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The Marxist tradition in Bengali fiction

  • Published at 07:00 pm May 15th, 2018
The Marxist tradition in Bengali fiction
Portrait of Karl Marx by Satyajit Ray, first published on the cover of Ekkhon’s Karl Marx issue

Tribute to Karl Marx on his 200th birth anniversary

I had read Padma Nadir Majhi sometime in 1998, the year I sat the SSC exams. I was hooked even before the apparently objective description of Ketupur, a fishermen’s village, took a somewhat philosophic turn through a narratorial comment. Beginning with one of their usual night shifts of catching Hilsa deep into the river, the story shifts to Ketupur where Kuber and Ganesh live. While distinguishing a rich neighborhood from a poor one, the narrator at one point says: “Iswar thaken oi gram e, bhodropollite. Ekhane tahake khunjiya pawa jaibe na” (God lives in the rich neighborhood. He is not to be seen in this poor fishermen’s community). The tone is sharply acerbic; it is ironic at the same time. Whether or not God exists is not the point here. What matters is the stark difference in appearance between the rich and the poor on one hand, and the interrelationship between wealth and religion on the other. 

The comment marked a remarkable break. This was something new in Bangla literature. 

Before moving on to the crux of my argument, I must make my position clear. Here I do not intend to turn Marxism into a touchstone of some kind and then assume that Marxism is the only justified critical or creative framework. Nor do I mean to say that one needs to be a materialist or Marxist to be a great writer, or that not being Marxist makes one's writing any less rich than it actually is. I believe that great writers like Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam can transcend their own limits of class, gender and religion, and effortlessly capture the experiences of, say, working class people, women and minorities. In what follows I wish to show how the advent of Marxism has nonetheless influenced all successive generations of writers since the 1920s, and also, how that influence found expressions especially in fiction. 

Broadly speaking, Marxist literary concerns do not presuppose a materialist consciousness on the part of the writer/poet. They rather prioritize social and political issues and look at them from the point of view of working class people. Before Manik, Tagore had addressed social realities of poor farmers and day laborers in his poems ("Dui Bigha Jomi" etc.) and short stories ("Shashti," "Ulukhorer Bipod," "Musalmanir Galpa" etc.). Criticism of institutionalized religion was also prominently present in Tagore. But Tagore's oeuvre is vast and lower class people are one of its many constituent parts. 

The first writer who brought issues of working class people to the fore and celebrated their unity and revolutionary zeal was Kazi Nazrul Islam, and he did so simultaneously in poetry (Samyabadi and Sarbahara) and fiction (Mrittukhudha). Like Tagore, Nazrul also kept growing as a poet and writer, constantly reshaping his literary vision and mission. In 1921, when he had just begun his literary career, he wrote "Bidrohi" and "Bhangar Gaan" in which he gave a robust articulation of his rebellious spirit against the British Raj, defying its rule and calling for resistance movement to liberate India. It was a politically restive time when the non-cooperation movement led by the Congress was gathering momentum. Nazrul's utterances were first of their kind. No one before him had been able to address colonial rule so directly and so artistically at the same time. He went on to bring out in August 1922 Dhumketu, a bi-weekly magazine that was the mouthpiece of revolutionaries demanding decolonization. Soon he was arrested and incarcerated. He wrote song lyrics and poems profusely during this time and most of them were about his revolutionary vision of decolonization. But soon after the Russian revolution, like everyone else in his generation, he too found himself exposed to Marxism. 

Nazrul even translated the international communist anthem into Bengali. Since then his writing charted a different path and he composed the song lyrics and poems of Samyer Gaan and Sarbahara, which were solely about the rights of the proletariat and the revolution they'd wage against hunger. It is noteworthy how his aim had changed from decolonization to a workers-led revolution. The novel he wrote during this phase, Mrittyukhudha (1930), was also about poor working class people living in squalid city slums. 

Nazrul, despite all the social concern and revolutionary zeal in his work, was a believer much like Tagore, and they both expanded their attention into many different themes and areas, evolving into an all-inclusive visionary frame over time. 

But Manik's approach, as evident in that comment, is entirely different, and hence marks a break we should not overlook. 

His comment emanates from a Marxist consciousness, a markedly materialist framework for understanding politics of class and culture. Manik was heavily exposed to Freudian psychoanalytic theories of individuals and society, the other strain of modernism with a penchant for ahistorical understanding of literature, which he thoroughly explores in Dibaratrir Kabya  and Putul Nacher Itikatha. Stories written in this vein include "Pragoitihashik" and "Sarisrip." The revolution in Russia happened in 1917 and the tide of socialism hit the shores of India soon after. There is still debate about the exact year when the Communist Party started its journey in undivided India. However, there is no debate about the decade and most people agree that it was founded sometime in the mid-1920s. In came Marxist pamphlets, books, treatises, essays, fiction and poetry. These materials brought about a revolution in the world of ideas, in the way we explain and perceive the world. They influenced almost all successive generations of writers, though every writer, Nazrul included, had his own way of encountering Marx. 

The way Manik made use of Freudian theories and accommodated them in his Marxist model is perhaps best exemplified in Padma Nadir Majhi. His imagination led him to create Hosen Mia, a rich man in the neighborhood who has a mystical air about his personality. He helps poor farmers and fishermen when they are about to lose everything to village usurers; he is very kind and does not ask for interest when they try to pay him back. Sometimes they cannot pay back at all. In return, Hosen Mia requests them to accompany him to an island far off into the sea. All his dreams revolve around this island which is veiled in thick mist. He collects hapless men and women from villages along the Padma and brings them here -- some Hindus, some Muslims. Hosen Mia dreams of building a new society where norms of caste and class and religion do not apply, even though he is a practicing Muslim.

But that was Manik's imagination. His peers and successors each responded to the Marxist phenomenon in their own different ways. 

Tarashankar was focused on farmers and local kabials. His Marxist inclinations were evident in Hansuli Banker Upokatha and Kobi. It is this consciousness that makes Kobi, a novel about a kabial, a timeless tale of people coming from the lowest tiers of society. But neither in Upokatha nor in Kobi does he sketch the village people on a scale as grand as Manik's. Manik finds in the villagers a perfect microcosm for a world riven by class conflicts and when the poor among the poor lose their last penny to the rich he pushes the boundaries of reality and imagines a Hosen Mia who shelters the poor and guides them toward a hunger-and class-free world. Sketched neatly on a grand scale. Tarashankar does not evoke that kind of a grand or revolutionary scheme. He rather paints a very detailed and accurate picture of rural Bengal. Many critics argue that Tarashankar's portrayal of farmers' lives is unparalleled in the entire range of Bengali literature. In his Kobi, the kabial''s affairs with women are weaved around a reservoir of folk songs representing many indigenous traditions including kobir lorai (impromptu but pitched poetic battles between two poets). Songs used in the novel are popular among poor Muslims and Hindus. 

Bibhutibhushan stood out among them. His storytelling was innovative and he did not seem to bother much about a scientific or objective narrator. One can barely detect any Marxist sign in his narrative except that he too found his stories in ordinary, poor village men and women and children. His Panther Panchali and Aranyak are not modern in the sense Tagore's or Manik's novels are, but they are unanimously regarded among the very best of Bengali fiction; they even top the most favorite reading list of many renowned Marxist critics. 

Everybody had his own take on Marx. Some like Bibhutibhushan didn't bother about Marxism at all. But the end result was indeed striking: Lives of farmers, fishermen ruled the roost for the first time in Bengali fiction. Their range of emotions and experience had grown big enough to take center-stage. 

There were other strains working actively as well. On the opposite pole was Buddhadev Bose who had his own brand of modernism, influenced heavily by Freud and Baudelaire. He became an institution and the poetry magazine he edited was so influential that every young poet in the 1930s and 1940s dreamed of publishing their poems in it. Consistently critical of Marxism, he wrote short stories and novels mostly about middle-class men and women. From Bose came very powerful and successful stories and novels. 

That is how literary history works. A particular strain co-exists with others, contesting them or forming a harmonious relationship with them. Much like a river, it may grow stronger or die out in course of time. 

The Marxist strain, one can positively say, has well survived the onslaught of jingoism and global capital, and, over the years, has grown to be one of the strongest strains in Bangladesh's Bengali writing as well as academia.

It is hard to determine the greatest novel written in the Marxist tradition because there have been so many whose literary excellence is beyond question. Samaresh Basu's Jug Jug Jiye, Syed Waliullah's Lalsalu; Mahasweta Devi's Hazar Churashir Ma and Chotti Mundar Teer; Debesh Roy's Tista Parer Brittanto and Shilpayaner Protibedon; Mahmudul Haque's Jibon Amar Bon; Avijit Sen's Rohu Chandaler Harh; Abul Bashar's Phulbou; Shawkat Ali's Pradoshe Prakritojan, Dalil, Dakkhinayaner Din and Kulay Kalsrot; Akhtaruzzaman Elias's Chilekothar Sepai and Khoabnama; and Hasan Azizul Huq's Agunpakhi. Somen Chando, Satyen Sen, Shyamal Gangyopadhyay, Jibanananda Das, Premendra Mitra, Shawkat Osman, Alauddin Al Azad, Selina Hussain, Rizia Rahman, Subodh Ghose, Samaresh Mazumdar, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Qayes Ahmed, Shushanto Majumdar, Manju Sarkar, Wasi Ahmed, Moinul Ahsan Saber, Imdadul Haque Milon, Shahin Akhtar, Mamun Hossain, Haripada Datta, Zakir Talukdar and Harishankar Jaldas, among many others, have written formidable stories and novels that will surely attract Marxist critics of all orientations. There, of course, are many more writers and many more of their works that deserve to be mentioned here. For lack of space, I've just mentioned some of my favorite ones and their works right off the top of my head.

Coming down to the younger generations writing today, I must confess that my reading of their works is inadequate. Nevertheless, I find it safe to say that it is through writers like Imtiar Shamim, Prasanta Mridha, Sumon Rahman, Audity Falguni and Faizul Islam that the Marxist tradition speaks and thrives. 

But there's one special novel that, in my view, is unsurpassable and marks the highest achievement in this tradition, and this article will remain incomplete without a few comments on it. Titas Ekti Nadir Naam by Adwaita Mallabarman. It is about a fishermen's community along the banks of the Titas river. His portrayal of poor Hindu fishermen and women is vibrant with raw emotions and heartfelt descriptions. Titas does not have the structural purity of Manik's Padma; nor does it have the grand scheme of revolution. It rather authentically describes the struggles of poor fishermen, recording how a once-vibrant community is reduced to an ever-shrinking entity, and how also their rituals and festivities in which they themselves performed songs or acted in plays, are being superseded by the advent of a new kind of stage show, the jatra. In the process, he explores many characters, both men and women, and an imaginative child who is often transported to a dreamy world while looking up at the night sky and counting stars and examining constellations. Adwaita's women, undoubtedly, are a strong case for Marxist-feminist critics. 

Lives of poor Muslim farmers are woven into those of the fishermen. Adwaita's distinct Marxist consciousness brings it out in the open that poor Hindus can rely more on poor Muslims than the higher castes of their own religion. He explores the interrelationship between wealth and religion, but he's also interested in how poor Hindu men and women can connect with their Muslim counterparts despite religious difference. 

In my understanding, Adwaita combines Manik and Tarashankar in his fiction and surpasses them both.

Titas also makes extensive use of songs collected carefully from various folk genres. This is redolent of Tarashankar's Kobi. In Titas, an apparently never-depleting reservoir of folk music comes from many different sources: First, the fishermen's community has its own trove of performance-based music; secondly, the larger Hindu community; thirdly, majhi (boatman) community who sing bhatiali, bhawaiya; and fourthly, the Muslim farmers' community. Adwaita taps into these resources sufficiently and makes what is perhaps the best use of folk music in fiction. 

Long live the Marxist tradition!


Rifat Munim is Literary Editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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