An examination of what Bangladeshi writing used to be and where it stands now
By Dr Rashid Askari
The Emergence of a New Voice
English is no longer the linguistic or literary patrimony of the Anglo Saxons or their direct descendants. It is now a universal language and the ideal vehicle for global literatures. By the British colonial train, English has traveled the entire world, come in touch with myriad people and their languages and established itself as the world’s lingua franca. Not only as a means of communication between the peoples of opposite poles and hemispheres, but as a medium of creative writing, English has consciously been taken up by writers of formerly colonized countries. These writers exploit the King’s/Queen’s language in their own sweet ways to suit their own literary bents. And the number of exploiters is multiplying with the rise of postcolonial/diaspora consciousness, or people who want to get over the hangovers left behind by their colonial past.
In South Asia, most of the prominent English-language writers are Indian, Pakistani or Sri Lankan. The situation in Bangladesh is slightly different: “owing to a linguistic loyalty tied to Bangladeshi nationalism, begun with the Language Movement in the 1950s and its refusal to abandon Bangla for the externally enforced and mandatory use of Urdu by politically dominant West Pakistan, English-language literature in Bangladesh has taken longer to assume its role in the subcontinental boom pioneered by writers from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka” . Nevertheless, this stream of creative writing in English from South Asia has reached the present literary arena of Bangladesh, and can be called “Bangladeshi Writing in English” (BWE). This new generation of writers, “[a]fter centuries of domination by Bangla and Urdu languages in the writing arena of Bangladesh… now appears to be equally fascinated towards English language. The rising writers of Bangladesh today have made their marks on the international stage of writing” .
The Nature of Bangladeshi Writing in English: Creativity and Originality
By “Bangladeshi Writing in English”, I mean to include the whole corpus of creative work of writers in Bangladesh, and the Bangladeshi Diaspora, who write in English, but whose mother tongue is Bengali or some other indigenous language(s). This particular genre of writing could also be given other name(s). But, in my opinion, BWE better describes the nature of the work being produced. However, one thing must be remembered: not all writers who write in English in Bangladesh should be included in BWE. A large number of writers are writing in English for newspapers, magazines and journals, and these professionals should not be indiscriminately welcomed to the BWE genre. This field of writing includes only creative writing in English, i.e. poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction, or writing that has considerable literary and artistic merit.
The Literary Background of Bangladeshi Writing in English
The literary background of BWE can be traced back to pre-Independence and the undivided Bengal. Towards the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, around the time when English learning was gaining ground in Calcutta — the capital of British India, an enthusiasm for writing in English arose in Bengal. Since Macaulay’s ‘Minute’ in 1835, English has been the preferred means of expression of the ruling and intellectual elite, as well as the language of instruction in higher education. With the spread of English was born a special kind of literature called ‘Indo-Anglian literature’, aka ‘Indian English literature’, which was Indian in content and English in form. The literary heritage of Bangladeshi writing in English can follow its roots back to the same source. Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1774 -1833), the father of the Bengali Renaissance, was also the “father of Indian literature in English” . He was the pioneer of a literary trend that has extended over a vast area of the subcontinent, including Bangladesh. Like Indian English literature, Bangladeshi English literature is Bangladeshi in content and English in form.
The first book of poems in English in undivided Bengal was ‘The Shair and Other Poems’ (1830) by Kashiprashad Ghose. Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824—1873) took to writing poetry in English under the influence of English poets like Thomas Moore, John Keats, Lord George Byron, among others. Although he suffered setbacks in his early career, his genius for English writing prevailed, especially in his two English poetry books ‘The Captive Lady and Visions of the Past’, both published in 1849. His poetry was well-received by highly educated Bengalis and other English speaking circles. Toru Dutt (1855—1876) in her very short life, attracted global attention by writing and translating poetry into English. Her ‘A Sheaf Glean’d and French Fields’ and ‘Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan’ were published in 1876 and 1882 respectively. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838—1894) won recognition for his novel ‘Rajmohan’s Wife’. Rabindranath Tagore (1861—1941) exhibited great talent with English writing. He began by translating his own work into English, which led to a considerable amount of original writing in the language, as well as his translations of others’ work into English. Nirad C. Chaudhuri (1897-1999) was the quintessential English writer of Bengal stories whose success reached new heights in the genre.
Bangladeshi Writing in English: The Early Bards and Contemporary Poets
BWE came into being after the Independence of Bangladesh in 1971. There is no authorized list of writers for this new literary genre. I have, however, tried to make a rough outline of one, which includes the names of writers who are poets, novelists, short story writers and who produce other types of work with literary merit in English, and, I might add, whose work has earned them some recognition.
Razia Khan’s (1936—2011) poetry books ‘Argus Under Anaesthesia’ (1976) and ‘Cruel April’ (1977) attest to her pre-eminence among English poets in Bangladesh. Farida Majid’s anthology of English poems ‘Thursday Evening Anthology’ (1977) established her as an important literary figure on the London poetry scene in the seventies. Kaiser Haq’s poetic output is quite substantial, including ‘Black Orchid’ (1996), and ‘Published in the Streets of Dhaka: Collected poems1966—2006’. Haq is a consummate artist who paints the contemporary Bangladeshi scene with powerful imagination and artistic precision. Feroz Ahmed-ud-din’s ‘Handful of Dust’ (1975) vividly portrays the loss of vision in contemporary life. Nuzhat Amin Mannan’s ‘Rhododendron Lane’ (2004) is rich with imagery and has a distinctive style. Syed Najmuddin Hashim’s ‘Hopefully the Pomegranate’ (2007) draws allusions from European mythology, makes use of biblical anecdotes and weaves them into local stories. Rumana Siddique’s ‘Five Faces of Eve: Poems’ (2007) reflects the timeless experience of being a woman through the symbol of her biblical ancestor — Eve. Nadeem Rahman’s ‘Politically Incorrect Poems’ (2004) deals with post-liberation war themes and is typified by a highly individualistic attitude, sharp social sensibility, and keen political observation. Mir Mahfuz Ali’s poetry has appeared in London Magazine, Poetry London, Poetry Review and PN Review and he was shortlisted for the New Writing Ventures Award in 2007. Apart from writing poetry, he is an active member of Exiled Writer’s Ink and is working to promote the creative expression of diaspora writers.
Bangladeshi Fiction in English: A Wave of Gripping Narratives
The realm of BWE is being dominated by a host of talented novelists.
Neamat Imam’s ‘The Black Coat’ (2013) is a controversial novel, which seeks to engage with the politics and history of Bangladesh. It is “a dark and dystopian portrait of Bangladesh under Prime Minister Sheikh Mujib” . Farah Ghuznavi’s debut short story collection, ‘Fragments of Riversong’ (2013) vividly portrays the trials and tribulations of people in post-war Bangladesh. Her stories “tackle day-to-day issues with sincerity and realism without being judgmental or moralistic….” . Maria Chaudhuri’s debut book ‘Beloved Strangers’ (2014) is a memoir which has “a duality of texture and meaning, [and] the gentle unraveling of a not-unusual childhood in Dhaka with the later intensity of her adult experience” . Zia Haider Rahman has earned huge critical acclaim after the publication of his debut novel ‘In the Light of What We Know’ (2014), which, in Salman Rushdie’s view, is an “everything novel”. Set against the backdrop of economic crisis and the war in Afghanistan, the novel is “a wide-ranging examination of global politics, rootlessness and post-colonial guilt that travels from Bangladesh to Oxford, Kabul to New York, and that has already drawn comparisons with Sebald, Conrad and Waugh” . Razia Sultana Khan’s ‘The Good Wife and Other Tales of Seduction’ (2007) is a collection of fourteen short stories based on the day-to-day lives of people in Bangladesh whose roles are characterized by tradition, culture, gender, politics and religion.
Even I have had my fair share of success within the literary circles of Bangladesh. My debut short story collection ‘Nineteen seventy one and other stories’ was published in 2011.
A Great Future Ahead
Although ‘Bangladeshi writing in English’ is a nascent branch of literature, it may have a great future. Bangladeshi English writers are placed to play a role similar to the writers of India or of Pakistan or of Sri Lanka. Take, for instance, the annual Hay Festival of literature in Dhaka that began in 2011. Its existence encourages hopes of success for Bangladeshi writers composing pieces in English. This vast global literary gathering, i.e. rounds of literary talks and discussions, recitations, and the exchange of ideas and information helps prepare a lot of ground for BWE writers. Still, the practice of creative writing in English remains confined to particular quarters of society. To allow the genre to grow independently, BWE has to be liberated from the literary coterie, i.e. its small circle of writers, publishers and admirers. It has to be rescued from the close confines of academia; namely, the varsity English departments and the English medium schools and colleges. English newspapers should not be limited to “publishing only a literature page, but should also provide active support and an enabling platform” . The scarcity of Bangladeshi writers in English necessitates bringing out anthologies of creative writing to help facilitate the emergence and growth of fresh talent. Literary magazines and journals should choose writing based solely on merit to promote the development of BWE.
The BWE genre could be a global vehicle for national themes, one where indigenous subjects could gain access to universal literary circles and exchange in a discourse about the growing sensibilities of the global audience.
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Dr. Rashid Askari is a Bengali-English writer, fictionist, columnist and an academic in Bangladesh. Born in 1965, he has an Honours and Masters in English from Dhaka University with distinction, and a PhD in Indian English literature from the University of Pune. He is now a professor of English at Kushtia Islamic University.