Sunday, December 30, 2007

Striding Forward

Trainee Assistant Police Super (ASP) Eliza Sharmeen has become the first woman in the country to command a passing out parade

In the 25th Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS; Police) cadre there were 193 trainee ASPs, of them 163 were men. Eliza has been one of the 30 women in the group, in a force that is predominantly male. Not only that, the attitude of the police in the country, as recent history suggests, has been anti-women. It is indeed surprising that Eliza, a Rajshahi University graduate, who has already got a government job by passing the 23rd BCS, would prefer to re-sit for the exams two years later to join the Police. She, however, thinks more and more women like her should join to change the notions that prevail in the society. “After my first BCS exams I joined Rajshahi College as a lecturer. My father has also been a teacher; I was a student of the college myself. I was thrilled. But the thrill of doing something new, something adventurous, something challenging, has always fascinated me.”

That opportunity opened before her when after winning the 25th BCS she opted for a life in the Police. Everyone, including Eliza's husband MA Yusuf Sarker, was surprised. “At first I thought she would not be able to go through the training, which, I heard, was rigorous,” Yusuf, who works with the ICDDR, B says. But at the same time he had an enduring faith in what he calls “Eliza's amazing capability to cope with any adverse situation”; he says, “Once she took the decision to join the police, I knew that nothing would be able to deter her from being successful. As a person Eliza is very sincere, whenever she takes up any responsibility she does it with diligence, and she does it well.”

Eliza remembers how her friends and family members had become divided in their opinions upon hearing the news. "Some of my friends were dead-against the idea, but my parents, my husband and his family have always encouraged me," says Eliza. The sad part in this otherwise happy story has been Eliza's students in the college, who cried at the farewell of their brilliant teacher. “My students and I were crying, I will not be able to forget that day,” she recalls, “But they wished me well, saying that they would be really happy to see me successful in my new profession.”
Eliza Sharmeen--changing stereotypes.

Life at the Bangladesh Police Academy (BPA) has been tough. From equitation (horseriding) to physical training, Eliza has mastered every form of policing. “It was never in our mind that we were making 'a woman' the parade commander, it was not out of pity or some sense of patronisation that we did it; Eliza is very disciplined, and in this world of women-empowerment she will remain an example for every woman in the police and for those who want to join the force,” Mokhlesur Rahman, commandant of the BPA, told the Prothom Alo. Eliza, too, agrees. “Of the stories that we hear about the Police, some are true, some are preconceived or ill-conceived ideas. If more and more women come to policing I do believe that it will change the face of policing in our country for good. A woman, for natural reasons, feels more comfortable if she comes across a policewoman. And as half our population are women, it is high time that more women should be inducted into the police,” she says.

And when on the bright green morning of 2nd September eight smartly turned out contingents of the newly graduated policewomen and men marched past under Eliza's command it ushered in a new era in the empowerment of women in the country. Eliza's stride forward will remain an example to the women of this country, she has proven that given enough opportunity, the women of our country can attain success, however difficult that may look like to the apathetic male members of the society. Eliza's story is also entwined with the story of Bangladesh's long march towards progress. Eliza represents a changing face of Bangladesh, a Bangladesh that our founding fathers have dreamt of but could not achieve. More and more Elizas are needed in our civil service. The sooner it happens the better.
© Ahmede Hussain

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Lost in Living

Rising price of essentials is robbing people of their real income

In the last few months the prices of essentials have increased by 20-30 per cent; this, along with an ever-increasing inflation, have hit the lower and middle income groups really hard. The worst affected people belong to the lower and middle income groups, for most of whom life means a daily struggle to make ends meet. Spiralling prices of rice and baby food, which have become a major issue at the fag end of Khaleda Zia's last term in office, have not been handled properly by the current caretaker government. Though during Khaleda's time several syndicates run by the then Prime Minister's elder son was blamed, the current government has not been able to nab anyone for manipulating the market. What is disappointing is the shoddy manner in which different advisers have come up with their own explanations about an upward curve in the market prices. While an adviser has accused the Indian commodity market for influencing its Bangladeshi counterpart, another has found the necessity to call for the service of the Rapid Action Battalion to 'fix the market'. The strangest comment has come from the Finance Minister, according to whom prices have increased because people's income has also seen a remarkable rise in the last few years. The idea is preposterous; it would have made much sense if it had been meant to be a joke, but A.B.Mirza Md. Azizul Islam, our Chancellor of Exchequer really thought his statement true. Islam's comment is eerily similar to accented statements that former Finance Minister Saifur Rahman (like Islam, a World Bank man) used to make. Saifur once advised citizens to have aubergine only during the month of Ramadan, on another occasion he said that people must tailor their food habit in line with the rising prices of essentials. Islam, before making the situation worse for his fledgling administration, must remember the soaring inflation, which is about to hit the benchmark 10 percent. Islam must not forget that this is for the first time in the last 12 years that the country is experiencing the menace.
The inflation may as well turn worse because of the deluge, which has caused major disruptions to the supply of goods. Though the government's war on corruption has been commendable and a much-awaited popular drive to free the country of the depraved elements, there is no denying the fact that the crackdown has shooed many good businessmen away. What is scary is hyperinflation, a dangerous trend in the economy when inflation feeds itself. Instead of talking big and delivering a-little, Islam and his ministry must put its priorities right to set the kitchen market in order, before Ramadan makes market-prices unbearable for the ordinary citizens. Bangladesh Rifles' Operation Dal-Bhat has to be widened, the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh should be involved more into the market so that the market price comes down to a tolerable level, businessmen must be encouraged to open letter of credit; at the same time the government must take immediate anti-inflationary measures. The job is indeed tricky as the country has faced one of the worst deluges in the last 10 years, and a huge post-flood rehabilitation plan has been expected the government. More government expenditure may fuel further inflation, putting the prices far beyond the means of the masses. This is indeed alarming, as a famine-like situation has been feared in the country if seeds are not sown within the next one month. The inflation that is said to have been at 10 percent a year, is unofficially as high as 15 percent, and if immediate food-safety measures have not been taken it is predicted to double within a few months. An increase in the price of oil on the market, the flood and a volatile international market are primarily to be blamed for the spiralling prices of essentials. And on top of it all, different infamous syndicates are at work too, nothing can otherwise be explained by a 100 percent price gap between the retail and wholesale market.

The evil nexus between the syndicates and suppliers has to be broken. At the same time the government should not view different businesses as enemies. Sheer unemployment (in which the government has made some contributions by closing down the jute mills), coupled with a climate of apprehension has given way to this stagnation that economists in the country are thinking we are at. The scariest prospect is a hyperinflation, a market where rice or atta is too pricy even for the middle class. We are in a situation where ordinary people have started to flirt with the idea of hoarding for the rainy day, and this is where an artificial increase in the demand fuel further price-hike. There are risks that things become too expensive during the Ramadan when prices of essentials naturally increase.
We have put much hope and trust in the current caretaker government. So far the government has delivered well. The war on corruption has witnessed the arrests of almost all the major graft suspects, the separation of judiciary has been completed, a right to information act is in the offing, and a flawless voter list and a national identity card project are in full swing. But with a sunken heart we see the government not doing enough to tackle the crisis on the market, which is eating at the real income of the masses. When it comes to fixing the ills with rice and baby food, the government has floundered, and it has floundered badly. It should take immediate steps to regulate the market, and everything related to the national economy must be handled with more care.

© Ahmede Hussain

Booklovers' Paradise

The idea of launching a website dedicated to Bangladeshi books first came to the mind of Farid Uddin Md. Akbar when he was studying at the University of Pune. An ardent bookworm himself, he saw in the Internet a new opportunity to sell Bangla books, especially old out of print ones like Kazi Anwar Hossain's 'Kuasha Series' or the first or second volume of Masud Rana.
“After I finished my graduation in late 2004 I was looking into different options to pursue my next years. Reading books had been my personal passion since very early years of my life. So the condition of Bangladeshi book information over the web or rather lack of information on fingertips had been my personal agony for a very long time,” Akbar says. Some of his friends had started already working on a book website earlier in 2002. “But unfortunately,” he says, “because of other career commitments it was not possible for them to complete and execute the project. When I was informed of it, I was very interested in working on it and over time had to take over the responsibility for the whole project. Ever since, we are improving information for Bangladeshi books online.”
Over the years, the site has evolved and become the largest to sell Bangladeshi books on the Internet. Selling books online, as many may have been thinking, is not at all a complicated process. The site is extremely user-friendly. The visitors can look for books by their favourite authors, category, publisher, and price range. They make a selection of the books they like to buy and can make the payment via popular payment website paypal. Sometimes for a customer who does not hold an online payment account, boi-mela allows them to pay to our bank account straightaway.
Once an order is confirmed, the site procures the books and ships them to the customer. “Although slow,” Akbar says, “we use the Book Post option of GPO to keep the cost low from our end and as well as customers. They need to pay only the money, which is needed to post the book to their destination on top of the cost of the books. So if a book sells for 90 taka in Dhaka we keep the same price in the website as well. Being customer friendly has paid off over the years.”
From collecting and updating information about books to procuring and shipping them, the task is huge. The site has four individuals dedicated to this, which also includes customer query management and technical maintenance.
In a country where the culture of reading books is waning, boi-mela is getting positive response from its clients. “The number of books we sell is quite a variant number. There are examples when we sold few hundred books a month and there are quieter periods when there have been less than fifty books sold in the whole month. Times like February when the actual book fair takes place, we get a higher frequency of queries in general,” Akbar says.
For a company that is still in infancy, Akbar has an ambitious plan: “As our project was one of the pioneering ones, there is plenty of room to grow. The size of first, second and third generation of Bangladeshi residents worldwide is quite large. So to satisfy their needs making it more familiar is our first priority. Also we intend to add content for the visitors to read as well, not only to buy. For that we are pursuing the publishers to make available a few books every year for online reading as well. Thus the number of visitors who will be interested in buying will increase as well. Also that will put a stop to the rampant piracy that is going on for the popular books over the Internet at the moment. Also we are hoping to make our service popular to the libraries and international Bangladeshi shops as well to use.”
The government's indecision regarding e-commerce remains a major obstacle between reality and Akbar's dream. “The government of Bangladesh is yet to take necessary steps to clear the obstacles for electronic commerce. Formation and Permission to form online money transfer processors will be a great help. Also making credit/debit cards easier to afford will empower more people with tools to operate online,” he says.
There is no site for those who live abroad and have a thirst for Bangla books. Throughout the world local languages, faced with globalisation, have been facing a stiff challenge from English, French and Spanish. Boi-mela, if given ample opportunities, can play a vital role in rejuvenation of our culture and heritage in places as far away as North America or Western Europe. The government should come forward to give short and long term loans to internet-based companies like boi-mela. And it must make online transactions legal, and it should allow and welcome third party money transaction authorities.

© Ahmede Hussain

Tale of the 'Yaba Babes'

Some newspapers in our country thrive on sleaze. The more the merrier, it seems.

In the last few weeks the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) has made some significant breakthroughs in arresting some of the alleged top Yaba dealers of the country, some of whom have made this deadly drug readily available to the youth of our country. Their claw has been long; while most of their victims belong to the upper class of the society, the revelation that this vile trade has been going on for the last ten/fifteen years, under the very eyes of the police, is indeed alarming. The Rab deserves kudos for doing such a courageous and timely job.
Having said that, the way some of the Bangladeshi newspapers have covered the Yaba news is deplorable. Two women's names have kept turning up in the front pages and almost in every instance they are referred to as 'yaba sundaris' (Yaba babes). Some newspapers have gone a little too overboard, a vivid and gruesome description of what used to take place in the dens of the traders have been described. It is as though the concerned reporter (or a bunch of them), undercover, was hiding under the bed when these Yaba-infested men and women indulged themselves in a world of degeneration. Calling a woman Yaba Shundori, when it is printed in the headlines of newspaper, stinks of bad taste. No male arrestee, some of whom are quite good looking, has not been described as Yaba shundor (Yaba Hunks). Any journalist with a shred of respect for women and law will not allow these words to make their way to the paper. Moreover, the concerned women have not been proven guilty by the law of the land, this practise, besides demeaning women also undermines the rule of law, which some of these papers blame our politicians not to uphold. According to the law of the land one is presumed to be innocent until and unless one is proven guilty by a court. In fact a certain law is at work here: According to an Indian act titled the Indecent Representation of Women Act 1986 (Indian laws are considered to be 'persuasive' in Bangladesh, British law being the Mother Law.) representation of women in an indecent manner or in a way that may harm her image is a cognisable offence. In the civilised world names and photos of juvenile offenders are never printed. This is because of the stigmatisation attached to such a practice. This should be applicable to women offenders too. When a woman commits a crime, the kind that sex workers allegedly commit, and is exposed in the way we do before the world does not only destroy her image, her family, specially her children bear the brunt of it too. Women in the traditional media are always victims, either of rape or of a brutal marriage. Their success, their achievements take a back seat. And if she commits a crime she becomes an object of gossip, fun, ridicule. The woman's story is never told, she becomes yet another Yaba Shundari, or Jalshagher Nachnewali. It is absolutely different for men, as the country and its society are fundamentally male dominated.
Poet, writer and dramatist Anisul Haq once wrote that if a bull slammed its horns into a woman and killed her, some certain newspapers would describe the young girl's red sari and her breasts, the place where she took the blow, to titillate their male readers. Haq wrote this about 16 years ago, and it has not changed since then, whenever a woman commits a crime she goes through this media trial, this humiliation of her private life being exposed to the world. Even though the number of paramours the woman in context has had nothing to do with her crime, it will inevitably be mentioned in different reports. This practise of punishing an alleged offender long before the judge has handed down his or her verdict is deplorable. These are instances of irresponsible journalism; this practise should be immediately dropped. History has taught us that sensationalist journalism does not work in the long run. In the civilised world the newspaper industry has evolved over the years, neo-journalists like Tom Wolf, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer and Robert Christgau have changed the face of reporting long ago. Journalists in Bangladesh cannot afford to remain a bunch of male chauvinists calling sex workers 'gay girls' or unnecessarily blowing-up certain parts of women's body in photographs just to add a little magic to the circulation of their papers.
We must not forget that with independence comes responsibility, which demands of us more stringent editorial ethics. Pen has proven to be mightier than the gun long ago, but pen can also be used as a gun. We must be reminded of our job to use it for the right cause.

© Ahmede Hussain

In Conversation with Radha Chakravarty

Ahmede: How do you see English in South Asia, a place where the language has once been forced upon its people?

Radha Chakravarty: English may today be counted as one of the South Asian languages. It was indeed extraneous to our culture once, and introduced for political reasons, but today it has been appropriated and adapted to our contemporary needs in ways that have given it a new character and I think a new lease of life.
The relationship between English and other South Asian languages was not a one-way street. It was transactional, and remains so to this date. The influence of English language and literature challenged but also gave a great impetus to the modernization of our indigenous languages. In turn, these languages also enriched English with a vocabulary and range of expression that continues to grow, as recent versions of the OED acknowledge. Today the best writing in English comes from regions where English is not the people’s mothertongue. And we have reshaped the language in creative ways. To borrow the title of a well-known book, “The Empire Writes back,” as it were!
So English has now acquired these extraordinary regional flavours, but it also remains an international language, and in some important ways, our link with the non-South Asian world. In a multilingual society such as India where I belong, English, and translation into English, also provides an important common platform for people of diverse languages to know and understand each other better.
The politics of language are of course linked to larger issues and it may be argued that the privileging of English perpetuates the colonial mindset. The solution I believe is not to do away with English, but to treat it on par with other languages in our region, as one more facet of our multilingualism. That calls for a change of attitude for which many South Asians don’t seem ready yet.
Whether English is perceived as an asset or a stumbling block depends on how we make it instrumental to our specific regional needs. If it is merely a matter of aping “the West” and losing our cultural independence, which is what upholders of “pure” identity seem to fear, the language and the culture it is taken to purvey may indeed continue to enslave us. But if it empowers us to be effective citizens of the world without surrendering our distinctiveness as South Asians, English is a language to be embraced without embarrassment.

Ahmede: Does South Asian fiction really exist as a genre or is it merely the place and people one is writing about that defines it?

Radha Chakravarty: Genres and their definitions are not fixed. They change according to context and consensus. “South Asia” itself is not an obvious or absolute category. It is an idea, a concept collectively imagined into being, that needs to be constantly re-invented according to shifting contemporary realities. When we speak of the places and the people of South Asia, aren’t we also taking history, geography, myth, lifestyles and politics into account? And aren’t these factors changeable, varying not only with time and circumstance but also according to the perspective or viewpoint from with “South Asia” is perceived? A Bangladeshi or Nepali idea of “South Asia” for instance may not coincide with the way an Indian may perceive the same geopolitical/sociocultural configuration, because of the asymmetries in our respective contexts.
The same holds true for the literature of this loose-knit region. Imagining a “South Asian” literature involves some gains and some losses. It entails a sacrifice of some local nuances, to accomplish the formation of transnational linkages and alliances. It takes us beyond the local and national, yet remains potentially outside those versions of internationalism that privilege “western” models in the name of the “global.” A difficult yet valuable manouevre, and literature is an important arena for such endeavours.
To reinvent a genre then, we must consciously recognize overlaps and shared concerns that would justify an overarching label like “South Asian literature”, even while remaining conscious of our differences. To ignore the heterogeneity and internal contradictions implicit in the term “South Asian fiction” is to risk oversimplification and erasure of the diversity that remains so vital a characteristic of South Asia.

Ahmede: Do you think the way female writers handle narratives or a particular theme is different from the way a male author would?

Radha Chakravarty: It is hard to generalize about women’w writing when the field is so vast and varied. I can’t think of any strategy a woman writer would use that we may not also find in a male writer’s work. It is more pertinent I think to speak of feminist writing, which is easier to identify, even though that too is context-specific and therefore diverse. Feminism is not based on the biological fact of being a woman, but an attitude of resistance. It is a position from which gender imbalances in society may be interrogated, and seen in this way, may be a stance adopted by men and women alike.
Such writing questions the subjection of women and is premised upon the idea that gender roles are not inborn but man-made and therefore open to change. In this lies the emancipatory potential of feminism. In feminist narratives we do often find certain shared tendencies, for instance, treating the personal as the political, seeking indirection where direct assertion doesn’t work, affirming the importance of female identity by resorting to confessional or autobiographical modes, and combining a critique of existing social conditions with a visionary conception of altered possibilities. Feminism after all looks ahead to an ideal world of gender equity where feminism itself will no longer be necessary, where writers can go beyond anger and write without being aware of being a man or woman. The best writing, Virginia Woolf said, is androgynous.

Ahmede: Do you feel comfortable being associated with the term Post-colonialism?

Radha Chakravarty: Yes, if the term is used with care. If it is merely a chronological marker implying the demise of the colonial, then we ought to have moved beyond it long since, considering our region became Independent of colonial rule half a century ago. Also, if the term is taken to imply that colonialism and its aftermath constitute the only past or present we can refer to in our attempt to define ourselves, then of course it betrays a very narrow perspective, a deliberate blindness to other elements that determine our situation. I don’t think of “Post-colonialism” as an all-embracing concept that totally defines my identity and critical/creative practice. It remains one of the significant factors in my social and intellectual existence, but there are others.
But if “post-colonialism” signals a continued questioning of unequal power relations between nations and cultures, in ways that extend the meaning of the term beyond the narrow contours of territorial control – if it takes into account economic and cultural domination, and also acknowledges “internal colonization” where hierarchies and exclusions operate within a culture instead of being always imposed from without – then the term I think retains a certain value, until we invent a better one. “Postcolonial literature” is certainly a better term than “Commonwealth literature” for instance, for the latter covertly acknowledges the Commonwealth even as it ostensibly challenges the continued validity of the idea of the Commonwealth.

Ahmede: How free do you feel as a woman and a literary person?

Radha Chakravarty: Freedom is a complex word, for it goes hand in hand with responsibility. It is interesting you should ask me this question, for a book I am co-editing with Selina Hossain is titled “Writing Freedom: South Asian Voices.” It is a compilation of contemporary South Asian creative writings on diverse facets of freedom. While working on it, I developed fascinating insights on what freedom can mean in relation to issues of gender, nation, class, language, religion, culture, environment, politics and a host of other factors. It also brought home to me the fundamental principle of democracy: that my own freedom lies in recognizing also the freedom of others who may differ from me.
As a woman I have claimed my freedom socially, professionally, and in the private sphere. The process has empowered me and altered my self-image. Of course the world around me does not always recognize my claim, and that is where the struggle lies.
As an academic/translator/editor/teacher, I also assert the freedom – and thereby acknowledge my responsibility – to involve myself with what I consider to be of significance in Indian, Bangladeshi, South Asian writing and in women’s writing across cultures. This includes choices that may be potentially controversial because they sometimes entail the reinterpretation of well-entrenched ideas or established cultural icons. In this I have received immense support from my publishers who are liberal and progressive in their thinking, and also from my readers, whose response has been overwhelmingly encouraging. To be a woman and a scholar/translator/editor is not easy even in today’s world, but as my experience has shown, there is reason for optimism.
© Ahmede Hussain

Crimes We will never Forgive

The government must initiate the process of bringing war criminals to book

During our glorious war of liberation against the Pakistani occupation forces, when the country got united against the brutal regime of Yahya Khan and Tikka Khan and took up arms to fight for freedom, a bunch of goons opposed our struggle for independence. Memories are still alive and bleeding, and a casual glance at the copies of newspapers of that time is enough to name the murderers and rapists who, along with the Pakistani army, unleashed a reign of terror against the unarmed civilian population of Bangladesh. The Daily Sangram, the mouthpiece of the Jamaat-e-Islami, has been full of such news; on September 15, 1971, the newspaper reported Motiur Rahman Nizami as saying, “In this hour of national crisis, it is the duty of every razakar to carry out his national duties to eliminate those who are engaged in war against Pakistan.” Not only had Nizami urged fellow Razakars to pick up arms in favour of a marauding Pakistani army who was butchering innocent men and women, the Al-Badr forces, which he headed, killed, tortured and kidnapped people, many could never be found again.

Nizami’s crony Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed, then president of Dhaka unit of East Pakistan Islami Chhatra Shangha, according to a "Fortnightly secret report on the situation in East Pakistan" (the political section of the then East Pakistan home ministry used to send to the head of the government General Yahya Khan), directed his party workers to build Al-Badr Bahini to resist freedom fighters.

It has come to us as shocking when on October 26 this year, Mojaheed, during a visit to the Election Commission, said anti-liberation forces never existed in the country and war crimes never took place in 1971. The comment, preposterous though it is, should have been taken as the ramblings of a degenerated evil mind, had not Shah A Hannan, a former civil servant and Nizami-Mojaheed’s crony, on record called Bangladesh’s war of liberation a mere civil war: “I know this much that in 1971 there was a civil war...Fine, it was also a Muktijuddha...From what I have read in foreign newspapers and encyclopaedia, it was a civil war and most people did not call it a ‘struggle for freedom’.”

These comments, coming from the war criminals and their sympathisers, have raged a storm of protests in the country. The Bangali collaborators have never been pardoned, in the aftermath of our victory against the occupation forces, Nizami-Mojaheed and co. went into hiding to save their skin from the wrath of the ordinary people. A couple of hundred Razakars, Al-Badr and Al-Shams (mostly formed by the members of Jamaat, Nezam-e-Islam and Muslim League) were in jail, awaiting trial for war crimes. After the barbaric events of August 15, 1975, most of these murders and rapists were allowed to go scot-free and Nizami and co. were allowed to do politics again. In fact, in the general elections that were held under Gen Ziaur Rahman, these people did not participate as a political party. It is the apathy and narrow visions of the political parties like the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Awami League (AL) that have given the rebirth of this menace. Gen Zia made a collaborator his prime minister and in his widow Khaleda Zia’s tenure, Nizami, who headed the Al Badr paramilitary force, became the Industry Minister. The AL, which led the nation towards independence, made pacts with these Razakars on and off. This has been primarily driven by an ever-pervasive culture of opportunism that has plagued the country for the last couple of decades, to the BNP and AL, the 6-7 per cent votes that Jamaat got in the elections mattered, and for this short-term gain they gave shelter to the criminals who only a few years ago killed people and raped women.

Mojaheed has opened a can of worms, and it is not surprising that he and his cronies’ war crimes are now haunting them. The whole country has condemned his statements, and this year also marks a rejuvenation of the spirit of ’71. The Sector Commanders of the war have formed a forum to bring home the trial of the war criminals, and every political party but Jamaat, has echoed the demand.

It is true that the constitutionally mandated interim government has an agenda of free and fair elections in hand. While it may not be their agenda, but considering the public support behind this demand, they may at least consider initiating the process by starting to bring together the various documents that exist in this regard. Our movement towards a free independent future will be flawed if justice is not handed down to the criminals who threatened to destroy our nascent republic and whose recent statements make it obvious that they will repeat history if they are allowed to do it. The issue of trying war criminals should not be confused with the question of banning religion-based political parties; in 1971, members of the Razakars, Al Badr and Al Shams killed hundreds and thousands of people, most of whom were Muslims, the rest were Hindus, Buddhists and Christians. The war criminals, after 36 years, might try to muddle the scenario by claiming that all this is directed against religion. On the contrary, the movement is directed at those who committed acts of genocide and rape against the unarmed population of this country. These are crimes against humanity, reprehensible under any law. Every religion, be it Islam, Hinduism or Christianity, which considers human life sacred, abhors killing and raping. To begin with, those who have made seditious comments against our liberation war must be brought to book. Along with holding an election, one of the prime responsibilities of this government is to safeguard the sanctity of the constitution and establish rule of law.
It is welcome to see the Chief Adviser and the Chief of Army, like the rest of the country, standing in favour of the spirit of our great war of liberation, but mere lip service is not good enough at a time when the whole nation, like it did in 1971, has become united against the war criminals. In a country dangerously divided along the lines of petty political interests, this can be the beginning of the idea of national consensus. This opportunity to move forward should not be wasted. The government must take the first steps of gathering evidence of rape and murder, initiating the process of trying those who butchered people during the war of independence. There are existing laws under which war criminals can be tried and there is no point in saying that aggrieved individuals should file cases as we all know that war crimes were committed in different circumstances and there are separate laws to try those who commit such crimes.
So, the option lies clearly before the government: It can say that it is not their job; the other choice is to initiate the process of gathering evidence so that ultimately an elected government can try the war criminals. The political parties, in their turn, must incorporate the issue of trying the war criminals into their election manifesto, and make a vow to materialise the demands if they are elected. They should keep this in mind that they can ignore the demand that the whole country has made only at their own peril. The souls of three million shaheeds and two lakhs Biranganas are crying for justice, and it is high time to answer to their pleas.

© Ahmede Hussain

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Last Jet Engine Laugh

Ahmede: Do you believe in epiphanic moments? How does your muse come to you?

Ruchir Joshi: I do believe in epiphanic moments, in the sense that something often strikes you under a certain light, at some twist of the day, and then you store it away to examine later. You bring it out and mull over it, and to that first idea or inspiration you add something else and then something else again, and this then starts a process that leads – hopefully – to some finished work.
As to muses, I have never found the European idea of a `muse’ useful for my own work. For instance, the idea that a beautiful woman or man can be the inspiration for anything other than something addressed to that particular human object of desire is one I find absurd. I can’t, for example, imagine being inspired to write about an act of violence or a brutal natural disaster by a `muse’. But perhaps I take the concept too literally.

Ahmede: How important is it for you to know your audience/reader?

Ruchir Joshi: I do need to have an imaginary reader or viewer in mind when I write or when I make a film. It can be a very diffuse group of people that stretches across different countries and cultures, or it can be a very specific bunch of friends in the city where I’m living, but I do need to have that sense of an `addresee’.

Simultaneously, though, there does need to be an avoidance of anything remotely resembling what advertising people call a `target audience’. If you aim too specifically at a group while doing something then it risks becoming an ad, a propaganda work or a political manifesto, and it usually diminishes its power as a work of art. Not always, but usually.

Ahmede: The English that we speak in South Asia, do you think we have transformed it enough to call it ours?

Ruchir Joshi: Oh god, yes. When I was a student in the United States, I used to get very irritated whenever someone expressed surprise or praise at the fluency of my English. `You speak really good English!’ they would say, to which my reply, invariably, and with a mirroring tone of surprise, was: `Thanks! So do you!’ And this was nearly thirty years ago.

The thing is, like many people of my class and background, English was not a first language – in childhood it came a limping third behind Gujarati and Hindi and it was neck to neck with a very circumscribed Kolkataiya Bangla. But like hundreds and thousands of others across the sub-continent, I grew into the language as it grew into me. This meant that it became the first instrument for communication, expression and even dreaming; certainly, I cannot imagine writing in any other language with the freedom I have while writing in English.

The `normal’, daily English that lives in us is not what is spoken elsewhere in the world. In fact, now one can even talk of plural, sub-continental, Englishes: the language undergoes a very varied daily sculpting in different parts of the sub-continent, some of it pretty inelegant, even ugly, and some of it beautiful beyond the scansion-cosnciousness of any British or Yankee `correct English’ pedant.

Of course we have transformed it, are still transforming it, and will continue to change it. We have to – it’s our main linguistic bridge, not only to the rest of the world but also between ourselves.

Ahmede: Many argue that novel itself is a western form of expression. We had epic. Is it not so that the history of novel is also the history of the so-called modern man, his crises?

Ruchir Joshi: It’s like saying the train is a western form of transport; yes, of course it is, but so what? It’s a brilliant form of transport, so thank you, great inventors of 19th century England! And thank you, Swift and Richardson and Austen etc for the novel! But now that we have said our thank you’s, can we get on with sitting on a train, vaccinated against polio and typhoid, reading and writing our own novels and dreaming our own dreams? The answer is obvious, no?

If I was to choose one thing that parallels and records modern human existence and its crises, it would be photography more than the novel, simply because so many more people can `read’ a photograph than the printed word. But yes, the mutation of the book-bound narrative across the last two hundred years is certainly fascinating, even more so because it seems to be holding its own against the newcomers of cinema, television and the Net.

And precisely because we have such varied and rich narrative traditions ourselves, we should not get trapped in some archaic notion of the novel as a form that founds its apogee in the late 19th century in Western Europe and Russia, a form to which we must faithfully adhere. There are many of us who are trying to work with breaking open the old forms of the novel, and in this we follow in the footsteps of the great Indian, especially Bangla, novelists of the mid-20th century.

Ahmede: VS Naipaul has talked about separation of the man (the person who writes) and the writer. How is it like that for you?

Ruchir Joshi: I am not familiar with this particular argument of Naipaul’s, but I’ve learnt it’s generally a good idea to be suspicious of whatever the man says. His grasp of the changing world (and his own place in it) has been very tenuous since 1965 or so; his language has got more and more clumsy and ugly the further he has come from his very early triumphs; his insecurities and self-created isolation have brought out the poisonously reactionary dna of his intellect.

I don’t know for sure, but my guess is what he’s talking about is the kind of quite banal truism you find in a statement like `so-and-so was very bad to his wife and family but he was a great painter.’ Of course, this is true up to a point: the fact that an artist was or is, say, a jingoist, or a racist, or a misogynist, or a homophobe, should not cloud our judgement when appraising their work; but it’s hard to find examples of people who’ve crossed extreme thresholds of inhumanity and depravity and still produced worthwhile art.

For example, in arguing this, V.S Naipaul may want us to separate Naipaul `The Writer’ from Naipaul the praise-hungry, sycophant-loving man who accepted felicitations from the Hindu Fascist VHP two days before the Gujarat killings began in `02, but I see no reason to oblige him. Sure, it would be unfair to compare Naipaul to a Yahya Khan or a Niazi or a Narendra Modi, because he hasn’t actually ordered the killing or raping of anyone; but it’s only accurate to say that the man’s early works do not balance out the rapid and complete evaporation of humility, humanity and sense of justice in this ex-artist.

As for myself, I try and be aware of my many limitations as a human being; I try and not let those limitations get in the way when I work, but invariably they do, from surprising angles, many of which I can only see afterwards, once the film or writing has been released to the world. So, I note those angles and begin again.
© Ahmede Hussain

The Geometry of God

Ahmede: You once told me that "for prose I turn to English but verse to
Urdu. (Sort of like music -- I don't like classical western, but love classical eastern.)" Will you tell me more about it?

Uzma Aslam Khan: I’ll try. When I was seven, my father bought a second-hand piano, and enrolled me in piano lessons. I believe that ever since his childhood, he had this dream: ‘When I grow up and have girls (he never wanted boys, nor had them) they will play piano for me and it will be very sweet.’ So off I went to this horrible English person who hit my knuckles with a ruler – she was a parody of the mean music instructor. But it was sweet to come home and play for my father, even if I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Afterwards, our house would ring with classical eastern music: the rich voices of Mehdi Hassan and Amanat Ali Khan, or Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan on sitar. It would also ring with western pop: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.
Later in life, I kept trying to improve at piano. My third try was with a Japanese-American instructor. He was brilliant. The first day, he complimented my fingers instead of hitting them, then told me my problem was with rhythm. He must have also grown up listening to both eastern and western music, and understood that I’d internalised a very different beat, which I tried to play on an instrument that rejected it. Recently, I’ve started tabla lessons. Though my fingers don’t move as fast as I wish, I hear the beats. I know what I should be doing. If only the tabla had fallen in my hands when I was seven!
This is a long way of saying that like music, poetry answers to an inherent rhythm, and my appreciation of poetry in English, with a few exceptions (Seamus Heaney, Theodore Roethke), lacks the immediacy with which I appreciate poetry in Urdu. But in prose, both when I read and write, I adapt to many rhythms, I yearn for a new music. Somehow, Urdu prose doesn’t fulfill this hunger any more than the piano fit my fingers when I was a child.

Ahmede: Does a female writer's way of handling a certain theme differ from the way a male writer will tackle it?

Uzma Aslam Khan: I don’t know because I’ve never been a man. But I know that my access to material, and hence, to the development of my themes, is severely hampered because I’m a woman. I learned this especially while writing my newest book, The Geometry of God.
When I first began, I wanted to set the entire story outdoors. You know, I’m so tired of reading books written by Asian diaspora authors who depict Asian women in Asia as passive, pathetic creatures. Inevitably, their books begin with a woman in the kitchen chopping onions or having a baby or both at the same time. My novel’s in part about a girl, Amal, who, while on a fossil dig in the Salt Range of the Punjab with her grandfather, accidentally makes an astonishing discovery about whales. I wanted the complete story to unfold in these mountains. But my mobility was restricted, both because the area is army-run and because it’s difficult for an ‘unaccompanied’ woman to explore freely. My restrictions became Amal’s, I wove them into the story, much of which is now set in Lahore.

Ahmede: Can you say more about The Geometry of God?

Uzma Aslam Khan: On the same day that Amal makes her discovery about whales, her baby sister Mehwish is blinded in an accident, and it falls on Amal to look after her. Amal grows up to become Pakistan’s only woman paleontologist, but is prevented, by country and family, from seeking the sort of knowledge that can fuel her infinite curiosity. But in teaching Mehwish how to ‘read’ with her fingertips, she helps Mehwish develop her own language in a way that allows her to negotiate the limits of the practical world that thrills and frustrates Amal. Enter Noman, who unwittingly sets in motion a chain of events that lead to an arrest, and bloody judgement.
You’re with these three characters as they grow up during General Zia’s ‘Islamisation’ campaign, when history and science books were rewritten (teaching Darwin was banned), artistic expression was stifled, and the right to theological debate was completely eradicated. So the book deals with the pain of intellectual repression, and with the culture wars of Pakistan brought about by a dictatorship that reduced faith to something that had to be proven. But it’s also, by some miracle, the funniest thing I’ve ever written. Possibly because I wrote all three characters in the first person (my two previous books are told by a third person narrator), the telling is intimate and playful.

Ahmede: What do you gain and lose by living in Pakistan as a novelist, and not
writing from the diaspora?

Uzma Aslam Khan: First, what I gain. I think of writing as a sedimentation process. By living in Pakistan, I feel the place every day, at the conscious and unconcious level. When I write, I tap into these layers. Because The Geometry of God is in part about ‘digging’, this is the metaphor I’m reaching for, but I could also talk about writing fiction as ‘fishing’. You drop the hook, wait for years for that eel that lurks somewhere to take the bait, and at last show itself. By living here, I build a fecund internal field to ply.
However, I’m not always able to tap the external field. As I said earlier, as a woman my mobility is frustratingly limited. My family background isn’t feudal or military, so I can’t drop big names to open doors.
I also lose out on publicity. Writers who live in the UK or US build a network of associates that help them get noticed. Without this buzz, the book dies. That’s the brutal truth. There’s more pressure on writers today to schmooze well than to write well. Though living here has helped me develop my aesthetic, I sail a very lonely boat, and I’m not sure I’d recommend the path.

Ahmede: In Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, JM Coetzee's protagonist says the following about novelists in Africa writing in English, which may as well be true for South Asia: "Whether they like it or not they have accepted the role of interpreter, interpreting Africa to their reader. Yet how can you explore a world in all its depth if at the same time you are having to explain it to outsiders? It is like a scientist trying to give full, creative attention to its investigations while at the same time explaining what he is doing to a class of ignorant students…" You are not a diasporic writer, but how do you view this issue?

Uzma Aslam Khan: Fact is, South Asia is now being written about in fiction almost entirely by writers who’ve never, or barely, lived here, and they typically write about characters like themselves: immigrants, or descendents of immigrants. There’s often a ‘back there in Fanaticstan’ thread to contrast with the ‘over here in Freeland’ thread. Writing about a family from Bangladesh or Pakistan who don’t immigrate is old-fashioned, as it is for the author to live ‘back there’. The hyphen (Anglo-Indian, Afghan-American) is what confers credibility. Diaspora writers who fit this description (not all do) are fulfilling the role of interpreter, no differently from the way white colonial writers played the part in the previous centuries. This is the New Orientalism. It has a ‘West saves the East’ undercurrent, and there are always passages of explanation about ‘native’ tribes and customs – so that it reads more like an anthropology study than a novel.
Now, am I also fulfilling this role, even though I live here, just because I write in English? Some would say so, though I’ve fought hard to resist editorial suggestions aimed at tailoring my books to the diaspora taste. With my previous book, Trespassing, this battle with an editor went on for nearly a year. I’ve also fought to keep certain covers off my books – covers that signal orientalism. They inevitably feature eyes behind a veil of soft purple or extreme black. One edition of Trespassing used such a cover, and my protests cost me heavily.
But as long as you write in English, these acts of resistance go unnoticed in Pakistan. In fact, ironically, the frustration I feel about certain kinds of diaspora writing is sometimes aimed at me, instead of at the diaspora writers themselves, who live safely out of target! I’ve had Urdu writers tell me ‘If you write in English, you’re on the other side of the fence.’ The fence doesn’t have to exist. What matters is how you use the language, not the language you use. It needn’t be used to interpret life here for the west. But as long as there’s hostility toward English-language writers within South Asia, local tastes and talents won’t develop, and the diaspora interpreters will continue to set the trend.

Ahmede: The South-Asian sub-continent has witnessed a phenomenal rise in religious intolerance. Where do you think the root of this problem lies?

Uzma Aslam Khan: Your question doesn’t specify any faith. As far as politically intolerant Islam goes, Pakistan’s slide began during the Afghan War, when CIA dollars promoted an armed Jihad to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Mujahideen’s hardcore interpretation of Islam then was a boon, not a bane. What did it give Pakistan? General Zia introduced Sharia’a. Under him, a draconian version of the Blasphemy Law was passed. He introduced the infamous Hudood Laws that target women. These laws still exist.
Though the situation today is eerily similar – another war in Afghanistan, another US-backed military dictator in Pakistan – the roots of political Islam precede 9/11. But the ‘war on terror’ is certainly fattening this tree. In the ‘elections’ of 2002, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, religious parties gained control of two provinces. In our next ‘elections’, they’re likely to retain control, or worse. All over the world, political Islam is strengthening in countries where Muslims feel as crushed by their foreign-backed rulers as by colonial powers, present and past. Such as in Palestine, with the election of Hamas, or in Iran. The outcomes of these legitimate elections aren’t acceptable to western democracies, where political Christianity and political Judaism rule as surely as political Islam rules in parts of Asia. Our choices everywhere are terrifyingly limited. We’re stuck between puppet dictators and right-wing democrats.
But isn’t the root of the problem much older? After all, religion has always been the easiest political weapon in the book.

© Ahmede Hussain

The Editor's Choice

Ahmede: What are the ideas behind The Little Magazine?

Antara Dev Sen: We wanted a space for intelligent and informed dialogue focused on South Asia. A space that would reflect our pluralism, cultural diversity and social concerns through well argued analysis and quality art and literature. So we started The Little Magazine (TLM) in May 2000.

Since the mid-1990s, Indian media was decidedly focusing on aspirational, feel-good, market-driven news and views, at the cost of larger issues of development and human rights. It reflected the international trend of news as entertainment - dominated by sensationalism, trivia, personality cults and narrow politics. I called it the chatpataa phase - quick, spicy snacks and mouth-watering fast food becomes the staple, steadily nudging out nutritious but less exciting food. The consumer may love it, but chaats can't replace your daal-bhaat-sabzi for too long, it may starve the consumer of essential nourishment and endanger the nation's health in the long run. We need wholesome information that sustains reliable debate essential for a healthy democracy. So we decided to start an independent publication that would explore social issues through essays and the arts and present a comprehensive picture to the reader.

Here, we would explore news in context, not as daily reports but as part of our living history. Our social circumstance, values and traditions are best expressed through literature, film and the other arts. So in TLM, the arts provide the backdrop for news, bringing out nuances that even the best essays on social concerns cannot. And in an age of short attention spans, many may not wish to wade through an analytical paper but would happily read a short story on the same issue and be influenced by it. Literature is a soft power - it catches you unawares and gets you thinking. So TLM presents serious issues through a colourful mix of essays, fiction, poetry, plays, art and even filmscripts. We have a wealth of culture in South Asia - and it's a shame that we do not know each other's literature while waxing eloquent on writers from Europe and the Americas.

Also, to reflect our diversity of opinion and trends, we wanted a mix of established voices and new ones. So in TLM internationally acclaimed academics, writers and artists share space with emerging scholars, new artists and the first time poet.

Ahmede: While making an editorial decision what do you look for in a write-up?

Antara Dev Sen: First, excellence. Then relevance, and finally the inherent importance of the contribution. Since most of our contributions are invited - both for essays and translated fiction or poetry - we choose our contributors very carefully, seeking out credible scholars and mature, sensitive writers. We seek relevance and import and a diversity of angles that would bring out the various aspects of the issue we are dealing with. But there is always the basic requirement: excellence.

This becomes all the more important when dealing with contributions that come in on their own - and we are privileged to get hundreds every week. Some of these are from renowned writers or artists, sharing their new work. Excellence is usually not in doubt in these, but relevance may be, since TLM is theme-based. But the bulk of the voluntary contributions that pour in are from new writers and artists. In these we look for sheer excellence, followed by relevance to the theme we are working on. I also look at how important a contribution is (not the importance of the author or artist) whether it breaks new ground, throws up fresh ideas or succeeds as an experiment - through ideas, genre, form or content.

Ahmede: The Little Magazine puts an extra emphasis on works on translation.
Can you please tell us why it is so?

Antara Dev Sen: Literature is one of the core areas of TLM. And in South Asia, where we have a plethora of culturally rich languages, we also have that many language literatures. For example, in India alone there are 24 distinct languages with 24 corresponding literatures. So we may be prisoners confined to our language, unable to reach out to others, blocked from view of the rest of South Asia and the world. To be able to exchange thoughts with those belonging to other languages, we need translations. We need to tell our stories and hear the stories of others in order to know ourselves better, and to recognize our multicultural, pluralistic identities as South Asians.

So in TLM we translate South Asian language literatures into English, the only language spoken and read throughout the subcontinent, even if it is limited to certain social segments. It allows our literatures to spread beyond our national borders, to our neighbourhood, as well as to the rest of the English-speaking world. In a globalised age, it is not enough to know oneself, it is essential to reach out to the world in order to understand each other better.

And writers in English representing South Asian literatures to the world - whether Amit Chaudhuri or Monica Ali - offer a partial picture, however excellent. The main bulk of South Asia's rich literary heritage in several languages is left out. We need to rectify this imbalance of presentation. So we need to stop thinking of English as the coloniser's language and use it as a tool to bridge the gap both between our different languages, and between South Asia and the world. This is why TLM focuses so much on translations.

Ahmede: How important do you think democracy is for freedom of speech to thrive?

Antara Dev Sen: Freedom of speech can thrive only in a democracy, just as democracy can thrive only when there is real freedom of speech. When many voices are heard, people can choose between different points of view. And democratic freedoms help nurture freedom of speech and expression, which implies freedom of the press, of the creative arts, of academic pursuit.

Unfortunately, even today we often get confused between defending what one says and defending one's right to say that. Protecting someone's freedom of speech or expression doesn't necessarily mean that you agree with the content of that speech. It is very important to make this distinction. For the sake of press freedom, we may defend articles we disagree with. To secure freedom of literary expression, we may oppose the banning of a novel that we personally hate. If we defended only what we agreed with that would not be freedom - it would never allow contrary voices to be heard, harming democratic dialogue.

Democracy and free speech nurture each other, because a vibrant democracy depends on a well-informed citizenry. But even in democracies, free speech is routinely threatened by intolerant groups. The government may allow your free speech, but will you thereafter be protected from the fanatical fundamentalists? It is easier to ban or withdraw a publication or censor a book or an art exhibit than protect the right to free speech.

Unfortunately, with the unnerving rise of fundamentalism around the world, freedom of speech and expression is diminishing even in flourishing democracies. Take M.F. Husain, 92 years old and one of South Asia's most celebrated artists. Religious fanatics hounded him out of India, he is now in exile, not daring to return, especially since the government cannot guarantee his safety. We have seen much unrest and a curtailing of freedom of speech and expression in South Asia recently - just take the curbs and attacks on mediapersons in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. Not surprisingly, democracy is suspended in all these countries right now, except Sri Lanka.

So democracy is very important for free speech, but ultimately it is liberal thought that nurtures it. And when fanatics get too powerful, within or outside the government, our freedom of speech and expression shrinks.

Ahmede: As your website says The Little Magazine is South Asia's only professionally produced, independent print magazine 'devoted to essays, fiction, poetry, art and criticism'. We have seen a flurry of writers making their voices heard in English (a language once considered borrowed), but at the same it does not match with the number of literary magazines published in English in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh...

Antara Dev Sen: Yes, there is a lack of forums for new writers. Traditionally, emerging talent has been discovered in literary publications, mostly small or independent magazines. As I said earlier, one of TLM's aims was to offer a platform for promising writers and artists. And in these seven years we have discovered quite a few talented young authors and poets who have thereafter been picked up by big publishers and become recognised names. TLM provides an initial foothold - the first credible stamp of approval.

We have also started two awards for literature last year, one of which is for new writers. It aims to encourage first time fiction writers and playwrights. The Little Magazine New Writing Award honours a new writer for one short story or play in any South Asian language. The contributions we get are mostly written in English and some are translated into English from the original. Jayant Sankrityayana, an automobile designer from Pune, India, won last year's award for the English story, 'Tsunami'.

Our other award is The Little Magazine SALAM (South Asian Literary Award for the Masters) where we salute one stalwart each in fiction, poetry and drama from any of our languages. The first TLM SALAM went to Bangladesh's Shamsur Rahman for poetry (in Bengali), India's Vijay Tendulkar for drama (in Marathi) and Kamala Das for fiction (in Malayalam and English). It was a liberating experience, a celebration of literature without borders - with nominees and jury members from various parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. We were particularly privileged to have Shamsur Rahman who was not well at all, come down to Delhi for the TLM SALAM. It was the last time he travelled out of Dhaka.

Ahmede: How free do you feel as a woman and an editor?

Antara Dev Sen: As an editor, as free as any editor responsible for a publication feels. The gender is irrelevant.

But as a woman it's more complex. I am lucky to be born in an educated, liberal family, privileged by class, caste and religious identities, in a secular, democratic country. Fortunately, I am empowered by education and freedom of choice. My partner in life, and in The Little Magazine, is a free-spirited, idealistic man with similar views. So I do feel free - as free as any responsible individual in troubled times does. Very free as an individual, but unfree as one belonging to a land tied up in knots of corruption, regressive social convention, religious brutality, caste discrimination, gender violence and other unnerving inequalities that don't allow us to break free. I feel less free as a citizen of a troubled world.

And every once in a while some woman around me - from my chattering maids to the shady politician's wife, women as rape statistics to women as victims of honour killings - reminds me of the very limited freedom I might have had if it wasn't for the accident of birth. In that sense, as a woman in South Asia, you can never feel completely free.

Ahmede: The South Asian sub-continent has witnessed a phenomenal rise in bigotry and intolerance. What do you think are the main causes of this menace?

Antara Dev Sen: Bigotry and intolerance comes either from too much power or from too little. The more helpless you feel, the more desperate you are to be noticed, to establish your might. And this is largely a response to political circumstance. After 9/11, there has been a revival of religious fundamentalism, especially Muslim fundamentalism, around the world, not just in South Asia. I have never seen so many women in hijab in the US or the UK as now. Today, defiantly flaunting one's Muslim identity is a response to the West's appalling 'war against terror'.

For years, the US used Muslim extremism to fight its shadow wars with the USSR, for example in Afghanistan. It encouraged the fundamentalism snowballing through Central and South Asia in the 1990s. Suddenly, after 9/11/2001, this changed to sweeping suspicion and hostility towards Muslims, which polarised people further and cultivated more hatred. South Asia reflects this polarisation. Not surprising, since South Asia hosts half the world's Muslim population - the largest number of Muslims in the world.

But Muslim fundamentalism is just one part of our region's fanatical fury. In India, for example, there has been a revival of both Hindu and Muslim extremism. And one fanatic feeds another. Take the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. It set off the Bombay riots. Which triggered the Bombay blasts. Hatred blossomed spectacularly on both sides of the religious divide. Hindu fanatics have been censoring art and academia, rewriting history, even killing Muslims like in Gujarat in 2002. Muslim terrorists have been orchestrating bomb blasts, and the moderate Indian Muslim society is being whipped into orthodoxy by fundamentalists wielding bizarre and inhuman fatwas.

Fundamentalism is often a grievance redressal system. So the more grievances you have, the more scope there is for such extremism. South Asia is home to half the world's poor, is notoriously corrupt, has a terrible track record in employment, health, education and other development indicators, routinely violates the human rights of women, the low-caste, religious and ethnic minorities and the less privileged. With low accountability and bad governance, there is so much discontent in the region that inciting people is relatively easy for energetic rebels. And for governments, it is easier to crack the whip of fundamentalism than to try and solve their myriad problems of governance.

In short, today's bigotry is primarily a response to social changes and political decisions that offend us. Whether it is the Hindu fanatic, Maoist militant, Muslim fundamentalist or ethnic separatist in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, they are responding to local, national or international issues that affront them. As long as there is this simmering discontent, there will be radicals or politicians who will use it to encourage violence, intolerance and suspension of freedoms.

© Ahmede Hussain

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Salt and Saffron

An interview with novelist Kamila Shamsie

Ahmede: What is your earliest childhood memory? How important is her childhood should be to a novelist? Is every art, in the broadest sense of the word, autobiographical?

Kamila: There are two early memories, I'm not sure which came first. One is the day my family's pet dog was put to sleep - I remember my father had taken him to the vet in his car, and when he came back he was alone. I suppose that was my first encounter with grief or death.
The second memory is during the '77 elections in Pakistan. I remember my father showing me a black mark on his hand and explaining that it couldn't be washed off and was a sign he'd voted, and was to ensure that people didn't go to vote more than once. Now that I think about it, it seems a rather strange memory to have made an impact on a 4-year old.

The question of childhood and novelists is an interesting one...I certainly think memory is very important to a novelist, and in many ways our sharpest memories are of childhood. It seems the older people get the more vividly the recall their childhood while everything else starts to fade and dim, which suggests those earliest memories have a particular hold on our minds. But maybe I only feel this way because my first novel was about an 11-year old, and I did draw a lot on my memories of being that age to help me understand how to create the character - there are plenty of novelists who never write about childhood. I suppose in a broad sense you'd have to say childhood is important to everyone because it's where the formation of our interests and our personalities takes you can never really get away from it.

I would argue against the idea that art is autobiographical - although you do use the phrase 'the broadest sense' which complicates matters a little. How broad is the broadest sense? Certainly everything we write comes out of our own interests, our way of viewing the world - so if you want to speak very very broadly you might be able to classify that as autobiography, though I think that would probably distort the meaning of the word to the point of meninglessness. IF we look at the question in a narrower way and ask if artist's base their work on their experiences, my unequivocal answer is 'no.' The novel I'm now writing starts in Nagasaki in 1945 and wanders around the world, passing through mujahideen training camps, taking in people of many different nationalities....really not autobiographical! Also, the fact is that sometimes the novels we're writing shape our interests, it's not just that they are shaped by our interests. I'll explain what I mean - when I was writing 'Kartography' it occured to me that maps would be a really useful/interesting metaphor for a lot of different ideas

I was playing with in the book. But in school geography had been my least favourite subject! I had no interest in maps - until I saw their usefulness as metaphor. And then I started reading about the history of cartography, paying attention to different kinds of maps....and in the end I became very interested in the subject. But it was the novel driving my interest, rather than my interest driving the novel.

Ahmede: Does a female writer's way of handling a certain theme differ from the way a male writer will tackle it?

Kamila: Well, this is one of those questions we could go back and forth on until the end of time! It's true, I think that there are certain kinds of trends you might see more in writing by women (so-called 'domestic writing') while men are more likely to take on other kinds of stories (eg. war). But having said that, some of the most highly rated war novels are Pat Barker's 'Regeneration' trilogy (her name probably has some readers thinking she's a man) whereas there are few women writers who take on the 'domestic' with the subtlety and insight of the short-story writer, Aamer Hussein. So I think we need to be careful of over-statement. Of course, for many years the domestic sphere was seen as a woman's world whereas the battlefield was a man's world. I think it's interesting to see how the question of gender and writing might change in the next hundred years or so in parts of the world where those distinctions are increasingly breaking down...I think only then will we be able to separate the questions of gender from those of experience.

Of course the other thing to take into consideration is that we're all made up of various components of which gender is only one – I feel a particular echo and resonance between my work and that of male Pakistani writers such as as Aamer Hussein, Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam because we share a component of nation....and no, I don't think there's a dividing line which has Aamer, Mohsin, Nadeem on one side and myself, Uzma Aslam Khan, Bapsi Sidhwa on the other.

So while I do think it's possible to make certain statements that are largely (though not entirely) true about distinctions between men and women - whether its learned or innate - when it coems to writers you'll always find individual works here and there which break down those distinctions entirely.

What is true - and different surveys have shown this - is that, broadly speaking, men and women read differently. Which is to say, men will seldom read books written by women, whereas women are far more apt to read books written by both men and women.

Ahmede: The English that we speak in South Asia, do you think we have transformed it enough to call it ours?

Kamila: I think the question of 'transforming English' is one we possibly get too hung up on whenever it comes to this question of whether English is really 'ours.' As far as I'm concerned, English became ours the day we started to us the English language to demand rights, representation, autonomy, independence etc etc from our colonial masters. What is ownership of a language, after all, except the ability to wield it confidently for your own purposes? Having said this, of course I think a book like 'Midnight's Children' was very important because it used a particularly kind of idiomatic English that can be found in the sub-continent, without apology or explanation, and went on to become one of the Classics of 20th century English literature. In doing so I think it made the case that there was no need for South Asian writers to sound like English writers. We could use our own worlds in whatever way we chose, and still have it be recognised and appreciated as having a place in Anglophone literature.

But, of course, before Midnight's Children won the Booker prize there was another Indian novel that had made it onto the shortlist – Anita Desai's 'Clear Light of Day'. Now, Desai didn't 'transform' English in a literal way - by which I mean her grammar and syntax and idiom were more 'conventional' (ie. following the conventions of English Literature from the UK) but she - along with all the earlier Anglophone writers such as Narayan and Ahmed Ali and Attia Hosein - transformed English inasmuch as they used it to tell narratives that were quite different from the narratives the English were telling. I think Ahmed Ali's 'Twilight in Delhi' published in 1940, was a transforming novel - it used English to convey the lives of Old Delhi. Previously, novels in English set in Delhi would very much have been about the English. Here, Ahmed Ali, gave us another view.

And it was controversial enough at the time that in England the printers first refused to print it. So, yes, we've transformed English enough to call it our own – not only in terms of form, but also in terms of the stories we tell using it.

There is a separate issue, of course, that has to do with the way the English language and class status long-ago got muddled together, so English became the language of the elite. That's a more pressing issue today, I think. Novels being published in the English language by writers from South Asia are written, to a very large extent, by members of the elite. That needs to change - it must be a more inclusive language - and as English grows in global domination and becomes the language of computers and science I think that class barrier is beginning to break down as an English-language education becomes more widespread...

Ahmede: History is another important issue, isn't it? It is rather murky in South Asia, where the first text book on South Asian history was written by an English School inspector…

Kamila: Yes, of course history is important - and the question of who writes histories is important. The murkiness is not just about some long-ago English school inspector - it's also about the history textbooks that governments approve for use in schools. So the BJP would have had its own version of what kind of history it wanted to spread, Zia-ul-Haq certainly had his own version (In which Aurengzeb was the greatest of the Great Mughals, and Akbar was frankly very suspect - purely because of their religions ideas) . I'm far more concerned about the history books being approved and circulated today than the ones from long ago. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh, of course, have this vexed question of what to do about history pre-47, and pre-71. In Pakistan there's an attempt to say the history of Muslims in India is part of Pakistan's history - but having said that, the history of what was East-Pakistan from '47 to '71 is completely excised from history. So you end up with a very partial and distorted view.

But I don't think the murkiness of history is a particular South Asian problem - one of the reasons history is so fascinating is precisely this problem of separating fact from agenda....

Ahmede: Many argue that novel itself is a western form of expression. We had epic. Is it not so that the history of novel is also the history of the so-called modern man, his crises?

Kamila: The Western world also had epics! I would actually argue that in some ways it's a false separation between the epic and the novel...I see them very much along a continuum....Actually, when I read 'early novels' (in traditional classifications of the novel) such as those by Richardson and Fielding I feel far more distant from them, as a writer, than I do when reading The Iliad and Odyssey. So I'm going to side-step the question slightly by refusing to fully accept the distinctions....

But certainly, yes, if we accept conventional Western ideas of modernity as starting in the 18th century, then the history of the novel (as a distinct, critically recognized form) does overlap with that of modernity and is thus a good chronicler of its various trends and crises - primarily those of modern Western man, but increasingly those of modern woman as well as modern Global people.

Ahmede: The novel has another aspect too. You read it alone, it is not a the theatre or to a gallery.

Kamila: It's interesting, I was just reading a series of interviews between the writer Michael Ondaatje and the film editor Walter Murch where Ondaatje mentions that watching a dvd on your own personal laptop is now brining the intimacy or reading into the experience of watching film....and I realized then that I do actually prefer watching films that way to watching them on a television across the room. There's something about being only inches away from the unfolding story which is quite compelling...and of course, you can pause, go back etc. with dvds in a way that you can't when watching in the movie-theatre or even on tv.

But even so, reading does remain the most intimate ways I know of interacting with a piece of art....reading allows you to set your own pace, as opposed to film where you can pause but you can't really slow down and speed up your watching if you want the movie to make any sense. Even if someone else is reading a book as the time as you are they're going to be going at a different pace, so it's almost impossible that you'll be reading the same words at the same moment, let along imagining the characters in the same way... You can go into an art gallery with someone and move from one exhibit to the other at the same speed, but you can't replicate that with reading.

I've always preferred reading in solitude to doing so with someone else in the room. Even if they're completely quiet, somehow this third presence feels like an intrusion. I want to be able to slam the book down or call out in surprise o just put it down for a few minutes and think about what i've read without being interrupted.
It's the reader in me more than the writer which feels offended when people insist all writing is quite strictly autobiographical – I think, if you're capable of fully entering into another world as a reader, one entirely disconnected from your own life, then why don't you think it's possible to do so as a writer? We give to little credit to the imagination sometimes - but reading is entirely about that, isn't it? The exercise of the imagination.

[Kamila Shamsie was born in 1973 in Pakistan. Her first novel In the City by the Sea was shortlisted for the John Llewelyn Rhys/Mail on Sunday Prize, and was reissued in June 2004 as a Bloomsbury paperback. Her second novel, Salt and Saffron, won her a place on Orange's list of '21 writers for the 21st century'. First published in June 2002, Kartography was shortlisted for the 2003 John Llewelyn Rhys/Mail on Sunday Prize.
In 1999 Kamila received The Award for Literature in Pakistan. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Hamilton College in Clinton NY, and a MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Kamila Shamsie lives in London and Karachi.
Her new novel, Broken Verses, was published by Bloomsbury in April 2005.]

Padma's World

[Padma Viswanathan is a fiction writer, playwright and journalist from Edmonton, Alberta. Her writing awards include residencies at the MacDowell Colony and the Banff Playwrights’ Colony, and first place in the 2006 Boston Review Short Story Contest. She received her Creative Writing MA from Johns Hopkins and her MFA from the University of Arizona, and lives with her family in Fayetteville, Arkansas.] Author bio: Random House Canada.

Ahmede: What is your earliest childhood memory? How important is your childhood to you?

Padma: My childhood is or was very important to me, but not more so than any other phase of my life.

Do you think the way in which diasporic writers interpret South Asian reality differs from the way non-diasporic authors do?

I think every writer interprets reality differently from every other writer, so I’m not sure there is a useful binary here. Also, I am not positive whether you are distinguishing writers living in S. Asia from those settled elsewhere, or writers of S. Asian descent from those not of S. Asian descent.

Ahmede: Why do you think religious intolerance is on the rise across South Asia?

I’m not convinced it is on the rise and not just taking new forms.

Ahmede: VS Naipaul has talked about separation of the man (the person who writes) and the writer. How is it like that for you?

Padma: I understand Naipaul to have been talking about a desired reconciliation between the writer’s personal history and his preoccupations or voice on the page. I think my generation of S. Asian writers has less of a feeling of shame or apology for our experiences and origins. We owe a debt of gratitude to older S. Asian writers, who found an audience for their voices and experiences and so gave us the feeling that we could do the same. My primary inspiration in this regard was Salman Rushdie, but there were others before him and a deluge since, giving us the feeling that it is not just a narrow strip of experience that can bear literary fruit: not just British, not just upper-crust. I grew up in Canada, where a generation of writers earlier in this century went through a similar process of valuing their own experiences and modes of expression, distinct from their colonial forebears, so I am a double inheritor of these ideas.

I have always had the sense that, even while I’m attracted to centers—of geography, economy, society, even, perhaps, psychology—most interesting stories come from the margins. Embracing our marginal origins, however we define these, means reconciling the writer with the person.

Ahmede: A language has its own history, a past of its own. In South Asia English is given to us (or imposed) during the Raj, and for a good many years it has remained the language of a particular class… How important do you think class is to South Asian reality?

Padma: Class is of the utmost importance to S. Asians, as it is, I think, in any society with such enormous disparities as we see in S. Asia. It determines everything: access to resources, to expression, to the fulfilment of dreams, to health and life itself.

Ahmede: Do you think every novelist, in a way, writes history, both at a personal and social level?

Padma: Definitely: I don’t think there’s any way to avoid it, even in highly allegorical or non-realist writing. All fiction emerges from a historical moment, and carries the stamp of the period from which it has emerged, in its use of language, its social understandings, its structure and form. Having said that, it’s always fascinating to examine works that seem “before their time,” in whatever sense—those books that seem out of step with the literary mainstream, especially if they endure. I’m not only talking about “futuristic” books, but ones that are either groundbreaking or rejected in their times—because, in general, these, too, come out of traditions we can detect, and sometimes name, in retrospect. Sometimes they are traditions that have fallen out of fashion; sometimes they are traditions from places other than that in which the writer is writing.

Neither can any writer escape her personal history: even when writing something that appears completely devoid of autobiography, the writer is drawing on everything she has ever known, seen, heard, read, experienced in any way, and her novel is the result of how and what she has lived.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Revolution Betrayed

Conversations with Suleman
Afsan Chowdhury
Shrabon; pp 35

Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August the barley grew up out of the grave.

‘Requiem for the Croppies’
Seamus Heaney

The birth of Bangladesh has been the result of a bloody and ruthless civil war in which thousands died, millions were rendered homeless. The country’s war of independence, the vanguard of which have mainly been rural proletariat and urban middle class, promised a state based on the bourgeois principles of social and economic justice. The war has primarily been against the Punjabi-Sindhi dominated ruling class of Pakistan, and immediately after the emergence of the new nation an army of lumpen bourgeoisie quickly replaced them. Bangladesh became a textbook example of the Post Colonial mess that sometimes follows the so-called national bourgeoisie coming into power “or plotting for power, the instability of arrangements, the unappeased crowds of long suffering natives…” that Elizabeth Hardwick has said about VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River.
Through Suleman, who lost both his hands in our great war, in his first book of poetry, Afsan Chowdhury brilliantly depicts this transition; Conversations with Suleman is an extended poem, at the same time, it has the scope and vastness of an epic. Like the other National Bourgeoisie Revolutions, Bangladesh’s Muktijuddo has a progressive aura (or to be precise a dash of socialism) attached to it, but the ‘revolution’ was soon betrayed: hordes of transnational and multinational companies, against whose vested interests ordinary Muktijoddahs so valiantly fought, were soon welcomed by the government; the help of the World Bank, the bastion of Imperialist power, were sought; collaborators of the Pakistani junta, some of whom helped to kill and rape millions, were socially and politically rehabilitated. It is a little wonder, then, that Suleman’s words will be bitter, harsh, that the sentences which he utters will be soaked with the blood of the martyrs like Havildar Jamal.
“Were you frigging with your filthy hands
when I rolled down and fired and fired?”
Where were you?
Yes, where were you?
“Doesn’t World Bank lend fingers and hands
at low interest rates anymore?
What is Grameen Bank doing
about useless, landless hands?
Call BRAC.
Beg Golam Azam the Lord
for my two shrunken hands.”

What is so curious about our Muktijuddo is its class character. There has been an intermingling of the aspirations of the masses and the middle class; the urban and rural proletariat were led (perilously) by the urban middleclass, most of whom have petit bourgeoisie ambitions. Afsan Chowdhury has been a minute observer of the change in the social anthropology of our region. Read:

“…Did your zamindar father
buy the bullets?
They belong to the desh,
not you, you swine.
Feel, feel with your
dirty soft hands,
you bastard from the city,
the patriotic deshi soil.”

Chowdhury masterfully makes use of angst as a leitmotif, this is a violent poem; it is meant to be so. The hate and violence in the language that Conversations with Suleman is so infested with is the inevitable by-product of a sense of helplessness and decadence we more often than not find in every Post Colonial society. Suleman refuses to remain a mere individual, torn and mangled by a savage war and its treacherous aftermath, the “Crippled. Freedom. Fighter.” becomes a life symbol for a nation, a revolution thoroughly betrayed, Suleman, here, becomes the nation itself.

Downsizing can never the Only Answer

Jute has to be made free of corruption and mismanagement

Once the barometer of our national economy, Bangladeshi jute products have been facing a difficult time in the international market. In a part of her ministry’s Jute Reform Programme, Geeteara Safiya Choudhury, adviser to the Jute and Textiles Ministry, has declared this month her government’s intention to shut down four state owned jute mills and to get rid of 14,000 workers from 22 mills. While it is true that the state-owned jute mills’ cumulative loss stands at a staggering Tk 5000 crore a year, downsizing is not the answer. The reasons for this loss, which the ordinary citizens bear year in and year out, have been manifold in nature. Trade unionism, mismanagement, coupled with the lack of sincerity and the absence of a proper jute policy are a few of the blows our jute sector has taken in the last one and a half decades. The once-golden fibre of Bangladesh has quickly turned into a noose on the farmers’ neck. In the early and mid nineties, under the so-called structural readjustment policy some of our jute mills have been shut down while products made of jute have witnessed a remarkable growth in the international market thanks to a worldwide environmentalist movement. India and China, our two next-door neighbours, now control a good share of the market when we were busy laying off our mills, not to mention the trade-unionism that does nothing for the benefit of the labourers. Instead of giving the workers a voice, trade unions have become mere bullyboys à la Hitler’s Brown Shirt. Most trade unions are far from being the vanguards of the proletariat; most of their leaders, in connivance with some unscrupulous managers have made the state-own mills a profitable business for themselves, illegal selling of bales of jute procured for the mills, over employment, corruption in procurement are a few salient features of our forlorn jute sector.
Severing one’s head if one is having a headache is not the answer; a massive investment is needed in the jute sector. No one (not even our high-flying, shining neighbours) will deny that we produce the best jute in the world. Bureaucratic tangles between the jute and finance ministries, and the BJMC have to be removed. A body, comprising of experts and labour leaders, should immediately be formed to revive the old glory of our jute. Closing down jute mills is not the answer, the government must think twice before taking any step that will hurt hundreds of lives. The adviser has informed us that after the so-called ‘golden handshake’ these 14, 000 labourers will be employed on a daily basis, which is not going to be cost-effective, and there is every danger of losing skilled workers, not to mention the social cost of such a venture. We must not forget that faced with a resurgent environmentalist movement across the globe, the demands for artificial synthetic products have witnessed a slump in the international market. It is high time that we take effective concentrated efforts to save our jute sector. Good planning is needed, so are sincerity and goodwill. A task force can be formed to probe into cases of corruption in the jute mills; the arrest of Osman Gani, the Chief Conservator of Forest, has opened a can of worms in our administration, we believe, more of the likes of Gani are at large, and some are still running the show in different government-run mills and factories. Otherwise nothing can justify the fact that subsequent governments have claimed to run the country smoothly but have always found managing mills and factories difficult. The financing and procurement process has to be freed from the corruption and mismanagement that have plagued this sector for so long. Meanwhile, we must nurture our skilled labour, make ways to developed new ones. The beginning of a new industrialised forward looking Bangladesh can start from the jute sector.