It is stupid to be a writer in Bangladesh

When someone asks me my profession, I always hesitate to answer. I cannot tell people that I write.

I suspect that they will not take me seriously if I tell them about my profession or disclose that I left the US only to be a full-time writer. I always wanted to write a novel.

The look they give me is easy to interpret. My gut feeling has always been that they are thinking, I am either stupid or insane.

From time immemorial, intelligent people have been considered crazy, unsocial, and held on contempt for reading too much. Moreover, there is an orthodox belief in Bangladesh that all intellectuals are atheists.

Or, shall I put it this way: the common belief is reading too much makes one agnostic.

On rare occasions that I do tell the truth about my profession, they ask me ‘‘we do understand you write but what else you do?’’

"Nothing, I write full time" is an answer that has always evoked surprises. The majority finds it impossible to believe that a man with sound body and sound mind can do nothing but write all day.

Years ago, the first shock came from my father. After graduation I took to journalism. He was opposed to it because it is not a money-making business. ‘‘You want to write, fine,’’ he said. ‘‘Get a good job. Get filthy rich. Then write in your spare time.’’

Akin to most Bangladeshis, my father also believed that writing is a hobby; it cannot be a full-time job. Having a hobby is a healthy habit, it is okay to have one. Like stamp collecting. Or gardening.

In the spring I returned from the US, my father christened me a "fool". ‘‘Do people come back from America?’’ he grunted. I knew what he meant. For many Bangladeshis, life in America is all about earning in dollars and driving sports cars. Heaven looks closer from the US. Perhaps paradise exists just a few inches above the Statue of Liberty.

‘‘Listen,’’ my father would advise me. ‘‘Money is everything. No penny no dignity. You can write whenever you want. But once you are old, you are old. You will be a loser.’’

I chose to be a loser. I was dogged.

Then as a loving father, he warned me not to say boo about religion. His fear was valid. Just then I remembered the smile of the late poet Shamsur Rahman.

It all started with him. In the year 1999, the country’s unofficial poet laureate survived an assassination attempt. Then it was the writer Humayun Azad in 2004. Less than a decade of attacks on writers, fundamentalists started killing bloggers across the country. I knew them all. The whole world came to know them from the gory pictures that made the headlines.

Living in Bangladesh and writing in English is not the ideal situation to be in. The major problem you face is the shortage of English books. Being an insolvent author, the hunger for having the latest books is more than a luxury. In Bangladesh, Amazon is non-existent and libraries with new arrivals are none, let alone books in English.

So the only way for you to access the latest titles is to find a downloadable PDF copy online. There are some days when I envy citizens of the western countries because they have the opportunity to frequent libraries whenever they want and pick whatever books they wish to read.

"Another Madhusudan" is a catch-phrase for the Bengal writers writing in English. In 2012, when I switched from Bengali to English, my writers’ friend prophesied, I would end up being another Madhusudan. Born in 1824, Michael Madhusudan Dutt is considered to be one of the major poets in Bengali literature. But in his early years, he wrote in English and desired to be recognised an English language poet.

Madhusudan Dutt was born in the colonial times, the untimely era for a brown skinned man to harbour a dream like that.

So he failed.

Over time, my relatives have lost interest in me. My friends tend to avoid me, ignoring my phone calls.

In Bangladesh, money can buy everything. Here it is all about connections. What is the point of keeping in touch with an aspiring novelist? I fathom their feelings. Besides, they find my company boring. I do not take part in their extravagant discussions, which is largely about purchasing properties, buying flats, cars, and other worldly or Godly matters.

Now, as I have been writing full time for over the past three years, I feel the same way as did Virginia Woolf: to be able to continue writing fiction, I ought to have money and a room of my own. The concept of having a room of one's own, as discussed in Wolfe's essay of the same name, is equally applicable for men and women. Being a writer without earning enough perils my existence, as I have seen from my experience. ‘You do not earn so you do not have a say, you deserve no respect’—it is all too common for me.

The other day I went to (I had to) attend an invitation. The flat was nice and all. But I started to feel suffocated because the home was impeccably bookless. During the tea session, the beaming couple asked me about my work. I told them. Then the wife suddenly asked me about Tagore’s Noble Prize.

Do I think Kazi Nazrul Islam deserved the Prize more than Tagore?

Rabindranath Tagore is the first Bengali to have received the Nobel Prize in literature. He was a Hindu. Kazi Nazrul Islam, on the other hand, was a Muslim. Even over a century later, some brainless Muslim Bengalis bring religion here and makeup stories on this issue. I got angry.

‘‘Do you know which year Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize?’’ I asked her.

‘‘1913 maybe.’’

‘‘That’s correct. Tell me in which year Kazi Nazrul Islam was born?’’

She did not know.

‘‘1899’’, I told her. ‘‘That means, the year Tagore received the Prize, poet Nazrul was only 15-years old. On what basis do you claim Nazrul deserved the Prize more than Tagore? Are you saying the Nobel committee should have offered the Prize to an underage future poet?’’

She looked ashamed. ‘‘It’s not my words. I hear people say such things.’’

By people, she meant the majority Bangladeshis who are Muslims.

Since the country’s birth in 1971, with increasing rates of literacy, the habit of reading beyond the textbooks has been decreasing. The Nobel issue is nothing new. This propaganda was and is still a delicious tale with the commoner. Most people do not care about Tagore or Islam, let alone their literary works. What they care about is making up communally-tinged tall stories. They love to start a fire.

And, I am a writer living among them. A stupid one in the eyes of the people.

Published on WION