The Inconsequential Politician
by Sylvia Mortoza
E-book in PDF format, 6" x 9" (15 x 23 cm) pages available for US $4 directly from the author at email@example.com
This is the first in a series of titles written by little-known or unpublished women writers in Asia. Because of political constraints and the economics of book publishing in the region, these women would never otherwise reach a global readership. In all cases their writing will be available via direct download from themselves in PDF format. In some cases they may be made available on CD, but that is up to the author. -- DDZ
Baptized by Birth
Reviewed by Dana De Zoysa
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, certain intellectual but romantic Westerners became much taken with "Orientalism." What started as a sophisticated adoration of all things Asian has evolved into unsophisticated middle-class hippieism seeking ashram enlightenment or the perfect rave at Vagator Beach in Goa. Few have taken the trouble to live there long enough to discover that Asia is not so much superior as muddling through pretty much like the rest of us. Today the locals view Orientalism with a cross between a grain of salt and a smirk, but then, they adore Western movies and think life's really like that there. More sinister are transnationals and consultancies that have decided Asia's customs and behavioral norms are anachronisms which heady doses of the current buzz terms (at the moment "market economy") will transform into magics of monetary splendor. About the only non-Asians who have learned to accept Asia as it really is are the people who choose to live there, and the musicians in the world fusion movement.
Hence a novel about Asia written by a longtime resident often courses a different bed than the flood of self-focused personas that dominate Western fiction. Character development takes a back seat to the consequences of character interaction. The hero figure does not bring glory upon him(yes, him)self; he is just another time-tossed class-apparatchik baptized by his birth. Redemption more often is prophetic, affecting the world around the man but not the man.
When you read Bangladeshi author Sylvia Mortoza's nation-coming-of-age novel The Inconsequential Politician, don't expect The Last Hurrah with beards and saris. Her novel is about the birth of Bangladesh as seen through the life of ... well ... an inconsequential politician. Being a political novel, it ignores the rules of the hero novel, for politics grinds heroes into the bone meal on which tyrants feast. The stage dramatizes the story rather than the story dramatizing the stage. It is a novel also about outback realpolitik in a country few can even locate on a map, much less fathom as a political culture in which millions act as they do. We watch a nation born under a dark moon and thunderous skies, from the perspective of a bit player shunted mercilessly from little to little more by the forces he helps support.
Mortoza's story begins with the birth of Ummed Ali Mridha's son in prophetic circumstances:
His one [other] surviving child out of all the babies she had delivered over the years was now ten and therefore approaching the age of marriage. ... Staring up at the stone house that had seen some better days, [Ummed Ali Mridha] was nevertheless pleased with what he saw for he had something solid to bequeath his son. He ignored the fact that none of this had been earned by the sweat of his own brow as this house with its tall pillars and stately steps that led to a long veranda, had been bequeathed him by his father. Although his sister had inherited a portion he had made certain she would not enjoy it. He felt no pang of remorse as he recalled how he had sent for her husband and persuaded him to tell her to sell it. His brother-in-law had expressed no surprise at this demand because it was according to the custom of the day, for no one wanted to share his property with a woman who 'belonged' to another family as it might ultimately go into the hands of these 'outsiders'.
The son witnesses the soil on which he was born come to "belong" to "outsiders." The area of what is called Bengal (today split into India and Bangladesh) had from time out of mind belonged to "outsiders": Dravidian, Indo-Aryans, Mongol-Mughals, Arabs, Persians, Turkics and Europeans. No melting pot, this. It more resembles a reef populated with an eye-tingling array of colors and habitats, some predatory, most defensive, colony upon colony each snapping at its share of the barely sufficient nutrients. The most powerful class, the zaminders or local landlords, ruled with an iron plow, just as local religious potentates ruled with an iron alms bowl. Mortoza paints the effects well:
When Ahmed Ali Mridha first saw the light of day that year of 1887, the house and its surrounding village of Bahawalpur was just an insignificant dot on the map and known to few. A small village as villages go, even for rural Bengal, it was situated in that part of the country that was well known for its backwardness. Although the village could not make any claim to any glory, and although the house was admittedly starting to crumble, the reason Ummed Ali Mridha was proud of it was because it not only gave him prestige and standing in the community, it was made from stone. Few Muslims were able to live in a house such as this. In the first place they could not afford it, and in the second, the Hindu landlords would not have allowed it but as this particular house had been a gift from the Hindu king, there was nothing any Hindu could do to turn him out, no matter how powerful.
Into this world comes little Ahmed Ali. Whither an author to take him? The path of comedy says to heroism and grand deeds -- you can't think your way to the future, you must embrace your way there. Vishnu. The path of tragedy tut-tuts that truth is not the way of the world, states are an excuse for men to act without morals; therefore he must die in glory and change. Shiva.
Sorry. This is Bangladesh and so too is the author a part of Bangladesh. Ahmed Ali is as much tossed as tossing, ambivalent as indecisive, wrong as often as right, ignorant how pecked he is by the chrondic lips of being forever a day behind the times. Mortoza throws a portrait of how a man with ideals of reforming politics fails, not because of the high rate of hypocrisy in the House of Autocracy -- he sees that only too clearly -- but because he fails to see reform must start from within. Someone behaving with the timeless manners of yore is not going to change the times.
A Cadmean quality in his life comes out under Mortoza's deft pen, a victory won at as great a cost to the victor as to the vanquished. In Ahmed Ali it is the dignity of one who knows deep in his core that he is a day late and an idea short, yet refuses to be defeated by it. His real face is seen between Mortoza's sketchpad features, a face confused by the huge panoply of tradition entangling his ability to plumb causal depths. At the age most men call their prime, one of Ahmed Ali's colleagues tells him bluntly, "I think you have been away from mainstream politics for far too long."
Ouch. And yet he still tries to change his times:
Ahmed Ali stopped to open his outsize umbrella. He was a short man and beneath the umbrella he looked even shorter but for all that he was still an imposing figure in his black sherwani --a long black coat that was the hallmark of the Muslim League and the cap, which had become known as a Jinnah cap. His long Father Christmas type beard had already turned white but he did not colour it with 'mendhi' [henna] as others did. All these thoughts were making him feel weary. He wanted to return to his village. He really must find a way to get out of this job. His thoughts flew to his people. They were really far too simple. This could be their undoing. He had tried so hard to make them politically aware, but it had all been of no use. No use at all. They were mainly of peasant stock and dedicated to their rice crop and their beloved jute. Still for all that, they were not fools. It had taken them only a short time to realise the cost they had paid for their freedom had been high. Very high indeed! He thought it was only a matter of time before they rebelled and when they did, he wanted to be by their side so that they did not do anything foolish.
It is in political historiography that Mortoza really comes into her own. You see a nation awaken, rise, writhe itself half to pieces, put itself back together again, survive into the present beset with the same class and power structures that were there before any conqueror came. Gandhi enthralls, Gandhi is killed. Bengal has its Gandhi too: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose Awami League eventually threw off the West Pakistan yoke -- and a man, who, like Gandhi, was assassinated for his efforts. We watch as the rich, wet, fertile Bengali soil is planted with the seeds of suzerainty by economically arid but politically aggressive West Pakistan. Students revolt. They are subdued. They revolt again. They win, but little really comes of it for all the deaths it took. West Pakistan invades, there is a bloodbath, and -- sigh -- in the ebb of blood receding there rises a democracy deceiving. In bygone days the priests and Brahmins placed themselves above the rules they applied to others. Today it is the people Mortoza nicely labels "basket holders" -- political opportunists whose capacity for thought is limited. Put another way, the iron alms bowl's political hand.
Read this not because you want some great transport of the word, a cake of lyric under a frosting of metaphor, but because you want to know about a nation, a people, a way of life, a religion, an era and a man. And a man he is, warts and all. "He smiled the smile he reserved especially for [his wife] when he thought she was being especially stupid." Never once in his 218-page life does he address his wife by her name -- one of the effects of an arranged marriage even today. Yet he and his wife grow to love each other not because of emotional bonding but because they've been through a lot and know their partner is so reliable their weaknesses are bravery built of trust. Theirs is the Asian love that occurs not when a couple looks into each other's eyes, but when they look into the eyes of their children.
"Like the rickety gate announcing visitors with a shrill shriek" in one of Mortoza's memorable descriptions, a culture is a collection of winds blowing in basically the same direction and making basically the same squeak. A wind not of genes, but of memes. Ideas, behaviors, styles, usages. Spread person to person via the urge to embellish, Mortoza's novel is really about story passed into lore, lore into tale, tale into legend, legend into myth and the pattern of human-to-deity stories all over the world whose collective amnesia does not obliterate but prefers to blur the truth. The result is becoming so engulfed in one's own civilization and history that it is not merely all one knows, but all one can know.
Few women dare to write overtly political fiction in Asia, and even fewer dare to write something titled The Inconsequential Politician. And of those, a woman writing about these things in a moderately conservative Muslim country is in the category of rara avis. Of which Mortoza sings is villages that have their cruelty: not all the people are people.
Perhaps the global village through which she can now speak will prove better. | January 2002
Dana De Zoysa is a Bombay-based writer and book reviewer who specializes in contemporary cultural and social affairs in Southeast Asia and the Subcontinent.