Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Mohsin Hamid talks about his latest novel 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist'

Will you please tell our readers about how you started writing?

As a child, I started by imagining. I was the sort of boy who could spend entire afternoons day-dreaming. I would imagine that the lawn was an ocean, the mango tree was a ship, and I was sailing away -- that sort of thing. I think most children do this. The difference in my case is that I never stopped, and I started writing down my day-dreams, making them into stories for other people, and I still do this now, at the age of 36. Novel writing is about remaining child-like, holding onto your childishness and making something of it as an adult.

In an interview with the BBC you said (about The Reluctant Fundamentalist): "Because it's a dramatic monologue, and it's set between two people almost as if it's happening on stage, there's a certain sense that it can't possibly be happening this way." How important is point of view or the narrative technique to you?

Point of view and narrative technique is essential. I think of my novels partly in architectural terms: here is the aim of the structure, here are the component parts, here is how they support each other, here is the load they will bear, here is the experience of passing through them. In both of my novels, the reader is asked to play a role, to step into the novel and judge what happens. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the dramatic monologue form is an invitation to the reader to do precisely that.

I have found your "corporate fundamentalism" strikingly new. Will you please tell us a bit about it?

In "The Reluctant Fundamentalist", the main character, Changez, works in finance. His company determines the value of other companies. He begins to empathize with the employees of the companies he values, people whose value is being reduced to dollars and cents. The novel suggests that this system is perhaps quite an extremist one, and in that sense not so different from religious fundamentalism. Economic fundamentalism can be a brutal ideology, and it is natural that it inspires a backlash.

What do you think are the reasons behind a world of distrust/mistrust/suspicion that exist between America and the Muslim world?

American foreign policies are an important reason: look at Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. But many people in Muslim countries have also tended to blame their own failings -- of which there are many -- on America rather than taking responsibility for those failings themselves. And extreme views in Muslim world, as well as violent actors, tend to be what Americans see when they turn on the news. In the end, we have to break this conflict down to the level of the human: there are 300 million individuals who comprise "America"and over a billion who comprise "the Muslim world." These people cannot be lumped together into simple groups, and should not be thought of that way. Generalizations are dangerous. We realize it is ridiculous to say people act as they do because they are "earthlings." The terms "American" and "the Muslim world" are almost equally vague.

Where does South Asian fiction in English stand in world literature?

For me, that is an impossible question. It is a bit like asking: Where do South Asian wicket-keepers stand in world sport? My answer is: Who knows? There are many superb South Asian writers in English, they vary a great deal in style and subject matter, and that is to be expected since they are drawn from over a billion diverse people.

Post-colonial critics talk about the writing back to the centre.
What are your observations of Post Colonial writing?

The term "post-colonial" is one I find very interesting. I was born in Lahore 24 years after Pakistan's independence. I had no memory of a "colonial" period as such, and so found the idea of being "post-colonial" oddly limited and anachronistic. It seemed something that my parents' generation was preoccupied with, not mine. My tendency was to reject the term, and even to find it oddly demeaning, as though it denied people like me the right to be responsible for our own problems by relying on an external actor to blame. I have since come to view the term more positively, and to understand its (possible) potency. Speaking truth to power is an important function of literature, and to the extent that this is a "post-colonial" exercise, it is an aspect that I embrace.

This interview piece is going to be published in the Daily Star.


Rubana Huq, poet and researcher, has started a website dedicated to Bangladeshi writing in English. She talks about the site and her future plans

How did the idea of monsoonletters first occur to you? Will you please tell us a bit about the site?

Rubana: I am a researcher in Kolkata where I am working on a small publishing house: Writers Workshop. WW is run by Prof P Lal who has, for the last 50 years encouraged writing in English. The impact of publishing on a writer's space and pace is enormous. The encouragement, in turn, gives birth to further creativity. Therefore, I thought of a platform that would be easily accessible for aspiring Bangladeshi writers as well as the writers already published. E publishing seemed to be a feasible option and I didn't want to waste a second implementing the idea.

Compared to its South Asian counterparts Bangladeshi writing in English is a relatively new thing. How do you view Bangladeshi English literature?

Rubana: Bangladeshis have been writing in English for a long time. The tradition hasn't possibly set in.

Bangladeshis writing in English in any genre should be encouraged. The choice of the medium of language is a writer's choice. The number of young monsooners writing for the site has been a relief. There are just too many talented young people out there, ready to emote and share their inner space with the rest of us! The future of the English literary scene seems to be getting better and better every minute.

Does Monsoonletters have any plan to publish e-books? What do you think is the future of electronic publishing?

Rubana: ML will publish e books along with a paper version of its content after a year. The site has to nurture its own future and acquire some more flesh. I guess the growth will come from the quality and quantity of the contents belonging to the site. If the site gets to be popular amongst young monsooners and if the site archives the work of all the writers of Bangladesh, only then will it graduate to the next level. The future of e publishing may face controversies right now, but 'e' is a medium that promises the most. With control over one's own domain of writing, one should happily create more in the virtual reality of literature.

What is your future plan?

Rubana: My future plan is to:
* encourage more writing in English,
* take up projects that will make the country look literally better with "city poetry" concepts where a painter and a poet will collaborate and create art windows at every commercial outlet, : stimulate the world of a young author
·maintain the database of the existing authors with equal caution, dedication and passion.

This article was first published in the Daily Star on June 29, 2007

Life's Long March

Where Angels Fear to Tread
and Other Essays
Azizul Jalil
The University Press Limited
pp 142; Tk 350

Azizul Jalil's second book attempts to recollect events and characters in history, people and lives that the former World Bank employee considers are important. What he does best (and sadly refuses to do much) is the portrayal of his own childhood memories, which given that the writer is no historic figure would otherwise have faced oblivion.

History, both personal and national, in this part of the world is a murky affair. While it is a custom in the west to jot down one's everyday trivialities in diaries and journals, in the South Asian subcontinent it is nearly impossible to find an ordinary non-historic individual's (like Jalil's) presence in history. So, anyone in pursuit of knowing her or his past must resort to the account of Arab and Chinese travellers in whose narrative one ordinary 'local' may pop up to fade into the dungeon of the Rajah. It is a small wonder, then, the first written history of the India, which used to be taught in the secondary schools, has been written by an Englishman, a school inspector. In the labyrinth of Post-colonial maze we come across a king, “benevolent” that he is, in whose reign eight mound of rice would cost you only Tk 1. Individuals, their presence in history do not count, subalterns are meant to remain in the margin of the history books, a mere footnote, a reference here, a line there.

As someone who has brushed past hordes of historic figures in his life, it is important that Jalil writes a memoir. In Where Angels Fear to Tread and Other Essays there are bits and pieces of his childhood, his coming of age, but everything is seen from a strict moralist point of view. It seems there are things in his life that he is not quite sure if we should know about, the frankness (and ruthlessness) with which one must dig into one's soul to recollect one's past remains absent in both Jalil's books. The writer suffers from an incorrigible tendency to reminisce only about the happy occasions of his life, anything unpleasant, ghastly or embarrassing are doomed to be purged or be buried or be purified in earnest.

Jalil is no professional writer either. The book is stained with occasional slip-ups: “In our Calcutta days,” writes Azizul Jalil, “the biggest and most prestigious Eid Jamaat was held in the Garer Math near the Octorlony Monument.” An Eid congregation can be big, so big that it can be the biggest in the area, but it is not understandable what qualities a religious gathering must have to be branded as the most prestigious in town.

In the second part of his collection of essays, all of which are published in Dhaka's “prestigious” dailies (if one must use the phrase), Jalil makes an attempt to rediscover the lives of a legion of historic figures. From Alexander the Great's failed adventure to conquer Bengal to the “rise and fall of the honourable East India Company”, very little, in fact, has escaped his prodigious attention. But in most cases Jalil's prose, arid that it is, fails him. 'Columbus about America: No Cities, No Government, No King!' gives us no clue about the colonisation project of the Empire or the brutal, inhuman Inquisition that followed Columbus's landing, not to mention the genocide that has changed the demography of some of the islands in the Caribbean.

Some of the information that the writer gives about these historic figures is mere mastication of already established facts: Jalil's book does not shed any new light on their character.

But what makes this collection of essays interesting is the writer's urge to explain himself. One, however, wants to know more about the Eid Jamaat that Jalil in his early teens attended, one wants him to dig into the cruellest, the most puzzling and fondest of memories to find the inner, hidden and sublime meaning of it. It is high time that the writer starts writing his autobiography. Late writer Humayun Azad once quite cynically said that when a Bangali writes an autobiography it turns into a devil's memoir written by an angel. Jalil's memoir, which he should start writing at the soonest, must take a journey, a journey into the deepest and the most unravished region of his soul. It will be his personal history, which will mirror an individual's shaky presence in life's giant long march.

This article was first published in The Daily Star on July 27, 2007

He and His Men

“At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this, made all signs to me of subjection, servitude and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me as long as he lived; I understood him in many things and let him know I was very pleased with him; in a little time I began to speak to him and teach him to speak to me; and first, I made him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life; I taught him to say "Master," and then let him know that was to be my name…”

Robinson Crusoe
Daniel Defoe

Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English
Fakrul Alam
pp 402; Tk 600

The island on which Crusoe got stranded was Tobago, next to the Spanish (later British) settlement of Trinidad. But unlike what Defoe (He was born Daniel Foe) claims , Robinson Crusoe was the story of an English sailor John Segar of Burie in Suffolke “who was let there eighteene months before by Abraham Kendall (the Captain). ” Friday, most obviously, has been a man-eating Carib , a small ethnic group of Amerindians. The question that Defoe’s novel throws at history is a curious one: On an island as uninhibited at Crusoe’s, why does Friday opt for slavery? Why doesn’t he lift a stone to hit Crusoe while he is sleeping or engrossed in Bible? The question of power, who holds it and against whom, comes into play. Friedrich Engels thinks, “ If Crusoe could procure a sword for himself, we are equally entitled to assume that one fine morning Friday might appear with a loaded revolver in his hand, and then the whole "force" relationship is inverted. Friday commands, and it is Crusoe who has to drudge.”
While Fridays did take up guns as Engles suggested (giving birth to a flurry of National Democratic revolutions, which eventually ended in chaos), some others used the language of the colonisers to “write back to the centre” (which has given birth to Post-Colonial literature). The later is the subject of Fakrul Alam, Bangladesh’s leading Post-Colonial (Po-Co) critic. His new book (his first in a long time) minutely covers Po-Co writers as wide in variety as Rudyard Kipling and RK Narayan. But the most interesting aspect of it is his tribute to Edward Said, founder of Orientalism, who also happened to be Alam’s teacher. “One aspect of ‘writing back' for the Post Colonial intellectual,” Alam writes in his essay ‘Edward Said and the Counter-Discourse of Postcolonial’, “then, involves demystification and deconstruction and aggressive pursuit of projects undertaken by ‘area experts’ in bad faith, the better to expose them. In the sense, writing back upholds critique as a model of intellectual activity. Another, not negative notion, of ‘writing back’ involves affirming the tradition of resistance of colonial societies."
The history of colonisation and the resistance that comes along with it and its aftermath have been the primary focus of Said and Alam’s world-view. But it is somewhat problematic when one considers the colonies within newly found independent countries/ colonies. To make it even more complex, if not confusing, comes different multinational and transnational corporations, who are gradually replacing the Imperialism in world politics. The national bourgeoisie that the National Democratic Revolutions so feverishly sought for never existed; Said so rightly talked about transfer of technology and Power, but the obsession with identity that eventually Orientalism leads us to a murky area: “in places like Iraq and Jordan, leaders of the new state were brought in from the outside, tailored to suit colonial interests and commitments. Likewise, most states in the Persian Gulf were handed over to those who could protect and safeguard imperial interests in the post-withdrawal phase” “… like its colonial predecessor, postcolonial identity owes its existence to force”.
“Writing back to the centre” in the former colonisers’ language is also questioned. The situation is stranger in former Asiatic societies where the new colonisers themselves have a master, the US imperialism. A Baloch in modern-day independent Pakistan is colonised by the Punjabi-Sindhi bourgeoisie state, but at the same time, the state and its runners themselves are mere stooges of big international money. The question, now, is, can a slave, himself a slave, keep a slave? Why does one need write in say English to write back to the centre? Why can Bangla or Pashto not be used to fight back, against the Empire? Alam’s book raises these issues and, at times, he tries to find an answer to these questions that have been dogging Po-Co Literature since its birth.
Then there is the more unpleasant issue of belonging. In a region like South Asia, where hundreds and thousands of people live in abject poverty, where a majority of them do not even know how to write in their own language, writing in English threatens to become a replacement of the babu culture of the eighteen and early nineteen centuries. The White are gone, and are replaced by an isolated group of arrivistes who send their children to the US (fondly called the states) or the UK. Dhaka or Delhi's posh clubs are full of such lumpen bourgeoisies who talk about revolution over a glass of champagne, who find it difficult to sleep without their bedroom properly air-conditioned. English in the South Asian subcontinent has remained the language of a certain class. Some have already migrated to the west, remotely in touch with the land whose people they write about. It is interesting though that most of the work that the Po-Co writers produce are not non-bourgeois in nature, and, it at times fails (to a dangerous extent) to touch the life of the Proletariats of its own land. One reason for this can be that most of them live faraway from the place they are writing about, another reason is their class, which refuses to leave them when they are writing. Writers of South Asian Diaspora ceased to exist as an interpreter of reality they become mere translator "glancing over their shoulder all the time they write, at the foreigners who will read them" .
Alam is our leading literary theorist, and his new book, however, will remain a milestone when a true Po-Co history of our region will be written.

Works cited:

1.“I Robinson Crusoe, do affirm that the story though allegorical, is also historical…Further, that there is a man alive, well known too, the actions of whose life are the just subject of these three volumes, and to whom all or most part of the story most directly alludes…and to this I set my name.” (Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe).
“And with a bravado worthy of Cervantes he signs his name: Robinson Crusoe,” writes JM Coetzee. Stranger Shores essays 1986-1999, JM Coetzee (Great Britain: Secker & Warburg, 2001).

2.See The Voyages of Sir James Lancaster 1591-1603, ed. Sir William Foster (London: Hakluyt Society, 1940).

3. “About 100 years before the Spanish invasion, the Taínos were challenged by an invading South American tribe - the Caribs . Fierce, warlike, sadistic, and adept at using poison-tipped arrows, they raided Taíno settlements for slaves (especially females) and bodies for the completion of their rites of cannibalism. Some ethnologists argue that the preeminence of the Taínos, shaken by the attacks of the Caribs, was already jeopardized by the time of the Spanish occupation. In fact, it was Caribs who fought the most effectively against the Europeans, their behavior probably led the Europeans to unfairly attribute warlike tendencies to all of the island's tribes. A dynamic tension between the Taínos and the Caribs certainly existed when the Christopher Columbus landed on Puerto Rico.”
For more see The Indigenous People of the Caribbean. ed. Samuel M. Wilson (Gainesville, Florida: University of Florida). pp. 180–185.

4. “And then there is the mystery of your submission. Why, during all those years alone with Cruso, did you submit to his rule, when you might easily have slain him, or blinded him and made him into your slave in turn? Is there something in the condition of slavehood that invades the heart and makes a slave a slave for life, as the whiff of ink clings forever to a schoolmaster?”
Foe, JM Coetzee (London: Penguin, 1986). p. 85.
Coetzee here deconstruct Defoe’s work and sees the Crusoe’s colonial project from the point of view of an Englishwoman Susan Barton.
For further reading: ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (ed.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (United States: University of Illinois, 1988). The essay is written by Gayatri Spivak .

5. Anti-Dühring, Part II: Political Economy, III. Theory of Force (Continuation), Frederick Engels (1877)

6. Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English, Fakrul Alam (Dhaka:, 2007). p. 242.

7.“Who am I?: The Identity Crisis in the Middle East” by P, R Kumaraswamy, The Middle East Review of International Affairs (March 2006) Volume 10, No. 1, Article 5, p 1.

8. The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses, Larbi Sadiki (India: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd, 2004). p, 122.
9. Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, JM Coetzee (Great Britain: Secker & Warburg, 2003). p. 51.
"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 if 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…" Coetzee's protagonist says.

This article was first published in the Daily Star on July 13, 2007

The Spirit of Liberté

In an interview His Excellency Monsieur Jacques-André Costilhes, Ambassador of France in Dhaka talks about Franco-Bangla relationship

Monsieur Costilhes thinks when a far away country with little direct contacts is concerned, the public usually takes its cue from the media either directly, if and when it gives a direct opinion about the country, or, more often, from the overall tonality of the reports. " Image is always multi faceted: just as beauty," he says, "It resides mostly in the eye of the beholder. Therefore, when you talk about 'the' image of Bangladesh, you refer to a composite object, made of many different images as seen, to simplify a little, by politicians, businessmen and medias."

The exhibition of Bangladeshi artefacts that is going to be held in Paris from October the 23rd 2007, to March 2008 is surely going to help boost the country's fledgling image abroad. " As you are aware, France and Bangladesh have been engaged in a cooperation in Archaeology for the last 12 years under a governmental agreement. As a tribute to this work, and to give Bangladeshi culture it's due recognition in the international scene, the Guimet Museum in Paris is organising, entirely on its' own funds, the first ever significant international exhibition of stone sculptures, terracotta and other treasures of Bangladeshi cultural heritage," he says. Monsieur Costilhes elaborates further: "Now, you must realise the Guimet Museum is one of the very few museums in Paris to have a global reputation and a corresponding reach in terms of public relations and media impact: an exhibition in such a setting will undoubtedly give Bangladeshi art the widest possible exposure and renown on both the Parisian and the international scene. So, for the fist time in the western world since the Independence war and the favourable exposure it got from people like André Malraux, the name of Bangladesh will be widely, the emphasis being on widely, associated with a positive event."

This message is going to be reinforced by the Dhaka-Paris events that the French Embassy is organising with different partners: a painting exhibition in association with the Bengal Foundation, a traditional boat exhibition in association with the NGO Friendship, a film festival, a photo exhibition, concerts, these are some, but not all, of the surrounding cultural events meant to bring Bangladesh to the front of the cultural scene in Paris this fall. "Of course, this alone will not modify yet the image of Bangladesh, but it is a significant step in the right direction, and France is both proud and happy to have initiated it," he continues.

But how can France, a modern advanced democracy help Bangladesh build its own democratic institutions? Monsieur Costilhes answers, " If, by 'giving help', you mean 'giving lessons', the answer is clearly none. There is, of course, always room for improvement, both in France and Bangladesh, but improvements have to be brought by the citizens, not by outsiders. We may remember here a saying from the French revolution: 'Freedom cannot be given away, it has to be conquered', well, democracy too.

Now, France has indeed reinvented modern democracy in Europe in 1789, long after the original idea of ancient Greece had been consigned to dusty books. You may know that in the process, it has also made grievous mistakes: democracy is a difficult path. By studying those mistakes and the solutions France has found, and then by adapting those to its' own case, Bangladesh may find shortcuts and save itself from comparable waste of time, money and blood. France's history is on record and we stand ready to give technical details on any subject of interest, but Bangladeshis will have to decide what is relevant to Bangladesh."

About the trend of rising religious extremism, Monsieur Costilhes says, " France is a secular republic, which means it considers religion to be strictly a personal matter where the State has no jurisdiction. For instance, it is illegal in France to officially ask, note, or make use of someone's religious affiliation. Therefore, religious extremism is viewed in France strictly on the basis of its' criminal and terrorists aspects.

"The terrorism threat has never been so great in the world. It has also undergone profound transformations. Like most of its international partners, France has adapted its counter-terrorism toolbox accordingly with the law dated 26 January 2006. A White paper called, “prevailing against terrorism” has also been published (120 pages, available on request at the French Embassy) to explain these efforts."

He explains that in France, the law forbids strictly any type of racism, incitation to violence or to violate French law, insult to religions and, in very limited cases within the civil service and public schools, display of ostentatious religious symbols. Needless to say, the law applies to all, irrespective of religion.

"France believes in a twofold approach to fight religious extremism: to strictly apply our law based on the core values of democracy and humanism, including freedom of religion, and to alleviate the reasons that may fool normal well-meaning religious persons into such a distorted mind frame," he says.

This article was first published in the Daily Star on Junly 6, 2007

The Strange Case of Ziaur Rahman

Julfikar Ali Manik, who first revealed the hidden face of militants Abdur Rahman and Bangla Bhai, has written a book titled Zia Hotyakando: Neel Nokshar Bichar on one of the darkest and mysterious chapters of our political history. On the eve of the 26th anniversary of Zia's gruesome murder, Manik talks about his book.

How did the idea of writing a book on the murder of Zia first occur to you?

The desire to do investigative reporting always fascinated me. The idea of writing a book on Zia's murder first came to me during Sheikh Hasina's rule, when the government created a Defense parliamentary Standing Committee in which some sensitive issues were discussed. This had never been done so openly before because it was deemed too sensitive an issue to be discussed. The murder of Zia came up along with the hanging of 13 Army officers because some victims thought they were deprived of justice. As a reporter working for Bhorer Kagoj, I was closely following the events. The proceedings of the trial of the 13 officers were held in camera, and the parliamentary standing committee was repeatedly asking for the trial proceedings, which had been denied. I tried to find out the alternative ways to unearth this mystery myself, as I was very intrigued by this. I took it as a challenge and how I handled it is evident in my book.

Why is the assassination of Ziaur Rahman so mired in mystery?

The only trial that has taken place after Zia's killing is for mutiny. A President was assassinated, and it is interesting that the trial of his murder has never done, and no-one has so far been brought to book for killing Zia, which is ironic in the sense that his widow ruled the country for a good ten years. So we do not actually know who has killed Zia and whose purpose they served. It has never been cleared before us why the sixth President of our country was killed. It has remained one of the unfinished legacies of our national history.

Who do you think are the immediate beneficiaries of Zia's murder?

As we do not know the motives behind his murder it is clear that the person who later usurped power and formed his own party is the sole beneficiary of this gruesome killing. And those who became benefited from his corrupt regime for as long as nine years are the beneficiaries of this murder too. We do not need investigators to tell us this.

What implications has Zia's murder made in the country's politics?

The politics of killing is the result of conspiracy and intrigue. This culture of murder and vindictiveness in politics has been nurtured since 1975. Democracy was put at stake because these murders were never completely brought to book, this breeds a culture of impunity and injustice. We are still bearing the brunt of the murders of two Presidents. We could not build a healthy democratic culture because of this, violence begets violence, and this kind of murder always encourages the opportunist elements that try to change the course of history through unfair means, which in effect gives room to the conspirators.

Do you have any future project in mind? What are you now working on?

I am always hungry for investigative reporting. I have some ideas to do some investigative reports, which I do not want to disclose now. It is a taxing process; Zia Hotyakando: Neel Nokshar Bichar took me a year to finish my investigation. It will take time; if I can do the kind of reports that should be made into a book I will surely do that.

Julfikar Ali Manik works as Senior Staff Correspondent at the Daily Star. He has written two books: Zia Hotyakando: Neel Nokshar Bichar and Zahir Raihan Ontordhan Rohyashobhed; Muktijudder Shesh Ronaggon Mirpur.

This article was first published in the Daily Star on June 1, 2007

Sounds Good

The government's decision to give autonomy to the state-run radio and television is a welcome step

Law and information adviser Mainul Hosein has said last week that the interim government will give autonomy to state-run Bangladesh Television (BTV) and Bangladesh Betar (BB). Giving autonomy to these two organisations, or to free them from becoming Her Majesty's Voice has been a long-standing demand of the ordinary people. In fact, when HM Ershad, one of the vilest dictators in our recent history was ousted in a mass upsurge in 1990, all the major political parties promised to give editorial independence to the Betar and BTV. But the government that was elected in the election of 1991, only followed Ershad's footsteps very closely-- both the organisations, like other state-run bodies, were shamelessly politicised. Committees that were formed to "discuss ways" to give them independence, never came up with any fruitful suggestion. Committee members jetted off from one country to the other to learn ways in which autonomous television channels and radio stations worked. It is now difficult to tell what they have learnt from the numerous foreign trips that the committee-members made-- but BTV and Betar remained her majesty's droning yet faithful voice.

This trend, however disturbing, continued during Sheikh Hasina's five-year rule that followed. So the Prime Minister laying the foundation stone of a primary school became the lead in the prime-time news of state run BTV on a day when thousands died in an earthquake in a neighbouring country and when our own capital was clogged in rainwater. It crossed every level of decency during the last government's tenure. Khaleda Zia and her sons must have thought Bangladesh as their fiefdom, for no other reason is good enough to explain the eulogies of the prime minister, her late husband and their sons that the BTV and BB so diligently aired at regular intervals in the last five years. One example was good enough to show the level of arrogance with which the BNP-infested BB had treated its listeners: when bombs went off in all but one districts of the country, the Bangladesh Betar at 8 that night aired a programme praising the beautification of the capital.

It is indeed good that the interim government wants to put an end to this legacy. It is also time for the BTV to get rid of bad graphics, misspelled Bangla (not to mention, English) and soppy soaps with which the channel has been feeding its viewers for the last two decades.

In a country like Bangladesh radio holds immense potential. The government, while freeing the BB, must take steps to let a thousand radio stations bloom in the country. Small radio stations for townships--even for villages-- can be given permission to; these community radio stations play a vital role in case of natural disasters like flood and cyclone, besides this, it also gives that particular community a sense of identity. It is indeed sad that in a country like us, where a significant number of young people live, there is no campus radio, or no radio station specifically catering to the needs of the youth.

From its zero-tolerance policy on corruption to its promise of giving judiciary total independence, the interim government has taken numerous bold steps to create a free democratic Bangladesh. As the law adviser has so rightly said BTV and BB should be given autonomy as soon as possible, not only that the government must take steps to encourage the establishment of small radio stations where the youth can hone their artistic talent. Bangladesh is a country of forgotten dreams and missed opportunities; now that we have a government that actually thinks and, more importantly, acts accordingly, we have every reason to become hopeful. This government must make the best use of the door of opportunity that has opened before us. To build a dynamic modern Bangladesh a strong and vibrant BTV-BB is a must, we are hopeful that this government understands the necessity of it more than anyone.

This article was first published in the Daily Star on May 25, 2007

A Celebration of Colour

What sets Alakesh Ghosh apart from his peers' is his veritable display of minimalism in watercolour. A couple of dozen new watercolour paintings that are adorning the walls of Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts are primarily realistic in nature though, and it at times seems the artist has refused to play more with his content, the subject matter that is. He rather meticulously portrays a panoramic vision (we presume his own) of our forlorn landscape, but amidst this artistic lenience, we see him come up with bright bold strokes, particularly in Landscape. In this particular work, Ghosh's use of colour (and in places the careful, masterly absence of it) reminds one of the early Bengali masters. The work depicts disturbance, both in the “landscape” (one cannot but help but wonder if the artist should have been advised not to name it so obvious) and in the inner soul of the objects it holds. Surprisingly it is more abstract in nature, it is subtle and translucent; here Ghosh is at his best.

In Bank of river Sangu (watercolour; 2006), like in Khagrachari, Ghosh creates multiple layers of narrative. A dash of light here and a daub of colour in places are good enough for him to narrate a story, a Bengal that is soothing to the eye. He does not quite get into the details, and for his field of vision is so wide that too detailing may have marred the beauty of a rural landscape (most of his new works evolve around rural Bengal, except for three, which are interestingly fairly vivid). Of his “urban watercolours”, Bara Katara is a work of wonder.

It shows the vibrancy of life in a narrow alley in an old part of the city. It throbs with life and at the same time the haunting presence of decay and, more enchantingly, loss, is a statement itself that Ghosh should draw the city more. The maze that Ghosh creates before our contented eyes is not only engaging but a delight to the senses. The speed and versatility with which it is drawn is evident in every stroke of the work, where multiple layers of image are clustered together to create a perfect harmony between life and chaos.

Fishing Boat, among many in a series of boats, on the other hand, illustrates a boat standing shaky on a river. Though the land is barely visible, the narrow one-bamboo bridge is the only way to get to the ground from the boat, which is intelligently cornered at the right. We come across another boat (a dingy perhaps) in Sundarbans, here the artist's images are more abstract, yet it has a degree of motion in it-- especially the waves that thud at the land-- which reminds its beholder of speed and, to a certain extent, the vulnerability of the people living on that plain. The floating light of white and the circular motion of green add to the velocity of the composition. The trees on the left side seems tall and erected as a sharp weapon, and the depth of vision in the painting gives the image a new spectrum.

Ghosh's world, however, is infested with the infamous Truth-Beauty dilemma that has plagued the Romantics for so long. The artist paints a beautiful world, an ideal one in which perhaps only Keats lived. In Ghosh's world, like his English counterpart's, you will find perfect harmony, which (alas) is an elusive dream in a society mired in abject poverty and economic subjugation. It is a utopian landscape that Ghosh works on, so you cannot blame him for not touching upon the plights of the people of the land he paints. Ghosh's world in that sense lacks the commitment to the real natural world that his kind of landscape painting so thoroughly demands, or perhaps his new works are the product of a transitory phase that will lead to a more enduring enlivening period in the life of this deft artist.

This article was published in the Daily Star on April 27, 2007