When asked his opinion on the French Revolution, Zhou En Lai is meant to have quipped, ‘too soon to tell’. I stood in solidarity earlier today, but I echo the former Chinese premiere on Shahbagh. I find it ridiculous to call it a Square. I think people calling it a revolution or dawn of Fascism are being a tad bit silly. But beyond that, as of now, I am observing and assessing. As Sherlock Holmes might say, it’s not a good habit to hypothesise without sufficient information… actually, I am sure he would say something more pithy and cool, but you get the point — I am not in Shahbagh (or even in Bangladesh), and I am not going to say anything more about Shahbagh until I have more information.
Instead, I am going to note that this is February, the month when Bengali Muslims of an earlier generation discovered their Bengaliness. This is as good a time as any to write about the articles by Naeem Mohaiemen and Arnab Ray that appeared in the New York Times last November.
I’ve been intermittently posting two series of alternate histories, one with a Pakistan where Bengal, not Punjab, experienced communal cleansing (latest post) and the other is an India that was never partitioned (latest post). As it happens, even in the unpartitioned India, I imagine Bengal partitioned on communal line.
Does that mean I believe Bengal was always destined to be divided?
No. I don’t believe there is anything inevitable about history. There are specific reasons why key players make particular choices, which together with external shocks (sometimes truly random), shape the course of history. It’s not that hard to imagine a history where Bengal remained undivided, whether as part of India or Pakistan, or as an independent, sovereign state.
So, what if Bengal had not been partitioned?
I missed the whole Humayun-Shaon-Gultekin drama because of a microbe attack. But even if I were well, I probably would have been baffled by the whole thing. Perhaps because I had little touch with Bangladesh during the 1990s, when Humayun-mania was at its peak, I really have no opinion matters like this, which seem to animate most literate Bangladeshis. And I can very easily understand why Humayun Ahmed would not have been a news in Paschim Banga (let alone rest of India).
I was, however, quite amused to see bunch of talking heads in TV — sorry, don’t remember the channel, nor do I have any link, you’ll just have to take my word for it — bemoaning the fact that ‘our Humayun isn’t better loved by them, even though we love their Sunil-Samaresh et al’. I mean, seriously, how childish can one get — it reminded me of my two year old who cries when other kids don’t want to share their toys.
That may have been childish. But given our tragic history, there is nothing childish about this:
পশ্চিমবঙ্গে হুমায়ূন আহমেদের বইয়ের কোনো চাহিদা নেই। অথচ তিনি বাংলাদেশে একজন মেগাস্টার। দুই বাংলার সাহিত্যপ্রেমী পাঠকের কাছে গ্রহণযোগ্যতার প্রশ্নে এই তারতম্য কেন? প্রশ্ন করা হয়েছিল বিশিষ্ট কথাসাহিত্যিক সমরেশ মজুমদার এবং পশ্চিমবঙ্গের এক বিশিষ্ট পুস্তক প্রকাশককে। প্রশ্নকর্তা অমিতাভ ভট্টশালী। উত্তরে সমরেশ মজুমদার এবং পুস্তক প্রকাশক মহোদয় কারণ সম্পর্কে প্রায় একই সুরে কথা বললেন। তাঁদের বক্তব্যের মূল প্রতিপাদ্য হলো পশ্চিমবাংলার হিন্দু বাঙালি পাঠক খুবই সংকীর্ণ মনের। তারা জলকে পানি, দিদিকে আপা, পূজাকে নামাজ ব্যবহার প্রাণ থেকেই গ্রহণ করেনি। কাজেই বাংলাদেশের মুসলমান সাহিত্যিকদের কদর সেখানে খুবই সীমিত। সমরেশ মজুমদার বললেন, আমার বই বাংলাদেশে কমপক্ষে চার লক্ষ বিক্রি হয়ে থাকে। আমার লেখায় হিন্দু ধর্মের কথাই থাকে। পুজো কিংবা বিভিন্ন সামাজিক হিন্দু আচার অনুষ্ঠানের প্রসঙ্গও থাকে। কিন্তু বাংলাদেশের পাঠক ওগুলো আমলে নেন না। এ ব্যাপারটি বাঙালি হিন্দু পাঠকের ক্ষেত্রে খুব একটা দেখা যায় না। এটাই হচ্ছে সংকীর্ণচিত্ততা। বাংলাদেশের পাঠক সাহিত্যমূল্যকে ধর্মের ওপরে স্থান দেন। কিন্তু হিন্দু বাঙালি পাঠক ধর্মকে সাহিত্যমূল্যের ওপরে রাখেন।
(In Paschim Banga, there is no demand for Humayun Ahmed’s book. But he is a megastar in Bangladesh. Why is there such a disjoint in terms of acceptability among the literate readers of the two Bengals? The question was put to the renowned author Samaresh Mazumdar and a major publisher. The questioner was Amitabh Bhattashalee. Both the publisher and Samaresh Mazumdar replies in nearly the same tune. Their main thesis is that the Hindu Bengali readers of Paschim Banga are very narrow minded. They had not accepted in their hearts the use of pani instead of jal (for water), apa instead of didi (for elder sister) or namaz instead of puja (for prayer). That’s why the appeal of Muslim writers from Bangladesh is very limited there. Samaresh Mazumdar said: “My books sell at least 400,000 copies in Bangladesh. My writing mainly reflects Hinduism. It includes puja and other Hindu rituals. But Bangladeshi readers don’t mind them. But this isn’t the case with Hindu Bengali readers. That’s the narrow mindedness. Bangladeshi readers put literature above religion. But Hindu Bengali reader puts religion above literature”.)
Sir Roger Dowler of Bengal was a terrible, terrible guy who used to spend all his time boozing and doing wicked, wicked things with women, all the while his countrymen were impoverished by rapacious men of avarice who loafed around in the capital. What? Never heard of Sir Roger? Sure you have, except you know him by his real name — Siraj-ud-Daulah, the last independent nawab of Bengal.
John Company’s men anglicised Siraj’s name. They also wrote about him being a very bad ruler, from whose misgovernance the people of Bengal had to be delivered by Clive and his men. And that historiography essentially continued with the orientalists of the 19th century all the way to 20th century Indian historians like Jadunath Sarkar and Ramesh Chandra Majumdar.
Of course, that history is not what any school child in either Bengal learns. What we learn is this: