I have been following Professor Ali Riaz’s writing for quite some time, and I stand amazed by the prolificity and eclectic scope of his work. On July 23, 2022, Dhaka’s University Press Limited (UPL) organised at its head office in Farmgate a publication ceremony of his book More than Meets the Eye: Essays on Bangladeshi Politics (2022). The event was broadcast live on UPL’s Facebook page, which enabled me to attend it remotely from Kuala Lumpur.
Truly more than meets the eye, the book discusses contemporary politics and the erosion of social and political institutions in Bangladesh. Ali Riaz examines the profound social divisions that have weakened civic life and cohesion in the country. Discussants of the publication ceremony deplored the policies of what they called an ‘authoritarian’ government that has been ruling Bangladesh for over a decade.
As Bangladeshis, whether inside the country or abroad, we keenly follow its political and other developments. We are alive to most of what is happening in the country and reported in the media. Hence, it is almost impossible for the writer of such a book to say something new or completely unheard of.
During the publication ceremony, some suggested (though not cynically) that much of what the book discusses is what we, as Bangladeshis, already know. What is more, some sought from the author solutions to the political ills that he has diagnosed in the book.
Since I attended the event virtually, my opportunity to engage in the discussion in a personal way was limited. I wanted to say that some members of the audience seemed to have missed the point that a writer’s job is not always to say something new or original, especially when they act as a social or political commentator. Nor is it necessarily their duty to carve out solutions that will transform a country into a land of freedom and opportunity.
In her powerful essay “The Small Personal Voice” (1957), the British-African writer Doris Lessing maintains that a writer writes out of “a feeling of responsibility, as a human being, for the other human beings”. She regards the writer as “an architect of the soul” who must know the nature of the soul they wish to persuade. A good writer writes what they and we see, though at times they may reveal what others may have missed. The writer has greater abilities to articulate our shared experiences and to critique underlying socioeconomic structures.
A writer is not a stranger to society. They are one of us and share similar desires and interests. Our collective human problems and struggles often form the basis of their writing, as they synthesise and represent our ideas and imaginations. Therefore, when we seem to identify with what we read, we indirectly testify that the writer has been able to hold our interest and is successful in their endeavour to develop a meaningful rapport with readers.
Given the prevailing culture of impunity and the stifling of dissent in today’s Bangladesh, one must congratulate the author of More than Meets the Eye on his courage in sensibly defying it. He took the plunge while many have been nursing the fear of victimisation and reprisal. There are perhaps others – in the country and beyond – with comparable intellectual capacities but seem to have been silenced by economic incentives or intimidation, or by positions and perks. In that sense, Ali Riaz does not belong to those writers who, in Doris Lessing’s words, “can be bludgeoned into silence by fear or economic pressure”.
In his book Representations of the Intellectual (1994), the Palestinian-American public intellectual Edward Said argues that a true intellectual who seeks to represent his people cannot be “a functionary nor an employee completely given up to the policy goals of a government…. In such situations, the temptations to turn off one’s moral sense … are far too great to be trusted”. Here Said emphasises two key attributes in the repertoire of a writer: intellectual independence and integrity. In Decolonising the Mind (1986), the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has identified the category of “state intellectuals” who do not possess such ingredients and therefore fail to commit to egalitarian goals.
The term ‘buddhijibi’ has gained wider currency in popular discourse in Bangladesh. It generally refers to urban writers and intellectuals of some persuasion. In response to a question from the audience during the publication ceremony, Ali Riaz warned against the wholesale, indiscriminate use of the term. He is reluctant to confer this appellation on self-proclaimed and self-seeking intellectuals who are silent about the assault on civil liberties and about sociopolitical problems that have beset Bangladesh.
In this respect, Ali Riaz seems to think along the same line with the famed Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe. In an essay titled “The Black Writer’s Burden” (1966), Achebe states: “One of the writer’s main functions has always been to expose and attack injustice”. That is to say, when a writer avoids this responsibility of exposing the truth about a government, they actually take off the badge of a writer from their neck.
The South African writer Nadine Gordimer suggests that a writer should not hesitate to tell the truth to power even if such telling renders them political. She says: “If you’re writing honestly about your society and that society is in turmoil, you become a political writer”. Morally, one cannot remain a detached scholar and observe events of injustice and suffering from on high.
Establishing the untenability for an academic to remain alienated from la condition humaine, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o poses these rhetorical questions: “In a society built on a structure of inequality, where do we stand? Can we remain neutral, cocooned in our libraries and scholarly disciplines, muttering to ourselves: I am only a surgeon; I am a scientist; I am an economist; or I am simply a critic, a teacher, a lecturer?”
Writers and intellectuals are obligated to discuss the conditions of their fellow human beings. They embody the sensitive, artistic conscience of their people. It is their responsibility to stir moral indignation at gross injustices and the plight of the masses. Readers in return receive a cathartic pleasure after reading what the writer has said about them. In “African Literature and Social Problems” (1975), Romanus Egudu states that through depicting people’s difficulties, writers provide readers with “intellectual pleasure in the midst of tears”. W H Auden says it more beautifully in his “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”:
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.
Lastly, the British writer John Osborne came to my mind when someone from the audience at the UPL event urged Ali Riaz to provide solutions to the problems he describes in More than Meets the Eye. Reflecting on his role as a writer in 1950s Britain, Osborne says in his essay, “They Call It Cricket” (1957): “I am a writer and my own contribution to a socialist society is to demonstrate those values in my own medium, not to discover the best ways to implement them”.
Accordingly, Ali Riaz employed his training in political science to comment on the new “political settlement” that has developed in Bangladesh and to articulate the threats it poses to the country. However, providing solutions is not the task of the writer alone. That will need to involve many stakeholders at various levels.