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Arts & Letters, April 2018

Book review The death

Book review The death squads are here, they never left •Ikhtisad Ahmed For those with the right intentions, being well-informed requires sifting through the constant deluge of lies and propaganda flooding the various forms of media that make up the two pillars of information -- dissemination and consumption -- for the truth. It requires a dedication to look past memes, quotations and social media, beyond articles and essays of questionable veracity and provenance, through the nefarious motivations and agendas of talking heads and pseudo-eggheads. Non-fiction books, published by reputable publishers, remain one of the few trustworthy avenues of educating oneself. Pluto Press proudly describes itself as “an independent publisher of radical, left-wing non-fiction books,” with a focus on “making timely interventions in contemporary struggles.” Between the overt statement of anti-establishment, anti-fascist sentiment, and the insinuation of belief in the power of words, the vast majority of the world, wary of being labeled “libtards,” would steer well clear of its books. Judging by the state of the world, it would not be the first time that the vast majority of its population is wrong. Education is hard work. It requires exposing oneself to ideas about collectivism, humanism and the greater good, which are difficult for addle-minded individualists to comprehend, much less digest. Jallad, published by Pluto, leans on these ideals; it is an important, uncomfortable book that seeks to educate. It is longer than a Facebook post – although if it took the form of a Facebook post, it would not appear on newsfeeds since it challenges power rather than consolidating it – and does not appear as a tweet-thread that gives people the illusion of turning into an expert within minutes, which is precisely why it is worth it. There are two stories concerning Jallad. One is the deplorable practices of legal death squads raised from the ranks of law enforcement agencies and militaries in South Asia, the other is the manner of the exile of its author, Tasneem Khalil, whose name may very well be redacted when this appears in print. The latter is poignant, if not fully explored in the book, at a time when progressives are being forced into exile from South Asia, particularly Bangladesh, surrendering their lives of freethinking in order to survive as third class citizens in foreign countries. Pseudo-liberals in Bangladesh, ensconced in the trappings of the elite class, paint living abroad as a luxury, perhaps drawing on their own experiences of frequent trips abroad, announced in full color on social media. They use it as a stick to beat the deserters with, a deftly executed piece of misdirection that at once dismisses the contributions of these dissenters since they are no longer in the country – deliberately lying about how that is not a choice, but a necessity – and acts as apologia for authoritarianism – under which there absolutely can be no dissent – in order to protect their own interests. Khalil was a twenty-five year-old fledgling investigative journalist who dared to speak against the autocratic military regime and its human rights violations a decade ago, while a Nobel laureate, decorated members of the civil society, and a coterie of opportunists, including the newspaper he wrote for, sang the praises of military governance, with the full support of the US, Britain and the UN. For doing this, he was taken from his house to one of the torture chambers that none of those self-appointed socio-political leaders, the pseudo-liberals at the forefront of Bangladesh, mentioned despite knowing about their inner workings, where disappearance or death awaited him. He was one of the fortunate few to escape with his life, and continues to survive by not being in Bangladesh. To this day, this remains the price for speaking the truth without compromising or obfuscating. If the fundamentalists do not get the non-believer, the state will certainly get the dissenter. The book begins by recounting the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, with an emphasis on the notion of “black laws” – legal instruments allowing the most unlawful, heinous, inhuman acts of suppression to be carried out by the state against its own citizens, with full immunity. Khalil expertly uses this to pivot between the colonial precedent of death squads, continued under the patronage and logistical support of today’s imperialists, and the post-colonial manifestation of this legacy in South Asia, implemented by the political, law enforcement and military elites of South Asia. To his credit, unlike the South Asian scholars chasing fame and fortune who either blame everything on the colonizers or justify their civilizing mission, Khalil provides an objective overview in which there 10 is no blameless party. The five chapters that follow the introduction discuss state terror in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in turn. Chapters seven to nine summarize the regional and global geopolitics of this instrument of power, in respect of universal theories of human rights, natural law and politics. The book ends with a muted, dispassionate retelling of Khalil’s apprehension in Dhaka during a state of emergency, when fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution were suspended, and an impassioned plea to fight the practice of state terror. Constitutional law and its subversion by black laws that are not only incongruent with the law of the land, but given priority in the national interest – code for oppression by those in power – is a recurring theme in the book. The separate chapters are structured like standalone essays on the subject in relation to the specific country, relayed through anecdotes about flashpoints that highlight just how little a life is worth to the state sworn to protect it, and how non-existent fundamental freedoms are for the If the fundamentalists do average citizen. There is a monotony: Law enforcement agencies and militaries, including special branches, are unleashed on not get the non-believer, the state will certainly get its own people in every country, under the protection of black laws and auspices of domestic and foreign sponsors. Bangladesh’s the dissenter original death squads were the agents of the Pakistani junta who conducted targeted purges during the Liberation War, India’s and Pakistan’s were British regiments. In the twenty-first century, these independent nations have their own versions of the same, subsuming the ethos and purpose of the colonizers and oppressors, to serve the state. The people are the enemy. The imperialists support, train and use these potent political tools, to serve their interests. The monotony should not be confused for poor writing on part of the author – for Khalil writes in the journalistic tradition, with more than one clever turn of phrase in his arsenal – nor boredom on part of the reader. It is the very heart of this issue. Death squads exist and operate in much the same way in every country in South Asia, and rather than putting a stop to their practices, their ambit is constantly justified and expanded. Their actions are normalized to populations desensitized to death and destruction, thereby allowing them free rein to wreak havoc. It is a short, albeit thoroughly researched and heavily sourced, book that is accessible, and ought to be required reading for every South Asian and global citizen. That it is not tells its own tale. In a country that celebrates mediocrity, especially amongst the self-congratulatory elites, Khalil is not given due recognition for his work and this essential text. Like his intellectual mentor Frantz Fanon, whom he references a few times in Jallad, Khalil is destined to fight from the fringes, labeled a radical for thoughts that are only human, all too human.• Ikhtisad Ahmed is a poet and fiction writer. He also writes essays and reviews books. Yours, Etecetera, his debut short story collection, was published by Bengal Lights Books. ARTS & LETTERS SATURDAY, APRIL 14, 2018 | DHAKA TRIBUNE

Book review 'Lincoln in the Bardo': Where the dead are alive •Saad Z Hossain George Saunders is a very famous writer. Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel, is a lavishly praised book, with blurbs from Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Khaled Hosseini, Jennifer Egan and Dave Eggers. Even a line from Thomas Pynchon, no less. It’s difficult to review this kind of juggernaut. I’ve never actually come across his work before, so I agreed to read it as a sort of literary duty, as a kind of psychic penance for frittering away most of my time reading sci fi and fantasy. This, here, is a real writer, a famed essayist and writer of short stories and novellas, with his first full length work. The story is about Willie Lincoln, the eleven year old son of Abraham Lincoln, dead in the night, buried in a crypt, who refuses to move on, who lingers in the Bardo, a kind of Tibetan limbo, with all the other such spirits in the cemetery, some of whom have been there for hundreds of years. These are the resisters, the malingerers, those ghosts who cannot let go of life, who fear the detachment of all earthly bonds. Willie is a catalyst for them, for Lincoln comes back several times during the night to hold his dead son, and these acts of Abraham Lincoln’s raw love, affect these spirits and their own resolve to keep hanging onto the earthly realm. That’s the story. When I first read it, I must confess, I was irritated. The writing can be divided into two styles. The factual, narrated story is presented as quotes from real or fictitious works of history, with almost each sentence being cited. This was not entertaining for me. It felt gimmicky, unnecessary, something along the lines of a mediocre appetizer, one of those free ones some restaurants give that are better off left in the kitchen, to be distributed to the feral cats that gather in the back alley after hours. Saad Z Hossain is the author of the novels Escape from Baghdad! and Djinn City. What is testimony of his skill, is that he can use very few words to build up these figures, these ghosts, and just from their words alone we get vivid ideas of them, in full Dickensian grime The meat of the novel is the ghostly conversations. Now here we have some entertainment, and it is true, Saunders is an excellent writer. I enjoyed these parts, and as I entered into them I felt a kinship for the two principals, Vollman and Bevins, men who are trying to do their best even as their essential humanity has been stripped away. Still, talking ghosts are not a new thing. Spirits haunting a cemetery are not revolutionary. Telling the stories of dead people through conversations can be tiresome, especially if some of the characters don’t appeal to you. That is not Saunders’ fault, because of course no reader likes every character. But a few times, when some boring non-central ghost was prosing on, I found myself just skipping ahead, which is a shame because the book isn’t really that long. What is true though, what is testimony of his skill, is that he can use very few words to build up these figures, these ghosts, and just from their words alone we get vivid ideas of them, in full Dickensian grime, and when I raced through this book in a few days, I marveled at how easy it was to read, how quickly I finished it. That, however, is not the best of it. The best thing, the hardest thing I feel a writer can do is to evoke some kind of emotional response in a reader. Even crap writers can get a wry smile or a momentary twinge of anger, but eliciting any complex emotion is hard, particularly in this day of jaded readership overexposed to shocking and sensational things. But this Bardo thing will affect you in some way. What I got from this book was really about the sweetness of loss, that moment when you are old enough to consider that you cannot occupy all the branches of your life tree, that picking one branch cuts off all the rest, that in fact death cuts it all off, that death in the end is not the cessation of this life, but also the unspoken hope of all the other lives one could have lived. I don’t know. Read the book. Perhaps you will get something else out of it, but I assure you, you will get something. • 11 DHAKA TRIBUNE | SATURDAY, APRIL 14, 2018 ARTS & LETTERS

Fast Lane Biker April 2018