The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The mythology of origins, a narrative of loss

When I told people I was going to Dhaka, they asked me if I’d been there before. I could neither say “yes” nor “no”. In effect, I hadn’t. But my wife and I had been offloaded there by Bangladesh Biman in 1994. We were flying from London to Calcutta; in those days, Biman was not a member of IATA, and over-booked as a matter of principle.

We were deposited at the Mid-Town Hotel, which we have always referred to, in retrospect, as the dharamshala. The novelist Sunetra Gupta, a close friend, was on the same flight, and now, like us, off it. When we asked if she wanted to go out in the afternoon, she demurred; she’d rather sleep. I admired her, in private, for taking this decision; to resist curiosity, to not lay claim to the “homeland” even in the casual capacity of sightseer — this seemed to me the more morally courageous position. My wife and I decided to be somewhat predictable; besides, we were less tired. All three of us, it has to be said, have our ancestral antecedents in this part of the world. What I saw in those compressed hours of transit was so fuzzy that nothing remained with me except a jumble of rickshaws and intersections.

The visit last month, then, properly represents my first trip to Dhaka. My role, too, was clearer than that of an offloaded passenger. I was to take part in the “launch” of an “international magazine of the arts”; and to sing, the next evening, at the Bengal Foundation. Behind both the magazine and the foundation is a man, Abul Khair, one of Bangladesh’s new breed of industrialists, who was providing me and my family with rather lavish hospitality.

I’m not sure how Mr Khair made his money; how the rich make their wealth, whether they come from Bangladesh or India or America, is anyway always something of a mystery. But he is unusual in two ways. The first is that he is a Bengali; and, in being one, he — and others like him I ran into in Dhaka — complicate a notion that many of us have — that Bengalis can’t be successful entrepreneurs, at least not in the country of their birth.

The second unusual thing about him is that he is a sponsor of the arts; of art, specifically. Of course, the rich are supposed to be patrons and collectors. It’s the context and history of Bangladesh, and of its modern art, that make Mr Khair unusual. He’s been collecting paintings, he told me, for about thirty years. Almost all of this collection consists of the works of Bangladeshi artists, with a few exceptions — among others, a large, strangely fascinating Shuvaprasanna I saw in his house, a picture presumably of a Calcutta terrace, empty except for crows and television antennae; a well-known Gaganendranath cartoon, charged with his characteristic, violent, expressionist humour. The rest — displayed on the walls of his properties: his company office, the guest house we were put up at, even an employee’s flat, not to speak of his own home — is the art of this other Bengal, whose power and variety, before this visit, I knew nothing about.

The night before we left Bangladesh, Abul Khair took me to his house (its dimensions more like a Beverly Hills mansion) — unwilling though I was (I’d just finished my recital, it was after eleven thirty, and our flight left the next morning) — to offer me a cup of coffee and the chance of looking at more paintings. I refused the coffee, but couldn’t resist the second part of the offer. I’d already become familiar, in the last three days, with Zainul Abedin’s transfiguring and exquisite line drawings; with the figures in Rokeya Sultana’s paintings; with the exaggerated bucolic panoramas of the man they call “Sultan”. Three days was what it had taken me to realize that I had to now rethink my understanding of the term, “the art of Bengal”.

As I entered the mansion, I thought I heard loud laughter. I was right. Close to midnight, a large entourage of family members, divided between a table in the immense drawing room, and those eating dinner, were talking to each other loudly: Mr Khair’s son was to be married in a week. “Rural hospitality” is how a friend has described the largesse and warmth she has met with in Bangladesh; and I’m reminded of the phrase when I think of the scene I came upon close to midnight.

Looking at the paintings arrayed on the walls of several rooms, I was reminded of other things: of Panini’s eighteenth-century painting of Cardinal Valenti Gonzaga’s picture gallery; of Teniers’s seventeenth-century portrait of the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm with his private collection, standing amongst subordinates, dwarfed in size by the paintings he owns, but augmented in stature. But, even at that midnight hour, I knew that Bangladesh was not seventeenth-century Europe, nor Mr Khair the Archduke. Thirty years ago, at the inception of this troubled nation, roughly around the time that Mr Khair has discovered his passion for owning paintings, Henry Kissinger called Bangladesh an “international basket case”. What did this achievement, then — both the collection, and the art itself — represent; and in what ways did they illuminate each other'

I don’t know, though, if Mr Khair would pose for a portrait. He is unprepossessing to the extent that, although three or four times in the same room as my mother (who was introduced to him more than once), she believes she has not seen him. He is not only modest; he has made himself, in some ways, invisible.

The company guest house was in an area called Gulshan II. This, and Gulshan and Banani, neighbouring enclaves, comprise what one might call Dhaka’s Greater Kailash. I don’t make the comparison flippantly; there’s an air of New Delhi about these sections, and much of what I saw of “new” Dhaka. A Pakistani friend says the more affluent areas resemble their counterparts in Karachi; I can’t say, not having been to that city. You see a new city in terms of what you know; and “seeing” becomes a subterranean form of remembering. One thing became clear — Dhaka is not a lost suburb of Calcutta, nor its “backward” twin. Dhaka is a different conception of what it means to be a Bengali metropolis.

For one thing, much of the development I saw took place in the Fifties and after. This is what reminded me of New Delhi, I suppose; the mildly bureaucratic air of the long interconnecting avenues, in which, in spite of the burgeoning population, there is no street life: the green, suburban enclosures of the rich.

The grand and derelict colonial architecture that makes Calcutta surprising is missing; but there are striking new buildings, among them the parliament house and, overlooking a canal, the red-stone houses with large hemispherical arches in which its members live. In the course of my visit, I met two architects: Bashir-ul-Haq, who lives in the lovely red-stone house he designed himself years ago, and Luva Nahid Choudhury, the managing editor of the “international magazine of the arts”. The question that struck me upon meeting them, and which I asked them naively, as if they might know the secret, had to do with why there are so few distinguished architects in West Bengal.

Having been to Dhaka and met these people marks a significant break for me in my inner relationship with that country. For the political entity we call “Bangladesh” has been integral to the Indian Bengali’s — whether or not they’re originally from East Bengal — mythology of origins, a narrative of loss. A whole literature and archive of the liberal Bengali imagination have made it so. It’s through the prism of that mythology we experience — indeed, are at all interested in — Bangladesh: as the site of a quest-journey to our beginnings. It’s as if, at the journey’s end, we will have solved a problem, found an answer. Occasionally, the journey is made; often, it remains a powerful and poetic idea. I, too, who have atavistic links to Sylhet, have always wanted to, and always delayed, embarking on that quest.

Travelling between Gulshan and Dhanmandi and Baily Road and the University, however, I feel I can leave aside that quest temporarily; it remains to be made, and perhaps it will be. But going to Dhaka has, in a sense, unshackled me from that search; and that brings with it a sense of liberation from an old and all-encompassing self-definition. Contemporary Dhaka confirms within me something else; a current exploration. As if I’d confronted a twin who’d grown up separately and become somebody else, it provides me with a different notion of identity. The question, “Who am I'” is only partly answered, after all, by returning to our beginnings.

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