Bengal’s literary culture extends across both sides of its thrice-scored border, into a past that stretches beyond the geopolitical upheavals of the 20th century. Both the country to the east, and the state in the west, are heirs to a literature almost as compulsively political as it is aesthetic.
While the corpus of literature in Bangladesh has continued to build on that tradition, the country has, until recently, refrained from the fulsome production of English-language fiction in the manner of its larger regional neighbours.
The Good Muslim: By Tahmima Anam,Penguin, 297 pages, Rs 499.
Two books that came out last month have exponentially increased the representation of a crucial episode in subcontinental history. Tahmima Anam’s The Good Muslim is the second part of a trilogy set in Bangladesh during the country’s tumultuous separation from and war with Pakistan. Anam tracks the lives of characters from her first novel, A Golden Age, as military and ideological violence create deep rifts within their family and society. Ruby Zaman’s Invisible Lines tells the story of a character of Bihari-Sylheti descent, and through her explores how the creation of Bangladesh divided the country’s own people.
“Like many people of my generation, I grew up hearing stories about the war from my parents and other family members,” the Dhaka-born Anam, currently living in London, says. “The war loomed large in our household—my grandmother had sheltered guerrilla fighters during the war, and both my parents were active in the war effort,” she says. The stories of her family were a connection to the country of her birth during Anam’s peripatetic childhood.
Zaman’s novel is in some ways an account from first-hand experience. “I was present during the war. Friends’ and relatives’ stories gave me the initial push to write about it,” she says. The emotional undercurrents of her novel draw from its victimization of women.
“The scars of such trauma are seldom fully healed,” Zaman says.
One of Mahmud Rahman’s short stories, published last year in the collection Killing the Water, is a story about a boy who knows “every Bengali word” for coward, but joins up with the Mukti Bahini. “The nation!” his mother says when he tries to explain why he wants to go to war. “Aren’t we part of the nation?” Rahman was a refugee in Calcutta (now Kolkata) during the war. He now lives in Oakland, California; his stories take place across both Bangladesh and the US, but the war shadows their text and subtext.
“There is an element of translation,” Anam says of her work, “both literally, and figuratively, in trying to translate the cultural and social experience of the Bangladesh war to an international audience. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how to negotiate these translations, except to say that I am myself a translated person.”
The corpus of writing about 1971 in Bengali (which can, on a number of levels, be cast as the war’s mother tongue) is vast, beginning with Anwar Pasha’s Rifle Roti Aorat, composed between April and December of that very year. Pasha was to be murdered in the course of the war; the novel would be published posthumously in 1973. Of the varied canon, Anam says, there are two books which stand out for her, personally: Shahriyar Kabir’s Ekaturer Jishu, which was turned into a film by Nasiruddin Bacchu, and Maby Anisul Haque. Next year, Anam will be translating a set of first-hand accounts of rape during the war, Ami Birangana Bolchi. The extent to which the subject of these accounts is fraught with complication and genuine, human hurt may only be guessed at by the outside world: The debate swirling around another recent book, Sarmila Bose’s non-fictional Dead Reckoning (reviewed above), can only scratch the surface.
There is power as well as historical usefulness in the body of Western journalism that has accompanied the war. Certainly, there are contexts in which vast human crimes can only be spoken of in the quantifiable language of bald fact. When Primo Levi made his axiomatic declaration about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz, he conveyed, perhaps, the depths of meaning that could not translate from lived to narrated, or even considered, experience.
But in the impossibility of that feeling is an artist’s own power, in leading their subjects into consideration. The body of Bangladeshi fiction in English itself is small, if distinguished. Anam suggests that the translation of the country’s formative epoch may be waiting simply for the trickle to grow into a stream.
“There aren’t that many of us out there, but I think it’s just a matter of time before the Bangladeshi authors take to the international stage,” Anam says, “the way that Pakistani authors have done.”
Zaman offers a different explanation. “I think it has to do with the feeling of a new national identity after liberation,” she says. “Language was at the core of the confrontations with the West-Pakistan-dominated government. Authors felt the need to express themselves in their mother tongue.”