to the scene of the crime
It has always been
a pleasure to talk with Mirza Athar Baig. With a strange serenity and
sobriety writ on his face, he looks more like some sage from the Middle Ages.
But as you get to know him better, this philosopher of sorts melts into a
casual, frank and witty companion, someone you would love to be with.
If in classrooms or
seminars he speaks fluent English, in the not-so-formal meetings, he talks
both in Urdu and Punjabi, laden with some English phrases. If you happen to
be in his circle of friends (most of whom are his ex-students), he is easily
tri-lingual, shifting from one language to the other, depending on his mood
and what he has to say or share.
I go to see Mirza Athar
Baig at the Government College University, Lahore where he teaches
philosophy. He has been working on a new novel with another strange title
‘Hassan Ki Soorat e Haal: Khali Jagain Pur Karo’. It is not just the
titles; there are also new words and phrases that he comes up with in his
“That is yet another
gimmick I fall back on after failing to startle the reader in any other
way,” he laughs away my query as to why he does so. Seeing me not
satisfied, he adds, in more serious tone, “You see, it is all a personal
game; my continuous struggle to fish out some new moves from the infinite
possibilities of this amazing genre called novel — though I must apologise
for the effrontery of involving others in this personal game.”
About his new novel, he
says, “It deals with a state of writing and existence which is tantamount
to a total perceptual and cognitive collapse. It is an attempt to create a
narrative order in a semantic and conceptual chaos.”
Thinking it must be too
complex to handle for a newspaper reader, I ask him a simple question.
“Without making it a spoiler, tell us about the story, if there is any?”
And “Is it, the story, interesting to read, or….?” “The novel,” he
cuts me short, “is already so spoiled that you can’t spoil it further.”
He enters the realm of self-mockery.
“Basically, the new novel
is based on a short story ‘Uchattay Khauf Ki Daastan’ which was published
in The Ravi a couple of years ago,” he seems ready to spill the beans.
“The novel is a deconstruction of the story; deconstruction in the sense
that when I completed the story — and also while I was writing it — I
felt there were leads and definite thematic possibilities which could be
Hassan is a man who has the
strange habit of observing things which “intrigue him, bother him”. He
tries to build some framework to explain things he sees. This was a unique
perceptual situation that Baig wanted to “explore through the character”.
Though Athar Baig has
taught philosophy throughout his academic career, he chose fiction as a
medium of expression. After graduation with science subjects, he turned to
He stated writing fiction
in his early boyhood when “almost everyone tries his/her hand at writing
poems and stories”. Before his first novel, Ghulam Bagh, came out in 2007,
he had been writing plays for PTV. With around 15 serials and 100 odd plays
to his credit, he seems to draw on his experience as a playwright while
constructing the narrative of his novels.
He is not all too
optimistic about the prospects of philosophy. “Science and philosophy are
not possible in the religious society we live in.” He writes fiction
because he can’t help it, not because he cherishes some lofty ideals about
art and literature which he says are a “pastime of an elite club”.
Is there some relationship
between the subject philosophy, and the fiction he writes? “Fiction purges
philosophy from my system and vice versa.”
His works are not a great
deviation from his core philosophy i.e. “hate for elitism, all kinds of
Though the novel, Ghulam
Bagh, is very broad in scope as “it is about everything as well as about
nothing”, just like life. Among other themes, the theme of dominance at
various levels runs throughout his works. Ghulam Bagh’s Kabir rises up
against the oppression and status quo. When he decides to ‘re-write’
(which means he wants to write history from the perspective of the
marginalised), he can’t survive the powerful status quo forces.
His second novel, Sifar Se
Aik Tak, is not as wide in scope as the first one. Unlike Bagh, it deals with
how our society has undergone transformation over the last three decades. It
gives an insight into the socio-cultural texture of society and the workings
of feudalistic power structure. It also delves deep into how information
technology and internet has affected the lives of individuals in this part of
the world, and how this technology can be used to challenge the feudals’
grip on power. Baig had realised the idea before Imran Khan or Shahbaz Sharif
started talking about computerisation of the land record.
There is one thing that
Athar Baig seems obsessed with: the theme of self-referentiality, or self-reflexity.
It was there in Ghulam Bagh and Sifar Se Aik Tak, and even in one of his
short stories the book, Bay Afsana, is named after. His new novel Hassan Ki
Soorat e Haal is no exception to it. Rather here, the theme dominates the
narrative of the novel.
He has a reason for it:
“I realise that through fiction, I can study the whole phenomena of
fragmentation of life.” He is deeply concerned with how “the
fragmentation, as it is ‘given’ can be incorporated into a narrative.”
So, in this sense, the new
novel — which he says will be in the market in a couple of months —
appeals to the reader at large. Through the technique, not very new, he has
also “tried to capture the sensibility of our time, the dilemma of the
Muslim world at large”.
If his novels, especially
the first one, have been the talk of the town (especially among the youth),
his book of short stories did not grab that much attention. This is because
of what Baig calls, “our limited literary space”. Almost all short
stories are almost perfect in both content and style. No two stories are
alike in treatment or theme — each story is unique in its own beautiful
way. They are like the monads of Leibniz — independent and fully
self-reliant in terms of effects and the package of meanings they carry.
Unlike novels, it is an entirely different world. Reading them, one feels
like desiring more such stories from Baig.
When asked what kind of
reaction Hassan Ki Soorat e Hall will generate among the readers, Athar Baig
says he is not concerned. “Maybe, the novel will generate another
controversy, controversy in every sense of the word,” I share laughter with
him, as I realise he is referring to the “established writers” who have
been indulging in “hesitant mutterings” about his works, not speaking out
for or against his “harmless literary pieces”.
I bring him back to his new
work. “Fill in the Blanks” is the subtitle of the novel. “Actually,
‘filling in the blanks’ is one of the major metaphorical devices I have
used in the novel. The metaphor is used in a very wide sense in the literary
space; it is highly philosophical.”
his perceptual collapse,” he elaborates, “Hassan tries to fill in the
blanks through his own effort.” Baig maintains that fiction is an attempt
to fill the emptiness of life, and “sometimes this filling in a series of
blanks of life generates further blanks”.
About other aspects of the
novel, he says there are also biographies of things in it. “Sometimes, in a
narrative, stories of things tell a lot about the people who use them.”
The novel sounds to be very
ambitious in scope as there is “so much in it. Very interesting, and some
eccentric characters like Irshad Kabarya (dealer in ‘scrap’), Jabbar The
Collector and Bona (pygmy).” The latter fascinates the author so much,
A sub-theme of the novel is
also the question of “voice” and “multiple voices of characters and
things create a surrealistic situation.”
Seeing that he wants to
reveal no more about the novel, I ask him about the prospects of writing in
English. Though he wants to write a popular novel in English, become rich and
“spend the last phase of his life as a dirty old man”, he finds himself
unable to succumb to the temptation when he sees “how our contemporary
writers in English have to follow the commands of the international fiction
industry”. He terms it a trade-off. For him, the beauty of writing in Urdu
is that he can “write in total disregard of the market forces”.
After his father
Baqir Ali, an activist and an intellectual who was executed by the British
for his political views, Muhammad Husain Azad made his way from Delhi to
Lahore and was taken on board as faculty at the Government College.
This was the time when the
British, in Northern India, on having set up their institutions were taking
stock of the intellectual and academic matters. The systems of education were
being revolutionised and the fund of knowledge, indigenous knowledge for want
of a better word, was being reassessed under the framework of the
developments that had taken place in the mother countries.
Working with Leitner and
Holroyd, Azad too ventured forth in initiating projects guided by this new
approach to the arts and literature. The classical expression in poetry was
cast aside; a new approach was adopted by holding mushairas where a certain
theme was given rather than a tarah misra. This experiment in what is
popularly known as naturi shairi, seemingly, was more responsive and open to
the external conditions in nature and society than the very arcane and
heavily wrought expression of the ghazal and masnavi.
Azad then, in the tradition
of critics, went about taking another critical look at the tradition of our
poetry. Eliot had said that every hundred years or so a critic should make a
fresh evaluation of the poetry and set the poets and poetry in a new order.
Azad under the new horizons, which were being opened, took a fresh stock of
the situation and wrote Aabe Hayat, one of the first books to have set the
poets and poetry in a new order keeping in view the sensibility that was
being nurtured in the later half of the 19th century. He also took stock of
Persian poetry and of the intellectual categories of our tradition during the
Altaf Hussain Hali, being
on the same page, was similarly developing a new approach towards the
evaluation of poetry and the arts. His Maqaddame Sher Shairi, a seminal work
on criticism, heavily influence by the views on poetry by the Romantics is
considered to be the first book of formal criticism in Urdu.
Hali too was in Lahore and
this city had become the centre of the movements that were taking place. If
Calcutta was the centre in the 18th century, Delhi became the rallying ground
in the first half of the 19th century, then Lahore progressed doing the same
in the second half of the 19th century. Urdu developing in Lahore under the
same glow laid the foundation of critical thinking and canons, which were to
serve for the next fifty odd years before being displaced by the forces of
Progressive Writers Association.
Intellectuals and critics
who followed Azad, while looking back during the course of the twentieth
century, have been critical of the line he took because they assessed him
against the backdrop of the developments that had taken place in their times
or just before that. They hastened to castigate Azad for having derived his
critical canons from the intellectual powerhouses of the colonists and
western thinkers, thus placing them on a higher pedestal and in the process
rejecting the sources of indigenous knowledge and the arts. He was accused of
aping rather than making substantive addition to our understanding and
sensibility. His employment at the most prestigious college in northern India
and then travels to Central Asia have been cited as more overt decisions
advancing the cause of western imperial power.
Azad due to the oppression
of the colonists was more exposed to the realities of the times. His effort
at coming to terms with it must have resulted in his policy of coexistence
and a certain type of compromise, which all reasonable forces were impelled
to make due to the intellectual dominance of the British. It was not merely
dominance by force; this realisation no matter how galling was based on a
correct assessment of the situation.
This rather harsh verdict
on the work, which Azad undertook, can be neutralised. His approach should be
accepted with justified remorse of the intellectual tradition having gone
defunct, becoming bankrupt and needing infusion of new ideas. This came from
the sources in the West. Some of it was thrust upon the natives while the
other was accepted due to its dynamism, relevance and ground breaking
potential. Azad ushered in a new approach to assessing our literature and
intellectual past. His contribution is relevant because he did not stay
slavishly loyal to the traditional ways of thinking where any departure from
the Indians and Muslims traditional thinking was labelled contrary to the
Azad showed us the way of
looking at reality under a changed perspective and tried to develop new ways
and means while still staying connected to what had remained relevant in our
tradition, cultural and intellectual traditions.
Perhaps time has arrived at
another re evaluation and of setting the poets and poetry in a new order. The
flush of the Progressive Movement too has been on the ebb and many other
intellectual developments have taken place which necessitates a fresh look to
be cast, new criteria to be developed, new parameters to be framed to take
stock of what is happening in the world and in particular parts of world like
ours. The momentum of the ball that Azad set rolling into the modern world
should be kept up for that is the truth of the times. Any blockage will turn
that into a cesspool.
The articles compiled in
the book are by K.N.Pandita, Ali Jawaid Zaidi, Abida Samiullah, Shakoor Ahsan,
Dr. Muhammed Sadiq, Sheikh Inayatullah, Sir Abdul Qadir, Ram Babu Sakesena,
Grahame Bailey, J.A.Haywood, Frances W.Pritchett, Ralph Russell,
W.R.M.Holroyd, Safdar Mir, Salim ur Rehman, Shamsur Rehman Farooqi,Tehsin
Firaqi,Ursula Rothen Dubs, Mukhatr Zaman, Mustafa Ali Hamdani, Abdus Salam
Khursheed, Sajun Lal, I.A. Arshad, Qaiser Afzal, Margit Pernau, Irfan Sheikh,
Yehia Syed, Syed Hasan Tahir,
Shuaib Bin Hasan, J.H.Stockqueler, Rab Nawaz, Agha Muhammed Akbar, Jefferey
Price Perill, Jeffery Diamond, Sajjad Baqir Rizvi, Asadullah, and Irshad Ali.
occupies the Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studiesat the Arizona State
University. She is a historian with focus on South Asia. Her book, Women, War
and the Making of Bangladesh, Remembering 1971, is the fruit of hundreds of
interviews of the victims, perpetrators and witnesses of the violence of the
year 1971 in present-day Bangladesh. It is the second book using the
technique of in-depth interviewing which has come out in 2011, the first
being Sarmila Bose’s Dead Reckoning.
Bose’s objectives include correcting some of the myths and exaggerations of
the Bangladeshi nationalist historical narrative about the war, Saikia seeks
to understand how the war was actually experienced by human beings. She also
has the distinction of being the only historian to focus on gender violence.
As she says “I tell the story of the war as a human event of individual
losses and personal tragedies suffered by both women and men.” And this
Saikia does by either summarising the stories of the victims of gender
violence or, even more effectively, telling them as closely to the original
The book is divided into
three parts. In part one:
‘Introducing 1971,’ Saikia gives an account of the war making the point
that it was not only a war between Pakistan and India. That, in fact, the
Indo-Pakistan war followed two internal wars: that between the Bengalis and
the Biharis and isolated Pakistanis in which the latter were victims; and
that between the Bengalis and the Pakistan army in which the Bengalis were
victims. And after the formal establishment of Bangladesh, the Indian
soldiers victimised the citizens of the new state. Moreover, once again, the
Biharis were victimised by the triumphant Mukhti Bahini and others. Of
course, the Bengalis victims were greater in number than the Biharis and the
Pakistanis but it is important for historians like Saikia to mention Biharis,
as they are ignored in the nationalist histories in Bangladesh, Pakistan and
India. In all these different conflicts the author has chosen to focus upon
the sufferings of women — especially sexual abuse— and, like a true
dispassionate researcher, she gives space to all victims.
Saikia also dwells upon the
normative concept of insaniyat (humane behaviour, decency or compassion)
which both victims and perpetrators invoke from time to time. It appears that
in times of upheaval people abandon the concept of insaniyat to perpetrate
unspeakable evil in the name of the nation, dynasty, creed, honour or
manliness. In narrating the stories of their suffering—or atrocities—they
find relief and reclaim their humanity. I find this concept both vague and
unconvincing. After all, it very much part of the human condition to device
ingenious ways of giving pain to other humans and animals. Human beings can
also be compassionate but it would be false to equate only compassion with
the condition of being human. I would, therefore, reject insaniyat as an
analytical concept as it does not have adequate explanatory power. Another
way to explain the case of perpetrators— especially the unrepentant ones
hiding behind the mask of military duty and nationalism—is with reference
to Philip Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil
which argues that structures of power differentials create roles of
oppressors and oppressed which people play out unquestioningly. Some, of
course, indulge their own sadistic fantasies while very few opt out or resist
oppression. Indeed, the disturbing insight is that most people go on to obey
orders, however cruel or oppressive they may be for other human beings, even
if they appear to be normal citizens otherwise. That is precisely why so much
evil is possible when people in authority give orders for “suppressing a
rebellion in the name of the nation” for, in such cases, the sadists
indulge in their fantasies while the others simply obey orders.
The second part:
‘Survivors Speak,’ comprising of the stories of the survivors, is the
empirical evidence which takes us to the heart of the human suffering the
book aims to reveal. This suffering has been graphically described in several
Bangladeshi accounts about Bengalis. It has also been described in memoirs of
Biharis and Pakistanis about their own people.
Saikia, however, is the only one who takes into account both
Bangladeshis and Biharis. Besides, as mentioned above, she focuses on rape
which, given the puritanical values of South Asia, is hardly mentioned by
name even by the victims themselves.
In this context the moving
account of Nur Begam is a case in point. She was kept, along with 50 or 60
women, in a bunker and raped for months by soldiers. Her daughter, called
Beauty in the book, was born as a result but Nur Begam always pretended that
she was legitimate as she had been conceived before her capture. Another
interview is of Firdousi Priyabhasani who, she declares, was a victim of
violence even as a child because her father was a tyrant. She too was
subjected to gang-rape but one redeeming feature of the whole sordid episode
is that a Pakistani officer, called Altaf Karim, genuinely helped her and
both loved each other. Her last reference to this kind man is moving, “When
he left me for the last time, he gave me a salute and told me, “Maybe, I
will be killed.’ I never saw him again.” These are also other accounts of
rape victims such as Taslima’s mother from Dinajpur and Nurjahan Begum. It
was because of Nurjahan_Begum that the author visits a Bihari camp and notes
its squalor. Here Saikia notes that, although she empathised with Bengali
sufferings, she could not ignore the suffering of other women. The Biharis
had, as a group, sided with Pakistan but individual members of the group,
especially women, are victims of whatever narrative the opinion-makers of
their group believe in. Thus, she did not blame the whole group and
especially sough to give voice to the sufferings of women. As a result,
Saikia deliberately went to the Bihari camp and listen to accounts of rape
and cruelty which are every bit as shocking as the accounts of Bengali women.
And here she gives a definition of being Bangladeshi which is worth
reproducing. It is: “Muslim, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, as well as
Chakmas, Biharis, Jayantias and women of indigenous groups.”
The experience of war for
women is not confirmed to suffering only.
Saikia also interviews the women who actually fought as Mukti Bahini—
they were very few but they were fervent volunteers. Among these women Laila
Ahmed, Mumtaz Begum and others have testified to their experiences.
In the postscript, Yasmin
Saikia gives a synopsis of her interviews of 123 Pakistani army personnel,
two of them very senior officers, to find out about “perpetrator”
memories. She reports that no hurdles were put in the way of her research—
something very commendable because she is originally from Assam in India—
and that she was offered warm hospitality in the some of the interviewees.
However, as one would expect, hardly anyone actually confessed to raping
women and the standard excuse for the killings and oppression — in common
with all armies was that it was a military duty as the Bengalis were
perceived as rebels against the nation. In common with soldiers in modern
nationalistic wars “violent nationalism limited the ability of these armed
men to see others as similar to them, as citizens and, above all, as fellow
human beings.” These stories have not, however, been given in the narrators
own words with the exception of a few excerpts. The author tells us she
intends to write a sequel to this volume in which they will be given the
space they deserve.
Oral history in the hands
of an objective historian can be a powerful tool to create an in-depth
understanding of the human anguish which is part of every war. Nationalist
histories, on the other hand, are mere glorification of the nation and the
military. They perpetuate the myth that war is something heroic whereas, in
fact, it is a negation of the façade of civilization we create with effort.
If civilization can be defined as the growth of compassion then war is a
throwback to our previous state of barbarity.
Saikia must be commended
for her originality, hard work, courage and compassion. These have produced a
book which has given a voice to the voiceless and a name to the unspeakable
suffering of women in 1971.
Women, War and the Making
of Bangladesh, Remembering 1971
By Yasmin Saikia
University Press, 2011
Price: Rs 675