Renowned writer and scholar Professor Hasan Azizul Huq passed away on November 15, 2021 at the age of 82. A master storyteller, he has won numerous accolades for his work, including the Bangla Academy Award and Ekushey Padak. To pay tribute to his illustrious literary career, The Daily Star reprints his interview, taken by Farhana Susmita and Rifat Munim, first published in 2012.
It is said that all the literature has flowed into many different strains, which also applies to Bengali prose. What do you think is the main strain of Bangla fiction?
Fiction in Bengali originated at a certain period in history, in the second half of the 19th century. It is surprising that our prose matured immediately after its birth. Bengali prose really started with Bankim. Very few works produced before him had little or no literary value. But with Bankim, Bengali prose acquired an exquisite linguistic richness, and with the magnificence of this scale began its journey. We Bengalis have a bad habit of comparing our famous people to those of the West. For example, we call Bankim “The Scott of Bengal”, comparing the “Ivanho” with his “Durgeshnandini.” From a purely objective point of view, I think Bankim was a much taller writer than Scott.
English prose began to grow steadily after the translation of the Bible by King James in the early 17th century. It was at this time that Francis Bacon wrote his remarkable essays. John Locke began writing later, but creative writing had to wait until the 18th century. We know there is Fielding and other writers. Considering all of this, you can see that English prose is not much older than Bengali. But it’s interesting that we had someone as extraordinary as Bankim at the very beginning. We are fortunate in this regard.
You can talk about its many shortcomings. Hindu nationalism, resentment against Muslims and the ensuing dependence on the British were all the product of his time; you can also find them in his novels. But its literary excellence is undeniable. In his novels, he created an intensely human world, closer to Shakespeare’s. There is a famous saying that if there is anyone else who has created as many human beings as God has, it is Shakespeare! Bankim has also created characters as individuals, each different from each other, and no one has been able to surpass that yet.
After Bankim came Tagore; and after Tagore came Manik, Bibhutibhushan and Tarashankar, who were then followed by many others. It is the main strain of our literature which you can compare with a vast flowing river.
But then came the politically fabricated Indian separation in 1947. Many believe that it was at this point in history that the still-flowing river of Bangla prose split in two.
Yes, Bengal was divided in 1947. But did literature also divide? Has our culture divided too? Here I have a strong disagreement with a lot of people, including some modernists. There was only a political separation by drawing a line between two parts of Bengal. The cultural differences we are talking about have always existed, even before the score. It’s nothing radical. Think of their writers: many of them were from this part of Bengal, and vice versa. Therefore, I am firmly against the division of Bengali literature on such fragile ground. There may be some difference with the passage of time due to different socio-political forces. Imagine the case of American literature, which has become completely different from English literature. I am ready to accept this kind of difference, which has not yet happened to Bengali literature. But I won’t accept it when some people vow to establish differences that have in fact always existed. This tendency is common to both parts of Bengal, which I think is a manifestation of provincialism.
Based on this separation, one can still imagine that the literature produced in this part of Bengal since 1947 forms a different entity. Seen from this perspective, however, I don’t see any form of literature offering a remarkable trait that we might call our own as opposed to West Bengal. In the 1950s, we had hardly any noteworthy prose writers. The only notable writer of that decade was Syed Waliullah, who was an exception. Poetry, however, took a different course. In the mid-1950s our poetry roughly joined the Modernist tradition, which was not new and just a continuation of the poets of the 1930s and 1940s.
Then there was the 1960s. The rise of “high modernism” during this decade was common to both parts of Bengal due to serious political unrest. When Shakti, Shandipan, and Sunil were creating revolutionary little magazines, we also had many dissident magazines, especially Abdullah Abu Sayeed’s. “Kanthoswar.” So, you see, the same change occurs concomitantly in both parts. If you consider this to be a departure from the main strain of our literature, I will not agree with you.
Although very present in Tagore, the three Bandyopadhyays (Manik, Bibhutibhushan and Tarashankar) would have laid the foundations of the socialist-realist tradition. Since then, despite other currents such as high modernism, can we say that the socialist-realist tradition is still the strongest current in Bengali literature?
Precisely. I think this is the strongest strain. There are many who claim to dissociate themselves completely from reality. You can mention Buddhadev Bose in this regard. He emphasized the artistic aspect of literature more than anything else. Tagore, too, has spoken in many places about aesthetics, art, etc. It is true that without aesthetics, there is no art. But it has been the subject of so much discussion that I am sometimes surprised. I think even when you write something that is focused on life or real issues, you can’t rule out the aesthetics of it. What I mean is that it’s part of life. But the attempt to separate him from life is very unfortunate.
Regardless, our literature has never strayed from real life. Perhaps it has taken on many different dimensions. But then there were also deviations at different times, and we can talk about the reasons behind them. Take the 1960s, for example. During this time, there was so much emphasis on aesthetics that what had been written before was considered outdated. Shawkat Ali and I, even Ahmed Sofa, were their contemporaries, and our works were considered to be of very little value. I think the disillusionment with Pakistan and the resulting frustration has been a blow to the East Bengalis. What could writers do in such a situation? They could neither revolt, nor face reality. Therefore, they chose to escape. This is why the emphasis has been placed on aesthetics and the ideas associated with it, such as “art for the sake of art”.
What happened next? What was the impact of the liberation war and did it cause a visible change in the literature?
The tendency to escape, so pervasive in the 1960s, completely disappeared after the war. The war has brought everyone face to face with harsh realities: atrocities and displacement. As a result, the writers of the 1970s, regardless of their different orientations and thoughts, completely lost their aesthetic concern. Now they had the experience of war, which made them incapable of being indifferent to life. The realist tradition is still active on the present literary scene. The predilection for aesthetics is also there, but the compulsion has disappeared.
With the advent of democracy, various experiments including the absurd importation of magic have found their place. Such practices emerged as a very notable trend in the 2000s, often associated with postmodernism. Many critics, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, consider that such an uncritical adoption of foreign literary forms – whether European or Latin American – hinders the spontaneous development of literature in any country. How do you see it?
Yes, there has been a visible change. In the 2000s, a feeling of emptiness was created, which has a lot to do with it. We need to understand the underlying reasons for this change.
The year 1989 saw the fall of a form of socialism, leaving room for capitalism to spread seamlessly around the world. Since then, capitalism has abandoned all of its old machinations of forced colonization and has instead supported the idea of globalization and an open market. I compare this to a situation where you are asked to run across a wide field with your hands and legs tied. Bangladesh is exactly in this situation. There is this huge market, but you have nothing to sell. All you can do is reach out and accept whatever is given to you. It is economic imperialism, which nourishes the idea of postmodernism in order to legitimize its expansion. By claiming that there is no center, you are not only lying, but you are also trying to free people from their social and political responsibilities.
Our writers also entered the circle of capitalism and had to experience the cultural vacuum it created. Many of them have adopted postmodern experiments, but in fact, these are ways of channeling the inner void. We must now fill this void. But with what? With responsibility and with love for our country. A writer must be aware of his artistic tools; but then they must be aware of their time and their responsibilities to society as a human being. I know many will be different from me, but this is how I see postmodernism in our literature.
This interview was first published in Weekend of the stars review of The Daily Star, February 10, 2012.