Poets thrive in culture where few can read

Word wars: Bangladesh's Bengalis reckon they are the sub-continent's finest intellectuals. Others see them as hotheads
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The Independent Online


Bangladesh may have one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, but those Bengalis who can read and write seem to do little else. It is an undisputed fact, among Bengalis, that they are the sub-continent's best writers, philosophers and hotheads.

Words and ideas lie on the Bengali mind like one of the many fevers that lurk in the swampy deltas of Bangladesh.

Consider the case of a Dhaka building contractor, Janeh Alam Munir. He got it into his head that he would break the Guinness World Record for the number of books written in a year. When he should have been supervising the bricklayers swarming all over his building sites, Mr Munir was busy scribbling. When he should have been pouring cement, he was pouring words. Plays, poems and fiction encrusted his business ledgers.

So by the time the annual Bangla Academy book fair opened this month in Dhaka, Mr Munir was able to display 50 brand new volumes. Not only did he rent a stall at the fair - an event which attracts over a million Bengali bookworms- but he also published his own tomes. A couple of people have even bought his books, more impressed by his Herculean labour than his literary talents.

The steamy, intellectual ferment of the Bengalis is most prevalent in the press. Dhaka is infested with newspapers. Since the country's dictator was toppled in 1991 and free elections held soon after, the press has multiplied unstoppably. At last count, the city's 9 million inhabitants were deluged by 10 English-language dailies, 30 Bengali newspapers and more than 100 weeklies and monthlies. Compare that to say, Washington DC, which only supports two major dailies.

But most Bengalis complain that even if they wade through 40 newspapers every morning, they are no closer to the truth than if they skimmed just one. Dhaka's political scene is explosive, and most reporting biased.

Enayatullah Khan, editor and publisher of Holiday, one of Bangladesh's most balanced weeklies, explained, "Open six newspapers and you'll find not only six interpretations but also six different set of facts, too."

Blackmail keeps many newspapers thriving. Libel laws are rarely enforced and many crooked publishers are inspired to invent scandals about wealthy businessmen. "The publisher goes to the businessman and says 'give me money or I'll print this'," Mr Khan added. "But the scheme isn't working so well. The businessman usually has a paper of his own and strikes back against the would-be blackmailer that way."

A more effective form of blackmail is to threaten to run something malicious in one of the larger dailies. To shield against defamation, an industrialist who may have a lot of enemies will bribe not only the reporters on a newspaper but also the editors, the sub-editors and the headline writers.

The majority of Bangladesh's newspapers are "overwhelmingly anti-establishment", according to Mr Khan. He started his weekly in 1959 and was twice jailed. "Bengalis are generally very irreverent people," he grinned. Mr Khan's magazine only has an 18,000 print run, but he reckons that each copy is read by seven people.

In the villages among Bangladesh's mosaic of rice paddies and rivers, only three out of every ten people can read. When a newspaper, several days old, eventually reaches these villages, the schoolteacher or postman is asked to read it aloud to huge gatherings. Poets and minstrels still wander through Bangladesh and are fed and treated honourably no matter how poor a village is.

Bengali is spoken by 200 million people, in Bangladesh and the neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal. Indian Bengalis boast that Calcutta is the heart of Bengal intellectuality. It was in Calcutta, they insisted, that the Bengali Renaissance began in the mid-19th century when Bengali writers, philosophers and social reformers took the best of European culture and Indianised it.

Indeed, in my own random and totally inconclusive survey, I asked a petrol station pumper, a bureaucrat's wife and a policeman if they could recite a line or two from the renaissance's most famous poet, Rabindranath Tagore. They all could, and the bureaucrat's wife had to be gently stopped after she had sung three of Tagore's epic-long poems.

Calcutta's pretensions are dismissed in Bangladesh. While the Calcuttans jabbered, the Bengalis in Dhaka put their radicalism into practice, protesting first against British domination and then Pakistan's. In 1971, Bangladesh wrenched its independence from Urdu-speaking Pakistan.

Bengalis on both sides of the border specialise in nose-thumbing. The Communists who rule in Calcutta re-named the American consulate's street after Karl Marx.

In Dhaka, the mansion of the last Pakistani governor who had tried to crush Bengali culture (and ban the poetry of Tagore, a Hindu), is now home for the Bangla Academy of culture and language as well as the annual book fair.

At the book fair, Bengali poetry sells best. Love and protest are the biggest themes, and many volumes have solemn titles such as Rifles, Bread and Women. Mr Munir, the building contractor, is not the only prolific author at the fair.

One bookseller, Zahed Hassan, gestured to all the poetry on display in his stall and rolled his eyes. "My boss owns a garment factory. These were written by his wife. But to tell you the truth, I prefer other people's love poems, like this one here," he said, pulling another book out from under the counter.

It was poetry with the odd title: Coaching Centre for Love-Making. Adults Only. He explained, "It makes me laugh, which is more than I can say for my boss's wife."