat served to the emaciated Sundarban tigers. Get it?”
Dhaka Log : Three Ambition is an overrated must-have. It can bring you success and glory, or a spiraling downfall, but never, almost never, happiness. But then happiness is probably the realm of the mediocre. n
ARTS & LETTERS
DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, JANUARY 5, 2014