The missing fifth book
The Browser claims to be creating ‘a 21st century library of Writing Worth Reading’. One of their regular features is the interview of a renowned authority who discusses his or her area of expertise and provides their choice of the best five books to read.
I would not presume to be a renowned authority on anything. But a blogger can have his pretensions, particularly in his blog, right? While posting my thoughts on Naeem’s essay, it occurred to me that suppose I was asked to list five books on Bangladesh. What would I say?
The first book on my list would be Richard Eaton’s The rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760. One doesn’t have to believe in any variation of the two nation theory or any kind of historical inevitability or any particular brand of nationalism to acknowledge that the Muslim majority nature of eastern Bengal played a crucial role in the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state. No Muslim majority, and Bangladesh would have either been a state in the Indian federation or there would have been a Bengali republic. Historical implications of the Muslim majority of Bengal aside, how this easternmost tip of the Ganges delta came to become Muslim is an interesting in its own right.
Eaton provides a fascinating thesis. According to him, much of today’s Bangladesh was forest until the advent of the Mughal rule in the 16th century. It was around that time, an earthquake changed the flow of Ganges and Brahmaputra to Padma and Jamuna respectively, opening up the land for agrarian settlement. In this telling, there was a very South Asian drang nach osten to the golden land of Bhati.
Eaton’s story ends with the John Company’s power grab. Obviously Bengal, indeed India, went through wrenching changes in the two centuries that followed. Tazeen Murshid tells the story of the Bengali Muslims’ experiments with identities in the aftermath of the European contact. Her The Sacred and the Secular: Bengal Muslim discourses, 1871-1977 is perhaps the most comprehensive narrative of the intellectual, social, cultural and political evolution that emerged over the course of the century to the 1970s.
There are two particular features of Murshid’s book that stood out to me. First, she discusses the fascinating questions about the way Bengali Muslims wrestled with concepts such as secularism or liberalism. And second, unlike anyone else of her ideological tradition (in the Bangladeshi parlance, decidedly pro-1971), she claims no ‘inevitable march of history’ to the glory days of the early 1970s. In fact, her story ends in 1977, not only after the birth of Bangladesh, but also the setbacks suffered by secularism and liberal values in the Mujibist era and its tragic denouement.
A very intriguing story of Murshid’s book involves the way the generation that rioted in Calcutta and Noakhali in 1946 adopted Tagore and his language as their own by 1961. No one made them do it. In fact, there were tremendous establishment pressures against it. And yet, Tagore is so much an integral part of Bangladesh that no list like this can be complete without him.
Now, we must never get into the habit of equating Bangladesh with Bengali Muslims. This land is not exclusive to any ethnic or communal group. Its history is replete with many ‘others’, of whom the Hindu Bengalis is perhaps the most significant. Rabindranath Tagore’s Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) is in my list not just because I have to include a Tagore book, but more importantly, the novel is one of the most insightful analysis of the follies of nationalism. In fact, not just nationalism and its discontents, but the novel also tackles changing place of women and marital dynamics in the modernising Bengal. And, of particular importance to this blogger — is this the only Bangla novel that discusses the economics of comparative advantage?
Just the way one cannot make a list like this about Bangladesh without mentioning Tagore, neither can the list be complete without 1971. As Naeem Mohaiemen says, the definitive analysis of 1971 is yet to be written. But I don’t think any analysis will replace Jahanara Imam’s Ekattorer Dinguli as the definitive tale of 1971 seen from a Bangladeshi perspective.
And that takes us to the fifth book. It’s a book that picks up where Murshid leaves off. It’s a book that tackles the way the social fabric has changed in the past few decades the way Tagore discussed social changes in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s a book that travels the travails of the post 1970s Bangladesh.
It’s a book that hasn’t been written yet. It’s the missing fifth book.