Naeem Mohaiemen's book arrival news was doing the rounds on social media for a while and had generated a great deal of interest. It was recently launched by ULAB Press and Nokta amidst enthusiasm. It's a very brave book if one may say as it discusses arts of all topics including its impact on society and beings.
The author shares its pages with other writers and artists as well making it a fascinating act of literary art. It is more curated than edited if one may say. And that is what makes this book, words that are barely readable mixed with fuzzily printed pics so interesting to elderly eyes as that of this reviewer. Never mind, younger eyes will get it and the spirit of the season is the king.
It's a very confident book, confident of what it wants to say and to whom as well. The book has certainly made its point and the target audience will really appreciate the musings. The literati with a touch of glitterati and those with less as well will truly appreciate the book. The rest of the lot will be laying hands on a book which takes arts seriously and that is a mighty rare book in Bangladesh indeed.
The third child syndrome
The title, in so many ways, sums up not just the time and place of the author's Bangladesh but its geography as well. The restless third of the cow springing around because it can't get a nip at the mother cow's udders aptly describes Bangladesh. All noise and dance but milk has a queue and the third has to await its turn too. History so cleverly captured the eternal land of shudros, playing North India's heir to India and its Muslim version called Pakistan. Or could it have a different cow-mother?
"Midnight's Third Child" by Naeem Mohaiemen is a collection of essays on Bangladeshi visual art and artists in several forms and shapes and sizes. Other topics are touched on too including a touch of examining the role of an artist as one of the producers of history.
Naeem dwells on other issues in passing too ranging from the CHT marginalization to street movements to Dhaka's eroding greenery. In some sense, it's this very variety that becomes the theme of the book as it tries to come to terms with a reality that is built rather than organic. Going by the way he looks at largish avenues shorn of green and wonders where have all the grass gone, the guilty pleasure of owning one of those fancy apartments of some of this book's readers may be a trifle more.
Between the lines, among the pages
There is so much missing in Bangladesh and not just the green. It's the least of the three -India, Pakistan and Bangladesh baby-cows in every space particularly caste. It's full of peasants whose souls were probably captured best by the man who did so much to end Pakistan - Ayub Khan - who said Bangladeshis were a bunch of mother obsessed Hindu inferiors. That mother focused child image never leaves us and we never let go.
Except for the fanatic patriot everyone apologizes for being a Bangladeshi. And it's on this very difficult terrain indeed that Naeem has chosen to spend his eyes and heart. Not just his own but that of others as well who dwell on this very conflicting mental space. How do you discuss your sort of "rogue ancestors" if one goes by FB conversations, in discussing Bangladesh? To his credit, he does it quite enchantingly.
Naeem Mohaiemen belongs to a special breed of Bangladeshis, the eloquent elite who have a fantastic Western education and then continue to distribute it to the Westerners, no mean feat. It permanently banishes any stigma, past, present, future in Bangladesh. Life can't be easy for a soul like him who is so sensitive and yet has written eloquently questioning the soul of his own land.
It's this "ask" which defines so much of what he says. As Zafar Sobhan said at the launch, "Naeem has always put Bangladesh, Bangladeshis, and the Bangladeshi intellectual world at the heart of his writing and the heart of his art." (The Daily Star). That is not an easy task no matter where one lives.
He has produced documentaries, almost historical and of expired history too if one will. He wonders at the role of "nations and shushils" as the land moved through passages of time, based on so many histories which the proxy middle class rules the roost. 1952, comes and goes and becomes a myth that is robust enough to serve endless generations or even more.
He sees culture workers as resistance artists of sorts as they are bundled in protests and waiting for the first bullet to be fired and become larger than life, certainly death, even as the bodies lie still (page 88+). That narrative goes on and on proving once more that given its hugely limited space in Bangladesh society where social media has completely overwhelmed the shushil art forms which the book deals with, they survive.
And Naeem Mohaiemen pays serious attention to that. Not many do and yet he has done so with great compassion and the passion of a believer and the mind of a professional intellectual. In the end, it's almost a book of aspirant sacrosanct intentions, muted yes but still there...
Not just himself...
The sheer size of the artist's paddy fields that he has tilled is the most admirable part of the book. Be it photography, documentary films or landscape gardening, Naeem has not lost sight of that. He seems to be ferociously territorial, wanting to say it all, even as he tries to remain low keyed and shares the book's page with others.
Yes, it matters he says and in stating that he wants to prove that it's not the earth shattering changes they triggered that could be claimed but that they did respond and react to history. In 1952, nobody may fully know barring a few how many died in the processions and who by stray bullets but it no longer matters. Memory and art have overcome reality to become history.
As history moves on, all the dead become part of a long procession of souls who are sea changed into martyrs and that produce more history in return even as the monuments and memorials are washed with the colors of memory and forgetting. Art triumphs indeed. And so does the book in the author's splendid gaze guiding his hands and words.
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