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Category: Bangladesh

Partition At 70: August 1947-2017

Mid-August, people in Pakistan and India observed the 70th anniversary of independence from the British Raj. The country that is now Bangladesh also came free from the Raj at that time but it would be as part of Pakistan and the people there would learn that they had exchanged one colonialism for another. Bangladesh did not have much discussion about 1947.

Much of the conversation this year is focusing on the other reality of August 1947: the Partition of the subcontinent into two states, borders emerging to divide centuries of social, economic, and cultural relationships, accompanied by great cruelty and the massacre of millions of people.

Over the years I have been troubled by Partition and have written a number of essays related to that momentous change. Here I bring together links to all those articles:

  • Partition at 70: Why does Bangladesh act as if this anniversary only concerns India and Pakistan?, written on the 70th anniversary of Partition.

    Why do we act as if this anniversary does not belong to us, that it only concerns India and Pakistan? Was this not the moment that people in Bangladesh said farewell to the British? True, we became East Pakistan then and that phase in our history would prove disappointing and we would have to fight again for independence. But that cannot take away from the fact that August 1947 was momentous for us as a people, a time combining great promise and immense tragedy.

    I believe we keep quiet about August 1947 because as a nation, we are uncomfortable about how to fit that into our national narrative. The result is doubly tragic. We fail to discuss the challenges of creating a society free from British colonial baggage. And we do not reflect on our role in the history that led to Partition, our own complicity in communal division, a reflection that could allow us to build a society respecting all our citizens.

  • Looking Backwards: 1947 and After written on the 60th anniversary of 1947 when I was living in Dhaka. It tours around my family’s relationship to Partition and 1971.

    When the white crescent on green flag was hoisted in Dhaka, as the Raj took leave, I was yet to be born. The only family story I have heard of that day is that my Dada — really my Nana, my mother’s father — lit a cigarette. He was not a smoker.
    Lighting a cigarette can have different meanings. Some smoke to calm their nerves. Some light up after they make love. I was never a habitual smoker. Now and then I smoked with friends, enjoying their company. One winter I even tried cigarettes to ward off cold.
    For my grandfather, it was an act of celebration.
    There would have been others that day smoking with different feelings. For many, their lives turned upside down, that day was not a happy one.

    I was born in Dhaka seven years after Dada’s cigarette became ash.

    This essay was also redone as a graphic narrative by Pinaki De and published in This Side, That Side, Restorying Partition, edited by Vishwajyoti Ghosh.

  • A translator’s journey: From Kalo Borof to Black Ice. This essay describes my journey towards translating a Partition Novel from Bangladesh. While there are many Partition novels from India, there are few from the Bangladesh side. “Kalo Borof” by Mahmudul Haque is one of the few. The English translation is Black Ice.

    Mahmudul Haque wrote Kalo Borof in a ten-day burst in August 1977. The novel was soon published in an Eid Supplement, but it didn’t come out as a book until 1992.
    I chose this novel because it is about Partition. Lost in our other preoccupations, we often overlook 1947. But that event played a momentous role in shaping who we are. Born in its aftermath, I come from a family only tangentially affected by it. I was familiar with some Partition narratives from writers who migrated to West Bengal, but I could find few stories of those coming east. Kalo Borof was the first novel I read that showed the long reach of Partition into a person’s adulthood in Bangladesh.

  • Agunpakhi: Chronicle of a Life, Place and Time. This is a review of Hasan Azizul Haque’s novel Agunpakhi, one of the other Partition novels from Bangladesh.

    Near the end of Hasan Azizul Huq’s novel Agunpakhi, the narrator tries to wrap her mind around the concept of Pakistan.
    The novel is set in rural Rarh, now in West Bengal. Before Partition, when people around her become excited about a separate homeland for Muslims, the stench of blood is already in the air. They clamour Lorke lenge Pakistan. She asks, “What will you do with it once you win it? Do you even know where Pakistan will be?”
    After Bengal is split into two, she asks her husband’s brother, “You’ve achieved Pakistan with your lorke lenge. Now do you know what that country is like? Won’t you now go to that country you won through all that wrangling and killing?” He replies, “What a thought. Why will I go to Pakistan? Why would I leave my own land?”
    The narrator remembers her world being consumed by a divisiveness that had nothing to do with their lives. So much bloodshed and for what? At the end of the novel, her children leave for Pakistan, and later they ask their parents to come. Her husband agrees, but she refuses to go.

  • A mythical place called Bangla Motors Bangla Motors is a neighborhood in Dhaka. But it’s a ghost since there never was a business named Bangla Motors. One by the name of Pak Motors did once exist.

    The change of name from Pak to Bangla Motors makes me think about other names around the city. What is curious is that while Dhaka obliterated nearly all names associated with the Pakistan period, the city continues to preserve many place names linked to the British era. There are Minto and Bailey roads in Ramna, Fuller Road and Curzon Hall at Dhaka University, and English and Johnson roads in the old town.

    The English ruled us for about 200 years and that legacy is deep. We have our grievances against the Raj but over those two centuries we also developed a fondness for many things British. Their imprint is strong in our economy, culture, and politics; the legacy especially strong in state institutions. Our police still operate according to the Police Act of 1861, our prisons according to the Jail Code of 1864. As a society we never came to terms with any serious effort at decolonisation.

    The Pakistani period, however, left less room for ambivalence. Their domination lasted a mere 24 years, the memory of that time tainted with military rule, relentless efforts to negate our culture and language, and eventually the brutal war they launched against our striving for freedom. It is no surprise that long after the worms in their graves were consuming the remains of Minto and Curzon, place names associated with the lat shahebs like them would not bother us as much as anything linked to Jinnah or Ayub.

    We might have done away with Pakistan and its symbols, but beyond the matter of signboards and labels, what is the exact legacy of the Pakistan period in Bangladesh? From police rules to fruitcake, it would be easy to list examples of the British residue. What is it that the Pakistanis brought here that seeped into our social fabric and left a lasting imprint?

A mythical place called Bangla Motors – revised version

The April 6, 2017 issue of Dhaka Tribune‘s Arts & Letters magazine carries an expanded and revised version of my non-fiction piece on Bangla Motors in Dhaka. Bangla Motors is a neighborhood in Dhaka; it’s where I was born and grew up and the essay offers a decade-long meditation on the place, on colonial histories, both the British and Pakistani periods, and how we might want to think of that history. The essay began in 2005 as a blog post here and was then revised and published in 2006 in a New Age Eid Supplement in November 2006. As I re-engaged with Dhaka during the time I lived there 2006-9, I added further considerations into the mix and the latest version is a substantial rewrite. You can find it here.

In the very heart of today’s Dhaka there is a place called Bangla Motors—more commonly known as Bangla Motor. It is to be found midway between the Sonargaon and InterContinental hotels, where New Eskaton Road bursts into Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue. Bus passengers know it well as a stop along routes that ply between Karwan Bazaar and Shahbagh, and others that veer off towards Moghbazar.

No one comes here seeking a major landmark. There is no big hotel here. No hospital. No large mall or bazaar. Some people interested in books and reading might come for Bishwa Shahitya Kendra, approachable through a narrow lane off the main road. Others with a purpose might be searching for brakes, alternators, or car batteries; turning east towards Moghbazar they would immediately encounter a cluster of motor parts shops. But if they come looking for a business that gave the Bangla Motor intersection its name, they would be disappointed.

There isn’t one—and there never was.

Bangla Motors is a myth. More precisely, it is the ghost of something that existed once, though that enterprise bore a different name.

In Bangladesh, writing fiction about the liberation war may well become impossible

Bangladesh is about to pass a law making it illegal to ‘misrepresent’ the liberation war of 1971. Will all writers have to tell the same story now? My take on the subject, published in the Dhaka Tribune and reprinted at Scroll.in, June 22, 2016.

All signs suggest that the Parliament will soon pass the Liberation War Denial Crimes Act.

This law will give anyone the right to file a complaint with the police or the courts. While history is defined as settled, the law’s clauses about history are vague, and it goes on to consider it a crime to be “representing the liberation war history inaccurately or with half-truth in the text books or in any other medium”.

Other writers have expressed anxiety about what this means for the freedom to research the complex and polyphonic history of the entire movement for independence. I share those concerns but as a writer of fiction, I also fear for the burden this will impose on creative writers.

Down a Slippery Road: Increasing Religious Persecution in Bangladesh

More murders and religious persecution in Bangladesh. I wrote this essay published on May 5, 2016 at The Wire

In Tangail, Bangladesh, Nikhil Chandra Joardar, a Hindu tailor, was hacked to death by machete-wielding on a motorcycle. Several years ago he had spent some time in jail for supposedly offending religious sentiments – Muslim ones, that is.

A week earlier, two schoolteachers – Krishnapada Mouli and Ashok Kumar – were jailed for offending the religious sensibilities of Muslims in Bagerhat. Parents had apparently been outraged when a child reported that a teacher had said something critical of Islam. Soon, a mob had gathered outside the school with plans to punish the teachers. A court with special powers made a judgement on the spot and convicted the teachers. The reports I have seen in the Bangladeshi press are short of details. I wish some journalists had gone down there to investigate the ostensible crime committed by the teachers instead of accepting at face value what the locals and police claimed.

This is not the first time teachers have been persecuted for comments made in their classrooms. A friend reported on Facebook that back in 1993 a relative had come to him to report of a colleague, a science teacher, who had been paraded around with a garland of shoes. His offence had been to teach that the earth revolves around the sun. My friend reported that he had tried to get some of the press to report on the incident but no papers were willing to touch it; no one would stand by a poor teacher trying to teach science. He believes that stories like this may well be common around Bangladesh. They will no doubt become much more so.

There are mobs that can easily be whipped up. There is the state with its colonial-era law on offending religious sensibilities. And now here come the machete-wielding self-appointed Islamist executioners.

Bangladesh: Fighting for free expression in an age of death squads

In the wake of the murders of several bloggers in Bangladesh, I wrote this essay published on June 7, 2015 at Scroll.in

The death squads of fundamentalist Islam have taken the life of yet another Bangladeshi blogger. This time it was Ananta Bijoy Das in Sylhet who also edited a rationalist journal named Jukti. Some months back, Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman were killed in in Dhaka while Rafida Ahmed Bonya survived with serious injuries.

The champions of death promise more. Two years ago, the Hefazat-e-Islam, an Islamist movement based in madrassas, delivered to the Home Ministry a list of 84 atheist bloggers they wanted punished for blasphemy. The crime of those included: they used words that offended the self-appointed guardians of Islam. Despite their belief in an all-powerful Allah, the death squads were not ready to leave judgement in his hands – what this says about their own belief in a supreme being is a contradiction they never address.

Though narrow and frequently precarious, there has long been room for free thinking and unbelief in Bangladesh. But with the country entering a time when more and more people are murdered for what they think and speak, I fear for the land of my birth. A certain opening that has existed for 20 years is closing.

Bangladesh: Stifling A Country

An essay of mine on the history of free expression in Bangladesh was published on April 24, 2015 at Kafila. It was also reprinted at Scroll.in.

When I think about the state of free speech in the land of my birth, my memories take me back to 1970-71 when I was a higher secondary student in Dhaka, a time of upheaval when East Pakistan was making its way towards independent Bangladesh. Officially we were still under martial law, Ayub’s decade-long dictatorship deposed in favor of Yahya’s rule that came with the promise of elections. Political parties could organize, detainees were set free, the press could publish with fewer restrictions, and people began to launch new magazines and newspapers.

Every stripe of opinion found expression in print. Pushing aside the go-slow conservatism of existing newspapers, new ones emerged. Bengali nationalism, socialism, communism of various hues – all found expression in print. The main Islamist party’s paper acquired a modern press. Books were not that widespread, but you could easily get your hands on Russell and English socialists, and Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Mao. I remember engaging in a mix of agnostic, atheist, socialist, and liberal discussions.

There is something in that sort of ‘spring’ that beckons the young to amplify their voice. Two friends and I wanted to publish a magazine. We came up with a name – The Rebel – and of course, a logo. We split the writing among us. I can’t remember much other than we were inclined towards independence for East Bengal. Our perspective was no doubt seditious but we couched our language with a bit of caution. Did we even know that British-era laws required that publications be registered? In that climate, we felt the state wasn’t looking all that carefully.

For the full article, read it at Kafila or at Scroll.in.

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