Today--December 09--marks the birth anniversary and death anniversary, both, of the great Bengali thinker, writer, and feminist activist Ro...

Sultana’s Dream a forward-looking social imaginary || Azfar Hussain

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Today--December 09--marks the birth anniversary and death anniversary, both, of the great Bengali thinker, writer, and feminist activist Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain (1880-1932). And December 09 is also known as the Begum Rokeya Day in Bangladesh. Here are just some quick thoughts about certain aspects of Rokeya's oeuvre, otherwise remarkably massive as it is.

I think _Sultana’s Dream_--written in English and later translated into Bengali by Rokeya herself--is more than just a subversive and satirical intervention in the genre of what I wish to call "political dream-fiction." Of course, some--mostly male critics--have meanwhile reduced this work to a mere symbol of protest, or even to a work overdosing on fantasy and abstraction. But "there is no such thing as an innocent reading." Admittedly, I am "guilty’" of reading _Sultana’s Dreams_ in a particular way.

And I read _Sultana’s Dream_ as a work offering a forward-looking social imaginary--one that looks forward to, or even creates in the imagination of the writer and the reader, not only a space and a place in which patriarchy spells out its own death but also a space and a place in which science, political economy, ecology, and the forces of nature and the forms of justice remain adequately responsive to one another in the best interest of living beings themselves, thus of course remaining opposed to the destructive and oppressive configurations and logics of colonialism, militarism, and masculinism, profoundly interconnected as they are.

And one can read _Sultana’s Dreams_ as even an "eco-feminist" work, a work that obviously precedes the birth of what has come to be known as "ecofeminism" today. To see this, one simply needs to chart out the ways in which Rokeya deploys her network of images in _Sultana’s Dreams_ to render what she calls the "Ladyland"--a land in which women enjoy freedom in a radical reversal of the patriarchal or male-dominated order of things--visually concrete. Also, _Sultana’s Dream_ is the first work of its kind--thematically and stylistically--in the entire history of Bengali literature.

I also think Rokeya as a politically engaged satirical poet has not received much attention--a poet whose apparently playful wit and sarcasm could be devastating at times. Some of her remarkable poems include "Banshiful," "Nalini o Kumud," "Saugat," "Appeal," "Nirupam Bir," and "Chand." And her poetic but satirical interventions at various levels keep making the basic point about praxis itself: your silence is not going to protect you. Notice, then, a stanza in a poem she wrote as a response to those sell-outs, those middle-class bhadralok collaborators of the Raj, ones who not only chose to remain silent, but who were also nervous about losing their damn "honorific titles," in the face of the anti-colonial movement gathering momentum in 1922:

The dumb and silent have no foes
That’s how the saying goes
All of us with titled tails
Keep so quiet telling no tales
Then comes a bolt from the blue
Passes belief, but it’s true
All of you who did not speak
Will lose your tails fast and quick
Come my friends and declare now
In loud and loyal vow
Listen, ye world, we are not
God’s truth, a seditious lot
(quoted in Bharati Ray’s _Early Feminists of Colonial India_)

Last, I think reducing Rokeya to a mere symbol surely obscures the possibilities of building a mass movement against such systems of oppression as patriarchy, colonialism, and, of course, capitalism, profoundly interconnected as they are, to say the least.


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