An Unwitting Pariah: Kathryn Hummel in Conversation with Kaiser Haq

1 August 2018

KHummel: I was having a talk to my CNG [auto rickshaw] driver the other day and he was saying there are just too many cars (and people buying cars) and that’s what’s causing the mega jams in Dhaka traffic.

KHaq: You haven’t taken Uber here have you?

KHummel: I have, yeah, so, I’m supporting the enemy of traditional Dhaka transport. But I would always hesitate because Uber is not as efficient. None of the drivers know where they’re going, so why would you take an Uber? You’d take a bus or a rickshaw.

KHaq: Well, if you know where you want to go, you can direct the drivers. I’ve never used them but those who have say that yes, Uber’s efficient.

KHummel: I’ve taken a few lately … I almost missed my bus to Chittagong because I’m sure the driver just thought: ‘Well, I’ve got a car, so I’ll become an Uber driver. I can’t follow a map, that’s okay.’ I don’t think he ever imagined the scenario of a bideshi [foreigner] passenger who had no idea where this bus stand was and having to find it himself.

KHaq: Yeah, so these little things interest me, the details of daily life, not the state of governments and things like that. I’m not a political writer.

KHummel: Would you say you are a social writer, in the way that all writers are social?

KHaq: All writers are social but if writing is not propaganda, it’s not political. Who’d be a political writer? Auden was not a political poet, but he was concerned with political themes.

KHummel: Well the war poets were political – I’m thinking of Wilfred Owen and people like that.

KHaq: Yes, again that’s politics, but in that sense they’re responding to experience. You’re suddenly thrown into an extreme situation and you respond to it. It’s also an awakening, a personal awakening, in the case of First World War poets: when there are certain misconceptions about your safe passage you had your rude awakening.

KHummel: ‘Activist poetry’ might be more accurate.

KHaq: You have Adrian Mitchell, even Christopher Logue, who was very much a leftist, his poetry is – his poetry! [laughs] When you have a big public event that disturbs the conscience of everybody, then you have a body of directly political writing. For example, in other war-spawned anthologies, fad anthologies of the Vietnam War, that kind of thing – yes, then it sort of fits.

KHummel: If I remember correctly you don’t write much about your own war experience?

KHaq: No, I haven’t written much. Just a few words, a couple of essays. You’ve seen those. I suppose if I write a longer memoir … but I don’t want to write specifically about war. In few war books that have been written so far have the writer’s words been used: they’re more about what the writers have come to know about the war from their friends and the writings of others and the political background, the history of Pakistan and the movement for Bangladesh – all those together make up the narrative. I don’t want to do that. Everyone knows those things. In that kind of writing, everything is aligned in the machines of war so you miss out on other things. You get the impression from the accounts of many writers that they were sort of born to fight for Bangladesh. No, we were born in a situation that was confused. And confusing. So the way of life, there was Pakistan and then cracks began to show. Until the crackdown, everyone was Pakistani. We were waiting for security – and then there were machinations of Ayub Khan and Bhutto. So that kind of thing brought us face to face with the question of: what do we do now? Some ran, went abroad, most just lay low. Some collaborated with the enemy and others resisted. I thought if I don’t do something, it will only bother me. It was an existential choice.

While the war was going on, we just wanted to get rid of the occupying army. Again when people talk about the ideology behind the war and all that, these things were constructed subsequently. While we were fighting, yes, we had two things we wanted. We wanted a democratic order and we wanted a secular order in the sense that, the state cannot be founded on, must be free of religious belief. That’s about it. Then after the war, socialism was ended. Fighting it was ridiculous because there was no idea – they didn’t know what socialism meant or how to move towards that. Just nationalise everything, give jobs to people who support you and of course, the results were disastrous. Even now we are sort of flying with one of those disasters [laughs]. Bangladesh, the state of it, is always in trouble [laughs].

KHummel: So you don’t think the confusion dissipated after the war, it just became more pronounced?

KHaq: Then, you see, the impact of regional politics and global politics and the global economic system, these things are absolutely crucial. During the Liberation we had foreign capital and then the overseas job market opening up, so we have a growth economy now. I don’t think any country determines its future on its own. We’ve always been drawn this way or that by forces which we don’t control. Deregulation – we have the garments industry here, for example, which is in a sense miraculous. If you look at the girls going to work in the factories in the morning, it’s a sight that thirty years back no-one would have imagined possible. And it’s happened. Slowly, sociological changes are taking place and there’s empowerment of women, slowly you will find it. Young women are more assertive, more determined to lead their own lives.

KHummel: Is that within the middle-class or across the classes?

KHaq: I think it’s trickling downwards. The countryside hasn’t changed. Think of the place where you went in Kushtia. Again, how old is this fishery? A few years? Ten years? Fifteen, twenty? And before that it was just a sleepy village.

KHummel: Well, the founders of the CRACK Trust are from that village, Rahimpur, in Kushtia. One artist in particular, Shawon Akand, has quite a strong idea of creating an archive to document the culture of the village, the changes and the local handicrafts and music. So he’s working from an ethnographic perspective, as well as an artistic one. He doesn’t want any changes to the culture in Kushtia – he’s trying to make sure it’s remembered and recorded.

KHaq: That’s another thing. With rapid change, memory suffers. We don’t remember what things were like, say, five, ten years back. The streets look different. People used to hang out in a different way. Again, I think it’s up to artists and writers to memorialise those. The 1920s are still alive because of people and the novels of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. The 30s had Evelyn Waugh.

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