Bangladesh is in the labyrinth of an autocratic rule. Some call it Bangladesh Krishak Sramik…..
January 04, marks the 24th death anniversary of the major Bengali novelist and short story writer Akhtaruzzaman Elias (February 12, 1943 – January 04, 1997). Our huge age gap notwithstanding, Elias Bhai was also my close friend and comrade. And he was my colleague and mentor, one whose massive, even monumental, works of fiction-novels such as ‘Chilekothar Sepai‘ [The Sepoy in the Attic] and ‘Khoabnama‘ [Dream Book]- continue to make me think of such material-discursive sites as land, labor, language, and the body as the profoundly significant sites of class struggles as well as anti-colonial struggles and struggles for the emancipation of humanity in the broadest sense.
Given the range and rigor and richness of his novelistic and fictional engagements, Elias can be placed in the company of such writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Ghassan Kanafani, for instance, while Elias’s dialectical and historical imagination enables him to forge connections between what has been, what is, and what is yet to be in a language that is decisively Eliasian and perhaps even inimitable.
Elias was also a Marxist intellectual, for whom theory, activism, and creative writing—poetics and politics and praxis- went hand in hand, variously enabling and enhancing one another. Indeed, it is true that although Elias is acclaimed rhetorically and otherwise, his work is yet to be explored in its fullest aesthetic and political dimensions.
I fondly recall many of my conversations with Akhtaruzzaman Elias at the office of Lekhak Shibir- an organization of writer-activists on the left in Bangladesh. Elias was the organization’s Vice President and I was its General Secretary. I recall how Elias Bhai used to call attention to the ways in which human beings make history but always under the shadow of determinate constraints. I don’t know if he was reading Gramsci at that point, but one of Elias’s fundamental concerns in the early 1990s was the articulation of the intellectual’s hegemonic vocation. And he characteristically grounded the historical, the political, and the popular in the realm of everyday life, of “common sense,” however inflected or even distorted by unjust and exploitative social relations. Thus he did never evade the question of religion, as many on the left in Bangladesh continue to do, and was critically aware of the conditions for the country’s refulgent religiosity, for instance, although he didn’t get to write much about the question of religion as such in a “third-world” site like Bangladesh.
Always attentive to the materiality of ideology and its specific modes of inscription and appropriation by social groups, Elias also wanted us to heed those initiatives originating from even the petty bourgeois stratum that may morph into progressive movements. Deeply interested in revolutionary politics, he had a characteristic predilection for exploring possibilities in those areas that remain otherwise uncharted. And, of course, he always thought of our “liberation” movement as a decisively unfinished project, while accentuating the need for making connections between “national liberation” and class struggle as well as between democratization and decolonization in a peripheral formation like Bangladesh in the era of what Eqbal Ahmad once called “re-colonization.” I miss Elias Bhai so much, to say the least.
To the extent that cities are “places” (and more than places), and to the extent that those places are what stories traverse, organize, select, or even render spectral, and invent and re-invent, one would do well to look at Akhtaruzzaman Elias’s Dhaka in his novel _Chilekothar Sipai_. Elias’s Dhaka–in its different ways–is fictional, historical, real, and re-created, but it is also a site that produces, and is produced by, interlinked configurations of subjects and scenes and signs themselves, ones that are politically engaged. One can then catch all kinds of devils in the details of Dhaka. Also, places themselves, at least occasionally, play their roles as characters in Elias’s novels. Places speak characters, and characters in turn speak places, in Elias’s works in a number of ways-ways that have remained hitherto relatively uncharted in contemporary Bangla fiction criticism, I reckon.
Now Akhtaruzzaman Elias’s lines from his ‘Khoabnama‘ (in my, admittedly, quick, functional translation, but mark how Elias takes up the question of the land as the site of struggle in the shadow of his novelistically mediated “land theory of value,” if you will):
But landless farmers have meanwhile gone out of bounds. Their agitation has already begun in town and it seems that the wave of protest may soon reach this eastern part of the village across the Korotoya River. Farmers in Khiyar are now insisting on two shares out of three, wanting to give only one to the landowner. Of course you can always demand whatever you want–you don’t have to pay taxes for speaking out.
But the farmers argue that one important fact remains unchanged: the landlord cannot command the land to walk into his courtyard and deliver the crop. Or does he suppose that land is a heron that it can fly in a flash from that monstrous Arjun in Kamarpara to the tree overlooking the mansion of the Mondols? What the hell does he know about the value of land? Does he know that plowing even a tiny piece of land costs at least a pound of human blood, oozing from the body like salt?