Key Keywords: Literature, Bengali Muslim, Identity, Representation
Literature whether it is regional, national or global always inspires, invigorates, and energizes us to look at life’s great mystery and miracle from multitude heterogeneous contours. It deepens the meaning of life in its colourful and painfully beautiful foliages— splendours and glories, hopes and aspirations, loves and expectations, sorrows and tears, strength and endurance, death and doom, diseases and pathos, the courage and resilience of a sea of humanity. And Bengali Muslim literature aims at giving many of the said life’s innate shades to humanity in general and to the Bengali Muslim in particular. From the aesthetic and idealistic sense there cannot be a strict division among so called Hindu literature, Muslim literature, Christian literature, Jewish literature and so on and forth.
Literature is a continual striving toward the attainment of the essence of a life. But form a pragmatic perspective divisional heterogeneity and plurality of literature has indeed been serving many a desired and cherished goals and aspirations of the people of designated literature. Indeed this plurality is an inerasable strength of literature also. If a community is incapable of sustaining and flourishing its own language and literature, that community is bound to lose the sheen of its unique gust of life. In this context comes the issue of Bengali Muslim literati and literature and their undeniable existence of mesmerizing gaze to life’s visceral and cerebral horizons from a distinct Bengali Muslim perspective. This paper aims to establish Bengali Muslim literature as an added milieu to the enrichment of Bengali literature as a whole.
Why do we talk of Bengali Muslim Literature? Can we dissect literature into multifarious separated segments based on religion, caste, language, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic backwardness, nationality, age, space, technology, environment, and other unending list of identities and theories (isms) and ideologies? The answer is ‘no’ and ‘yes’ at the same time. Literature itself is self referral, self-sufficient and cannot have any ulterior ends. It is self- contained. Literature like other arts is primarily thought to please and instruct us. Pleasure or what we more concisely call aesthetic enduring pleasure is one of the sole determiners of a good literature or a classic. From this perspective literature is for literature’s sake. It cannot have plural designated specialized, bizarre technical and anatomical names.
But literature is also thought to have specific roles and goals for voicing the hopes, aspirations, sorrows and pathos of the numberless divided and bordered societies across the world’s vast panorama. That is why literature now comes to be more and more recognized with specialized terms and epithets. There is also the unavoidable nuisance of literary extreme theorization which kills the essence of a literary piece, making it not the exercise of mind (as thought earlier) but simply mathematical and scientific and mechanical process. Whatever it may be, we cannot deny the existence of literature in the name of multiple societal determiners such as the socio-economic disadvantaged and the marginals, religion, ethnicity, language, nationality, age, environment and other plural specificities. And here comes the question of ‘Bengali Muslim’ literature. Is it possible to divide Bangla Vasha O Sahitya into such strict religious miniaturization? If there is a Bengali Muslim literature, there also should be, it is naturally expected, a likewise ‘Bengali Hindu’ literature.
I think such division in literature written in a particular language goes against the basics of a much coveted life-enhancing discipline like literature. But simultaneously it is also true that a literature which does not reflect the hopes and aspirations, endurance and magnanimity of a particular society or community is liable to be treated with discontents and suspicions by the so called ‘Others’. And a literature reflecting the spirit, energy, love and ardour of a community or class can be embraced with ease and comfort by that coterie of people. It is all in human nature. Literature whether it is regional, national or global always inspires, invigorates, and energizes us to look at life’s great mystery and miracle from multitude heterogeneous contours. It deepens the meaning of life in its colourful and painfully beautiful foliages— splendours and glories, hopes and aspirations, loves and expectations, sorrows and tears, strength and endurance, death and doom, diseases and pathos, the courage and resilience of a sea of humanity.
And Bengali Muslim literature aims at giving many of the said life’s innate shades to humanity in general and to the Bengali Muslim in particular. From the aesthetic and idealistic sense there cannot be a strict division among so called Hindu literature, Muslim literature, Christian literature, Jewish literature and so on and forth.
Literature is a continual striving toward the attainment of the essence of a life. But form a pragmatic perspective divisional heterogeneity and plurality of literature has indeed been serving many a desired and cherished goals and aspirations of the people of designated literature. Indeed this plurality is an inerasable strength of literature also. If a community is incapable of sustaining and flourishing its own language and literature, that community is bound to lose the sheen of its unique gust of life. In this context come the issue of Bengali Muslim literati and literature and their undeniable existence of mesmerizing gaze to life’s visceral and cerebral horizons from a distinct Bengali Muslim perspective.
Bengali Muslim Literature under Study:
The Bengali Muslim literati like Mir Mosharraf Hossain and Qazi Abdul Wadud with their love and rational humanity were the stars of a unique literary flavour enunciating Bengali Muslim life in its vast panoramic hues in colonial Bengal. But the bloom could not last and only Humayun Kabir’s Chatturanga could manage its authority over a period of time. The community losing a host of literary luminaries and many influential heroes because of India’s ‘tryst with destiny’ was in a bad shape. No literature of merit had seen the light of the day for a long period. And after this ebb came the resurgent web of celebrity writers like Syed Mujtaba Ali and Syed Mustafa Siraj. But they could not voice a radically distinct and differentiated Muslim voice because the country faced newer challenges of partition and communal riots.
In this communally charged ambience it was natural for them to refrain from writing which might be considered purely Islamic in character. They both along with other Muslim Bengali litterateurs like Abdul Jabbar and Kabirul Islam writing in the first three decades of independence, and the contemporaries like took in content and imagery the local Bengali environment and its uniqueness which was quite different from the pure and pristine Islamic culture as the theme of their creativity. And their writings focus more or less on the local and immediate Bengali Muslim nuances and peculiarities. Their writings are influenced by the tradition of, Hinduism, syncretism and mysticism, and the local colour and flavour. These writers have been a votary not of a pure and prescriptive Islamic voice, but of a new Bengali Muslim perspective and a uniquely Bengali Muslim identity where the emphasis is laid not on Muslim identity first but Bengali ones.
Abdul Jabbar’s Ilishmarir Char (1959) shows how easily poor and religious fishermen are being duped by the money lender MahajanTorbodi’s oppressive machinations. Their life gets changed only in coming contact with Ratan and Anwar who play a pivotal role in uplifting the fisher folk by providing education and raising class consciousness among them. Abul Bashar’s Surer Sampan (1990) and Dharmer Grahan (1992) depict religion as the major hurdle in otherwise smooth and candid man-woman relationships. The texts recognize that true and noble passions can transcend the so called religious barriers and borders. In Surer Sampan, for instance, music becomes the deep bonding agency between Sohini, daughter of Jafarullah, a music teacher, and Gopal, an unknown boy who grows up under the auspices of Jafarullah. Gopal and Sohini have a deep desire for each other but their wish for marital solemnization falls apart not from Jafarullah’s objections but from the village folk who are dead against Hindu-Muslim marriage in their locality.
Sohrab Husain’s Sharam Ali’s Bhuban (2004) also raises issue of religious insincerity of a maulvi who advises him to be sexually restraint for he is a Muslim. Sharam Ali, contrary to maulvi’s advice dreams of beautiful female figures and craves for Fajli’s body anyhow. He steals mango from the orchard and talks like an atheist for his stomach’s unruly behavioural pattern. Sharam Ali is a radical deviant from the pure Islamic code or way of life. Moreover, a recurring emphasis by these authors in their other multiple writings on the beauty and truth in the lives of Muslim bauls and fakirs who espouse a mystical syncretistic tradition of humanity and their acceptance of life’s wide diversity and this particular baul or fakir way of life is detested and hated by the insular maulvis and other religious bigots.
Thus, these Bengali Muslim writers mark a charismatic departure from traditional Muslim writings where the emphasis was invariably on the myths and stories of the Prophet Muhammad and other sacred men of Islamic history and civilization, epistles of advice, namely nasihatnamas and hagiographies and other esoteric materials. They, on the other, by their sheer insistence and perseverance, painstakingly endeavour to depict Bengali Muslim life in its naked and sordid immediate reality where the nexus between religious bigotry and monetary oppression crush the poor and the concept of ‘Islamic Brotherhood’ vanishes. But the humanity and endurance exerted by the oppressed poor and marginalized beacons new directions in the history of Bengali Muslim writings and representations.
This, however, does not suggest that all Bengali Muslim writers of post-independence have criticized normative Islam and distance themselves from the revivalist spirit of pristine Islam. A host of writers like Abdul Aziz al-Aman, Maulana Muhammad Tahir, Abdur Raquib and Abu Atahar have indeed manifested Islamic values and principles through their numerous writings. They are not believers in religious syncretism or cultural reconciliation. They are Muslim in orientation and they firmly hold the Islamic cultural beliefs, values and ethos. Their contribution to Bengali Muslim writings is to either translate some Arabian or Persian books into vernacular language or to write fresh biographies of the prophet and other holy men of Islam. Their writings are encomiastic of Islamic past glories and have an Islamic moral vision and they imbibe Arabic words in Bengali literary structure also. They basically try to write about Islamic thoughts and philosophy and thereby inject a dose of pure Islam into Bengali literary and cultural body. They have been able to make even the pious Muslims understand the need for vernacular language in disseminating Islamic knowledge and belief. They are in many respects pioneers in championing the cause of Bengali Muslim identity and restoring the sense of Muslim pride and prestige in the realm of Bengali (Hinduized) literary and cultural history.
Portrayal of nature and rural landscape: Bengali Muslim literati have an immaculate portrayal of the nature and rural landscape striped with evocative and mesmerizing vignettes of rural life such as ploughing, sowing, hunting, milking, catching fish, etc. These writers have themselves endured poverty and the odd sway of rural haphazard but idyllic life. And their writings often attest to their deep bonding and innate emotional love to the land of their birth and growth. Thus, it is quite natural for their writings to have a unique and exquisite rural flavour with all its wonders and oddities and trajectories.
Syed Mustafa Siraj has vividly portrayed the rural landscape of Bengal and more interestingly he has also based his novels on this rural setting. Kingbadantir Nayak (1969) encapsulates most brilliantly the unalloyed joys and sorrows of a group of unsophisticated people in a village in Uttar Rhar. They protect their fields of harvest by keeping them awake and guarding the fields in the dead of nights. Trinabhoomi (1970) is a perennial saga of Murshidabad folk life which exhibits the malaise of modern life, society and economy based on indiscriminate urbanization, ever increasing construction of dams, and deforestation which forcibly push the forest people, tribals, milkmen, birdcatchers and agricultural farmers to the extreme margins of human survival race.
Siraj’s Janmari (1990) depicts various concerns of contemporary rural life, where the landless generation hurls themselves to dacoity and other criminal activities because of their disgust and disillusion with life. Gulam Abdullah Rasool’s novel Aabad(1969) demonstrates a peasant movement in South 24 Parganas. Moreover, Afsar Ahmed’s Shanu Alir Nijer Jami (1989), Abul Bashar’s Sparsher Baire (1995) and Sohrab Husain’s Sharam Alir Bhuban (2004) are also in the same pattern and genre and all are marvelous portrayal of rural life and landscape with all micro and macro layers of human complexity lied there in. Abdur Raquib’s vigorous stories also portray the rural Bengali Muslim simple and hardworking peasant life with strong moral and ethical concerns. However, Afsar Ahmed’s Metiaburujer Kissa(2003) is a notable exception for its colour and flavour is urbane and it sets another note of urban Muslim life.Representation of the poor peasants:
Bengali Muslim writers have also been very vocal and championed the cause of the poor peasants against zamindars’ atrocities and cruelties. Their writings focus on the plight of the peasants making them conscious of their rights and, thereby, spearheading a protest against the evils of zaminadari system. Indeed, these writers have been a game changer in the day to day lives of the hard working poor peasants. The effect is that the peasants become more resilient and energized to protect their livelihoods. Such novels as Abdul Jabbar’s Ilishmarir Char, Abdullah Rasool’s Aabad, Mustafa Siraj’s Niranjan Ganga (1980) and Abul Bashar’s Bhorer Prosuti (1991) depict a heartless picture of the peasants’ daily living experiences of the mahajan atrocities and tyrannies. These texts are sympathetic to the cause of the peasants and they are indicative of a long term solution toward the amelioration of peasants’ problems.
A pungent twist is supplied to the theme of mahajan atrocities by Sohrab Husain’s Math Jadu Jane (2004) which encapsulates the protagonist Qausir Ali’s heart-rending struggle to rescue his two bigha field from the clamped fists of the mahajan whose lust cannot be quenched until he gets the body of Ali’s wife Sabera. One of the most striking features, however, of these writings is that they are a departure from the perspective of colonial writings where the peasants are always Muslims and the zamindars are invariably Hindus. Here community based relationships (Hindu-Muslim) is overpowered by the class interests among the same community members themselves.
Afsar Ahmed’s Atma Parichay where the poor sharecropper Gafoor and the mahajan Haji Sahib is an attestation to this thematic paradigm shift.Socio-cultural Issue: Bengali Muslim writings have also drawn our attention to the prevalent socio-cultural problems which are plaguing the lives of Muslim women who are becoming easy victims to the cumbersome practices of pardah, polygamy and triple talaq. Afsar Ahmed’s writings throw a serious challenge to the concept of shari’at (the code of laws regulating the spiritual and temporal aspect of Muslim life) itself. These man-made laws are fetters which stunt a Muslim woman’s hope of exploration of her full individual potency in every walk of life. His Kaalo Borkhar Bibi o Kusumer Gandha ebong Challees Jan Lok (1996) shows pardah as exploitative and inhuman custom which empowers men over women. The implication is that women are sexually vulnerable and they must be kept in guard. On the first night of her third marriage, Rehana comes to know about her husband’s madness. The novel depicts Rehana’s two worlds—one behind her veil and the other external to it, inhabited by forty men not immune to the desire for sexual gratification. The scent of flowers behind the veil intoxicates these men and Rehana becomes an enticing article of consumption.
His Ek Ascharya Bashikaran Kissa (1998) is a virulent attack against polygamy. Maulavi Malukha is a powerful, respected and torch bearer of religious piety and sacredness. But he is obsessed with his physical quenchless desire of bringing home a fourth wife. Ditiya Bibi(1997) captures the trauma of an ordinary man who because of shari’at approval marries two women but he fails to look at his two wives at par, directed in the laws, and ultimately leaves one. His Bhang Jyotsna (1993) and Bibir Mittha Talakh o Talkher Bibi ebong Halud Pakhir Kissa (1995) is a severe attck on the custom of easy and thoughtless divorce.
This theme of talaq and polygamy is also deftly enunciated in Abul Bashar’s Phoolbou (1988), a narrative of a Musilm widow’s pathos. Razia is Millat’s love, but she is married as the fourth wife of his father, the old Haji. And at the death of his father Millat cannot marry his mother. And thus Razia, Millat’s love and mother eventually commits suicide having failed to have Millat’s love. What emerges as one of the dynamics of these writings is the crave and demand for emancipation of Muslim women from the clutches of man-made shari’at which is at odd with the holy Qur’an, the supreme authority in Islam and Islamic way of life.
Another facet of perspective is added to this genre by Kamaal Husain who depicts most evocatively the sense of fear, insecurity, mistrust and alienation of the Bengali Muslim society of contemporary West Bengal. His Param Biswaser Gandha, Shikarer Prabaha and Swatantra Baranda(1990-2005) is a massive trilogy narrating the growing up of a young ordinary Muslim girl Sufia from adolescence to menopause. The texts are besmeared with her story of successes and failures, hopes and aspirations, dreams and desires, struggles and afflictions—all are part of her project of survival and recognition of her minority identity amid all odds and obstacles and prejudices. In a word Sufia’s story is somewhat representative of the strive for the establishment of Bengali Muslim unique identity facing and overcoming all odds in a Hindu majority land.
Husain’s hero Dr. Haneef in his novel Taeefa is afraid of being accused in the name of terrorism, treason. There is a fear psychosis playing unconsciously on his inner self without any rhyme or reason. The text raises a host of holistic concerns of Bengali Muslims’ identity and dignity in the backdrop of increasing terrorist activities. If a Muslim terrorist is caught, the whole society has to pay price for it because of their no faults at all. They are then needed to prove their nationality and patriotism. His short stories Anuprabesh and Bhay also enunciate the perennial fear and anxiety of being identified with terrorists, ISI agents, Bangaldeshis, under which the Muslims of Bengal have to survive. Husain’s writing has created a niche for him in the oeuvre of Bengali literature and culture.The Uniqueness: Bengali Muslim literature with its emphasis on its local elements such as language, dress, food habit, indigenous customs and rituals, beliefs and creeds, daily living hardships and strivings, dreams and desires of immediate life along with its focus on conciliatory and assimilatory aspects of Islam is a much avowed phenomenon to be reckoned with grace and magnitude in the growth and development of the oeuvre of Bengali literature and culture. It is neither purely Islamic nor Muslim in orientation nor is it entirely divorced from its immediate local colour and setting, flora and fauna, people and customs, hopes and dreams, struggles and strivings.
These writers seem to have been less concerned with pristine Islam with its strict rules and regulations. Rather they have found elements of synthesis and reconciliation in Islam with other venerable cultures, especially the Hinduism for their context and treatment. The authors, however, despite their seemingly non-Islamic credentials can never be alleged to have imbibed a leniency toward Hinduized form of writing. Most of them have been vocal against plural societal, economic cruelties and malaise, religious dogmas or fatwas about talaq and pardah stipulated by maulvis.
Bengali Muslim literature is primarily an unprecedented approach of treating Bangali musolmans as the core subject of their literature for the exploration and encapsulation of a missing theme. It deals with the daily living experiences as well as their somewhat ambivalent imitation of macabre Islam in a land far away from its origin. This literature touching some amorphous religious issues of Islam has laid its heavy weight of preponderance to the depiction of West Bengal and its marginal Muslims in its myriad array of hued tapestries. And this literature has been well accepted and recognized by the Hindu and Muslim alike. They in no way can be called community writers writing particularly for a specific community.
In fact, their writings have added an extra mileage to the richness of Bengali literature. And their critics include such notable Hindu writers as Manas Majumdarm, Ameya Bhushan Majumdar, Sadhan Chattopadhya, Atin Bandopadhya and many more. Their writings with their powerful and vigorous representation of the marginal Muslims of Bengal is indeed a bridge to reaching Hindu-Muslim reconciliation and emotional closeness of Bengali people as a whole. The Bengalees irrespective of caste, class, or religion should take pride in this literature which cannot be relegated to the lower status as merely one of the offshoots of mainstream Bengali literature.
Bengali Muslim literature has indeed injected a rich mosaic of local colours and flavours with its immediate reality to the texture and the matrix of the Bangla vasha o sahitya both in its thematic orientation and stylistic representation. Unlike the Urdu literature which is besmeared with the images of pristine Islam of Arab origin, Pan-Islamic theorization and Islam’s past glory and present decadence, the Bengali Muslim writers are much less concerned with the concept of pure Islam and Pan-Islamic fervor. They are primarily preoccupied with their immediate environment and culture. Their resources of inspiration emerge first from the land of their birth and death, poverty and marginality, its flora and fauna, rivers and fields, forests and hills, daily living experiences and haphazard acculturation. And then come the issues of religion, faith, creeds and customs –all are more or less influenced with the images of Hindu culture and ethos.
Basically they are regional writers and their focus is only on the land of their inhabitation and its people. They write both in simple colloquial Bengali and the standard Bengali. Their readers are not limited to a few Muslim literate only. Their works are loved and admired by the Hindu readers also. Their writings are never meant for Muslim community only. It is dedicated to the Bengali community by and large. Bengali is their mother tongue. And as Bengalee they are proud of their culture and literature. But they face identity crisis only when they are asked by some ignoble Hindus such callous question as ‘Are you Bengalee or Muslim?’, their innate pride of being a Bengalee faces a severe jolt of consciousness. But such exceptional happenings do not deter them from supporting their unbiased and unconditional loyalty to their mother tongue Bangla. And Bengali Muslim writers seem to be increasingly happier in not using Arabic or Persian words in their body of literature. Certainly some words relating to Islam and Islamic code of life surface on their writings. But they do not put any hindrance to the sweetness and smoothed richness of a free flowing language like Bangla.
In conclusion the entire literature under review is a search for Bengali Muslim identity which is not solely based on pure Islam or Pan-Islam and this literature has no ulterior motive for the construction of Muslim identity. It is much concerned with a search for the assimilation of Islamic concepts and ideas to their innate Bengali identity in its indigenous locale, colour and setting. Islamic theme is an added advantage to their cultural exploration in its rural poor but elegant beautiful Bengal setting. Their writings border the marginal poor rural Muslim folk of west Bengal with all their vicissitudes of life, pain and hunger, joys and sorrows, hopes and frustrations, intra and inter community heterogeneous nuances. With its strict theological ignorance and its leniency to the mythic and esoteric interpretations of Islam of Pirs and Babas coupled with the land’s beauty and people’s poverty Bengali Muslim literature has created a permanent niche of its individuality and uniqueness in the oeuvre of Bangla vasha o sahitya.
[1 Tundawla, Alefiya. (2012). “Multiple Representations of Muslimhood in West Bengal: Identity Construction Through Literature.” South Asia Research, Vol.32 (2): 139-163. Print.