Speaking of proud footsteps of Rabindranath
By Anisur Rahman
First published in: bdnews24.com
What is Bengali literature? To give you an idea, let us have a brief look at recent political history of the Bengali speaking countries. Post-Tagore Bengali literature witnessed the division of Bengal in 1947: East Bengal (separated today’s Bangladesh in a union with West Pakistan, today’s Pakistan) and West Bengal, which is a province of India. Between the two parts of Pakistan, there was a distance of 1 200 English miles. After the division of Bengal, Bengali became a language for the underprivileged. And the language had to struggle for survival in both these geographical areas.
From its very beginning, Pakistan’s leadership, with its first leader, Jinnah, treated Bangladesh as a colony within Pakistan. West Pakistani authorities tried to make Urdu the official language for the entire Pakistan. However, Urdu was not even the language of the majority of people in Pakistan. Bengali was the language of the majority. Speakers of Bengali demanded the recognition of Bengali alongside Urdu as an official language. The authorities even tried to force people to write Bengali in the Urdu alphabet.
Tagore was soon banned in Pakistan. This cultural aggression was imposed on the Bengali speaking world. Bengali speakers were annoyed and they protested against this cultural aggression. The Pakistani authority ordered the police to shoot at the protesters on February 21, 1952 and killed students and other protesters on Dhaka University campus. This day is now recognised by UNESCO as the “International Mother Language Day”.
For more than two decades the people of Bangladesh had to struggle against Pakistani occupation and cultural aggression almost in the same way as they had done against the British colonial regime from the 18th century until first half of the 20th century. In the end, Bangladesh won its Independence through a bloody Liberation War in 1971. After its Independence, the country witnessed a military coup in 1975. The military junta assassinated the country’s entire group of leaders including first President and Prime Minister Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad. Those killers are the root-spirit of today’s emerging extremists who are known as Jongi.
Military rule continued till 1991. Successive military regimes patronised the population, and extremist nationalist and Islamist groups, for instance Jamaat-e-Islam, committed atrocious crimes like rape, assassinations and arson in collaboration with the Pakistani army. The country still witnesses a sharp polarization in politics: ‘center-left secular politics’ versus a ‘center-right nationalist Islamist extremist alliance’ overshadow people’s aspirations to create a secular Bangladesh.
All this is reflected in Bengali poetry. But alongside you will find strong images from nature, life in general, birds, waters, trees, flowers and landscape. Without a basic knowledge of Bangladesh social, natural and political life, it will not be easy to grasp Bengali literature.
In addition to Bangladesh and West Bengal, there are Bengali speaking people also in other North Eastern provinces of India, on the North-East border of Bangladesh like Tripura and Assam. Bengali speakers face continued pressure from Hindi, English and other Indian languages, but there are many great poets writing in Bengali in those Bengali speaking provinces, as well. However, Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, has become the main city of the Bengali language as well as Bengali poetry.
Bengali literature plays on a combination of diverse themes, and today includes politics, multi-ethnic culture, class-societies, protests, the liberation war of Bangladesh, love, nature, as well as the sufferings, pains and pleasures of life.
Despite devastating political and military turmoil over Bengali culture and education, Bengali literature, for instance its poetry, continued to be enriched by hundreds of poets over the centuries, sometimes under different local regimes, other times under invaders.
Bangladesh is dominated by villages. The concept of ‘society’ is stronger than that of ‘state’ among people in general. Even a few decades earlier economic life was centred around village communities. A village used to have the necessary home made supplies of all utilities. A village used to have different necessary products and service providing communities like milkmen, ironmen, goldsmith, ironsmith, barber, farmer, day laborers, weaver, fishermen and so. The occupying British colonial administration began to destroy the village system with its prosperous and sound traditional economic and social life. Instead they started to look for a market of consumers for European industrial products. This trend still continues by the transnational corporate conglomerates even after the Independence of Bangladesh. Before the British occupation, the idea of bribes in public life was nonexistent. The colonial authority introduced ‘divide and rule’ and ‘bribe’ concept among the people.
It is fair to say that the British injected poison to a thousand-year traditional, peaceful communal harmony in Bengal. One can sum up that: Pains and sufferings inflicted by colonial damage, family and cultural tragedies from of the division of Bengal in 1947, natural and political calamities, the 1952 Mother Language Movement, discriminatory authoritarian rule during the Pakistani regime (1947-1971), Sheikh Mujibur Rahman-led movement for the autonomy of East Bengal and finally the 1971 Liberation Movement have dominated post-Tagore Bengali literature: in poetry, prose, fiction as well as in drama. Famine in Bengal was ultimately a result of a predatory and destructive colonial administration. All this is reflected in modern Bengali literature.
The finest writer in the post-Tagore Bengali fiction, Humayun Ahmed (1948-2012) once said that what historians write in their history books is not true. But what the writers write in their literature is the true history. This is also the case with post-Tagore Bengali literature.
You probably already heard about Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) who received the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature is the main architect of modern Bengali literature. Our Rabindranath Tagore also wrote the national anthems for Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka.
Poetry, fiction, non-fiction, plays and even translation witnessed a good number of talented authors in the post-Tagore Bengali speaking lands and territories. Many of them are potential Nobel Prize laurates if we do not forget to mention Jibanananda Das (1899-1954), Shamsur Rahman (1929-2006), Sunil Gangopadhyay (1934-2012) and Humayun Ahmed (1948-2012).
The tradition of translated literature in Bengali is much more import than export oriented. Before Tagore, another Bengali talent, Michael Madhusudan Datta (1824-1873), tried to reach readers across the continents. Rabindranath Tagore reached his readership through translation in different continents and even the members at the British Royal Society and the Swedish Academy.
None of his post-generation colleagues followed in his footsteps internationally. This is a pity today for decades even after the Liberation of Bangladesh. Let me share a true story with you. A delegation of five contemporary Bengali poets took part in the Gothenburg Book Fair 2013 to celebrate the 100 years of Tagore’s Nobel Prize in 1913. An editor for cultural page of an elite newspaper in Sweden was having coffee at a table next to the Bengali poets seated at the Writers’ Lounge at the book fair. I approached the editor and suggested that he meet with the Bengali guests. The editor’s answer was, ‘not now’. The poet Nirmalendu Goon (b.1945-) was in the delegation, a writer that could fill the robe of any Nobel laureate.
At that moment I realized that our Bengali literature was in need of good translations done by native speakers of different languages in order to reach new readers across borders. This can be achieved through official and unofficial initiatives. The Bangla Academy is an important institution in this and should seize the opportunity to open doors to the rich treasures of Bengali words and ideas for new continents, and perhaps lead fresh Bengali names along the proud footsteps of Rabindranath Tagore.