Saturday, March 15, 2008

In Conversation with Ahdaf Soueif

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

You are always trying to write away from yourself. As a novelist your job is to create characters, situations, stories. They cannot always be you. So I guess you are always trying to liberate your imagination from your self. But to rpoduce authentic work that reaches the heart of your reader you are also, in a sense, true to yourself. That’s the balance, I suppose, that every artist ties to hold maintain.

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

Well, my father told me once that my description of pregnancy and the relationship of the mother to the unborn child was an eye-opener for him. But I don’t know – other than that – that gender makes a difference in the way you handle a theme. It might perhaps make a difference in which theme you choose to handle in the first place.

What is your earliest childhood memory? How important is your childhood to you (as a writer)?

I think that my earliest memory is of standing behind my mother as she paused at a sideboard. She must have been putting the finishing touches to a dish she was about to take into the next room where there was a large group of her and my father’s friends. She is wearing a long, loose, striped skirt and I am holding the skirt and putting my face into its folds and sucking my thumb. I have just been told by my father that I should stop sucking my thumb. I am probably three years old.

But there are many photographs of me as a child. And I’ve been told many, many stories about me as a child. And those stories and photographs are now part of my ‘memories’ as well.

My childhood is tremendously important to me. Partly because I continue to mine it in my work. Partly because I’m very aware of the huge role it played in forming me – and in forming me as a writer.

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

Probably, yes. Certainly the novelists I like most are those whose novels are very much embedded in the history of their periods – or the periods they choose to write about. Think of Tolstoy.

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

It’s not important during the act of writing. But the readers’ response becomes very important in collecting energy to carry on and write the next book.

The world it seems is becoming a more dangerous place to live in...

Yes, that’s true. In fact everywhere you look, from the state of the planet, to the reach of weapons and the dominance of the arms trade, to the spread of conflicts and the widening gap between rich and poor, to the tendency of the state to privilege ‘security’ over services, to the polarization of people behind ethnic and ‘faith’ barricades – it looks perilous. However, I believe it is also true that there is a high level of awareness of these conditions and that more and more people are attempting to take action against them. I have a strong sense of a global grass-roots community working for a healthier and more just and equable world. So, there is still reason to live, and to work ….

Ahdaf Soueif photo by Eamon McCabe.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

From the Frontier of Writing

Selected Poems of Shamsur Rahman
Translated by Kaiser Haq
88pp, Pathak Shamabesh Book, BDT 350

The works of Shamsur Rahman, one of the leading poets of Bangla Literature, can be broadly divided into two parts. In the first we come across the romantic angst of youth, which later he blends with a necessary tincture of existentialism. Rahman’s rebellion, understandably, has been aimed at the establishment, if one must resort to the clich├ęd jargon of the eighties. But, make no mistake; Rahman has never been a political animal. His revolution is essentially poetic in nature, in the sense that his works mark a transition in the history of Bangla Literature, from Jibananda Das’s ‘complex post-Romantic sensibility’-- as Rahman’s translator Kaiser Haq, a poet himself, describes-- to the more urban crises of the Bangali soul in newly independent Pakistan and then Bangladesh. His early poems epitomise the agony of a generation in transition, a society that has been transforming itself fast, and the values-- some of which were peasant-- fighting a losing battle with more modern urban elements of the quasi-feudal society. Rahman started composing when, in the late eighties, the shadow of Das’s Poyaar or Aakhsharbritto (the rhythm style) was huge, overpowering almost. It is interesting to see Rahman quickly breaking away with it; it is his poems written in free verse that stir us the most.

Kaiser Haq, Rahman’s translator, is no stranger to the world of poesy. Haq has been described by the Journal of Commonwealth Literature as ‘Bangladesh’s leading English Language poet’. His translation is smooth; it shows us the depth and play with the language (both original and target) that has been missing from English translation of Bangla literature. Who else but Haq, one wonders, will be able to transform the desolation in Rahman’s work into English? Read:

No footprints on the dirt track
No crow or cowherd in the pastures
The ragged dykes desolate
Roadside trees hushed and all
Around in naked sunlight
Crows flapping wings, crows, only crows.

Though Rahman has never been a political poet, politics, or the cry for equality--both social and political-- is a recurring theme in his work. In ‘Local News’, he declares:

Meanwhile termites have attacked
The disabled freedom fighter’s weathered crutch
And the severed head screaming under his arm
Nawab Sirajuddowla stumbles blindly on the new map of Bangladesh

The tightness and nillness that we experience in these lines are unique to Rahman’s work. It should not be wrong to drop a line or two on Haq’s poems, which are written in a different language. Though Haq writes in English, his poems deal with, in the broadest sense of the word, the crises of modern Bangali man, and so are Rahman’s poems. Kaiser Haq’s translations of Rahman’s 46 poems remind us once again how important it is for a translator to know the work of art he is translating:

How could I make her realize it often happens
Someone takes leave saying, ‘Till we meet again,’
And disappears just like this, leaving behind
A vast emptiness as a gift: we never meet again.

This collection, which has the translations of Rahman’s all major poems, sparkles with brilliance; it is a tribute to a master by another master of modern poetry. A must read!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Keeping the Red Flag Flying

Last week the Communist Party of Bangladesh celebrated its 60th birthday

The birth of the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) can be traced back to the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, when the Communist Party of India was formed in Tashkent. The CPI played a decisive role in the anti-imperialist movements leading up to the independence of India and Pakistan. After the separation of the sub-continent, on March 6, 1948, at the 2nd Congress of the CPI, it was decided that the comrades on the other side of the fence should form their own party; Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) was formed, electing Comrade Sajjad Zahir as general secretary. Twenty years after that the 4th congress of the provisional committee of the CPP declared itself to be the first congress of the Communist Party of East Pakistan (EPCP). The CPB, in its five-decade long existence, has faced periodic obstacles, and the first one came when it was in infancy. From 12000, the membership of the party in East Pakistan, immediately after the partition, came down to a few hundreds as most of the party members left the country to live in India. “Because of this,” says Mujahidul Islam Selim, secretary general of the CPB, “the party grew strong in India, whereas the movement here suffered.”

The biggest challenge, however, was yet to come, during most of the Pakistani era, the communist party was banned. Working underground turned out to be a tricky business, especially at a time when the mudslinging between the Soviet and Chinese parties led to the break up of the communist party in East Pakistan. The faction that followed (at times blindly) the Soviet Party, later, during the Liberation War played a pro-people role, while the other main faction (EPCML) declared their allegiance towards the Chinese party, even though the ‘mother party’ cared very little for her forlorn and lost comrades in Bangladesh. The Chinese government actively opposed the Muktijuddo: the EPCML compared Bangladesh’s war of liberation as a squabble between two dogs. Some of these groups, after the country’s independence, in fact, led a dog’s life-- these splinter factions later kept breaking up, sometimes for ideological reasons, in most of the cases for the petit-bourgeoisies reason of grabbing party-power. The armed conflict between these scatter-brained thugs wreaked havoc in the northeastern and western districts of the country in the mid eighties and early nineties. Some remnants of these infantile leftists are still marauding in some small pockets of Bangladesh.

The CPB, on the other hand, at the beginning of the liberation formed a special force with Bangladesh Students Union and National Awami Party; its members fought valiantly against the Pakistani occupation forces and their collaborators Al-Badr, Razakar, Al-Shams. During the rule of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the party worked actively with the Awami League, because of which, throughout the seventies and eighties many called the party the AL’s lapdog. Mujahidul Islam Selim admits mistakes, “Bangabandhu’s progressive policies like nationalisation and non-aligned foreign policy we rightly supported; but we did not criticise his weaknesses and mistakes, say things like his backing off from land reform, his giving himself up to imperialism, his party’s mismanagement and corruption.”

After the brutal assassination of Bangabandhu, the party, at the beginning of Ziaur Rahman’s rule, was banned, which was later lifted. Zia’s rule and the first half of Ershad’s witnessed a resurgent growth of the CPB; Khentmojur Samiti, its farm-workers’ wing boasted hundreds and thousands of members, in the general elections that followed after the fall of Ershad’s demonic rule the CPB won five seats, establishing itself as the fifth largest political force in the country. But, as happens in the history of the party, in the early eighties the CPB faced a break-up from within; “It was indeed a big crisis,” Selim says, “All the problems or break-ups that the party had faced before was over differences of opinions on materialising socialism, our ultimate goal, but in this case a significant number of party central committee members wanted to liquidate the CPB saying that communism was no longer relevant to the post-Soviet world.” Of those who left the party at that time, some went to Gono Forum; its MPs joined either the BNP or the AL. The party, in the last ten years, regularly faced terrorist attacks; the severest one took place in 2001, in which four people died when bombs went off in near simultaneous blasts at a party rally in the capital.

Selim thinks, as an ideology communism remains relevant. “In Bangladesh, all around us we have communist dominated countries,” he says, “There are ups and downs in history. Our politics is infested with criminalisation and muscle and money power, in such a situation, even if we hold ground it’s an achievement.”