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Collages of memory, history and literary insights

  • Published at 04:51 am January 28th, 2021
Once More into the Past

A review of Fakrul Alam’s 'Once More into the Past'

Once More into the Past: Essays, Personal, Public, and Literary is a collection of 38 essays and memoirs written over three decades by distinguished academic, writer, editor, and translator Fakrul Alam. Divided into three sections: Personal, Private, and Literary, these pieces, previously published in The Daily Star, will attract a wide array of readers and writers. Those who read just for the pleasure of reading will find the essays suited to their palate and the ones who read out of intellectual interest in a particular subject will be benefitted by Professor Alam’s scholarly insights. 

The first section (Personal) contains 10 autobiographical essays that reflect on the author’s memories and experiences. They give us glimpses of his life in different ages and stages; when put together, they create a collage of Professor Alam’s life and an outline of what shaped his personality and outlook on life. These personal essays also have historical value as they record the past, especially how Dhaka was like 50-60 years ago. “Ah Nana Bari!” is not just a nostalgic memoir of his travels to his maternal grandparents’ place in Feni, but also an account of a sharp contrast between the past and the present, a witness of massive changes in the socio-economic and political realities of villages and small towns of Bangladesh over half a century.

The essays under the category of “Public” broadly concern subjects mostly of national interests, in addition to one on Karl Marx’s write-ups on India. Four of the essays highlight important episodes of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s life—from his becoming people’s leader and national icon to his writing and eventually, his tragic death. In “Karl Marx on India: An Assessment”, Alam deals with the question whether Marx was an Orientalist or not, as posed by Edward Said, the formidable post-colonial thinker who claims that Marx has essentialised, stereotyped and thus orientalised India and Indians. Citing different historians and thinkers, Alam assesses the arguments given by Said, and shows blind spots in both Marx’s and Said’s positions. 

“Paradise Lost—Dhaka in the 1950s and ‘60s” is a blend of review, commentary, and reminiscence. While going through Pantha Rahman Reza’s photo-essay about Dhaka in the 1960s based on the British aid worker Roger Gwynn’s photographs, Alam finds himself immersed in nostalgia when he looks at the images. Each photo brings back his memories and he recalls how unspoiled and different Dhaka was back in the day. “The University of Dhaka and the Partition of Bengal” is a comprehensive research article that discusses the background of the partition of Bengal and draws a link between the annulment of partition in 1911 and the founding of University of Dhaka in 1921. It also describes the state of the university in its early decades, and explains why and how secularist and Islamist strains ran parallel during that period. It reflects on the outcomes of these two opposing ideologies—Pakistan movement in the 1940s backed by revivalist nationalism along religious lines on the one hand and on the other, the language movement of 1952 born of Bengali linguistic nationalism—which subsequently led to the movement for the creation of Bangladesh. One essay on the British Council Library highlights its glorious past in the 1960s-70s when it was rich in its collection of books and magazines, and was accessible and affordable to a broad section of people. Gradually it has turned into a place that looks rich but is actually a diminutive shadow of its former self in terms of collections and facilities. Located on Fuller Road of Dhaka University campus, ironically only a handful of DU students can access it due to its ridiculously high membership and course fees. 

As is expected from one of the country’s most renowned literary critics and professors of English Literature, the literary section of this book is the longest and richest with 19 essays. Most of the essays assembled here are critical appraisals of writers including Shakespeare, Edward Said, Tagore, Melville, Jibanananda Das, Buddhadev Bose, R K Narayan, Nirad Chaudhuri, and Arundhati Roy. His appraisals of academic, intellectual, and fiction-writer Syed Manzoorul Islam and two late professors— novelist and poet Razia Khan Amin and self-effacing academic and intellectual Aali Areefur Rehman—highlight their important contributions to Bangladesh’s academia and literary landscape. Their personalities come alive as Alam reminisces about his interactions with them. There are reviews of a few important books including Kaiser Haq’s The Triumph of the Snake Goddess and Published in the Streets of Dhaka: Collected Poems 1966-2006, and Akbar Ali Khan’s Durbhabona O bhabna: Rabindranath Ke Niye. In “The Joys and Anxieties of Teaching English Literature”, Alam reflects on his long academic career and relates his experience to Elaine Showalter’s popular guidebook Teaching Literature. This essay can be useful to both teachers and students of English Literature. 

The essay on poet Jibananada Das shows the evolution in his poetry—from conventional to contemporary, from being romantic to modernist—and reveals how Jibanananda was influenced by western poets like Keats, Yeats, and Eliot; it also compares him with his western contemporaries like WH Auden and Samuel Beckett. This essay quotes different poems by Das all of which are translated by Alam himself. It is relevant to mention that Fakrul Alam is the author of the book Jibananada Das: Selected Poems, Translated with Introduction, Bibliography and Glossary (1999). 

One very interesting essay in this section opens with the writer’s unforgettable memory of meeting Nobel Laureate Gunter Grass, the German novelist, when he visited Bangladesh. It also gives an overview of several articles written about this visit, with an emphasis on Martin Kampchen’s My Broken Love: Gunter Grass in India and Bangladesh. It gives readers a glimpse of Grass’s personality, his views on Indian subcontinent and interactions with local people during his stay in India and Bangladesh. “Late Said” is a tribute to Palestinian-American scholar-critic Edward W Said in the form of a review of two of the four books by Said that came out posthumously. His review of Freud and the Non-European (2003) shows how Said takes Freud’s statement that Moses was an Egyptian from his Moses and Monotheism (1939) to question the purity of Jewish identity and to critique Jewish migration to Palestine. In his review of On Late Style (2006), Alam deciphers the concept of late style and shares with readers Said’s analysis of late style as it was evident in the later works of composer, writers and poets like Beethoven, Mozart, Euripides, Thomas Mann, and C P Cavafy, among others.

To sum up, all the essays in each section have some elements of personal association, literary insight and historical consciousness. The boundaries between the personal and the public and the literary get blurred in many places, which make them all the more interesting and illuminating at the same time. Originally written for the literary page of a national daily, these essays had a broader range of target readers, which probably explains their easy, lucid and engaging non-academic prose. The Daily Star books deserves thanks for compiling these pieces into a book. 

Once More into the Past looks back on the past, contemplates on the present and brings forth wisdom for the future. It’s a thought-provoking, inexhaustible book to which readers can return over and over again. 

Rifat Anjum Pia is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters.

Once More into the Past 

Written by Fakrul Alam

Published by Daily Star Books

Length: 264 pages 

Price: BDT 520

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