An early poster by Pears Soap pictures a black boy sitting on a bathtub, gawking at the water, transfixed, as though taking a bath is foreign to him. A white boy, clad in a white apron, offers him a soap—a fetish that can wash off the blackness from his skin.
This is an excerpt from Darshanakhyan—an excellent book avowing a strong stance against almost all the facets of capitalism. The book takes issue with hegemonic practices that use commodities to preach: white is clean, white is beautiful, white is acceptable and, therefore, “soap is civilization” (the quoted expression was a slogan of a reputed multinational company)! Involving as it does the major works of Marxism, Azfar Hussain, brings to the fore various instances of imperial oppression, commodity racism, class conflicts and commodity fetishism in his book. To top it all off, he includes excerpts of Lalon Geeti and poems by Jibanananda Das, Pablo Neruda and many other poets from all over the world to make the reading experience pleasant and the theories graspable.
Hussain breaks some of the complex academic theories into digestible morsels. His eight seemingly disparate chapters connect the works of Marx, Foucault, Fanon and Gramsci with everyday elements of life; the chapters casually discuss the headings and eventually tie them back to the thread of Marxism.
Many academics have contributed to the Bangladeshi academia. Their works have markedly shaped and refined the academic sector. What makes Azfar Hussain notable amid his contemporaries is the form in which he’s chosen to write Darshanakhyan. His chapters are fragmented into short philosophical notes, consecutively numbered. Hossain clarifies in the preface how these sketches altogether are almost essays, but not entirely so. As for inspiration, he is humbly indebted to the unconventional forms of Theses on the Philosophy of History by Walter Benjamin and Theses on Feuerbach by Karl Marx.
Some of its chapters are more poetic than prosaic; some are philosophically deep and intellectually stimulating. To give you an idea: the author puts language in the domain of political economy and argues that the use of language in a society can explain the unequal language-based production and power relations. He establishes a triangulated relation between language, consciousness and materialism, claiming “language mediates between itself and consciousness, between consciousness and the material world and between the material world and itself”. He later proves mathematical language to be Eurocentric, strengthening his argument quoting various works of note. As can be seen, the fact remains that readers are expected to have at least a vague familiarity with some of the major literary theories to fully understand the rich contents of the book.
Each chapter represents the author’s linguistic competence and profound knowledge in various fields. In fact, Azfar Hussain’s books, journals and translations of Bangla, English and non-western books rightly testify his linguistic dexterity. He is an eminent scholar, poet and translator, teaching as an associate professor at Grand Valley State University, USA. His Darshanakhyan is a compilation of selected works that have appeared in different newspapers and magazines in Bangladesh. The book talks about the silenced voices and highlights the exploitation of the working class by those in power. Drawing attention to the forcible deletion of Palestine from the world map, the author proves that maps are paradoxical documents of existent and non-existent lands.
Adding to the social criticism, the author challenges our notion of associating white with good and black with evil. He makes a list of problematic expressions that occupy a considerable portion of our everyday vocabulary. Hussain asserts that Bengali metaphors like “kalo taka (black money), kalo bazar (black market), kalo haat (evil clutches)” and conversely “shada taka (white money), shada moner manush (good-hearted) and shadashidha (simple)” evidently find their root in colonialism. Needless to say, nearly every culture considers the black cat—the poor little creature— a symbol of bad omen, loosely based on the color of their fur!
On the whole, Darshanakhyan, which came out in this year’s Boimela, has a promising start. An erudite reader may find in its depths a number of arguments worthy of citation, while students may find respite in its clear, wholesome discussions.
Sometimes clarity has been compromised to make room for brevity, but done so on rare occasions.
Shahroza Nahrin writes for Arts & Letters.