The Attorney General and the High Court are in agreement that a recent novel, Deyal, being written by popular novelist and filmmaker Humayun Ahmed contains some historical inaccuracies that should not be read by the people of the country. The honorable Court does not think that some facts on a historical event mentioned in this novel exactly match the version of the history our government as well as the Court believe to be the correct version. Press reports say that the novelist agreed to change his novel as directed by the honourable Court. Millions of fans of the novelist are eagerly waiting to read the government approved, High Court certified version of the upcoming historical fiction. Literary critics have no doubt that this new fiction of Humayun Ahmed will also enthrall its readers and will be a bestseller – just like all the other work by the author.
If that was all there was to it, if the event mentioned above ended the story, if the implication of the state and court action ended at this point of history – then there would not be any need for an op-ed piece.
But it is very likely that the precedence the honourable High Court has just created will have reverberating effect on the future of literary freedom in this country.
There is hardly any literate Bengali on both sides of the border who did not grow up reading and appreciating the heart wrenching melancholy of Mir Mosharraf Hossain's classic "Bishad Shindhu". This historical fiction gives us a version of history that pretty much demonizes Yazid and Mu'abia. A dispassionate historical analysis most likely will not be as black and white as depicted by Mir Mosharraf Hossain. With growing religious intolerance and widening scope of sectarian fighting in the Muslim world, what if, in a few years an Attorney General who is deeply indoctrinated with Ahle Sunnah, Wahhabi or Salafi lineage of thought process, feels that Mir Mosharraf Hossain did not do justice to historical facts? What if this hypothetical Attorney General argues that Mir Mosharraf was either a Shi'ite or was a believer of Sufism and the book "Bishad Sindhu" either needs to be corrected for historical accuracy or be taken away from public circulation and sale? In such a situation, the "Deyal" verdict will act as a precedence and guideline.
Let's consider a different example.
Sunil Ganguly in his famous historical fiction "Purbo Poschim" had one of his main characters describe late President Ziaur Rahman Bir Uttam as a 'reluctant freedom fighter'. Half the nation as well as the leadership and activists of one of the two major political parties of Bangladesh, BNP, strongly disagree, believing Zia to be the most prominent leaders of our war of freedom.
We have seen Justice Fayezee type judges in the last BNP era. What if a BNP appointed Attorney General and a new honourable High Court bench uses the precedence of "Deyal" verdict to deal with their perceived historical inaccuracies in Bangla classic "Purbo Poshchim"?
It is true that fiction writers have to remain answerable to history when they write history-based fictions. But that does not mean historical fictions are history book themselves. And historical fictions should never replace history books. Novelists, for the sake of the storyline, may indulge in varying degree of infidelity to historical facts. That is a novelist's literary prerogative.
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15th August of 1975 is one the saddest time in the history of Bangladesh. No doubt Humayun Ahmed's literary skill will help people appreciate the depth of the sadness and the loss for the nation. The book is not available to us yet. But in recent reviews of the manuscript published in a vernacular daily, Professors Anwar Hossain and Syed Monzurul Islam assure us that the novel, except for a few factual deviations and mischaracterization of Lt Col Faruq, will correctly put everybody in their respective places. They went on to clarify that the novel did everything to uphold the sky tall stature of Bangabandhu Mujib.
The reviewers also stressed that the novel depicts Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf and Col. Taher in very positive light and Dr. Anwar Hossain (Brother and ex-political comrade of Col. Taher) approved the characterization. From the reviews published in daily Prothom Alo, we also gather that this novel puts late President Ziaur Rahman back to the place in history where he belongs.
When Dr. Anwar Hossain feels complacent at Humayun Ahmed's treatment of Ziaur Rahman, one gets a reason to be concerned at. It is clearly known where Dr Anwar Hossain stands vis-à-vis 1975 and Ziaur Rahman. There is a serious attempt to rewrite the history of 1975. In that revised black and white history; Col. Taher, Brig. Khaled Mosharraf, Col. Haider, and Col. Huda – all are in one side of the conflict – they are the good guys. On the other side – the bad guy is Ziaur Rahman. Although this history cannot be farther from the truth, this is the version of history our government approved and promotes. Humayun Ahmed has every right to believe Prof Anwar Hossain's version of our history and he may be writing "Deyal" from that conviction. Or is he unnecessarily putting himself in the foray by agreeing to write on a very contentious period of our history?
As we wait to read the novel, it seems this novel will pass the kosher standard set by our current government and is about to earn court certification for historical accuracy. But it will remain a question whether Humayun Ahmed's novel will pass the standard of literary honesty. Ultimately it will be up to the readers how they will embrace the novel.
Rumi Ahmed, a blogger and rights activist writes from Florida, USA.