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S K Sagir Ali: Short Stories of Afsar Ahmed

Afsar Ahmed. Image credit- Sanjoy Chattopadhyay, Telegraph

Daliltness of Muslim Communities in Bengal: A Study of the Short Stories of Afsar Ahmed

Since Islam is based on egalitarianism and there is no place of social stratification in it, the term ‘Dalit Muslims’ bears the stamp of inherent contradiction to the formation of its root. The Dalit-Muslim ramifications with its heterogeneity, power structures, marginalisation, economy, scriptural practice, degree of stigmatisation with pejorative connotations, questions of power, authority, conversion of people and agency discursively put subaltern Muslims in Bengal in the dynamics of its hierarchical orientation. The organising principle of this matrix of socio-ritualistic ideology negotiates different subject positions only to find answers to some questions: How do the tensions between an individual subjectivity and a communitarian adherence hold the paradigm of marginalisation to interpret dalitness in Bengali Muslims? How have the questions of religious identity tended to be subsumed in the scriptural and ritualistic paradigm, as well as in the complex interconnections among caste, gender, mobility, agency, subjectivity and freedom? How are certain sections of Muslims portrayed in cultural interpellation where women are seen as the domestic ‘other’? The paper will explore such questions in the light of some select short stories of the contemporary Bengali writer– Afsar Ahmed.

There can be seen a growing political solidarity between lower caste Hindus and lower caste Muslims. The Mulnivasi (autochthonous) movement has many activists from Muslim society, particularly in Bengal (like, Najrul Islam, the famous IPS of the state) in the corridors of power. If one notices Musalmanir gaan (song devoted to special occasion), one can see that there is a cultural solidarity between many lower caste Hindus and Muslims in terms of their cultural practices. This is evident in the Bon Bibir Gaan in Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide (2004) or in critical observations on Musalmanir gaan by Goutam Bhadra in his book Iman O Nishan (1994) where some inclinations of the Radha-Krishna story reflect the theory of immaculate innocence of laughter as postulated by Mikhail Bakhtin (1965) towards religion in general and Russian Orthodoxy in particular. The long history of subaltern and Muslim political solidarity in Bengal is evident in the work of Jogendranath Mondal, that formidable Namasudra leader, who became the first law Minister in independent Pakistan in Jinnah's cabinet. So, there is an incipient correspondence between Muslim and dalit in the politico-cultural context as well. The caste structure in Muslim society is categorically presented by Bangladesh's historian Waqil Ahmed (1997) in his book Unish shatoker Bangali Musalmaner Chinta Chetonar Dhara as well.

While terms like ‘Dalit’ and ‘Muslim’ are indelible markers of caste and religion in political discourse, they also carry within themselves a profound questioning of the relationship between the nation-state and the construction of the citizen-subject in postcolonial India. The process of democratising India reproduced power structures of colonial rule by using caste and religious identity to promote ideas of universal citizenry on the one hand, and to marginalise the very same population groups, on the other. As a result, the nation-state and its technologies of governance often create vacillating overlaps between the construction of Dalits and Muslims as luminal subjects of policy decisions and cultural discourse. The Bengali novelist and short story writer Afsar Ahmed (2012) demonstrates how marginal literature has entered a new phase of ethical responsibility by exploring the possible overlap between registers of difference and marginalisation beyond an exclusionary Dalit identity.

Afsar Ahmed, in his short stories, depicts impressively the grim picture of the Dalits who really are smashed by the hierarchical system of society – where the poor grovel in poverty and the rich revel in property. The story of exploitation repeats the sad tale of gloom and deprivation in his short story, The Bone. The title itself hammers into our head the last traces of life after death. Old Nabir resorts to the pathetic work of collecting human bones from the cemetery to supply these to bone grinding mills where the mill owner Ser Ali thrives in the business of exporting the dust of grinded bones to urban areas in the country and abroad. At the end of the week he has to look to the meagre payment from Ser Ali for the supply of bones. Though Old Nabir has no wife and children, still he has to take care a helpless woman with her children because he cannot brush aside his human feelings.

Kalim’s condition beggars description. He can hardly provide his own wife and children and his old mother with the little food they need. Moreover, old mother has been affected with some fatal disease and Kalim remains a helpless spectator because of want of money. Mother is wandering about here and there with her torn and tattered dress, an emblem of the downtrodden in society. Nabir is saving with great effort eleven rupees which is his only capital. He and Kalim experience the bitterness in suffering. Haru’s family too has been dragging the deplorable condition with no hope of remedy. What is most tragic in the life of Old Nabir is that he at last collects bones of Kalim, who was run over by a train on the rail track. It is incredible to Nabir how Kalim who once accompanied him in his work and loved him faced an accidental death under the train.

Such minute details about Dalits really touch our heart, who are marginalised in society and living without identity. The crows in the story have been presented as crooked and sly not to miss any chance of ticking to the last trace of flesh of human body as if to remind us of those people who take advantage of the deprived men in the society. The poor in the village have to live from hand to mouth, sometimes half a square meal a day.

The Sachar Committee Report (2006) highlighted the fact that some sections of Muslim society are more unequal than others. It draws attention to ‘the presence of descent-based social stratification’ on the lines of the Hindu caste system among Indian Muslims and identified three social segments - Ashrafs, Ajlafs and Arzals. The traditional occupation of Arzals is similar to that of SCs; most of them work as butchers, washer men, barbers and scavengers. Ajlafs are engaged in occupations similar to those of the Hindu OBCs, and a sizable section of them are also landowners. Ashrafs have suffered no social deprivation as they are converts from the Hindu upper-castes or have ‘foreign blood’. Islam spread in India due to its message of equality and brotherhood. The majority of Indian Muslims are descendants of 'untouchables and low' caste converts, with only a small minority tracing their descent to Arab, Iranian and Central Asian settlers and invaders. Although Islam is fiercely egalitarian in its social ethics, insisting on the radical equality of all believers, Indian Muslim society is characterised by numerous caste-like features, consisting of several castes. Muslims who claim foreign descent, such as the Sayeds, Shaikhs, Mughals and Pathans, claim a superior status for themselves as Ashraf or ‘noble’. Descendants of indigenous converts are commonly referred to as 'laf’ or 'base' or 'lowly', and 'Arzal’ or ‘Dalits’. Here in this story, Afsar Ahmed highlights the subaltern consciousness with a marginal personhood through the routine conflict between body and space and rehabilitates pain and humiliation in the reader’s imagination in order to overcome the silence and aporia around marginalisation.

In the story Sin, class consciousness and the culture of Bengali Musolman become prominent since the story-teller creates an awareness of religion through milad-mehfil of a certain section of society along with the interconnections between caste and gender and its ramifications in the larger cultural context. Here, Farida, a 16- year-old girl can be looked upon as a typical representation of the Muslim woman since she becomes the prototype woman re-visioning the lived experience of what it takes to subaltern emancipation from the internal mechanisms of Moulana, whose consistent use of the power of discourse in public sphere challenges the mainstream to negotiate the subjective experience of trauma in the calculus of purity and pollution. The palpability of the woman’s fear and desperation draws our attention to the defencelessness of populations labelled through the somatic markers of ‘otherness’ in the individualised voice of marginal-Muslim consciousness that oscillates between remembering and forgetting, vulnerability and victimhood, suffering and rage, un-forgiveness and resignation to intercultural tropes.

Afsar Ahmed demonstrates how Dalit literature has entered a new phase of ethical responsibility by exploring the possible overlap between registers of difference and marginalisation beyond an exclusionary Dalit identity. He looks at the space of literature to articulate a politics of solidarity between different marginalised, disempowered communities with explorations constitute an important discursive intervention for the formation a new ethical subject in Dalit literature. Fabricated intersections of historical and cultural discourses created dubious yet powerful imagery of religious oppression and Dalit dissent that strengthened the militant stance of cleansing the nation of the outsider’s blood. Nevertheless, The Bone and Sin contextualise the formative role played by Dalit chetna (consciousness) in Indian society and reflects on the diverse reasons responsible for the marginalisation of Dalits in the national narrative. Through a series of serious and light-hearted vignettes about growing up in the villages of West Bengal, Ahmed heralds the emergence of Dalit subjectivity in an intractable social ethos that poses a huge challenge to the democratic claims of the Indian nation-state.

Works Cited:

  1. Ahmed, Afsar. Sera Ponchasti Golpo, Kolkata: Dey’s Publkishing, 2012. Print
  2. Ahmed, lmtiaz,'The Ashraf-Ajlaf Dichotomy in Muslim Social Structure in India', Indian Economic and Social History Review, Vol. 3. pp. 268-78; I. Ahmad, ed., 1973, Caste and Social Stratification among the Muslims, Manohar: Delhi, 1966. Print
  3. Ahmed, Wakil. Unish Shatake Bangali Musalmaner Chinta O Chetonar Dhara, (The Trends of Thoughts of the Bengali Muslims in the 19th Century), Dhaka: Bangla Academi, 1997. Print
  4. Dirks, Nicholas. Castes on Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. Print
  5. Eaton, Richard M. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.Print
  6. Hasnain, Nadeem. 'Muslims in India: Caste Affinity and Social Boundaries of Backwardness', in H.S Verma (ed.), The OBCs and the Ruling Classes in India, Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2005. Print
  7. Karim, Abdul. Social History of the Muslims in Bengal (Down to AD 1538), Asiatic Society: Chittagong, 1985. Print
  8. Levy, Reuben. The Social Structure of Islam, Cambridge University Press, 1969. Print
  9. Nazir, Parvaiz. 'Social Structure, Ideology and Language: Caste among Muslims,' Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. xxviii, No. 52, December 25, 1993. Print



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