Tag Archives: Bangladesh

Safiuddin Ahmed

There are numerous volumes on art and artists on my bookshelf – exhibition catalogues, biographies, monographs, essays, art theoretical writings and more. If I wrote in my last post that bookstores are among the first places that I explore in a city that is new to me, the same can be saidfor galleries and art museums. It is therefore not surprising that I am following this example in Dhaka as well.

An opulent, heavy and elaborately designed volume about the painter Safiuddin Ahmed was one of the first that I bought in Dhaka. Safiuddin Ahmed was born in Calcutta in 1922 and died in Dhaka in 2012. He had lived in East Pakistan, later Bangladesh, since 1947.

Ahmed came from an educated and devout but liberal Muslim family in Kolkata. After the early death of the father, the mother raised her children alone. Safiuddin showed early talent and interest in drawing; one of his later teachers at the art academy, convinced his mother against her initial resistance to allow her son to become an artist.

Still Life, 1939, Watercolor on paper, 27×37 cm

A catalog essay by the poet Kaiser Haq goes into the historical background and context, especially of the artist’s younger years. These were years of political debates about the future of British India, the notorious famine years, fights about the relationship between the different religions and the different ethnic groups, but also about the subtle racism of the British colonial rulers, which was also reflected in the art education. Just before the painter began his studies it was heavily focused on handicrafts and was oriented exclusively to western traditions, since the locals were denied any true understanding of art. But Ahmed was lucky – he benefited from the reform efforts of the 1930s, which brought about a departure from this pattern, and above all from exceptionally good teachers, about whose importance the painter gives moving expression in an interview printed in the volume.

Boats and River, 1954, Woodcut, 12×17 cm

After the partition of Bengal (and India) in 1947, Ahmed settled in Dhaka, East Bengal, which at the time was still a relatively small city without an art scene comparable to Calcutta. With some other painters, emigrants from Calcutta like himself, he founded the first art school in Dhaka, which is now a separate faculty of Dhaka University. Ahmed taught printmaking here, a technique he had taught already briefly in Calcutta and for which he was particularly talented.

Angling, 1954, Oil on canvas, 54×122 cm

What follows is an artist career in quite difficult conditions: politically due to the suppression of the Bengali language and culture by West Pakistan, and the later, extremely bloody Bangladesh independence struggle in 1971; but also because of arguments about the role of the artist in society; several heavy floods, in which part of his work was lost, also contributed to the fact that the artist led a rather eventful, not easy life.

Carpenter, 1956, Oil on board, 64×122 cm

A longer catalog essay by Syed Azizul Haque deals with Safiuddin Ahmed’s artistic career. Themes from everyday life in the village, portraits, sketches of nudes, semi-abstract works, still lifes and repeated scenes in which water plays a major role – Ahmed, who had empathy for ordinary people and was personally very humble, had a broad range of topics.

Banks of the River Buriganga III, 1962, Oil on canvas, 22×34 cm

A great diversity can also be seen in the techniques he used. Drawings, watercolours, woodcuts, drypoint etchings and aquatints, engravings – a technique he learned during a long stay in London – and oil paintings show his versatility here too. His preference for the color black, which plays a central role in many of his works, is striking, as is his interest in learning new techniques or perfecting them, even as he gets older.

The Angry Fish, 1964, Etching and aquatint, 26×46 cm

Decades of teaching enabled Ahmed to earn a regular income and therefore he rarely needed to sell any of his work. In the interview mentioned above, he says:

„I love my creations and don’t wish to part with them…I have no desire to sell paintings to those who collect them in order to boost their social status.”

The Sound of water, 1985, Etching, aquatint and engraving, 25×50 cm

The works presented in this blog post are from the Estate von Safiuddin Ahmed. You can see more of his work on a website dedicated to him. Or even better: you get a copy of this beautiful book!

Floods II, 1992, Charcoal and crayon on paper, 22×27 cm

Rosa Maria Falvo (ed.) with an introduction by Kaiser Haq and an essay by Syed Azizul Haque: Safiuddin Ahmed, Skira / Bengal Foundation, Milano / Dhaka 2011

The Melody of Nature II, 2001, Oil on canvas, 44×54 cm
© The estate of Safiuddin Ahmed, 2011
© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-22. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.   

A visit to Nilkhet Book Market in Dhaka

As always, when I am in a new city, one of the first things I explore are the local bookshops. During the last weekends I have not only bought quite a number of books – part of it I hope to review in the next months – but also visited more than a dozen bookstores. Even some supermarkets and a grocery store in my neighbor have a selection of books in English!

One place that is in any case worth a visit because it is rather unique, is Nilkhet Book Market, a maze of more than 800 (!) book stalls and shops. The area is huge! If you ever come to Dhaka, I am recommending to to have a look yourself! The photo below gives just a small impression and is not really reflecting the size of this place.

Nilkhet Book Market (Photo: Thomas Hübner)

You can find almost any pirated and a lot of ‘regular’ books here. I bought a copy of Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” here for app. 2.80 Euro (instead of 9), and it looked almost exactly as the ‘regular’ book – apart from the yellow paper. Print, binding, cover – same as the original. (I bought also a copy of the non-pirated- book, so no financial harm was done to author, publisher and regular bookstores.)

Nilkhet Book Market originally catered to the needs of students of Dhaka University, which is located right behind the book maze. Nowadays, you cannot find only students here. The shops have been closed several months during the Corona lockdown and this must have been a very hard time for the bookstall owners, since most of them were not prepared to sell online. But now business is open again and things are going slowly back to normal as it seems.

There is a second, smaller book shop cluster on the other side of Dhaka University, opposite the National Museum. In these bookstores you will find (almost) no pirated books. Prices are higher of course, but you can find not only bestsellers there.

You can find Nilkhet Book Market at 1 Mirpur Road, opposite the New Market. This is one of the most busy areas of Dhaka and probably the busiest one to which I have ever been in my life. I am not prone to attacks of claustrophobia, but this time it was a close call until I got there 🙂

 © Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-22. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.   

Monsoon Letters

My last blog post dealt with the anthology Contemporary Bangladeshi Poetry, an extensive selection from the work of Bengali poets from Bangladesh over the last few decades. Today I would like to refer to another poetry anthology from Bangladesh, in which the focus of the selection is set differently.

Monsoon Letters – Collection of Poems is a small selection of poems written in English, mostly by younger authors. The brochure contains one poem each by 36 authors and is therefore much less extensive than the selection I discussed earlier. However, here too the spectrum of voices and topics is diverse, and the approach to poetry by most authors is noticeably different from those contributing to Contemporary Bangladeshi Poetry. One can agree with the literary critic Fakrul Alam, who rightly points out the somewhat uneven quality of the poems, but also emphasizes that

„the anthology shows that most of these poets appear as if striving to be distinctive, and with the dare of youth, attempting to strike out in new directions. A handful of the poems suggest to me that new poetic voices are emerging, and we would soon be welcoming these Bangladeshi writings in English.”  

An example from the collection:

An Unnoticed Kite

by Kohinur Khyum Tithila

That day,
The sky was bright and blue,
The meadow was full of happy children.
They gathered to fly kites
Blue, red, green, pink
Colorful the kites were!
Happy, free children
And their kites. 
The sky was bright and azure.
But I saw what one kite saw 
To her,
The sky seemed gray forever.
Then came the twilight.
The unbridled playtime was over.
They went back to home.
They and their kites.
But I saw one kite, 
She tore up the string
But not to fall down, 
Her heart got wings.
She flew, 
Higher, higher and higher.
Then I saw what the kite saw.
The sky was bright, blue and free.

I am looking forward to reading more Bangladeshi poetry in the future. Stay tuned!

Monsson Letters, eds. WRITE Foundation/The University Press Limited, Dhaka 2014

© Kohinur Khyum Tithila, Fakrul Alam, monsoonletters.com, WRITE Foundation and The University Press Limited, 2014 
© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-22. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  

Contemporary Bangladeshi Poetry

Before I moved to Dhaka in Bangladesh for work-related reasons in October 2021, I knew almost nothing about the literature of the country, which has around 165 million inhabitants. Prose and poetry authors in Bangladesh publish mainly in Bengali and English, with a small number of authors writing in Urdu or other minority languages. Bengali / Bangla is also spoken in neighboring West Bengal. In India, Bengali is the most widely spoken language after Hindi.

Although Bengali is one of the ten languages in the world with the highest number of native speakers, the literature written in this language is hardly noticed outside of South Asia. This may be due to the fact that there are few translators who can translate Bengali texts into another language, but also because there is still little interest in the so-called western world in literature that does not repeat the orientalist cliché of the “exotic” India and its neighboring countries, a cliché that is so common in most English-language books or films coming from South Asia – even when there are of course positive exceptions. Even a Rabindranath Tagore was specifically awarded the Nobel Prize for his works written in English – his Bengali texts are far less well received to this day.

I would therefore like to take the opportunity to present works on my blog that were written in Bangla but are also available in English translation. The Bangladeshi or Bengali literature is diverse and there are interesting authors to discover. Today I would like to present an anthology on contemporary Bangladeshi poetry edited and translated by Hassanal Abdullah. Abdullah has lived in the United States for a long time and has long made a name for himself as a poet, translator and editor.

In this collection, 38 poets from Bangladesh are presented in the order of their date of birth, each with three to eight poems. The period extends from the partition of India in 1947 to the present. This large selection alone shows the diversity of modern poetry in Bangladesh. In addition to a foreword by Nicholas Birns, professor at New York University, there is a contribution by the translator and editor in which he goes into greater detail on the principles according to which he selected and translated the poems. He particularly points out that he has gone to great lengths to translate the tone and peculiarities of the style of the various authors into English. Numerous experts helped him polishing and improving the rough drafts, but also in some cases the authors themselves. The translator particularly emphasizes that each of these translation projects is, to a large extent, teamwork. In my opinion, the result turned out well!

The poetry collected in this anthology shows the poet as an individual, man or woman (there are some excellent female poets in Bangladesh), Muslim or Hindu, sophisticated Dhaka-based intellectual or poor poet from the rural area. Some poems are inspired by folk songs and poems, other clearly know modern world literature well and show the influence of modernist poetry. Universal topics as love, family life, loneliness, political struggle – many of the authors were involved in the 1952 Language Movement and the Liberation War 1971. Spirituality and the role of religion are also reflected in the poetry of this anthology. One example by Shamsur Rahman, probably the most prolific and popular poet in Bengal after Tagore and Kazi Nasrul Islam, the two founding fathers of modern Bengal poetry:

Five Travelers 

Roaming around a lot, they, five of them,
Finally, before dusk, came to sit under 
An age-old tree to alleviate their tiredness.

A bird from within the branches,
Asked, “Tell me, who are you?”

Answering the question, the travelers
Got deep into their conscience.
One of them said, “I do have a great 
Interest in Hinduism.”

The second one’s voice sounded
Like a flute, “I am a Buddhist monk.”

The third one said, “I am a devout Christian.”

Immediately, uttered the fourth one, 
“I submitted myself to the lord of the land 
And sky; I am a Muslim.”

But, the fifth traveler, smiled a bit,
Holding an insect in his hand
And showing great curiosity,
He replied, “I am nothing but a Human.”

(tr. Hassanal Abdullah) 

An overview with the short biographies of the authors and the references close this beautiful volume. Anyone who would like to get an overview of the diversity of contemporary poetry from Bangladesh will be well served with this anthology. The book was made possible by financial support by the Queens Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Well done!

Contemporary Bangladeshi Poetry (tr. Hassanal Abdullah), Cross Cultural Communications / New Feral Press, New York 2019

© Hassanal Abdullah and CrossCultural Communications / New Feral Press for the translation, 2019
© Shamsur Rahman, 2019
© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-22. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Forty Steps

The story of Forty Steps by the Bangladeshi author Kazi Anis Ahmed (a.k.a. K Anis Ahmed – the name is in this form on the book cover and title page) begins with an end: Mr. Shikdar, a respected citizen of the sleepy provincial town of Jamshedpur somewhere in Bengal after the partition of India in 1947, has just been buried. Now he is waiting for the angels Munkar and Nakir, who, according to Koranic tradition, question the deceased about their lives and register the good and bad deeds and then decide if the departed will go to heaven or to hell – but not before the mourners have moved at least forty paces from the grave . As Mr. Shikdar counts the slowly receding steps in his grave, he lets his life go by once more in his mind…

How is it possible that a dead person can have such thoughts? Well, maybe he’s not really dead and after a faint he was quickly buried without a prior medical examination of the corpse – but why? Or is he – like Schrödinger’s cat – both alive and dead in his grave, at least until he has counted the forty steps? Or maybe we readers are just victims of a literary joke by the author?

Be that as it may, the reader takes part in Shikdar’s life confession, in the course of which we not only witness the unrealized dreams and disappointments of his life, but also get to know the most important people who determine his fate.

There is the Englishman Dawson, an unsuccessful art student, whom Shikdar befriends during the latter’s studies at medical school. Dawson arouses Shikdar’s interest in art. Later, Dawson tries to gain a foothold in his home country for a while, but returns disappointed – rejected by English society as an outsider who has “gone native” – back to Bengal to open a furniture business.

Then there is Molla, the nominal religious leader of the small town, who is a quite enterprising fellow and who finds in Shikdar an unexpected business partner. Shikdar “knows” a lot about documents, i.e. how to falsify sales contracts from real estate transactions well, so that land goes smoothly from the hands of the real owners to those of more capable people (= Molla and Shikdar) – a practice still a common practice in contemporary Bangladesh. To Shikdar’s defense it has to be added that the person with the criminal energy here is Molla, with Shikdar giving in reluctantly – because he is weak and loves to have a bit luxury in his life.

Then there is the beautiful Begum Shikdar, significantly younger than her husband and not averse to erotic adventures. When she finally gets pregnant, her blond child unfortunately dies during birth and is buried hurriedly at night almost without witnesses – with the exception of Molla, Shikdar’s partner in this suspicious enterprise as well. Dawson, on the other hand, is spending more and more time in the neighboring town, where he allegedly has an illegitimate daughter…

And then of course there is Mr. Shikdar, a good-natured person with no outstanding talents or particular energy, whose leanings for comfort and lack of resolve often stand in his way during his life. Small and large events such as the hustle and bustle of the fish sellers or the occasional senseless violence that flares up between Muslims and Hindus in the community are accepted with the same devotion to fate as something that has not changed in living memory and will not change in the future.

All in all, a rather uneventful life that the people we meet are leading and which is shown to the reader with humor and gentle irony. An example: Mr. Shikdar comes home from the big city without a diploma. But since there is no medical assistance in town, he is still often visited as a healer and asked for advice. For all sorts of actual and imagined ailments, he usually administers harmless medication, the sale of which ensures his livelihood; He also promotes birth control – but only until he takes on the part-time job of the ninety-year-old midwife, who has gone completely blind. After that, the issue of birth control loses all appeal for him …

The ease with which the author jumps back and forth between realism and fantasy in this narrative is amazing. As relentlessly as the obvious weaknesses of their main characters are shown, however ridiculous they often appear – they are portrayed with sympathy and warmth. The trivial and the fantastic, the real and the sublime, in this masterful story they are interwoven in the most beautiful way.

It is also worth mentioning that the story was written in English. Bangladeshi writers write mainly in English and Bengali (Bangla); however, texts in English often differ from texts in Bengali in regards of their sociocultural context: texts written in English tend to deal more with the educated and relatively wealthy class – the common people and especially the rural population often only appear marginally. Kazi Anis Ahmed, together with several other authors, has made a significant contribution to breaking up this traditional dichotomy with his literary work.

In recent years there has been a flourishing of English-language literary publications in Bangladesh – both in the original and in translations from Bengali. Magazines such as Six Seasons Review, the literature pages of English-language daily newspapers such as The Daily Star and New Age and the publications of the publishers Bengal Lights Books, Bengal Publications and Daily Star Books, as well as Dhaka Lit Fest, an annual international literature festival, are an expression of this development.

A word about the author: Kazi Anis Ahmed was born in 1970 in Dhaka. Forty Steps was originally published in 2001 in Minnesota Review to great critical acclaim. The World In My Hands, a collection of stories, followed in 2013, and in 2014, he published his first novel, Good Night, Mr. Kissinger. Apart from regularly contributing to international media such as The Guardian, TIME or The New York Times, he co-curated also a special Granta edition on Bangladesh. Ahmed is the co-founder of the University of Liberal Arts in Dhaka, as well as the publisher of the newspaper Dhaka Tribune and other media outlets. He is the co-director of the annual Dhaka LitFest, as well as the director of Gemcom, a group of businesses founded by his father. He is to my knowledge the only writer who owns a successful organic tea estate – Kazi Tea is exported to many countries.

The book edition I used is bilingual. The English original text is followed by the Bengali translation by Manabendra Bandyopadhyay – the typeface of the Bangla version alone is a pleasure! A nice initiative by Bengal Lights Books to make this masterful narrative accessible to those Bengali speakers who do not speak good English.

In summary: this story is a small gem that I like very much!

K Anis Ahmed: Forty Steps, Bengal Lights Books, Dhaka 2014 (bi-lingual edition English/Bengali, tr. Manabendra Bandyopadhyay)    

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-22. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

I Remember Abbu

I Remember Abbu by Bangladeshi writer Humayun Azad is a short novel about a loving father-daughter relationship, but also a book about loss and memory.

The narrator, a girl or young adult woman remembers her early childhood, and especially her Abbu (father) and the special bond they shared. There is also an Ammu (mother), but in the light of the future events that are revealed later on in the book, the narrator is telling mainly her father’s story.

There is nothing spectacular in the first chapters of the novel; father, mother and daughter form an average family that obviously belongs to the educated middle class (the father teaches in University as we learn later on). In short chapters that are written from the perspective of a small child, we see how the girl learns to walk and to speak, how it sleeps in the same bed with her parents, how her father invents names and little stories for his daughter and so on. The first painful experience comes with the arrival of some kittens that are later thrown out again out of fear for the child’s health. The father, driven by a bad conscience, returns later to the place where he released the cats, but they are gone.

The averageness of the family and the experiences are underlined by the fact that there are only three protagonists (and a few passing figures without real importance for the novel), and none of them has a name. It is an archetypical small family, where the only child receives much attention and love from both her parents.

But there is a certain moment when things change. The father is absent more frequently from home, becomes less talkative and starts to get more serious and concerned about things that the child doesn’t understand. Only much later, when she is already grown up and reads her father’s diary from that period, things fall into place for the narrator and the reasons for her father’s change become clear.

Political tension is growing in the late 1960s and early 1970s in what was then known as East Pakistan and became later Bangladesh. The fight about the recognition of Bengali (Bangla) as a second official language in Pakistan, the non-recognition of the election results in Pakistan that would have made East Pakistan’s politician Mujibur Rahman President, the declaration of independence of Bangladesh, and the bloody genocidal war of Pakistan’s army in Bangladesh, it is all reflected in its consequences on the family in the novel. Abbu, as an intellectual and potential political leader has to hide from the army, the family flees to the village, on the way there they witness atrocities committed by the Pakistani army and finally Abbu leaves the family to join the underground fight against the oppressors.

From history books we know the result of the political struggle for freedom and political independence: Bangladesh became an internationally recognized independent country after much bloodshed and the military support of the neighbor India. Millions of people perished as a result of the fights and the starvation that followed. And while the victory over the demons (this is how Pakistan’s forces are called by Abbu) in this fight is welcomed by the people, Abbu’s family is waiting in vain for his return…

At a mere 123 pages, this is a small novel, written mostly in a rather simple language. The simplicity of the child’s thoughts, her struggle to understand why her beloved Abbu changed so much, and why he disappeared, are evoking strong emotions in the narrator, and also in the reader. The diary part, written by Abbu himself, is of course much more reflected and elaborated. It is indeed heartbreaking to see how historical events destroy the lives of otherwise perfectly happy families. But for the narrator, reading her Abbu’s diary may help her to come to terms with her tragic loss.  

This was the first book by a contemporary Bengali writer I read. It was also the first book published by Amazon Crossing I read; the imprint used to be rather active for some years to get books from “smaller” languages translated into English. The translation by Arunava Sinha seems flawless.

The author Humayun Azad was a lifelong advocate of the Bengali language and one of the most important intellectuals in East Pakistan. His critical voice against radical Islamism and against the suppression of women made him a target of terrorists. In 2004, there was an assassination attempt of several men who stabbed him a few times in the neck and jaw. Against all odds, he survived; but some months later he died in Munich, where he was spending time as a researcher at the University of Munich.

Since I will be relocating to Dhaka soon, you can expect more reviews of South Asian, especially Bengali/Bangla literature in the future.

Humayun Azad: I Remember Abbu, translated by Arunava Sinha, Amazon Crossing, Seattle 2019

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-21. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.