George Orwell is one of the most referenced writers in socio-political conversations all over the world. His particular brand of polemic in fiction has made him a mainstay in the activist lexicon, quoted and paraphrased in the words that are disseminated by those seeking to speak truth to power. Bengal and Bangladesh have used literature to do precisely that since long before Orwell and his disciples populated the world.
Literature lay at the heart of Bangladesh’s struggle for freedom, a movement that was rooted in language and expression. Activism that innovatively and openly subverts the status quo is inherent to the citizens of a country whose most iconic literary figure is known by the sobriquet, “Rebel Poet.” Kazi Nazrul Islam is revered as a saint, an institution that is a cultural discipline. He epitomises the defiance of undesirable accepted norms by the people of Bengal through the ages, the defining literary principle that has seen the deltaic region emerge from the ruins of the British Raj as an independent nation.
Bengal led the charge against colonialism, armed with songs, poems, plays and stories that criticised and denounced. The winds of protest, thus generated, powered the unfurled sails of the populace. Hope still resides in the written word, be it in Bengali, English or an indigenous language, even at a time when it is under threat from all sides.
Rabindranath Tagore, the greatest pillar of Bengali literature, shed the skin of privilege thrust upon him by birth in the wake of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. “The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation” -- those were his words when renouncing the knighthood he was granted four years previously. Returning awards and honours bestowed by regimes to include literary figures as co-conspirators, as one of those with blood on their hands, became a method of cultural activism on that day. Explicit rejection continues to be a strong statement of protest.
Nayantara Sahgal, one of the luminaries attending the Dhaka Lit Fest (DLF), is a proponent of this. “In memory of the Indians who have been murdered, in support of all Indians who uphold the right to dissent, and of all dissenters who now live in fear and uncertainty, I am returning my Sahitya Akademi Award,” she said, refusing to be tarnished by what the highest literary honour of an oppressive state represented. That this would not have come as a surprise to those who have followed her career -- the fierce opponent of autocracy maintained her critical independence despite belonging to the Nehru family, which included confrontations with her cousin, Indira Gandhi, and has criticised India’s elite in her fiction – is the highest praise that can be given to this exemplary writer.
The rising tide of fervent right-wing Hindu nationalism since the last general election has created an India in which the government zealously bans and punishes, and mobs of zealots lynch. Deeply conservative political principles espousing all-encompassing traditional values have seen Shobha De targeted for scrutiny. She has responded by refusing to be muzzled. Kunal Basu’s explicit and authentic novel, Kalkatta, is being published in this environment. Indian writers are being vocal about their concerns and criticisms in spite of the dangerous terrain that they are being forced to live in.
De’s fiery feminism has counterparts in the West, who will be well represented at DLF. It is subtly explored in Meike Ziervogel’s haunting novels about women whose lives are shaped by their respective torturous social and political times. It is staunchly defended in the direct approach adopted by Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which collects anecdotes and reports of male-on-female harassment and abuse on a daily basis, and contributor to the Women Under Siege Project, which documents the use of rape and sexual violence in warfare and genocide in an online database and through social media.
These individuals are gracing Bangladesh with their presence, to inspire the current and future voices of resistance in the country and the region. They will also learn from Bangladesh, the embodiment of the power of the written word. Facilitating and celebrating that exchange is the noble purpose of DLF. As in India, the written word is under threat in Bangladesh from enemies who will not be deterred in their pursuit to erase it, to extinguish it, but it will not relent, its potency will not diminish, in a country that was birthed by it.
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a writer. His short story collection Yours, Etcetera will be launched at Dhaka Lit Fest 2015. Twitter: @ikhtisad
First appeared in Dhaka Tribune: http://www.dhakatribune.com/arts-letters/2015/oct/31/pens-resistance