Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART XXIXby Nurul Kabir
BEGUM Roquia must have succeeded, at least to some extent, in achieving the objective. Moulabhi Abdul Karim, a reputed retired school inspector commanding respect of the educated Muslims of the time, wrote in the ‘introduction’ to Abarodhbasini: ‘Many an author has so far earned reputation by writing many kinds of history, but none has written before the history of the humiliations of the subcontinent’s prisoners of the purdah. The reading of the book repeatedly reminds us about the degradation that we have now been exposed to: a large part of the Muslim society, the society which had once been the ideal of the entire world, has now become funny before the eyes of the civilisation. … I believe the reading of Abarodhbasini would act as an eye-opener to the sleeping nation.’ [Ibid, p 472]
Begum Roquia underlined the importance of modern education in general, and women’s education in particular, for the emancipation of the Muslim society of Bengal. She elaborately explained how the Muslim elite of Bengal had done a grave disservice to the Muslim society by remaining indifferent to the need of setting up modern educational institutions of its own. In this regard, she pointed out how the Hindu elite had developed its own society on the one hand, and saved the Hindus from the aggressive Christianisation process on the other, by establishing its own institutions of modern education in the colonial Bengal.
In an article published in Mohammadi, a Kolkata-based monthly, in 1931, Roquia wrote: ‘There came a day in the history [of Bengal], when the ray of knowledge peeped into the Bengali Hindu’s house of darkness. They opened their eyes, and realised by the sweet chirping of birds that the night is over and the dawn has arrived. They, therefore, left the lazy comforts of the bed. But what direction a Hindu could go, particularly when they had the multidimensional fear of being ostracised for doing this or eating that, etc. They, therefore, started getting converted into Christianity in large groups, and thus the Bandapadhayas became the Bannerjees and the Sarkars the Sircars. In those days of terrible crisis, social welfare-oriented people like Raja Rammuhan Ray and Keshob Chandra Sen came forward to establish Brahma Samaj and thus saved a generation of Hindus from being converted to Christianity. Then they established their own educational institutions, and subsequently their children did not require going to the Christian schools. Self-reliance saved them.’ [Roquia Sakhawat Hussain, ‘Dhangser Pathe Bangiya Mussalman’ (Bengali Muslims on the verge of destruction), in Abdul Kadir (ed.), Rokey-Rachanabali (Works of Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain), Second print, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 1984, p 302]
Rokeya then says that the similar opportunity for enlightenment knocked at the doors of the Muslims as well, but they did not take it.
‘The ray of knowledge also peeped into the huts of the Muslims [of Bengal], still dreaming of the royal palaces. Subsequently, they could no longer remain satisfied with reciting of Pandenama and Shahnama. They started running to the Hindu and Christian schools. They did not establish their own schools and colleges. On receiving education at the Christian college they became sahibs, and started talking in English manner — chakar became behara and moote became coolie in their lips.’ [ibid]
Rokeya goes on to describe: ‘The educated father ultimately could not remain happy with their daughters learning mere puthis like Rahe-nazat and Sonavan; they started sending their children to Christian convents and Hindu schools. In the Christian convents, Laila became Lily and Jainab Jenny. In Hindu schools, Ayesha became Asha and Kulsum Kusum. Still it was not that dangerous [for the Muslims], but it was not the end our story of degradation.
‘In the next generation [of the educated Muslims], Jenny required Christian governess for rearing up her children, so that they can speak in English from their childhood. Jenny’s daughter was to be named, say, Barbara Arif. Now, Barbara does not see her mother praying at home, so her source of the playing idea remained the convents. She, therefore, sings at home the English songs that she learns at the convent, such as, “Jesus saves me this I know/For the Bible tells me so”, or the Bangla couplet, such as, “The Muslims are treacherous, beat them with shoes, and pull them by the ears [মুসলমান বে-ঈমান/মারো জুতা, পাকড়ো কান!].”
‘The name of the daughter of our Kusum, on the other hand, is Soudamini Begum. Soudamini’s playing idea revolves round idolatry and making of images with muds. She sings: “Smear your body with clay of the river Jamuna/On the body write the name of Hari/In the time of trouble, all friends sing Hari’s name in chorus. [যমুনার মাটি অঙ্গেতে লেপিয়া/হরি নাম লিখ তায়/ সব সখী মিলে বল হরি হরি/যখন পরাণ যায়].” Or she sings: “The Muslims, who are neres, have neither any wealth nor the prestige. [নেড়ে মুসলমান/তার না আছে ধন, না আছে মান.” ibid, pp 302-303]
Roquia finds such ‘conditions of the Muslim society in general and the Muslim girls in particular’, very ‘unfortunate’. She argues that the only way for the Muslims to get rid of the ‘unfortunate’ situation is to have ‘an ideal Muslim girls school, in which our girls can receive higher education required for adjustment with the people of other communities and provinces of the modern age’. Referring to the fact that ‘the girls of other civilised communities, as well as the Muslim girls of other provinces of India, are becoming physicians, barristers and councillors, and attending roundtable conferences,’ Roquia asks, ‘What sins have our girls committed that they have to remain deprived of those opportunities?’ [ibid, p 305] Herself the founder of a girls’ school in Kolkata, Shakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School, Begum Roquia not only played the pioneering role in spreading female education, and propagating through her literary works the democratic idea of gender equality in society, but also stood in the way of cultural Christianisations and Hinduisation of Muslim girls at the non-Muslim educational institutions.
Her short story, Nurse Nelly, again, ‘based on empirical experience’, provides a tragic consequence of the proselytisation of a 19-year-old Muslim girl, Nayeema, into Christianity. Influenced by the Christian missionaries at a hospital, Nayeema, the wife of an English-educated district magistrate and mother of two children, embraced Christianity, and left the Muslim family with all her money and jewelleries to serve the newly adopted faith. Nayeema’s husband went to the court against the missionaries, but lost the case as Nayeema, renamed Nelly, told the court that she had adopted the new faith independently — out of her own thoughtful choice. The incident gave the Christian missionaries a big mileage, particularly in terms of their success of converting a young woman of a highly respected Muslim family.
However, as soon as Nayeema left the court premises, leaving behind the lovely family, she realised that she had made a grave mistake. As she reached the church, she fainted. Then, ‘after regaining consciousness’, Begum Roquia describes, ‘she repented in the Islamic way, repeatedly recited kolema to her heart’s content and continued to call Allah, but there was no longer any use of all these.’ [Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, ‘Nurse Nelly’, in Abdul Kadir (ed.), Rokeya-Rachanabali, ibid, p 203] She aspired to return to the lost world, both in terms of faith and family, but there was no scope for her to return anymore.
However, the converted Muslim girl, now renamed Nelly, initially got pampered by the missionaries; but after the money and jewelleries she brought with her changed hands, the girl got exposed to severe difficulties and became a third-grade nurse, practically doing the job of a penniless janitor.
Meanwhile, the Muslim family that she had left also got humiliated and shattered by the incident — both emotionally and socially: the family’s old lady, Nayeema’s mother-in-law, died by the emotional shock in two months, his traumatised daughter Jamila followed the grandma in a fortnight, and his one-year-old son Jafar followed suit the next month. Exposed to the tragic deaths of mother and children, and faced with social humiliation, the once proud district magistrate became a completely broken man — aloof from society.
Nayeema, or Nelly, eventually returned to her in-law’s house seven years after she had left the family, but not alive. The Lucknow hospital authority sent her coffin; she died of hunger and sickness there, all alone.
Understandably, Nurse Neli, based on Roquia’s empirical experience, contributed to dissuading the Muslims in responding positively to the pursuation of religious convertion by the Christian missioneries of Bengal those days. Still, Begum Roquia was subjected to harsh criticism of the conservative educated Muslims, such as S A Al Musbhi and Nawsher Ali Khan Yusufzai and Mohammad Reazuddin Ahmed for her opnions against the extreme purdah system. However, the most of Begum Roquia’s critics, including those opposing her ‘radical’ views, appreciated her lucid Bangla prose on the one hand and her command over many a social issues on the other. While reviewing Roquia’s Matichur in the montly Nabanoor in 1905, one of such critics wrote: “Reforming the society is one thing while wheeping the society is another. The whipping might bleed the society, but it does not help resolve the social problems. The auother of the Matichur has continuously been wheeping the society, while we cannot expect that it would produce any positive result.” Then the critic says: “However, the language used in the book is very lucid and the prose style fascinating. [Her language is so fascinating that] even for any male writer it would have been a matter of pride to be able to write a book in such language. Besides, no Muslim writer before her has discussed so many social issues. Although we do not agree with all her opnions, we cannot help but appreciate her discussions.” [The Nabanoor’s review is cited in Wakil Ahmed, Unish Shatake Bangali Mussalmaner Chinta O Chetanar Dhara (The thoughts and ideas of Bengali Muslims in the 19th century), Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 1997, p. 311] However, that Begum Roquia, while asserting for social and cultural reforms in the Muslim society of Bengal, introduced and cultivated a prose style with proportionate issue of Arabic and Persian words in the Bangla language remains unquestionable.
To be continued.
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