A work in progress
Travelling through a green and partly pleasant land
- Published 28.11.15
Some twenty years ago, my wife and I called on Nirad Chaudhuri at his home in Oxford. The great little writer was happy to see us, but less pleased with my wife's apparel. "That [ chooridar kurta] is an Islamic dress", he barked, "in Bengal we [Hindu men] would never allow our women to wear it."
I was reminded of that remark when, earlier this month, I made my first visit to Bangladesh. For the Muslim women I saw or spoke to mostly wore saris, whether writers and scholars in Dhaka, or peasants in the countryside. To be sure, school-and-college-going girls wore the salwar kameez, and a few adult women sported (if that is the word) the burqa.
Bangladesh has a massive Muslim majority, and its Constitution defines it as an Islamic Republic. Yet language and culture are far more important to the nation's identity than religion. I spent long, drink-filled, evenings with two distinguished professors of literature: one, named Fakrul Alam, has translated the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore and Jibanananda Das; the other, named Kaiser Haq, has recently completed a book on the cult of the snake goddess in rural Bengal. These choices were natural, not self-conscious. These were not 'Muslim' scholars studying 'Hindu' subjects, but Bengalis seeking to bring to a wider audience the literary and folkloric heritage of their homeland.
Bangladesh is much less Islamicized than Pakistan. Fatima Jinnah, the sister and confidante of that Pakistan's founder, always wore a sari. So did many other middle-class Muslim women at the time. But, over the decades, the sari has come to be seen as a Hindu mode of dress; except for parts of rural Sindh, it has more or less disappeared from public view. Meanwhile, the burqa has become more widespread. These differences are also manifest when we consider or compare the males of these two countries. Beards and skull caps are more common on the streets of Lahore than in Dhaka.
To be sure, Islamic fundamentalism is by no means absent in Bangladesh. Bangladeshis who went to work in the Gulf countries brought back the austere, unforgiving, ideology of Wahhabism, preaching its doctrines to village audiences. In the towns, free-thinking or atheistic writers have been murdered, or (as in the case of Taslima Nasreen) forced into exile.
Religious bigotry remains a threat in Bangladesh; yet it is a far greater threat in Pakistan, where it has long been supported by the State and by the military which thought that the jihadis could help advance their interests in Kashmir and in Afghanistan. This was a tragic miscalculation, for, thus emboldened, the jihadis began to launch attacks on Shias and non-believers in Pakistan itself. The influence of fundamentalism on everyday life (and especially on education) has also steadily increased. Pakistan may be fairly characterized as being, on the whole, both an Islamic State and an Islamic society.
In three visits to Pakistan, I have witnessed how cowed the minorities are. The situation in Bangladesh is not so dire. Some Hindus do feel vulnerable and insecure; I met a young doctor in Dhaka who said he wished to go overseas as soon as he could (he had also, more remarkably, read Nathuram Godse's last speech, and identified with its sentiments in favour of a Hindu-dominated Akhand Bharat). Others are better integrated; there are more Hindu writers and professionals in Dhaka than one would ever find in Lahore, Karachi, or Islamabad.
After four days of intense conversations in Dhaka, I decided to leave the city. A friend lent me a car, driver, and guide, the latter a young man who had recently done a Master's in Archaeology. We drove through villages lush with paddy fields and bamboo groves, and rich in bird life. The beauties of nature had left their impress on popular art; a truck we passed had a pair of magpie-robins drawn on its back hatch, perfectly proportioned. We reached the river Padma, so wide that one could scarcely see the other bank. Here we stopped, and took a boat ride.
On the way back, my guide took me on a winding rural road, our first destination a three-storey zamindar's house in Tangail district that, in its pomp, must have been truly handsome. Grass now grew out of its masonry, and the elephant that was once carved on its entrance had its trunk cut off. Its dark rooms housed a co-operative bank. The Durga temple in the courtyard lay abandoned.
Our next stop was in the district of Manikganj, to see an even larger zamindar bari, known as the Baliati Palace, now restored and under the control of the Bangladesh Department of Archaeology. Unfortunately, it was the department's weekly holiday. From the gate, the building looked very impressive, fronted by large white cylindrical pillars, Grecian style.
The families of the Hindu landlords who once owned and lived in these grand structures had long since left for India. But in the villages around, their poorer co-religionists remained. We passed a shamiana from where music emanated. We stopped, and went inside. A young, fresh-faced boy, a string of marigolds around his neck, was singing hymns to Krishna, accompanied by a musician on the harmonium and another on the pakhawaj. A crowd of devout Vaishnavites squatted on a dhurrie, clapping and chanting. Some elderly men and women sat on plastic chairs. Standing on the side was an elderly Muslim, his beard dyed with henna, who had (like us) come along to enjoy the fun. At the entrance (and exit) were hawkers selling pictures of Krishna and Radha, peanuts, and rice flakes. Except for the microphones and the loudspeakers,this was a scene out of the 19th century.
I have travelled through the West Bengal countryside many times, occasionally by car, more often by train. The 24 Parganas and Birbhum are green; Tangail and Manikganj even greener. In western Bengal, there are many ponds; in the east, some large rivers too. Another difference is that while in the Indian part of Bengal the countryside is largely bereft of modern industry, here textile mills and even the odd pharmaceutical company dot the landscape, their workers sourced from nearby villages. As for the cities, while Calcutta's days of industrial glory lie firmly in the past, Dhaka is a major global centre for the manufacture and export of garments.
The Hindu middle classes of Calcutta have traditionally looked down on the Muslim peasants of East Bengal, seen and represented by them as uncouth, unproductive, uncivilized. In truth, the despised bangals may be much better equipped to handle the complex challenges of the twenty-first century. Where the book-loving bhadralok produce a steady stream of scribes and scholars for the American academy, the peasants of what is now Bangladesh have become workers and entrepreneurs, contributing immensely to their own country's economy. Meanwhile, their vigour and energy have also been manifest in the creation and the expansion of major civil society organizations, such as Grameen and BRAC, which run banks, producer co-operatives, telecom companies, and even universities, and which have absolutely no counterparts on the Indian side of the border.
Bangladesh came into existence a quarter-of-a-century after India and Pakistan did. The country is a work-in-progress, a nation-in-the-making. Its democratic institutions are fragile, its courts and its press not entirely free. Religious and linguistic majoritarianism lurk in the background, producing tensions between Muslims and Hindus, and between Bengali-speakers and speakers of various tribal or adibasi languages. Although a civilian government is now in power, the army retains a disproportionate influence on political (and economic) life. There is desperate poverty in many places. And Bangladesh is one of the countries most at risk from climate change.
The present is scarcely trouble-free, the future is clouded and uncertain. That said, this Indian would like to raise one cheer, and perhaps even two, for the people of Bangladesh. They were once part of Pakistan; after separation, they have been somewhat more successful in thwarting Islamic fundamentalism. They were once part of the undivided province of Bengal; after separation, they have shown more entrepreneurial drive and constructive social activism than their counterparts to the west.