Murat Mohsen and Jeremiah Stilts
Bangladesh is a country of natural beauty. It was a country of greenery and brown earth. But then blood was spilt on its soil - blood of independence, of self-identity - and it turned red. The green now grows out of the red. The flag itself bears witness. A circle of blood-red at the heart, surrounded by lush green. It is the flag that beats in the winds of turmoil, of political strife, of financial disability, of poverty - so much poverty.
He had never been so anxious for the arrival of a woman he did not want to see.
The direction and scope of Hasan Azad’s ambitious, enigmatic, panoramic novel centered on Bangladesh’s independence is signaled from the opening epigraphs. Antonio Gramsci writes that history “has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. Therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.” And Freud tells us that “Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences.” In the story that Azad tells, there is no room for absolutes or easy answers. Bangladesh’s independence is a chaotic affair, where ontological security has become little more than a chimera, where despair, lust, and violence is pervasive, and where one hopelessly seeks “clarity in the face of insanity.”
The question of agency is central to Azad’s novel. His is a postmodern world, a world in which people have become deeply uneasy about what is unfolding around them, but no longer trust that they can shape the world through conscious intervention. This question of agency, or lack thereof, is fundamental to the political-economy of Bangladesh, a country ravaged by colonial oppression, a country made to be dependent on the very maleficent forces that dominate it. Azad excoriates the British imperial forces that have left Bangladesh destitute; however, while he rightly has little sympathy for those profiting from Bangladesh’s misery, he also reminds us that the master-slave dialectic is deeply unsatisfactory to both parties, both colonizer and colonized. The narrator tells us that Crimson, the white Colonial Governor, “longed to meet an Indian who for once would just treat him as a human being, as an equal, not some demi-god bred from the stock of Hindu Devatas.”
All attempts to synthesize this dialectical opposition are, ultimately, fraught, contradictory, hopeless. We are left with a tragic situation, in Alexandre Kojeve’s sense: “an inevitable conflict without a solution.” Anjum, a newspaper editor and head of a political organization that does nothing but discuss Bangladesh’s problems, is driven to despair by his own and his countrymen’s impotence to do anything about Bangladesh’s fate. He concludes that “blood… had to be split yet again. Just to remind them where they had been going wrong: a country liberated in nine months does not a nation make. The rich were bleeding the country dry. They had to be made to recognize their evil.” Anjum’s act of terror, an act that for Anjum was the result of a deep philosophical meditation, took place at a celebration for the country’s independence.
The blast hit Josephine, a white woman who survived the bombing and managed to give birth to the book’s narrator. Josephine and Kadin, a native of Bangladesh, had attempted another synthesis to this colonial dialectic: love. Kadin, perturbed by his love for, and fascination with, this woman with skin “the colour of milk” who seems to have an exoticized vision of what life in Bangladesh entails, asks Josephine to convert to Islam as a marker of her faith. But when the latter reads the Koran enthusiastically, deeply moved by its ideas, this only causes Kadin to further despair. “Who was she,” he wonders, “to want to steal his identity? How dare she. The only thing that he held sacred, that he could still call his own, and they wanted that as well. There was nothing they wouldn’t take from you.”
It is not just Kadin and Josephine’s love-life that is fraught. Azad’s novel can, in part, be read as a sort of libidinal economy of Bangladesh: throughout, amorous relations are presented as relations of desire, domination and violence, relations which mirror Bangladesh’s relationship with her colonizers. Man’s dominion over women, and the latter’s dependence on the former, serves as a metaphor of the colonial experience, as is evidenced in this grueling passage with depicts Rojoni’s life as a sex-slave. Rojoni reflects that “I don’t know how long I was in that room, how many times he stuck the needle in my arm…before I stopped fighting...before I started to give in…before I began to see myself as belonging to him...I needed him more than anything else. I would do anything for him no matter what.”
Rape is pervasive through the novel, as indeed it was during Bangladesh’s war for independence, where it is estimated that up to 400,000 Bangladeshi women were raped. Azad’s most vivid reflections on this harrowing sexual violence, and patriarchal relations more generally, come through the character of Julie, a rape survivor who despairs that “There was no way out. She was a woman. By that very fact, by the fact of her biology, she would always be an object, a vehicle, a receptacle subject to the whims of the male of the species.” For Julie, marriage was nothing more than “an institution of subjugation of women,” and “protestations of love were just a means for men to come inside you and not feel guilty about it.” But in a troubling passage, Azad- always wont to resist easy villain-victim narratives- presents Julie as in a somewhat ambiguous to her male dominators: while she is being raped by Kadin, “She made a syllable of sound and it was both a yes and a no. He took it as a yes.” Julie’s only way out of this tortured sexual relationship with men was to initiate with Anjum, her suitor, a relationship totally devoid of sex.
But harrowing as the novel’s sexual violence may be, avoiding sex is no solution to the problem. As Julie herself reflects “The world, all of modern living, everyone was out to rape you.” For Azad, the intensity of the violence and chaos that ravaged Bangladesh was such that there was no way to avoid it — even for God. Throughout the novel, Azad meditates on Nietzsche’s claim that God is dead, and reflects on the psychosocial effects in a Bangladesh reaped by “nihilism, the philosophy of nothingness in the face of the death of absolutes, which had for so long been the domain of religion. But in the absence of absolutes — moral, social, psychological — what would people live for?”
Azad’s characters have trouble coming to terms with not only the political and social turmoil affecting their country, but also more ontological questions — such as Aisha, who wonders: “How to come to terms with it? Does anyone ever come to terms with death?” Azad’s novel can be seen in part as a portrayal of people’s attempts to find meaning in their lives in the face of colonial oppression and violence, when religion no longer operates in a modernizing post-Colonial nation-state as a guarantor of cosmic or social meaning.
In the end, Azad leaves us as a picture of Bangladeshis as a people plagued by a colonial pathology, a trauma that unconsciously guides individual and collective life in the newly “liberated” country. The reader perhaps will be left wondering whether desire, power, and existential despair are adequate conceptual guides for this historical moment; but she will be undoubtedly be moved by the power of Azad’s prose and his ability to project philosophical themes onto this turbulent time in Bangladesh’s history, a history that has shaped Azad as it has the characters of his novel.
 Kojeve, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Trans. James H. Nichols, Jr. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980, p. 62.