Saturday, July 28, 2007
Life's Long March
Where Angels Fear to Tread
and Other Essays
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