The curious case of the path not contemplated
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”.)
It would have been easy to dismiss this as blatant communal bigotry if it appeared in Amar Desh, or if the person being quoted was some well known Hindutva fire breather. But the person writing this is Abed Khan (click on the article titled Tumi robey nirobey), who is firmly, squarely in the secular, pro-1971 camp. And Samaresh Mazumdar is renowned for his sympathetic account of the Naxalite movement — I am not aware of him harbouring Hindutva views (happy to be enlightened).
I am in no position to judge Mazumdar’s claim. One need not invoke communalism to explain why Humayun Ahmed never caught on in India. But then again, perhaps there really is something to the view that communal differences run deep. Consider Afsan Chowdury’s review of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s memoir:
Much of the early narrative is occupied by the conflict he experienced with the Hindu community and this book shows how deep this was, away from the pious sentimentality of historians pushing the case of an imagined communal harmony in Bengal. This was a reality that influenced Bengal politics and Sheikh Mujib both. Being a ‘muscleman” — mastaan(?) — meant he also could go and rescue a young Muslim boy from a Hindu home where he was being held forcibly. This animosity element is weaved deep into the narrative stretching to the last days of the British Raj. It is a vivid example of the mindset that produced the Bengal Muslim League and led it to power in undivided Bengal.
The discourse around partition is typically about finding whose fault it was. Bengalis lived in harmony, there was no Hindu-Muslim difference, it was the evil imperialist British — that’s the secular nationalist refrain. And then there are communal accounts of the perfidious Hindu and the nefarious Muslim, neither of whom could be trusted. I find this blame game rather boring and tedious. It’s far more interesting — and useful for the purposes of current priorities — to explore why people — by which I mean the affluent, propertied classes who made the political choices — chose particular paths instead of alternatives.
To the extent that there were communal differences in terms how people identified themselves — that is, Ghoti-Bangaal differences were overshadowed by Hindu-Muslim differences — perhaps at the micro level, for the Hindu Bengalis it made perfect sense to seek partition. Developments in the 19th century meant that by the first third of the 20th century, they had greater shares of white collar employment, higher education, or business opportunities than warranted by demographics. And any majoritarian political configuration would have meant losing that edge. According to Joya Chatterjee, many Hindu bhadralok leaders demanded partition even if Muslim Bengal opted against Pakistan.
Perhaps this was the rational choice for the affluent, propertied Bengali Hindus of upper and middle castes of the 1930s.
What about the choice before their Muslim neighbours?
Obviously the choice made in the 1940s — Pakistan — didn’t turn out to be all that well. The reasons are well understood and I don’t want to spend any time on them. Indeed, some would argue that Bengali Muslims ended up with Pakistan because their first choice — a united, independent Bengal — was shunned by the Hindu leadership.
I am not sure if the case for a united, independent Bengal was ever really articulated by anyone. Suhrawardy’s push for it , with the support of Sarat Bose and Fazlul Huq, came far too late. After the blood bath of Calcutta and Noakhali riots, I don’t think that plan had any future. But from CR Das to the Bose brothers to Huq to Abul Hashim to Suhrawardy to the Dhaka Nawabs, I don’t think anyone articulated the case for a united, independent Bengal to the Hindu bhadralok that was already apprehensive of the Muslim majority. If the said majority assumed that there was some kind of pan-Bengali nationalism, then I guess they didn’t know their neighbours all that well.
What were the other alternatives before the Bengali Muslims? One path was discarded quite early — Ataur Rahman Khan, Abul Hashim and Abul Mansur Ahmed all tell us that no one believed East Bengal could survive on its own. There was no taker for Bangladesh among the Bengali Muslims in the mid-1940s.
But at least that was a conscious decision. Bengali Muslim leaders thought about going it alone, and decided that it was going to be too hard. They tried to patch things up with Hindu co-linguists, and when that didn’t work out, ended up with co-religionists from across the subcontinent.
Isn’t it curious that they didn’t try the other option? Isn’t it interesting that no one had ever made the case for a Bengali Muslim state within the Indian Union?
By all accounts, Humayun Ahmed’s genius was in his portrayal of the Bengali Muslim middle class. That class blossomed in independent Bangladesh. Could it have happened in the Muslim majority Indian state of East Bengal?
Think about it. Such a state would have its own political centre in Dhaka. There would have been a state administration, with its own development priorities, educational and entreprenuerial opportunities. And at the same time, the greater Indian market would have been open to the Bengali Muslims.
Someone like Abbasuddin welcomed partition because Radio Pakistan, Dhaka gave him an opportunity that was denied to him in the Hindu dominated All India Radio, Calcutta. And his children welcomed Bangladesh because Radio Bangladesh had given them even greater opportunity. But what if there was an All India Radio, Dhaka? Abbasuddin could have been a local star, free of Hindu domination. And perhaps he could have made it in Bombay too, right up with Mohammed Rafi and SD Burman.
Perhaps. But not only did Abbasuddin never seek that path, I am not aware of anyone seriously contemplating that option in the crucial years leading up to partition.
It’s fashionable these days to talk about the benefits of integrating with India, even if the economics of it is questionable. I’d prefer to see some reflection on why the option of remaining in India was never seriously contemplated by Bengali Muslims 65 years ago.