Sunday, March 28, 2010

The New Anthem

South Asia first found its English voice—in literature and in song— in the nineteenth century. It changed and morphed over two hundred years so that it now boasts of as many registers as there are languages and dialects within its geographical frontiers.

The New Anthem anthologises 22 major writers of fiction, who with their original narrative style, have reinterpreted the region's turbulent history at both personal and national levels. The New Anthem confirms that many of the most brilliant storytellers of world literature were born in the Indian subcontinent. Ahmede Hussain weaves the anthology together to make it a testimony to the brilliance of South Asian fiction.

Writers Connect runs an interview of Ahmede Hussain

Live Mint has called it an excellent new anthology, saying:

In a few years, Tranquebar Press has built up an impressive list that includes both the entertaining and the literary. Ahmede Hussain’s excellent new anthology, The New Anthem: The Subcontinent in its Own Words (Westland/Tranquebar), offers good examples of writing that is both literary and entertaining. The roughly two dozen contributions are not just by established names, but also by talented new writers, such as Sumana Roy, Abeer Hoque and Qaisra Shahraz. For me, the revelation was the number of promising Bangladeshi writers. Bangladeshi writing in English gets neglected, and there is evidence in the Dhaka-based Hussain’s anthology that this neglect is unjustified.

Verveonline has said:
Selects for accomplishment over the cutting edge, and succeeds in a solid representation of the wealth of the region’s literary talent.

Bangalore Mirror has said: The New Anthem: The Subcontinent In Its Own Words is an attempt by its writing class to bridge the gap between three nations — India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

It is an effort by its post-partition generation to go beyond artificial boundaries drawn between these countries; to paint a picture of the subcontinent, the way they perceive it, through their writings.

This anthology shows how writers and thinkers may live and work in different countries, but as human beings, and because they share a common history, they can connect in many ways. Although their countries are independent political entities, they have many cultural and linguistic similarities. Excerpts of an email interview with Ahmede Hussain, a journalist from Bangladesh, who has edited the anthology.

Indian magazine Outlook has said:
Altaf Tyrewala’s hand-wringing Mumbai abortionist, Monideepa Sahu’s mother-and-son outing; Khademul Islam’s Chittagong ‘cyclone’; here are examples of subcontinental writers telling stories in a language that came from a colonial power, and remains foreign to large swathes of their countrymen—all without affectation or apology.
This is a major cultural achievement, but it is only meaningful in a specific cultural context.

The Daily Star magazine, Bangladesh has said:

The Indian subcontinent has had its fair share of glory and tragedy. The glory comes through a recapitulation of the circumstances which have historically gone into the making of its composite character. The tragedy has been political, in that the subcontinent was destined to be broken asunder, with lives and futures all going down the slippery road to disaster. And yet, more than six decades after the vivisection of the land, there is today a new cooperative effort among the descendants of the Partition generation to bridge the gap that has so long defined links, or the lack of them, between the three nations forked out of a once undivided India. And you spot that effort to narrow the chasm in the region of literature, into which area has now stepped the young Ahmede Hussain.

In The New Anthem: The Subcontinent In Its Own Words, Hussain brings together the subcontinent, as it were, in the perception(s) of its writing classes. To be sure, authors in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (and quite a good number of them are part of the subcontinental diaspora) have in these past many years focused on their perspectives in literature, bringing into those thoughts a newer dimension into the intellectual workings of new generation minds. Niaz Zaman's efforts, as also those made by Mohiuddin Ahmed of the University Press Limited, to bring South Asian writers together set off a new trend here in Bangladesh. Now, it appears, it is Ahmede Hussain's turn to reinforce that trend, indeed carry it forward. As he looks at it, South Asian fiction is today a reality that has taken on an independence of its own. It is a new genre, having morphed into it from whatever may have been its previous state. That is the image you come across as you swim through the tales presented in this paperback.

The richness is all, both in terms of the writers brought together and in the quality of the tales that come to you one after the other. The twenty-two stories happen to be, as it were, a broad image of the subcontinent as it dominates the minds of the young. The writing is thoughtful and yet the language is fast paced, demonstrating none of the inhibitions that might have circumscribed expression in an earlier generation. You might be able to spot, as you go through Abeer Hoque's The Straight Path, a degree of liberalism which has come into South Asian story-telling. The thoughts flow, and so does language which, you are well aware, springs from traditions sprouting in the West. You do not expect a twenty-seven year-old woman, in your social ambience, to develop a crush on a young man a decade younger. But there it is, in Hoque's narrative. Sensuality and that certain bit of eroticism shake things up at the edge of the water.

The wonders of the flesh apart, there are in this anthology stories that plumb the depths of human psychology. Read Qaisra Shahraz's The Malay Host, where duplicity combines with tourism to throw up a tale of misery. The owner of the home, almost a model one, fawns over his western visitors and yet there is a viciousness about him that is revealed only at the end of the tale. By then, everything has burned down. There are only the ashes that remain. When you reflect on ashes, you are pulled back into thoughts of politics, even if momentarily. Much was reduced to ashes in the brutal summer of 1947. Ironically, much has been rebuilt, in a way, in times that remain quite removed from that horrible parting of the ways. But you cannot really stay away from a remembrance of the old bitterness. Dwell, if you will, on Saadat Hasan Manto. In Tabish Khair's creative imagination, the tragedy of Manto comes alive. Read Night of 16th January 1955. It is Manto the tragedian who speaks. He has observed much, suffered much, in his journey from the expansive world of an integrated India to the narrow confines of Pakistan. And he has paid a price. The soliloquy says it all. It is a bitter soul in full expression of his misery. The final words encompass that misery: 'Don't laugh, saale. Make a peg for me before it is dawn.'

Closer to your surroundings, indeed within your surroundings, it is Carl Bloom who brings forth the dichotomy of experience that is Dhaka in The Alley. On the one hand, it is elitism as exemplified by private universities that the visiting American academic is brought up against; and, on the other, it is the molestation of a poor, scantily clad and famished woman in the falling light of day she becomes an unwilling witness to. The irony is inescapable.

It is a gallery of storytellers you have here. Mahmud Rahman, Kamila Shamsie, Amit Chaudhuri, Padma Viswanathan, Khademul Islam, Mohsin Hamid, Sumana Roy, Sharbari Ahmed, Rachael Khan and so many others make a beeline for your attention. The danger is in the possibility of your falling in love with them all, with the craft they seek to uphold here.

Read on. This is one work you just might not be able to put down.

Bangladesh Striding Forward

When Bangladesh got independence through a bloody war in 1971, it promised to build a country on the basis of equality and economic justice. Freedom from the clutches of the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani ruling class had been the war cry of Bangladesh's independence struggle. Thirty nine years on, there have been significant developments on the economic front: the country's central bank now boasts a healthy reserve; the economy has withstood the world-wide recession; export earnings have skyrocketed; absolute poverty has declined by 30 percent; food security has been ensured; and Bangladesh, once infamously dubbed a bottomless basket, now generates most of its development budget on its own. Still, stories of inequality haunt us. Under the razzmatazz of South Asia's largest shopping mall walk malnourished children, who take birth in the streets to grow up forever famished and stunted; life for them is mere survival, a day-to-day existence. As Bangladesh dreams of becoming a middle-income country soon, The Star tries to explore the true meaning of economic freedom and ways to achieve it.

Jahanara Begum was 13 years old when the marauding 'khansenas' occupied her village in Daudkandi, Comilla. Her father, a farmer who earned his living off a small acre of land, was brutally murdered as he gave shelter to the Muktijoddhas of the area. She went to school for a few years, her education has been limited to the bare basics. "My mother was in distress; I don't have anyone save for a younger sister, so she thought it was not possible for us to make use of the land," Jahanara says.

The family soon sold the land, its only source of income, and concentrated on raising cows. "There were three cows, but one died later," she says. Jahanara doesn't quite recall when that happened ("Somewhere during Ziaur Rahman's rule," she says), but she remembers a relative's advice that changed her life for the better.

Jahanara's maternal uncle is a sprightly man of 60 now, still full of energy. He runs a thriving restaurant in the bazaar that caters to around 300 people everyday. Twenty two years ago, long after the death of the second cow, when Jahanara was finding it difficult, impossible almost, to make ends meet, Yakub Miah came up with a novel idea: Why didn't Jahanara, a mother of two now, take a loan from that bank, which is offering loans to poor women like her?

The idea was quickly accepted, loans taken, new cows bought along with some chicks. And it worked well. Of Jahanara's three daughters, one is now studying at Chittagong University, another is a nurse and the third will take her higher secondary examinations this year.

Jahanara's is not the only success story the Bangladeshi economy has to offer. A silent but quick revolution has taken place on the economic front. "Bangladesh has increased its growth rate from below four percent to five and despite the global recession it has been able to maintain a growth rate which is above five percent," MM Akash, professor of Economics at Dhaka University, says. He thinks that over the last couple of decades, the country has made some significant progress when it comes to social development indicators.

Annisul Haq, president of Bangladesh's largest apex body FBCCI, comes up with a set of successes. "There are a lot of milestones: Garments, microfinance, girl's education," he says. What is common about them is that a significant portion of the growth has come from internal economy.

"Dependency on foreign aid has also been decreased. During the eighties we received foreign aid ranging between 80 and 110 percent of the development budget, which has come down to 50 percent," says MM Akash. The driving force behind this is the inflow of remittance earnings.

"There are two other sources that have contributed to Bangladesh's economic success--a quantum jump in the crop production in the early nineties and the rapid growth of the readymade garments industry," Akash says.

President of the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry Anis Ud Dowla thinks agriculture is an area where there is room for improvement. "There must also be a policy on agriculture and food prices. Government must subsidise fertiliser and diesel and all other inputs that are crucial for the agro-based industries. At the same time the government expects a stable food price that will be within the reach of the masses," he says.

He thinks that the government is yet to work out what should be the expected cost of this subsidy and at what price the government expects rice to be sold on the market. "There should also be a calculation, which must formulate the price at which a farmer can make reasonable profit. At the same time the government must also take the private sector onboard to ensure that the farmers are better equipped with technical know-hows of modern farming such as the timely utilisation of fertiliser," he says.

All is however not well. Dowla complaints that there are hundreds of companies that have failed to start operations because of an acute power crisis. "Shortage of electricity and unavailability of gas for industrial use and the lack of a coal policy because of which coal cannot be used as a source of energy," he says.

Haq of the FBCCI also identifies energy crisis as the major obstacle to businesses flourishing. "If it goes on like this we will come across a crisis soon," he says. Dowla, however, is quick to call the current situation dangerous and says, "We are on the brink of a disaster as many businesses have been shut down because of inadequate supply of electricity."

Many think that the root of all evil lies in the lack of political will rather than hiccups in the economy. Freedom fighter and former adviser of the caretaker government Akbar Ali Khan believes political problems are not problems if they are handled by pro-people political leadership.

"The problems that we are facing are more political than economic. When we came into being, politically we were a united nation, but the economic future of the country was in question. At that time people started to call Bangladesh a bottomless basket," he says, "Over the last few decades we have proven them wrong, we have established the fact that this country has a bright economic future. We have doubled our per capita income, we have more than doubled the production of food, we have reduced poverty to 40 percent, we have made a lot of progress." But, Akbar thinks over the last two decades, Bangladesh has also become a divided nation and it is not possible to tell where its politicians are leading it. "And that is the greatest worry for Bangladesh," he says.

Akbar believes that the greatest challenge that lies before a developing economy like Bangladesh is rising inequality. Bangladesh is shining, but beneath the veneer of prosperity the ugly face of poverty is hidden. The National Gini Coefficient that measures the level of inequality has been increasing in Bangladesh and it is the highest in South Asia. "People are drawn into the cities without any proper infrastructural facilities, inequality is going up, which will create serious political problems," Akbar says. Akash echoes Akbar's views and says, "As a result of indiscriminate or non-pragmatic privatisation, liberalisation and deregulation the top five percent of the rich and powerful in our country have been able to enjoy a relatively larger share of the growing real income and wealth of our country."

Akbar Ali Khan thinks that legitimacy is the key issue. "Now ordinary people do not accept the way things are. They think no one in this country deserves to be rich. There is inequality in many countries but in Bangladesh this inequality has no legitimacy; people have no belief in any institution, and they do not have any respect for the authority," he says, "You are not giving them electricity or any of the necessary services, and they are unhappy. It is a combustible condition and we need a political leadership that will deal with this with sagacity."

Presently, the political leadership, which Akbar thinks, is needed turn the wheel fast towards a double-digit growth is hard to find. Anis Ud Dowla says the government needs to come up with a solution to the current energy crisis. "We at the MCCI think the open pit mining will be the most feasible and cost-effective solution," he says, "India does that in West Bengal and Bihar, so there is no reason why we cannot do this. The government has already floated tender for power projects based on coal that is a welcome development. We request the government to implement them as fast as possible. It must also set up LNG terminals so that we can import liquidified natural gas. Meanwhile the government should also expedite the explorations of gas on and offshore."

Along with the energy crisis, the problem of improper utilisation of land also comes to the fore. "We need to use our lands in the right way," Haq says. A land reform commission can be set up and land can be redistributed to the farmer after making big cooperatives.

Social insecurity also dissuades people from making investments, one reason why Bangladesh's internal investment generation is so low. Akbar Ali Khan thinks people must be allowed to walk in the streets first before they are coaxed into making investments. The country's capital market has so far shown bullish trends, the two burses are crowded with first time investors who have seen the market as an outlet of investment.

But diverting the money into more productive channels such as short and medium enterprises (SME) remains a Herculean task. Akash thinks SMEs, especially the agro-based ones, will work miracles. But Akbar is cautiously optimistic; he says, "Setting up businesses in Bangladesh is an extremely complicated affair. You need to address these problems before you pin your hopes on the SMEs. There is a limit to where they can go."

Khalid Mahmood started Kay Kraft, a designer boutique, in 1993 with a meagre capital of Tk 5000. The company now runs 13 showrooms across the city. He complains of impediments that are slowing down the progress of the boutique industry. "To set up a boutique one needs to give bribe to different officials," he says. Alluding to a recent declaration by the Commerce Minister that boutique will be declared an industry, Khalid suggests that a comprehensive study on the sector is carried out first.

Khalid also thinks economic reform is needed to create an investment-friendly atmosphere for the new and existing SMEs. Akbar, who was Chairman of Regulatory Reforms Commission when he resigned five months ago, says that politicians are not interested in reform. " What have they done since I have resigned five months ago? They have not done anything," he says, " Most of the time the executive is not interested in any reform. We have not initiated any reform whatsoever in the last 39 years."

So, how faraway are we from becoming a middle-income country? Dowla thinks very faraway. But Akbar Ali Khan remains an incorrigible optimist. He says, " I won’t say it's not possible, on the contrary I think it is very much feasible because the people of this country are creative and enterprising. The farmers have repeatedly given us bumper food production, the migrant workers in the Middle East have sent foreign currency, and the private sector has shown its promise."

Akash believes instead of micro-credits, small loans can be given to the poor to set up shops and businesses. Jahanara, whose farm now has an annual turnover of around 200,000 takas, agrees. "If I can buy five more cows and three new vans, my profit will treble in six months," her eyes shine with hope as Jahanara talks about her investment plan.

Bleak is the Word

Bangladesh's performance in this year's all South Asian meet has been its best in any international tournament. It could have been a lot better if the government had created more sporting opportunities for youngsters

Ten years ago Shibpur, which is 60 miles off downtown Dhaka, was a sleepy little village, famous for occasionally making it to the newspaper for road accidents in Boroitola. "It is at the bend of the road that cars used to slip," says Kamrul Islam Mridha, who hails from Narsingdi. Cars still go off the track, sometimes they ram into other vehicles, and in worst cases humans are run over by trucks.

Some things, however, have changed. "Boroitola was literarily in everyone's tongue," Kamrul says, "The place was famous for the sweet and sour deshi rose apples." A decade on, that rose apple tree has embraced a slow painful death; it seems old age has made her decrepit and worn out.

Along with the tree, playing fields in Shibpur are also disappearing. "There were numerous playgrounds; we used to play kabadi and football," Kamrul says. Last year, a company has established a composite industry where cotton is yarned into soft textile. The company has bought up huge swathes of land, of which include some playgrounds. "In two or three years time, football will become history in Narsingdi," Kamrul says.

Legendary football player Kazi Salahuddin is equally fearfull of the game's future. "To make sport thrive, you need a sporting culture," says Salahuddin, "And this is completely absent from our life." He says that Bangladesh has not fared well in different sporting events because sport is not in the priority list of our policymakers.

Kamrunnahar Dana, an icon of women's badminton in Bangladesh, thinks there is no opportunity for the budding talents to bloom in the country. "In the eighties, all the schools and colleges participated in different inter-school, inter-college competitions," she says. Tournaments like these are a highly irregular affair now. Only public universities and a few government-run schools and colleges have proper facilities like playgrounds and sport equipment. Most private universities do not have a campus of their own, let alone playing fields.

Bashir Ahmed, who has won the national award in hockey, thinks unless the government create new playgrounds in the cities, new sportspersons will not emerge. He says, "There will be temporary successes like the recently concluded South Asian Games, but in the long run, the country will be stuck with one or two gold medals in indoor sports such as shooting and taekwondo," Bashir says.

In fact, in the SA Games that was held last week, most of the golds that Bangladesh bagged were in indoor events. Salahuddin thinks it just highlights the problem of scarcity of playgrounds and the absence of a good management. "This observation will earn me quite a few enemies, but I must tell you that 90 per cent of the golds that we have won in this tournament are in unpopular indoor events," he says, "In a pre-game press conference, a cycling federation official said that Bangladesh would snatch the gold medal. When he was asked what his team's best timing was, he said that he wasn't aware of any timing. With officials like these, how can you expect sport to flourish in the country?"

MM Akash, professor of Economics at University of Dhaka, blames it on "ever-pervasive consumerism". He says that an apartment culture has been created in the country's towns where children go to school in the morning and come back home in the afternoon only to go to the coaching centres. "At the end of the day, they are tired and unhappy. We are robbing them of their childhood," he says. Dana says that most of the players now come from poor families. "Who would want their sons and daughters to become a badminton player? It does not earn your bread," she says.

Companies like the BJMC, BTMC, Ansar and Bangladesh Biman had quotas for players and they gave them jobs. BJMC and BTMC have stopped recruiting sportspersons, Biman has a cricket and badminton team. "Sportsmen and women are left with no other option but take up a situation in Ansar, which pays only around Tk 4000-5000 a year," Dana says.

A player's job description in the Ansar is a little complicated though; the organisation demands its player-employees to play more than one games of sport. "It makes no sense at all that Ansar wants a player to be good at football, cricket, ushu, karate…almost all the games on earth," Dana says.

Bashir puts more emphasis on the financing sides. He says, "The government must come forward to adequately finance the games in which the country has the prospect of winning medals in the Olympics." Akash thinks that because Bangladesh is a cricket crazy nation, more and more money has been pumped into it and cricket is delivering the goods. "Bangladesh's appalling performance in the track and field events prove that it is under-financed," he says.

As Akash speaks, news comes in: a manufacturing plant is going to be built on another playground in Shibpur, which has produced many good sportsmen. Salahuddin says if things go on like this, apart from football and cricket, Bangladesh does not have any future in any other sports. "There is no professionalism in our sporting world; to make matters worse there is a scarcity of good playgrounds. The future is definitely bleak. I am sorry, but bleak is the word," he says.

Death in Dhaka

The government is making efforts to make the capital's roads safe for the citizens, but it is turning out to be an uphill task as the drivers and pedestrians are flouting traffic rules

Last week, two deaths, one in downtown Dhaka, another in Gazipur, have outraged citizens. In both the incidents two five-year-olds were run over by a speeding microbus. The incidents are eerily familiar: The children were at a busy intersection and were crossing the street when the buses, disregarding the red light, sped fast; the children died on the spot, the bus-driver tried to flee only to be apprehended later by an angry mob.

Dr Charisma Choudhury, Assistant Professor, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), thinks that drivers regularly cross the speed limit and there is no one to bring them to book. "Whenever they see that the street is free they try to pass the traffic lights as early as they can. They don't really care if the light is red, green or yellow."

To make it even worse, driving licenses are up for sale at the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) office in Mirpur. The unscrupulous officials at the BRTA, in connivance with some driving schools, offer two packages for would-be drivers. To drive a private car or a motorcycle, all one needs to do is to give Tk 7000 to a BRTA officer and the license will be delivered within seven working days. No test will be taken; the applicant will need to sign two papers though.

"There is another package for bus and trucks. The cost will be Tk 5000 higher," says a BRTA clerk. He says that in both the packages, no driving test will be taken. "It's for busy people like you," he says.

It is indeed a small wonder that the streets of Dhaka are flooded with under-aged drivers. Those who cannot pay the rather hefty fees (for a license government charges less than 2000 Taka), can get a forged license. "You can also get a forged license if you want; it will cost Tk 3000. But do remember that these licenses are fake, you cannot renew them; your name will not be in our book," the BRTA clerk says.

His boss, Assistant Director of the BRTA Mohsin Ashraf, however, claims that no such thing happen in his organisation. "There is a board magistrate on the driving board, there is also someone from polytechnic and two police inspectors along with two BRTA men. The question of any foul play does not arise," he says.

He claims that licenses for driving heavy vehicles are not even given by the BRTA. "These licenses are obtained either through the brokers or different labour unions," he says. He claims that 'heavy licenses' are given only after an applicant proves that he has driven a light and a medium-sized vehicle for three years each. He, however, admits that the government, because of labour strikes and negotiations with the labour leaders, is sometimes forced to issue 'heavy licenses' to the union leaders. "It's a long process," he says.

Charisma thinks it is difficult to enforce traffic rules when those who were supposed to be enforcing the law are themselves breaking it. "Many violations that have the potential to cause accidents remain fully overlooked until there is a fatality," she says.

To make matters worse, there are about one million vehicles clogging the streets with only 2,265 police personnel to man them. According to a Daily Star report 180 new vehicles are introduced to the city every day and only 730 traffic policemen were hired in the last six years.

Charisma says that footpaths are not pedestrian-friendly, neither are the footbridges. "Going up the stairs is a universal problem, which planners in the neighbouring countries are also facing," she says. She thinks that when dusk falls sometimes the footbridges become unsafe.

A walk into the footbridge at Farmgate reveals that, after nightfall it becomes a haven for prostitutes and drug peddlers. Presence of criminals and other such elements in footbridges and underpasses dissuades the pedestrians from using them, which in turn make jaywalking rampant.

Charisma says stringent laws need to be enforced to make the roads safe. "It is true that severe punishment of a driver after an accident can make other drivers more careful, but penalties for smaller violations can play an even bigger role," she says.

The deaths of two children on the streets of our capital should come as a big wake up call for our policy makers. History, however, suggests otherwise. Our bureaucracy grinds slowly, and, like the streets of Dhaka, it, too, is prone to accidents.