Essays from my own life. Musings on history in Dhaka. Book reviews. And discussions about writing.
Essays and articles:
- Crossing Borders, Mapping Tongues, personal essay on a lifelong journey with languages. Born in E Bengal not long after the British left, my first words were in a Bangal dialect of Bangla. Starting there, how did I end up where I am today, writing prose in English and translating Bangla fiction into English? Published in Papercuts Vol 20, the Nomad Issue, December 2019.
I grew up in a hybrid world, of colloquial Bangla spoken at home and with friends, a certain familiarity with literary Bangla, and the language of complexity and immersion becoming English — the heritage of our former colonial masters, and the language of the American century. It also meant that though I was geographically a resident of East Bengal, culturally I had become enormously influenced by and immersed into an Anglo-American world. I had become a half-foreigner in my own land.
My native land did not allow me to forget where I lived. It found a way to force a different claim on me, and its instrument was politics.
- Partition at 70: Why does Bangladesh act as if this anniversary only concerns India and Pakistan?, published in Scroll.In, August 26, 2017.
Ten years ago I was living in Dhaka during the 60th anniversary of August 14, 1947. It astonished me that the occasion passed without a stir. The government said nothing and there was almost no coverage in the media. I couldn’t find a single event hosted by the seminar and press conference crowd, usually eager to discuss so many issues.
The 70th anniversary just went by. A glance at the Bangladesh media suggests the response is much the same. Among some quarters in Pakistan and India, there has been quite a bit of discussion, and there was also coverage in the international media. Much of it focused on the blood-soaked tragedy of Partition.
Why do we have this amnesia?
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.
- A mythical place called Bangla Motors – revised version, published in the Arts & Letters magazine of Dhaka Tribune, April 6, 2017.
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.
- The Golden Door: You Become an Immigrant, published at Brooklyn Magazine, March 6, 2017.
Late on a January morning you arrive at Heathrow after a long series of flights. It had been daytime when you left Calcutta. This is the second time you’ve been in the air.
You’re planning to stop in London for a couple of days, then fly on to Boston. Your final destination is Tulsa, Oklahoma, where you will start college.
You hand over your traveling papers. Instead of a passport, you carry an Identity Certificate issued by India, identifying you as a refugee from Dacca. For just over a month, you have had a country, Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan. Only a few countries have recognized the new republic; the U.K. hasn’t.
“You don’t have a diplomatic mission here. We cannot let you in.”
Politely you respond, “I have traveling papers, they say I can return to India, I have a ticket and visa for the U.S. I’m only stopping here to visit friends.”
“We cannot let you in.”
You try again, holding back something in your voice. When they look at you, barely eighteen years old, weighing 85 pounds, what do they see?
- Why we need a new, truly global, prize for world literature, published at Scroll.in, October 22, 2016.
Another October, another Nobel for Literature, another round of controversy over the awardee.
I believe that the weakest critique of the Nobel is the one that criticises it for not recognising someone outside the European mainstream. From there, a question naturally arises: Why do we – whether supporting the Nobel choice or opposing it – behave as if the Nobel Committee is the anointed arbiter of world literature? Why do we act as if it’s the Politburo of the World Republic of Letters?
- In Bangladesh, writing fiction about the liberation war may well become impossible, published 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” (italics mine).
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, published at the wire, May 5, 2016
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.
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, published at Scroll.in, June 7, 2015
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.
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: Where ‘blogger’ has become a word worthy of death, published at Scroll.in, April 26, 2015 and at Kafila, April 24, 2015.
There are more people in Bangladesh today expressing themselves publicly, whether it be with blogs, newspaper articles, or posts and comments on social media. What used to be simply talked about has now found their way into print and video. Those inclined to policing mentalities – and our society is rampant with this – are horrified. Isn’t this Anarchy and License? But the reality is that no one can control anything.
For example, Islamic preachers have long sermonised against Jews, Hindus, atheists, and women. Despite the law saying you cannot offend religious sensibilities, the authorities have not cared about minority sensibilities. You can find these rants now on YouTube.
Atheists too have found a platform in a society that tends to be hostile to unbelievers. Some among them provide reasoned arguments if they are inclined to argue and educate, others rant or mock. Some voices counsel that this might not be the wisest of strategies in this society, but in the current era of technologically raised voices, who’s to decide anything? Youthful bloggers, incensed by Islamist-instigated crimes, whether in Bangladesh or worldwide, are often inclined to use sharp words. And sometimes be offensive.
There are plenty of offensive words coming from all directions. But only the Islamists respond with murder.
- Is it a good idea to ban Jamaat-e-Islami?,
published in bdnews24.com, March 6, 2013.
At a time when our eyes are riveted on the present, and that present itself obsessed with the past, at a time when cries are being made that will shape our tomorrow, I would like to plead for time to think about the future that is being demanded.
Shahbagh has called for the banning of the Jamaat-e-Islami. In the press and social media, in parliament and ministerial podiums, we hear echoes of the same call. Meanwhile Jamaat’s men create frenzy on the streets, adding fuel to the cries for a ban. If such a ban is imposed, what happens afterwards? Will the problem of Jamaat disappear with a law?
- Flaneuring around Calcutta,
published in The Daily Star, January 3, 2009.
When I noticed signs for lodging, I knew I was nearing Sealdah. I made my way to the north-south drag, confirming from a shop sign that I was now on Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road, APC Road for short. It used to be called Upper Circular Road. Seven years ago on my first visit to Dhaka after my father died, my brother had handed me a notebook. My father had hired a young man to record pieces of his life story. In one place he had written: “After I passed my BA, I applied for the post of Sub-Inspector at the Calcutta Police. I took six months training at the Alipore police training school. Then I started my working life at the Amherst Street Thana. After this posting I was transferred to Entally Thana. At that time I used to reside at 85 Upper Circular Road.”
He was speaking of 1928. Did this place still exist?
- Brushes with Faith, Sin and the Weird,
published in The Daily Star, May 17, 2008.
I’m in my car, driving. The cell phone pressed against my ear, I’m listening to a funny story about Muslim speed dating in Houston. The next minute, my eyes take over. Just ahead, to my right, is the tallest cross I’ve ever seen, its metal body gleaming in the morning sun.
- Looking Backwards: 1947 and After,
published in The Daily Star, September 8, 2007.
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.
- Remains of an industrial day,
published in The Daily Star, June 16, 2007.
5:00 a.m. Wipe the shleep out of your eyes; shave and shower. And shove that weary body out the door.
- Waterlogged Dhaka: Will it go the way of Bengal’s old capital Gaur?,
published in Star Weekend Magazine, June 15, 2007.
The city of Gaur, across the border today, was the capital of Bengal from around 1450 to 1565 AD. It is reported to have been one of the largest medieval cities in the Indian subcontinent, a densely populated, prosperous settlement. Today its remains have long been strangled by vegetation.
- A mythical place called Bangla Motors,
published in New Age Eid Special 2006.
If you spend time around Dhaka, you may come across a place called “Bangla Motors.” Do not, however, go there looking for the business by the name of “Bangla Motors” that lent this neighborhood its name. There isn’t one. There never was.
- Will we ever know our fathers?,
published in Star Literature Eid Special Issue, October 2008 and Alhamra Literary Review, Spring 2007.
I can still taste my first sip of coffee.It was sometime in the late 1950s on a river on the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh.
Read the full story.
In the Arts & Letters supplement to the Dhaka Tribune:
- Letter from America: Fiction Factories on page 6, published on November 3, 2013. Pdf version.
I took a journey back in time.
At the local library, I wandered to the children’s section and spotted a neatly stacked row of hardcovers with familiar blue spines: The Hardy Boys. I was transported back to the library on the second story of the old St Joseph High School building in Narinda, Dhaka. I was again eleven, beginning to devour the juvenile books the Brothers had stocked there.
- Letter from America: Duke Ellington Orchestra in Dhaka on page 6, published on October 12, 2013. Pdf version.
Step back fifty years.
Monday evening, 28 October, 1963. Hundreds take their seats at the Race Course in Dhaka, excitement buzzing through the crowd.
On the stage stands an upright bass and a drum set, along with a piano brought over from the Goethe Institute. There is a slight dampness in the air, and a piano tuner has been asked to stand by. After an introduction, more than a dozen musicians from the U.S., mostly black men, take to the stage.
- Letter from America: Library love on page 6, published on September 1, 2013. Pdf version.
One Sunday morning, I opened Prothom Alo’s “Dhakae Thaki” back page. I was intrigued to learn that the Dhaka City Corporation had a network of 23 neighborhood libraries. As I read the article by Millat Hossain and Obaidur Rahman Masum, I wanted to cry.
- Dhaka Mid 50s: Bus Stop on page 12, published in Eid special issue on August 11, 2013. Pdf version.
In Bangladesh, perhaps elsewhere in South Asia as well, there is a simple act of popular democracy through which a bus stop gets named. There is no government dictate involved, nor even the desire of any local personality. It may come to be simply because a bus conductor needs a name when he drops off a passenger at a new location. Or the passenger might supply the name. Once the transaction is complete, rickshawallahs will take it from there and that name becomes imprinted on the transport map in people’s minds until it rolls off the tongue of all who desire to reach that destination.
- Letter from America: Noir Algeria on page 6, published on July 7, 2013. Pdf version.
Many dismiss crime novels as mere thrillers filled with plot twists. But there is no wall separating a mystery from a work of art. Khadra’s Llob novels, like those of other masters of the genre such as Jean-Claude Izzo or Raymond Chandler, are literary creations where puzzle solving is combined with richly evoked settings, memorable characters, and crafted language.
- Letter from America: Detour to Rome on page 6, published on May 6, 2013. Pdf version.
Recently I was transported to Rome in a novel originally written in Italian by an immigrant from Algeria. Amara Lakhous’s Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio has a cover with six hand-drawn characters. They include Iqbal Amar Allah from Bangladesh.