Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART XXVIby Nurul Kabir
UNDER the circumstance, Ismail Hossain Sirazee published his epical poem Spainbijoy Kabya, projecting the triumphant battle of ‘heroic’ Muslim commander Tariq Ibn Zayad (d 720) against the Spanish emperor Roderich (d 712). In the poem, Sirazee, a Muslim nationalist, focuses on the strength, sense of justice, bravery and truthfulness of the Muslims.
Sirazee was also the one to call upon his fellow litterateurs to shape Bangla language and literature ‘in Islamic ways’. Many of his contemporary Muslim writers, particularly from East Bengal, followed suit. Subsequently, they, as if to counter the Hinduised ‘Bengal renaissance’, called the new phenomenon as their own ‘renaissance’, and Sirazee came to be regarded as the ‘forerunner of Muslim renaissance of Bengal’.
In an essay, Sahityashakti Ebong Jatisongothan (Literary power and nation formation), published in the inaugural issue of the Bangla monthly Al Islam in 1910, Sirazee argues that literature has always had the ability to shape a nation and urges Muslim litterateurs of the time to shape Bangla language and literature in Islamic ways to rejuvenate Islamic nationalism among Muslims of Bengal. Sirazee observes: ‘The present Bangla language and literature is not congenial enough to infuse dynamism into our inert national life. It is now extremely essential to translate literature, history, biographies, theology and philosophy form our national language Arabic, and with that Persian and Urdu, into Bangla. History remains the lifeline for Muslims. There is no alternative to enlivening the moribund Muslims [of Bengal] by exposing them to Islamic history and the glorious lives of great Muslims.’ [Ismail Hossain Sirazee is cited in Syed Ali Ahsan, ‘Unish Shataker Mohakabyer Dhara’ (The trend of epics in the Nineteenth century), ibid, p 217]
Sirazee also cautioned the ‘Muslim servants of literature’ to remain ‘alert’ against losing the ‘sense of direction’ by ‘blind imitation’ [of non-Muslim litterateurs]. In order ‘to make Bangla literature the national literature’ of Muslims, Sirazee advised Muslim writers to ‘always remain within the walls of Islamic purity and principles in serving literature.’
While in his own literary exercises Sirazee never deviated from the ‘literary principles’ he preached to ‘Muslim servants of Bangla literature’, his preaching successfully influenced many contemporary Muslim writers to create literary works based on Islamic history and values with an Islamised Bangla language.
Then he took up his pen to rescue ‘great’ historical Muslim characters from being demonised by Hindu writers on the one hand, and establishing the moral superiority of Muslim men and women over Hindu men and women on the other. Explaining reasons for publishing his first novel, Rai-nandini, in 1916, Sirazee wrote in its introduction: ‘Bangla has become the most prominent language of India, thanks to the contributions of Bengali writers. Notwithstanding the scarcity of books on history, philosophy and science in Bangla, there are a lot of Bangla novels and plays, which are, however, full of hatred against Muslims. The novels are particularly hells of disdains, in which have been thrown members of the great Muslim nation, ranging from servants to emperors and nawabs to begums and princesses. Great Muslim begums and princesses like Nurjahan, Razia Sultana, Zebunnesa, Jahanara, Mamtajmahal, whose names have brightened the pages of history, are being portrayed as persons of loose character madly seeking love of Hindus.’ [Syed Ismail Hossain Sirazee, in Abdul Kadir (ed.), Sirazee Rachnabali (Complete works of Ismail Hossain Sirazee) First reprint, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2003, p ix]
Sirazee finds such literary activism ‘completely unbearable’. He continues: ‘Hindu novelists, beginning from Bankim Chandra and Rangalal Bandapaddhaya to the rest, have been making enormous efforts to demean the globally respected Muslims and hurt their sentiments. Some Muslim writers, and myself, have repeatedly registered our protests against the phenomenon, but with no result. In the Bogra conference of the North-Bengal Literary Society, …I made a sincere appeal to the Hindu educated class not to demean the Muslims for the sake of friendship and good relations between the two communities. But, alas! My appeal has produced no result.’ [ibid, p x]
Sirazee admits that ‘it is essential to have good relations between the Hindu and Muslim inhabitants of the same country’ but alleges that the Hindu attitude towards Muslims is a great impediment to forging the cherished ‘good relations’. He says that ‘immersed in their imaginary Aryan traditions, the Hindu brothers, unfortunately, continue to sow the seeds of enmity by using their pens in an irresponsible manner.’
Sirazee argues that ‘for the sake of the welfare of the country, and to generate awareness among Muslims, I have authored Rai-Nandini, although I am not an admirer of the literary form called novel. My sense of responsibility has driven me to write it. The Hindu and Muslim characters, as I have portrayed in the novel, are reflective of the real picture of the past.’ [ibid]
Finally, Sirazee hopes that his novel will ‘provide some comfort to those who have been extremely hurt by the novels written by Bengali authors’. He hopes that the ‘Bengali authors’ in question ‘would rewrite the vulgar novels vilifying the Muslims and make efforts to portray the great heroic characters of the Muslims’ in their works. In case of a failure, Sirazee writes in a retaliatory tone, ‘I would take up my pen, imbibed with the indomitable spirit of Islam, to teach them a lesson.’
Evidently, Ismail Hossain Sirazee declared a linguistic and literary civil war against the communalist sections of the Hindu litterateurs. The war was not limited to mere declaration. For instance, Sirazee’s novel Rai-nandini appears to be a Muslim response to Bankim Chandra’s Durgeshnandini. In Durgeshnandini, Bankim projects a Muslim Pathan nawab, Kartul Khan, as a treacherous, cruel and lecherous ruler. Besides, he makes Kartul Khan’s daughter, Ayesha, fall in love with a Hindu Rajput prince, Joysingh, imprisoned by the Muslim nawab. Intensely passionate about charming Joysingh’s psychological distress in captivity, Ayesha offers to help him to flee from imprisonment.
However, confronted by the nawab’s man, Osman, in the midst of a clandestine conversation between Joysingh and Ayesha, the latter unequivocally declares: ‘If you ask me, Osman, as to who is this captive to me, my answer is that he is the god of my heart. …Listen, Osman, I tell you again, this captive is the god of my heart — nobody else would have a place in my heart. If the killing ground gets wet with his blood, still you would see, I would establish his image in the temple of my heart and worship him for years to come. If I never ever meet him, even if he is in the midst of a hundred women after his release from this captivity, even if he hates me, still, I will continue to remain a slave begging for his love.’ [Bankim Chandra Chattapadhaya, Durgeshnandini, Upannyassamagra: Bankim Chandra (Collection of novels by Bankim Chandra), Khan Brothers & Company, Dhaka, 2013, p 77]
Sirazee found the negative portrayal of a Muslim nawab, and particularly the literary episode of a Muslim girl falling in love with a Hindu prince, offending to the Muslim sense of pride. In Rai-nandini, Sirazee, as if in an act of literary retaliation against Bankim, projects Jessore’s Hindu ruler Raja Pratapaditya as a womaniser. Out to rob a Swarnamayee, the beautiful daughter of Kedar Rai, to satiate his carnal desire, Pratapaditya ordered Mahtab Khan, his Muslim chief military commander, to grab the girl for his enjoyment. Khan, a principled young military commander, sharply reacts to his employer’s instruction: ‘I am a Muslim, I am not a coward. I cannot loot her. That’s the job of a dacoit. Besides, only the cowards resort to the persecution of women.’ [Syed Ismail Hossain Sirazee, Rai-nandini, in Abdul Kadir (ed.), Sirazee Rachnabali (Complete works of Ismail Hossain Sirazee) First reprint, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2003, p 40] Pratapaditya gets furious, but Mahatab Khan quits his job, attracting further wrath of the Raja, and fled Jessore to avoid persecution.
However, in an apparent bid to counter Bankim’s episode of Muslim Ayesha’s love for Hindu Joysingh, Sirazee shows that Raja Pratapaditya’s daughter Arunabati is in love with Muslim Mahtab Khan. Khan, on his way to some safe zone, meets in a distant district Raja Pratapadity’s fourth wife, Rani Durgabati, who had motherly affection for the young commander, to take her blessings. There, he gets exposed to the explicitly passionate love of Arunabati and discovered Rani Durgabati to be willing about marrying her daughter off to Mahtab Khan, when she says it is ‘better’ for him ‘to leave the monster’s kingdom’, but eagerly asks: ‘[In that case], my boy, what would happen to my [daughter] Arunabati?’
Mahtab Khan, penniless at the time, resolves to escape Pratapaditya’s wrath first, and leaves alone. As he leaves, the lovelorn Arunabati gets shattered in the fear of losing him forever and starts crying. She tries to forget Khan, but, as Sirazee describes, ‘the more she wanted to forget Mahtab Khan, the more his separation became unbearable. Suddenly, she got up from bed, took her jewellery box, secretly got out of the house through the backdoor and rushed towards her beloved,’ escaping through a riverine rout in the darkness of the night. [ibid, p 47]
Quite familiar with the area, Arunabati reaches the riverbank soon. Meanwhile, Khan’s boat has already got off to a distance. In the darkness, only its lantern is visible. She traces the faint ray of the lantern, soon gets nearer to the boat, urges Khan to pull aside. ‘[A]n astonished Mahtab Khan, repeatedly requested Arunabati to return home. The boatmen had meanwhile started to get the boat to the shore but changed course on Mahtab Khan’s instruction. Then Arunabati jumped into the river, and started swimming towards the boat. Mahtab Khan could no longer hold himself. He immediately jumped into the river, and pulled Arunabati on to the boat within no time.’ [ibid]
However, Sirazee’s appeal to the Hindu authors to stop producing anti-Muslim literature went unheeded, and the threat that he would continue to write novels like Rai-nandini, unless the Hindus stop their communalist pen, was ignored. Sirazee, therefore, continued to write for Muslims rejuvenation vis-à-vis Hindu revivalism.
In doing social and political service to his own religious community through literature, Sirazee often appeared to be taking retaliatory actions against the Hindu communalists — his novel Tarabai, published in 1922, being a glaring example. In his bid to project the Islamic value system to be much superior to that of Hinduism, and Muslim rulers nobler than those of other faiths, Sirazee projected Maratha nationalist Shibazi in the novel as a ‘self-seeking anti-Muslim villain’, ‘a gang leader’ and ‘a lecherous man’, and his lovelorn daughter Tarabai desperate to win great Mughal hero Afzal Khan’s love.
To be continued.
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