The origin of the om: Ahmed Sofa’s aura

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The poet resembles this prince of clouds
who chases the tempest and laughs at the archer:
exiled on earth amidst a booing crowd,
his enormous wings impede his walk.
– Charles Baudelaire

With the death of Ahmed Sofa on July 28, 2001, Bangladesh (or modern Bengal in historical perspective) lost not simply one of its most original thinkers; it also marked the passing of an age. In death, as in life, Sofa found himself on the wrong side of power, which explains why his passing was shunned by the powers that were and mourned only by a handful of friends and fellow workers. I, for one, have never been ashamed of expressing my admiration for him.

Ahmed Sofa was engaged with the large questions of the day in Pakistan and Bangladesh for at least four decades and provided a unique intellectual terrain of resistance to tyranny, injustice, and inhumanity in his homeland and beyond. Today, some 20 years later, his work, distinguished for both its depth and clarity of thinking, continues to speak to thousands, if not to millions. In this tribute, I will not call on his sundry interventions but will invoke one of his enduring contributions. As a storyteller, Sofa became, in Walter Benjamin’s formulation, “the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself.”

In 1976, the year I made Sofa’s acquaintance in Dhaka University, it was already two years since he discovered his calling as a thinker with an incomparable aura surrounding him. He had already joined “the ranks of the teachers and sages,” as Benjamin would say. What may be the basis of this aura? It lies in “the ability to reach back through a whole lifetime,” a life which includes not simply his own experience, but the experiences of others as well, what he knows by himself as well as what he knows by hearsay. “His gift,” Benjamin says, “is the ability to relate his life; his distinction, to be able to relate his entire life.” The storyteller is a kinsman of Plato’s Socrates: “I want to tell you a story. You may think it is a mere story, but for me it is the logic.”

Ahmed Sofa was able to produce two slender poetic collections, “Time the Hangman” and “Songs of Sufferance” in 1975. Earlier, in 1974, he put out the novella, Omkar. With a traditional realistic novel, a short story collection, and a bouquet of tales for children before, Omkar is the first work with which Sofa discovered what is most his own storytelling, the allegory. It made all the difference between him and the rest in Bengali literature of the late twentieth century. The signifier “om”, kit and caboodle would henceforth follow his path until his last tales were crafted. Its denouement would be evident in Alatchakra, Circle of Desire, realised a decade later.

Thanks to HolidayOmkar came out in an English rendition in 1975. Introducing her translation much later, Roushan Jahan put Omkar‘s storyline in a capsule: “the story of a young dumb [sic] girl, who refuses to accept the physical limitation and after persistent and desperate efforts, finally succeeds in mastering the handicap.” The story, however, goes a little beyond this challenge.

Set in historical time, a time out of joints in East Pakistan, the story draws on a formative phase of the new Bengali Muslim middle class. The story is told as the fable of the country lawyer Abu Nasr, also the father of the girl, who made a paltry fortune as collaborator of the Pakistani military regime. The simple fable, in Jahan’s take, “has a surprising depth, breadth and resonance.” Abu Nasr in a typical single shot kills two birds, marrying his physically challenged daughter off to a parvenu and neutralising a rival clan all the same. Narrated by the girl’s husband, “a timid, passive young man from a downward mobile family,” as Jahan comments, “the two main strains of the story – the public and the private – mesh beautifully.”

The climactic moment of the story coincides with the beginning of the end of old Pakistan when Pakistan’s myriad peoples united against Ayub Khan’s military regime and East Pakistan rose up, unwilling to put up with the loss of self under neocolonialism, in the face of waning national identity and dignity. Ahmed Sofa opens up the myth of the origin to an allegorical gaze.

An everyday story reaches its climax when the speech-impaired girl, a housewife in an urban milieu, becomes desperate in her attempts to speak. In passionately forcing open her glottis, at the end of the day she succeeds in uttering “Bangla”, but loses consciousness and starts to bleed from the mouth. It is significant to recognise that a signifier represents a subject for another signifier, and not for another subject. What is also significant is that Sofa does not let out either the girl’s or her husband’s name. Her attempt at uttering a signifier is provoked by roaring sounds out there, the fury of marchers on the streets of Dhaka, signifying something; thus linking up Erlebnis (or everyday experience) with Erfahrung (or longtime historical events). This is a tale told by no idiot. It tells the story of a transformation, churning logos out of mythos. Omkar, in other words, raises itself to the status of an allegory.

As the first-person narrator speaks: “For all these years, she has expressed all the feelings of joy and pain, wonder and frustration by grumbling like a dynamo. What pains of expression she must have suffered. By now, the procession was passing our house. It was like the crater of a volcano. The whole country seemed to be in long labour. The shouts of these people were those of a mother in labour. I was trembling. It seemed Bangladesh, her sky, her air, everything was trembling. Suddenly my wife jumped clear off the ground and said ‘Bangladesh’. At last her dumb [sic] voice has delivered an intelligible word. She fell unconscious and lay bleeding. I looked at the blood-splattered floor, then at my wife.”

Ahmed Sofa could well have left the myth there. Dissuaded by a thesis that claims that “style is not the man himself but one the man addresses,” the narrator adds: “A question rose in my mind, ‘whose blood is redder? That of Asad, the martyr, or that of my dumb wife?'” This vel of choice serves a subtle propaedeutic to the inaugural signifier om. As there is no meta-language, it all depends on the unfolding of history. It is history that shapes both the signifier or existence and the signified or its meaning.

The heights Sofa reached, enormous wings he carried, tempests he haunted and archers he ridiculed, of course, came not without a price. He had been indicted as a German agent or even “Ghaddafi’s man.” These attacks were not merely defamatory on Ahmed Sofa’s identity as a Bengali Muslim and dignity as a thinker, but part of a much larger project to undermine the cause he resolutely stood for, the cause of workers and peasants in a nation that shed buckets of blood in struggles for prestige, in 1947 and in 1971.


28 July 2022, The Daily Star

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