Iftekhar Sayeed


On the 50th anniversary of my alma mater

I rarely attend parties. But the last one was most enlightening.

I got into conversation with an ex-Gregorian. He was telling me about the great reunion they had had, and the number as well as the quality of the alumni. He reeled off name after name, and a few names later it began to dawn on me that half the elite of Bangladesh had turned up. A vague disquiet began to stir.

I myself received a western education: I studied at St. Joseph High School and then attended Notre Dame College. I went on to do my A levels. The school and college are run by American priests and the A levels are British exams. In the mid years of my life, I cast a retrospective glance to discover what effect – for the better or for the worse – these experiences have had on me.

One illusion I have dispelled is the view that a Bengali medium education does not alienate one from one’s culture. Many of my friends who are now citizens of the United States or of Canada or Australia have Bengali medium backgrounds. Even some of those resident here in Bangladesh have an outlook on life totally at odds with what I would consider our ‘way of life’. For the fact remains that we were ruled by the British — we have come to idealise their values. Most of the terms we acquired from them have been translated into Bengali, and where no translation was possible, expressions have been invented to accommodate the alien word. And, of course, Bengali literature matured under British rule. Thus, the names of the various forms of government advocated by various western writers have found a home in the vernacular through neologisms. And these terms are as strange in our vocabulary as a white man in a lungi.

Before the British came, we knew our Persian very well: therefore, it was only after I started studying Persian, or Farsi, that I began to realise how much of my heritage the sahibs had taken from me. I felt as if I had been present at the Battle of Plassey.

Learning to write in the Arabic script was not difficult: learning the spellings of Farsi words was hard work, but it was a labour of love. Acquiring a new vocabulary was sheer joy. The first three months, however, were grueling: there was little pay-off by way of the classics. In the second term at the Iranian Cultural Centre, I had enough courage to recite a dastan (story) by Sa’di. It was the story of the two sons of an emir: one becomes powerful as the governor of Egypt, the other becomes a learned, but poor scholar. When the richer brother upbraids the poorer for his poverty, the latter replies that while he had inherited the gift of the prophets, that is, knowledge, the other had inherited the curse of the Pharaohs.

I had read the story in translation in – naturally – English. But to read the narrative in Farsi was more than ecstasy: I felt an intimacy with a part of my personality that I had never thought existed. Deep into the night, as I would study the lessons that our teacher would give us, I would progress towards myself with the deepening hours. In the quiet of the dark, with every soul asleep, I would come face to face with my lost self. I can still recall the sense of nearly physical peace that the Sufi poets had talked of.

When Omar Khayyam spoke of een kohne rabat – this old caravanserai – I would feel, and still feel, a frisson of joy. The translation in the previous line is mine; FitzGerald’s translation goes like this: Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai / Whose doorways are alternate Night and Day / How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp / Abode his Hour or two, and went his way.

Lovely! But it is eighty per cent the work of FitzGerald. And this is true of the entire series of robai. Faithfully translated, the opening line reads: This old caravanserai whose name is the world. . . .

I had grown up with the hoax that FitzGerald had translated the robaiyat of Khayyam. How much more beautiful is the original! Even today I marvel at the genius of a man who could conceive of life as a caravanserai! FitzGerald does not even mention the kings Jamsheed and Behram whose names occur in the quatrain. The last line should read something like this: It is a tomb that is the resting-place of a hundred Behrams.

“Something is lost in translation. . . .”

We have heard the line often, but a pathetically small number realise the awful truth of the statement. For a language is a way of life, and the English language has perverted us from our true way of life. If we grew up reading portions of the Shahnama – The Book of Kings – the picture of a king with a powerful army would be natural to us: we would grow up used to the idea of a military autocracy, which Al-Ghazali held to be the model for a Muslim polity. Even the Gulistan, after the prayer to Allah, opens with the panegyric to the padshah: “The good reputation of Sa’di which is current among the people, the renown of his eloquence which has spread on the surface of the earth . . . cannot be ascribed to his virtue and perfection, but the lord of the world, the axis of the revolving circle of time, the vice-gerent of Solomon, protector of the followers of the religion, His Majesty the Shahanshah Atabek Aa’zm Muzaffaruddin Abu Bekr Ben Sa’d Ben Zanki – The shadow of Allah [zel Allah] on earth!” We have lost the concept of zel Allah with nothing to take its place.

And poor Sa’di! Scraps of his literary compositions are no longer “hawked about like bills of exchange” — ask a schoolboy in Dhaka who Sa’di was, and you will get a blank stare. Why? Because we are no longer ruled by kings, but by western powers. Consequently, we have, in place of one king, two dynasties, with their retinue of loyal followers perpetually engaged in civil war. Murder and rape are legitimate. Like FitzGerald’s translation, we are eighty per cent western and twenty per cent eastern, or twenty per cent western and eighty per cent eastern, according to taste. We are a mongrel nation: we ourselves don’t know who we are.

Were we brought up on Perso-Arabic literature, we would accept our hierarchic society and not maintain the illusion of democracy. The family is the centre of our lives, with elders and youngsters ranked in order. But our political rhetoric and practice do not match our social reality.

And whosoever once glimpses the awesome majesty of Perso-Arabic literature and civilisation will cling to it like limpet to rock. They will start to look at our civilisation with respect, and not from our western masters’ point of view — with contempt. For the fact must be faced — we have been conquered. I translate the verses of a heartbroken Persian poet below. They were given me by my father-in-law; learned in Arabic and Persian, he was the only person I have known who was untainted by western ideas.

          We drank the waters of Zemzem
          How can we drink the brine?
          Once we were sultans, how can we
          To servitude decline?