Kajal Bandyopadhyay’s latest collection of essays Faith, Power and Our Intelligentsia (2022), published by Dhrubapada, pummels the gradual degeneration of our socio-cultural values underpinned by the spirit of the Liberation War. It also exposes the cracks and loopholes of different modes of power exercise, which operate on multiple levels in a subtle manner. It invites us to deal with a variety of unpalatable truths, which we tend to push under the carpet. It also offers us a happy tour through some significant literary and cultural sites. In a word, this new book is simultaneously pleasing and disturbing.
The title essay unearths the diabolical nexus between faith and capitalism, which collaborate in a whole host of ways to serve the interest of a tiny section of people at the expense of the vast majority. The advent of West-exported theories and their uncritical welcome here in literary/academic circuits in Bangladesh are responsible for the stunted intellectual growth of a new generation of thinkers, the essay claims. The prime accusation against many of the theories is a deliberate attempt at obfuscation of language to make knowledge a prerogative of those specialising in areas concerned—a totally undemocratic practice. This fetishization of language by certain academicians making clear-cut meaning almost unreachable throws us, lay readers, into what I call “linguistic Bermuda Triangle”. The author contends that such developments are also deleterious for indigenous knowledge-systems and conducive for a politics of depoliticization. He further detects a steady proliferation of faith-based ideologies across academia and beyond, which eats away at the very core of Bangladesh launching its national journey on the back of secularism,socialism, cultural nationalism and such other lofty ideals.He holds a section of national intelligentsia responsible for their opportunism and lack of intellectual integrity behind the freefall of ideological standards upon which Bangladesh was once envisioned to operate.
Another essay that captures my attention is the one dealing with Doris Lessing’s exposure of “female power.” Scrutinising the novel and using the novelist’s take on the hypocrisy of much of modern-day male-bashing feminism, the author shows how power-projection is not gender-specific. That women are equally able to exercise power, dominate others,inflict harm, commit crimes, and vitiate the harmony and balance of society— is what Bandyopdhyay explains and critiques in no uncertain terms. It is a sheer double standard on the part of a section of feminists to crusade against patriarchy for its power-exercise while at the same time to aspire to such power themselves. The author highlights the importance of a condemnation of all forms of injustice and domination, whoever commits them,instead of targeting one gender category while turning blind to another at the same time.
Some of the essays involve Rabindranath Tagore in which Bandyopadhyay reinforces the centrality of the great man in the national DNA of Bangladesh. He elaborates on how Tagore shapes the course of the Bangla language and culture, which sustained us here in Bangladesh in our search for a collective soul during the Pakistan period. It should not go unnoticed that the adamancy of the Pakistani theocratic establishment to vacuum-clean East Bengal of its cultural components by erasing Tagore has made the bard our site for salvation. In the essay “Ibsen and Rabindranath–Meeting Points,” Kajal Bandyopadhyay rightly observes that both the writers were able to “give up senses of religious identity and opt for statehood on the basis of senses of national identity” (184). In Bangladesh, we find Tagore’s broadminded, humanistic vision ever increasingly relevant in our quest for a secular national self. Besides, Tagore comes across as an iconic practitioner of syncretic tradition of Bengal. His upbringing, Kajal Bandyopadhyay informs us in another essay, enmeshed in a ‘deep knowledge of Sanskrit and texts of Hindu scripture “was combined with an understanding of Islamic traditions as well as Persian literature”’(169). Bandyopadhyay then goes on to appreciate the sagacity of Bangladesh’s premier Sheikh Hasina and her then Indian opposite number Manmohan Singh in deciding to jointly observe the sesquicentennial of Tagore, who is a bridge between two proud nations.
Our Liberation War is a favourite topic for Bandyopadhyay, and he revisits the landmark event in our national life time and again. He wallows in the glory attached to it and laments the betrayal of its ideals by the subsequent generations. He doesn’t hide his euphoria in the prospect of honouring the foreign friends of our Liberation War. He reckons that this initiative was long overdue and would uphold Bangladesh’s standing across the globe. He says, "I feel that with conferring of honour on these two sets of people, and media circulating that worldwide, our position in the civilised world will be restored a little. We had no face to put up, so to say. That phase will come to an end. (211)"
The lack or loss of face, Bandyopadhyay mentions, is to do with “foreigners uttering words of contempt and crying fie upon us after the August “75 killings” (ibid). It will not be irrelevant here to mention that Bandyopadhyay served a jail term after being arrested on October 30, 1975 for circulating leaflets condemning the brutal murder of Bangabandhu along with almost all his family members (The Asian Age, 20 August 2017).
There are three essays on three different Bangladeshi poets: Ahsanul Haque, Muhammad Samad and Dilwar. Of them, the first one was a teacher of my teachers in the DU’s English Department, hence a matter of special interest for me. Poet Haque’s was a late entry into poetic career but a promising one, Kajal opines. In appreciating the public intellectual side of Haque as expressed in many poems, reviewer Bandyopadhyay writes: "In a number of poems, Ahsanul Haque has raised issues of poverty, hunger, etc. which still compose the bigger reality of Bangladesh. He has critiqued the role of religion. He has not left the question of genesis or evolution. Proofs of his opposition to imperialism are there. Lamentably, these topics have now fallen out of favour, because of both conservatism and post-modernism. (207)"
Courtesy of this essay, I have come to learn that professor-poet Ahsanul Haque was the first individual to launch a countrywide tree-plantation movement, which the government would take up later as an official programme. As an eco-critic and a former student of the English Department, it makes me proud and euphoric. This prose piece by Bandyopadhyay triggers my enthusiasm about Ahsanul Haque, which may lead to my further engagement with the work and legacy of the late genius. The two other essays on one each of Samad and Dilwar are thought-provoking as well.
Last but not least, the essay titled “Prof. A. G. Stock–a Kind of Her Own” is a class act by Bandyopadhyay. The British lady, devoid of colonial narrowness typical of a great many westerners, chaired the DU’s English Department (1947-51)at a critical juncture in the history of the subcontinent. She recorded her quotidian experience, observation and analysis of the events unfolding all around and close affinity with the people of the land in her journals, which would eventually turn into an immensely valuable memoir. Prof. Stock upset many of our own prejudices and myopia about the west and westerners, Kajal explains. She beautifully depicted the political and cultural milieu of post-partition Eastern Bengal, which can be studied from a historical lens to understand the genesis and evolution of the nation state of Bangladesh. Personally, I am midway through the Stock memoir and now that Bandyopadhyay’s review has dug up many significant issues that escaped my critical radar I will give the book a thorough reading.
To conclude, Kajal Bandyopadhyay’s Faith Power and Our Intelligentsia is a remarkable addition to our academic literature. Not mealy-mouthed, it touches on a myriad of sensitive issues pertaining to our history, literature, culture, and politics. The Marxist conviction in the author is manifest as he boldly points finger at the elephant in the room as far as our nationally significant matters are concerned. The language and style of the book is very dynamic and engaging. On that note, I recommend this brilliant book to discerning readers. However, I am curious to know why I don’t see—maybe, that is my ignorance or failure— quite a lot of academicians proclaiming to be Marxists nowhere near the toiling masses in our country truly helping them in a tangible way to uplift their conditions. Is academic Marxism all about writing intellectually sophisticated articles and engaging in captivating debates while remaining aloof from the very people studied? Is it just about posting sensational posts on social media platforms in an exercise of public displays of affection (PDA)? Is it just a trendy and fashionable practice– an intellectual luxury for that matter? Is it a surefire way to pose as an accomplished intellectual? Why do I see “Marxist” academics creating an intellectual storm in the elite university in a posh Dhaka neighbourhood, but never once at a mufassil/semi-urban/peri-urban/rural college? As they say, it doesn’t matter to the frog what scientific name it has been assigned in the Latin language by scientists concerned. Similarly, it doesn’t matter to the proletariat what academicians write, speak, theorise or intellectualise about them unless their theories meet activism on the ground level. Professor Kajal Bandyopadhyay and others like him should write more essays/books to answer my questions and enlighten me on that count. And of course, they should show some on-the-ground activism. As the saying goes, seeing is believing.
The reviewer teaches English at Central Women’s University and can be reached at [email protected]