by Sid H Arthur - Religion 11 Oct 2007 04:42 pm

The Legend of Bonbibi


In the Sundarbans, an archipelago of islands in the Bay of Bengal, legend has it that Bonbibi, ‘the lady of the forest’, was chosen by Allah to protect people who work in the mangrove forests against a greedy man-eating half Brahmin half tiger-demon called Dokkhin Rai, the King of the South.

Bonbibi, Shah Jangoli and Dokkhin Rai

One day, in a fit of greed Dokkhin Rai decides to take the form of a tiger to feed on humans. The sage refuses to share any of the forest resources with humans and legitimises killing them as a form of tax kar, for all the resources of what he considers as his jungle. Soon his arrogance and greed know no bounds and he proclaims himself lord and master of the Sundarbans mangrove and of all the beings that inhabit it: the 370 million spirits, demons, godlings (bhoots, prets, dakinis, deo) and tigers. He becomes a demon (rakkhosh) who preys on humans. Tigers and spirits become the subjects of Dokkhin Rai and, emboldened by him, also start to terrorise and feed on humans. The trust that had existed between tigers and humans was broken.

In compassion for people of the ‘land of the eighteen tides’, another name for the Sundarbans, Allah decides to put a stop to Dokkhin Rai’s reign of terror and insatiable greed. He chooses for this task Bonbibi, a young maiden who lives in the forest.

Bonbibi’s father Ibrahim, following his second wife’s wishes, had previously abandoned his first wife Gulalbibi in the forest when she was pregnant. Gulalbibi, gave birth to twins (a boy and a girl), but decided to keep only the boy, Shah Jongoli, and abandoned her daughter, Bonbibi. A deer takes pity on Bonbibi and becomes her surrogate mother. When she grows up, Bonbibi hears Allah calling her to “free the land of the eighteen tides” from the exploitation of the man-eating Brahmin sage who takes the form of a tiger. At the same time Ibrahim comes to retrieve his first wife and children but Bonbibi calls out to her brother and tells him to accompany her to Medina to receive the blessings of Fatima and to go to Mecca to bring back some earth from there to take to the land of the eighteen tides. As they arrive, they call out Allah’s name and mix the holy earth of Mecca with the earth of the Sundarbans. Dokkhin Rai resents their intrusion and their invocation of Allah and decides to drive them away. Rai’s mother Narayani then insists that it is better for a woman to be fought by another woman and takes on Bonbibi. As she starts to lose the conflict, Narayani calls Bonbibi her friend (soi). Bonbibi, gratified by the appellation, accepts Narayani’s friendship and they stop warring.

Perparing for the Prosad

The retelling Bonbibi’s story is always followed by Dukhe’s tale. Dukhe (literally ’sadness’) was a young boy who lived with his widowed mother grazing other peoples’ animals. One day, his village uncle lures him into joining his team to work in the forest as a honey collector. Dokkhin Rai appears to the uncle, whose name is Dhona (from dhon – ‘wealth’) and promises him seven boats full of honey and wax if he can have Dukhe in return. After some hesitation, the uncle leaves Dukhe on the banks of Kedokhali and sails off. Just as Dukhe is about to be devoured by Dokkhin Rai, he calls out to Bonbibi who rescues him and sends her brother Shah Jongoli to beat up Dokkhin Rai. In fear for his life, Dokkhin Rai runs to his friend, the Ghazi who in the Bonbibi story is Dokkhin Rai’s only friend and ally. Ghazi, who is a pir, suggests Dokkhin Rai ask forgiveness by calling Bonbibi ‘mother’. He then takes him to Bonbibi and pleads on Dokkhin Rai’s behalf. Bonbibi, heeding the Ghazi’s intervention, accepts Dokkhin Rai’s apology and calls him her ’son’.

However, Dokkhin Rai starts arguing that if humans are given a free reign there will be no forest left. So, to be fair and ensure that Dokkhin Rai and his retinue of tigers and spirits stop being a threat to humans, and humans stop being a threat to non-humans (such tigers and other animals), Bonbibi elicits a promise from Dukhe, Dokkhin Rai and the Ghazi that they are all to treat each other as ‘brothers’. She does this by forcing Dokkhin Rai and the Ghazi to part with some of their wood and gold respectively and sends Dukhe back to the village a rich man so that he does not have to work in the forest again.

Following on Dukhe’s story, the islanders of the Sundarbans, often explain that Bonbibi has left them the injunctions that they are to enter the forest only on the condition that they do so pobitro mone (pure hearted) and khali hate (empty handed). The villagers explain that they have to identify with Dukhe, whose unfailing belief in Bonbibi saved him, and consider the forest as being only for those who are poor and for those who have no intention of taking more than what they need to survive. This is the ‘agreement’ between non-humans and humans that permits them both to depend on the forest and yet respect the others needs. This arrangement, they say, can last only as long as those who have enough leave the forest and its resources to those who are dispossessed.

Onward to the prosad

The legend of Bonbibi is not very old. The Bonbibi Johuranamah, the booklet that narrates her story, was first published at the end of the 1800s by a little known writer by the name of Abdur Rahim. The text, although in Bengali, is written from right left to emulate Arabic script. The story of the Ghazi and Dokkhin Rai is more famous. It is a version of the epic poem Ray-Mangal composed by Krishnaram Das in 1686 and thus predates the Bonbibi legend by over two hundred years. The historian Richard Eaton believes that this story is a “personified memory of the penetration of these same forests by Muslim pioneers” i.e. Sufi holy men (read his excellent The rise of Islam and the Bengal frontier 1204–1760 for more info on how Bengal was Islamised - not through the sword but through agriculture). Today Dokkhin Rai and the Ghazi are always represented together, marked in Dokkhin Rai’s case by the symbol of a human head and the Ghazi through his tomb represented by a little earthen mound (these are also always present in the Bonobibi shrines).

For the islanders, the legend of Bonbibi transcends the distinctions of caste, class and religion. This is the reason why those who work in the forest as fishers and crab-collectors stress the fact that they have to consider all jatis, whether Brahmin or Malo, Hindu or Muslim, rich or poor or even human or animal as equal. Tigers and humans “share the same food” because, they explain, both depend on the forest. Tigers eat fish and crabs just like the villagers, and like them, tigers are greedy for wood too. This not only make tigers equal to humans but it also ‘ties’ them to humans. The villagers also stress that Dokkhin Rai, the Ghazi and Bonbibi have to be placed together in shrines to show how different jatis must coexist and negotiate when dealing with the forest. Many Sundarbans islanders say that the most important factor for ensuring their safety in the forest, apart from entering the forest ‘empty handed’ and ‘pure hearted’, is that they should entrust their lives to Bonbibi, live up to her injunctions and not dwell on their differences.

waiting for prosad

This is a guest post by bonbibi

by Sid H Arthur - Pop Life 09 Oct 2007 07:00 pm


Today is the 13th anniversay of the death of S M Sultan.

Sultan’s paintings may be sold at Sotheby’s in London today but for the people of rural Norail, the guru entered folk legend more than half a century ago. They tell us that animals were drawn to him, that he could converse with them, that hundreds of his works are scattered all over the world in all manner of places, given away as gifts, that he cared not for fame or material wealth, choosing to travel from village to village, country to country, returning at last to his source.

The singular chord that runs throughout the body of his work is the image of primordial man in Bengal. He preferred indigenous materials, canvas made of jute and paints made from plants. He worked with this media even when friends offered to supply him with expensive, foreign materials. He has painted his land and people in an unusual manner, not as others see them, in canvasses so large that to create them the painter whirled and danced from one end to another (he often asked tabla players to accompany him while he painted). Heroic figures, images of the primeval men who lived in Bengal. His paintings are his own vision of an ancient world now gone, when man and nature were not at odds, when society was unfragmented and the balance of humanity and nature had been perfected. He appeared to many as a man of that age, timeless and unfettered.

Sultan was born in Norail (in Kushtia in the southwest of Bangladesh) on August 10 1923, and was named Lal (or Lal Mia to use the honourific). His father was a mason, his mother died when Lal was still a young boy. At the age of 15, he left Norail for Calcutta. In 1941, Lal enrolled at the prestigous Calcutta College of Arts and Crafts, but halfway through his studies he left and his lifelong wanderings began. He first traveled to Agra and then to Delhi where he worked as a commercial artist to pay his way. From there he went to Ajmer and thence to Lucknow, where he was the guest of the Nawab. Sultan, still fueled by wanderlust headed to Simla via Shahranpur and over the Kalka. He held his first solo exhibition in Simla in 1946, under the patronage of the Maharajah of Kapurtala. He settled down in northern India for the next six years under the patronage of the Maharajah. Whilst there he wandered between Jalandar, Lahore, Karachi, Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh. In 1948, Sultan held an exhibition in Lahore with the sponsorship of his friends, the artist Abdur Rahman Chughtai and Syed Amjad Ali.

He lived in three continents but never had a fixed abode, never attached prices to his work, never married. He wore his hair long, chose to live out his days in rural Bengal with his dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and snakes rather than the big international cities that beckoned when recognition of his genius came early in his life. He lived on ganja even when he could not afford food, lived as a Baul for many years and, for a period of his life, worshipped Krishna as Radha and chose to dress in a sari, singing and dancing with wandering troubadours.

Sultan also travelled to Lahore, where he lived amongst a group of artists and poets. Towards the end of 1949, Sultan went to Karachi, and held an exhibition there, again under Chughtai. In Karachi, Sultan was selected by the visiting American delegation of the Cultural Exchange Program to represent Pakistan. In 1952, Sultan went to the USA, and travelled throughout the country, exhibiting his work in New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago and Michigan University. In New York, Sultan spent some time in an artist’s commune in SoHo, Greenwich Village, where struggling artists lived together and helped each other. This was an ideal he cherished and tried to encourage in his own country. On his return journey he stopped in London to visit old friends from his Lahore days, Khan Ata and Fateh Lohani.

There he painted and exhibited some works in the Leicester Gallery and participated in an exhibition at the Victoria Embankment, Hampstead alongside Picasso, Dali, Braque, Klee and many other renowned artists. But Sultan soon felt the urge to return. After London, he stopped over in Karachi again to look up old friends (Sadeqin the painter, Hafizuddin the lyricist, Badé Ghulam Ali the qawwal and a host of others) where Sultan resumed life as he always did: with laughter and music and dance. He spent two years in Karachi, before finally in 1953, he returned to Bengal and from there, as if summoned to Norail, to live in the abandoned ancestral home of an old Hindu zamindar. From 1953 to 1976 Sultan lived in virtual obscurity, living the life of a Vaishnava Sanyasi. He continued to travel between Norail and Dhaka.

In Norail he lived for the most part in a colony of Namasudras, a low Hindu caste of barbers and grooms. Sultan always chose to live on the fringes of society despite being claimed by the enthralled elites of Bengal. His one lifelong ambition when he returned to Bengal, to open an art and music school for children, was to remain thwarted. He was also purposefully ignored by the art establishment of Dhaka, in spite of which he managed to establish a Fine Art Institute in Norail in 1969 and in Jessore in 1973. In 1976 he was invited to hold a major exhibition at the Shilpakala Academy, thanks to the championing of his friend, Ahmed Chofa, who brough Sultan back from self-imposed obscurity. This event gave Sultan universal and international recognition as one of the seminal artists of Southasia. Yet even now there exists no single assembled collection of his work housed in a permanent gallery. S M Sultan died on the 10th October 1994 in Norail where he is buried.


Calcutta 1944

Hasan Shahed Suhrawardy lived on Theatre Road in Park Circus. Lal had come for many days and had stood before the main gate. The gatekeeper did not allow him to go in. One day, Suhrawardy’s car stood in front of the gate for quite some time honking its horn. The gatekeeper must have been elsewhere. Taking advantage of the situation Lal moved close to the car and raised his hand in salutation. The car went in. The gate was closed. With a heavy heart Lal was going back when he heard some one call him. He looked back and saw that the gentleman who sat in the car had come out. He had opened the gate and was watching him. A rather short person. Very fair. Expensively clothed, he was surveying Lal with curiosity. Lal went up to him and again saluted.Looking at him the gentleman asked in a mixture of Urdu and Bengali, Did you want to see any one living here ?Lal mentioned the name. The gentleman looked surprised. He looked at Lal carefully and said. I am Shahed Suhrawardy. Come inside. What business do you have with me?He went in, took a chair, and asked Lal to sit in front of him. Then he smiled and said. Now tell me what it is all about. Why did you want to see me?After hearing him out Suhrawardy shook his head. Yes, there is a problem there. No one is admitted without an Entrance certificate. Did you say you came out first in the test ? All right, come a few days later. Let me see what I can do. I’ll have a talk with Mukul De.

When D.N. Roy heard about it he said, Will be done. A word from him will be enough. He is held in great esteem by all. He was well known as an art connoisseur, a profound scholar.

A few days later Lal, with a beating heart, went to Theatre Road in Park Circus. This time the gatekeeper did not bar his way. He had to wait in the drawing room for a while. Shahed Suhrawardy entered with a smiling face and said,

Successful! You will be admitted. You stood first in the test and so a special case was made for you. Go and get a form from the college. Yes, what did you say your name was? Lal Mia? No, no, that would not do. You need a new name, a good name. Tell me your father’s name.

Shaikh Meser, mumbled Lal.

Shaikh Meser, Shaikh Meser. Suhrawardy uttered the name twice, then said, All right, from now on your name will be Shaikh Muhammad Sultan. S M Sultan. Like it?

Lal nodded his head. Yes, he had no objection.

London 1950

“As soon as I took up the pencil or the brush village scenes came pouring in. Lilies blossoming in the vast watery areas, men and women rowing their canoes or catching fish with their nets and specially made bamboo contraptions, peasants harvesting their crops, wide flowing paddy fields stretching toward the horizon, in the distance trees and hedges and thatched cottages and cows. I didn’t know where these scenes came from and began to appear with no conscious effort on my canvases and drawing paper. It seemed to me that I was not working out any form or composition for my paintings. As if someone outside of me got my paintings done by me. But this is the real substance of all art. An invisible and hidden power is always present behind the artist’s creation. It may be memory, experience, blood ties or the attraction of the soil. They become a tremendous power and make the artist obey their directives.”"When I completed a number of canvases Khan Ata and Fateh Lohani took them underground to the tube stations. I accompanied them. My long loose apron and streaming hair naturally attracted the people. When they noticed the paintings they stopped and looked at them. Sometimes they purchased one or two. They came up and talked to me. After selling a fairly large number of canvases in the tube stations we took preparations for a big exhibition. The paintings were exhibited with those of the Hampstead Victoria Embankment Sunday Artists. The Sunday Artists were commercial painters. The purpose of the exhibition was to combine commercialism with publicity. Let them know Bangladesh through some paintings. Let them see the village people of the land whose blood and sweat had made the British Empire rich. “An English gentleman after looking at my work said that he would like to exhibit two of my canvases at the Liecester Gallery. An international exhibition was going to be held there shortly. We readily consented and with pleasure. In the 1950 exhibition at the Liecester Gallery my paintings were exhibited along with those of Picasso, Dubby, Paul Klee, Matisse and Dali. A write-up on me and my work was published in a magazine called The Studio. It said that I was the first Asian artist to have his works exhibited with those of such internationally famous artists. Khan Ata read out the review to us. The two friends embraced and kissed me on both my cheeks. We had a rowdy celebration that evening. Singing continued till dawn. Accompanied by feasting and wild dancing. We sent free drinks to the British patrons. at regular intervals, till the doors of the restaurant were closed.”


Dacca 1952

Zainul Abedin sent for Devadas from the classroom and asked him to go to the airport to receive a crazy fellow. He said, Receive him and bring him over here. It was the year of the Lord 1953.Devadas and his class friend Rouf went to the Tejgaon airport on the scheduled date. There was just one flight throughout the day. it came from Karachi. Most of the passengers were Cabinet Ministers, government officials and a few businessmen. S. M. Sultan would be among them. Neither Devadas nor Rouf had met Sultan before. Mr. Abedin had provided them with a description that might not tally with his present looks. He said. Sultan is a chameleon. He must have changed by this time, but don’t worry, you’ll find him.The Orient Airways flight came on time. The Dakota plane ran straight over the hard concrete and came to a halt holding up its face like a huge bird. Shortly the passengers began to disembark over the staircase. The two friends scrutinized them. Their gaze stuck on someone towards the end of the line. He had a white over-all on. His long hair streamed over his back like a mendicant’s. Fair complexioned and tall. A smile played about his lips. He came down the stairs and started walking in an easy assured manner without looking this way and that for any one. The two friends looked at each other. They would be happy if this handsome, serene looking man turned out to be Sultan.However, he was more likely to be a clergyman. When he came near, they introduced themselves and stood before him hesitantly. He warmly embraced them as if they were very old acquaintances and said, Yes, I am S.M Sultan. Zainul sent you, didn’t he? Fine. Yes. I wrote to him. I am coming after so many years. I don’t know the whereabouts of any of my friends. Won’t recognize the streets, either. That’s why I wrote to Zainul. It was very good of him to send you. What did you say your names were?They told him their names.Sultan said, Very sweet, very sweet names. All Bengali names are sweet. He looked up at the sky and taking a deep breath of air murmured to himself, How sweet. As they came out of the airport they nearly stepped on a little dog. Sultan picked him up with his two hands and hugged him to his breast. Devadas cried out in agitation, Hey, what are you doing? A pariah dog! It will bite you.Sultan embraced the dog with one hand and caressed it with the other and said. Why should he bite me? Isn’t he a Bengali dog? I am a Bengali, he is also a Bengali. We are brothers, friends, right? He looked at the face of the nonplussed dog, put him down, smiled and said, Bye Bye. The dog wagged his tail, looked at Sultan and gave two loud barks.

Sultan said with a smile, I have just arrived, you know. He thinks that I am a foreigner. He will get to know me in a few days and then he won’t bark anymore. He will find out how close I am to him. A gentle smile shone on his face. Devadas and Rouf looked at him with wondering eyes. Then they looked at each other.

Dacca 1953

The Arts College was located in an old building at Segunbagicha. It was a temporary arrangement. A new building was being constructed in Ramna near the University campus. The environment in Segunbagicha was beautiful. It was very quiet. A large number of trees stood all around. There were a few houses of old pattern. All in all, the atmosphere was serene. A bed was set up in a room on the first floor towards the back of the College, close to the window. The branch of a mango tree with its wealth of green leaves seemed to want to get into the room through the window. Birds gathered on the tree from time to time and started to chirp.Rouf said, You might find it uncomfortable to stay here.No, I won’t. It is a lovely place. Very close to nature. How sweet the mango leaves smell! He looked out through the window and took a deep breath filling his lungs with air. Then he said, Not me, but you will find it uncomfortable. I have taken up all the empty space you had. There would be no room for you to move about.Rouf said, Not at all. It won’t be the least uncomfortable for me. I need a place to sleep, that’s all. Sultan glanced at his books and said, What about your studies? You need some space for that, too.Rouf indicated his table and chair and said, That little place in the corner would be enough. Most of our painting work is done in the classroom and outdoors in the fields and other open spots.Sultan said somewhat absentmindedly. Yes. His tone showed that he agreed with Devadas. At the same time it sounded remote and detached.After this, time began to pass amidst great din and bustle. Sultan was a great master in making a gathering lively and kicking. He played on the flute. He had gone to the United States for a short stay. While returning from there he bought in Boston a clarinet for forty dollars. When he came to Dhaka he brought with him only a few things. Among those was this clarinet in a wooden box. As soon as he got settled he brought out his flute and began to play on it. From then on they had their regular music session every evening when Sultan played classical tunes on his flute. Sometimes he danced as well. One day he told Devadas to get him a pair of nupurs, bangles with tiny bells that dancers wore around their ankles.Nupurs ? Devadas looked with surprise at him. Yes. Nupurs. You can’t put in life in your dance without them.

Devadas asked, Do you dance with them on?

Yes, occasionally, to satisfy my hobby.

Devadas said, All right, I’ll get them for you. He won’t be surprised any more at anything. Everything was natural for Sultan.

Rouf said, Your dance clearly shows that you are no novice. Where did you learn to dance, Sultan Bhai?

In Calcutta, from Sadhana Bose. She had opened a dance school on top of Bengal Restaurant at the Whitehall near Firpo. It was called Nrityaleela. I attended it for some time. Sadhana Bose liked my figure and told me that I had the promise of a good dancer. She said to me, Your body has rhythm.


Norail 1955

Crossing the river Chitra, Sultan arrived at Chachuri Purulia, the home of hi maternal uncle…I couldn’t do anything in Dhaka. In Norail, the Diptens are breaking down the home of their forefathers and selling it piece-meal. Uncle, I can’t find any place anywhere. I need a place.A place? What would you do with it?I’ll open a school. Little boys and girls will study there. Between studies they will learn to draw pictures. You know, great artists lie asleep within them. Adequate opportunity must be created for them.What kind of a place do you need?I’ll have to raise a structure. There must be a playground. Some place like that, you know.After hearing him out his uncle said, There is an old building practically in the midst of the dense forest on the outskirts of this village. People call it Kailashtila. It was the home of the Kailash Thakurs at one time. Totally abandoned now. There is no trace of any of their family members. No one claims it. People are afraid of getting close to the place. Besides snakes and reptiles, they say that ghosts and goblins haunt the spot. I have also heard of bandits having their dens in that forest. Have the place cleaned up, if you can. I am sure no one will object.Sultan said, I don’t know anyone here. How can I do it all by myself ‘?

I’ll introduce you to the local people, his uncle said encouragingly. Tell them what you want frankly. They will come forward and help you.

It took Sultan some time to get acquainted with the people of the village. At first the villagers promptly came up to him taking him for a peer, a saintly devout person. Some told him about their ailments and asked for medicines. Others wanted to be rich and begged him to give them a charm or a glass of blessed water full of wondrous efficacy.

Sultan smiled and said, Look, I have no miraculous powers. I don’t know anything, openly or secretly. I simply want to start a school. Little boys and girls will study there. They will draw and paint pictures. I need your help to be able to do that. We have to clear the Kailashtila of the trees, bushes. shrubs and debris of all kinds. Come, my brothers, help me.

Kailashtila? The villagers looked at each other. They exchanged some words among themselves. They cleared their throats and left. A jolly and fun-loving fellow called Ranga came forward. The young boys of the village followed his example. Every morning Sultan went out with his band of boys and Ranga. They went to Kailashtila and began to clear off the jungle with great enthusiasm. it was a deep forest full of ancient trees. Almost like an impenetrable fort. A regular war began between the people and the woods. The trees and bushes of the forest prepared to meet the onslaught of the external enemy. Their tough sturdy trunks and their hard steely branches resisted the attackers weapons, frightening them a great deal . The people’s axes and knives found it difficult to subdue the forest. The banyan tree with its knotted offshoots resembling long braids of hair created an atmosphere of mystery. The dense leaves of the rain trees spread darkness all around. The tall evergreen chhatim trees had their trunks covered with the luscious wealth of their long whirling leaves. The huge mahua trees displayed on their branches cluster after cluster of long egg shaped leaves and created a mysteriously shadowy atmosphere. The darkness of the night in the dense leaves of the round gaab trees was quite terrifying for a stranger. The giant aswathha trees refused to bow down and arrogantly spread their hands and feet wide. The shishu trees with their huge grey coloured trunks, endless barks riddled with holes, and long hanging creepers stood straight with great dignity. The forest, full of familiar and strange trees and bushes, had made Kailashtila almost inaccessible and impenetrable. Underneath the trees there were innumerable creepers, shrubs, thorny patches. On the branches of the trees innumerable birds made their home. In the hollows of the huge trunks of many trees and inside the crevices of the earth lived many reptiles and beasts of various kinds. None of the animals liked the arrival of the people, not to mention their active interference. And as the trees did not want to be felled, so too the beasts and animals growled and began to frighten the people in various ways. Kailashtila was made up of all these.

Yet the boys were not cowed. They jumped apprehensively when they saw the cast off skin of a snake. They ran raising the sticks in their hands when they saw a fox or a skunk and chased the creature away. They threw stones at the large Owls. After resisting heroically, the forest slowly acceded defeat. Ranga jumped in joy, danced and sang. The boys assembled every morning, cleared space after space, and went forward. It took them more than a week thus to reach the gate of the Kailashtila. The brickwork of the gate appeared like patches of raw flesh from which the skin was peeled off. Strong and tough roots of trees had the gate bound and enmeshed as if it was a defeated wrestler. The figures Of two lions on each side of the gate were broken and almost in ruins. yet their sudden sight frightened the people. They too were enclosed all over by the roots of the trees, but they had their faces lifted up in the gesture of a mighty roar.

Kashmir 1946

One day the studio owner told me that an English lady after seeing my paintings had expressed a keen desire to meet me. He had given her my hotel address. Perhaps she would call on me. The following day an English lady came to my hotel. When she saw me she said, I thought you would be older. You paint very well at such a young age. I am here to have a chat with you. I invited her to my room. We took tea and chatted. The lady painted, too. She had a residence-cum-studio of her own at Srinagar, where she was living for over a year. She was surprised to hear that I, too, had been living in Srinagar for nearly a year. How come that I didn’t get to see you ? It is such a small city. Then she said, but I don’t go out very often. After finishing her tea Elizabeth said, Come on, I would like to show you my studio.I found her studio-cum-residence charming. It was right on the Dahl Lake. One could see the whole expanse of the lake from its verandah, as if one was on a boat. In the distance rose the mountain and at its foot lay trees, shrubs and fields of corn and flowers making up a wonderful landscape which took on different colours at different hours of the day. The sky descended on the quiet bosom of the lake and white clouds dived and swam under the water moving from one side of the lake to the other. The blue gradually turned blackish. Morning and evening this play of colour continued in the sky and on the lake.Elizabeth lived there with her little boy. She did not tell where her husband was. When I admired her place she said,You can easily come and live here. My guest house is lying vacant. I hesitated and said, I am not facing any inconvenience at the hotel. She smiled and said, You are feeling shy, aren’t you ? All right, the invitation stands open. You can come later if you want to. But from now on we shall both use this studio and work side by side. The feeling of loneliness will be gone. We can look at each other’s paintings and offer our comments. There is always something one can learn from another. Art appreciation is very important for the artist. It doesn’t matter even if it is critical.Noticing her enthusiasm, I agreed. After that visit I went to Elizabeth’s studio every morning and worked there all day and returned to my hotel in the evening. I had my meals in the studio. We often had our lunch together on the verandah. The Dahl lake lay before us, smooth and transparent like a sheet of glass. I watched it entranced. Unawares, I murmured, Beautiful.Elizabeth asked, What Is ?Gazing at the smooth limbs of the chinar trees in the distance I said, Everything. Elizabeth smiled and said, “You are very clever. Also you have a very quiet and restrained nature”.

I smiled. What else could I do?


Kailashtila 1955

Sultan brought out his pot from his haversack. He took some tobacco on his palm, kneaded it firmly and fixed his pot. Suddenly he saw a dark shadowy figure sitting before him on its haunches. Sultan had no idea when he had arrived there. As he glanced at him, the inky dark figure said, “Shall I light that pot for you?” The figure extended out his dim shadowy hand. You could vaguely feel its presence there but could not see it clearly.Sultan said, “All right”, he sounded perfectly natural.The inky dark figure took the pot in his dim shadowy hand and lit the pot. Sultan took a deep drag filling his lungs. The smoke and the old familiar pungent smell went to his head. His head began to swim. Slowly everything grew clear and bright. Suddenly he felt that his body had grown as light as a feather.The dark jet-black figure came closer and asked, “Why do you smoke that?”Sultan answered, “It helps me to be free from the world and its affairs.”The jet-black figure, bringing his face still closer, said, “Well you are already a free man. You have no family, no kith and kin.”Sultan said, “You are in the world and of the world when you live amongst people. I have never lived completely alone. When I smoke I become totally myself, all alone.

“What do you gain by it?”

“Happiness. Yes, great happiness”, Sultan took another deep drag and said, “When you are intoxicated you can imagine many new things. And, do you know, how many wonderful colours swim before your eyes? At least so it seems.”

Sultan inhaled deeply filling his lungs with the intoxicating smoke. He realized that his body was growing lighter. Soon it would begin to soar upwards from the earth and float like a piece of cloud. A number of colour would begin to glitter before his eyes. He would be hearing some enchanting music.

Just then the dark, black figure turned into smoke and vanished into thin air.

Sultan thought, it could be a djinn. But it didn’t scold or criticize him. Did no harm either. He decided he could safely live in Kailashtila. No one would create any problems.

Excerpts taken from the novel Sultan by Hasnat Abdul Hye (translated by Kabir Chowdhury)

by Sid H Arthur - Human Rights & Democracy 01 Oct 2007 10:48 pm

Free Burma

Free Burma

Join the growing list of international bloggers in a day of support for the brave people of Burma. Sign up here and just post one banner post on October 4, 2007 with the words “Free Burma!”.

by Sid H Arthur - Muslim Extremism 30 Sep 2007 11:33 pm

How I became a Muslim Extremist

On Panorama, BBC1, this Monday at 8.30 p.m.:How I became a Muslim extremist
What is it like to actually be an extremist and serve the political goals of radical Islam?

What is it like to think like an extremist and adopt an ideology that demands you abandon all aspects of your former life - including your friends and family?

On Monday’s Panorama Shiraz Maher exclusively tells his story.

He is a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), a radical organisation campaigning for the creation of caliphate - an Islamic state. It operates in many countries.Shiraz makes the case for a re-think of how the government should de-radicalise people like himself.

He tells how after 9/11, he had a chance conversation with a HT member at a mosque and within weeks became a member of the cell.

The cell thought that democracy was incompatible with Islam, that the state of Israel should be destroyed, and that Shariah law should be imposed over the entire world with violence being used to achieve this.

Shiraz rose through the ranks to become a regional leader of HT.

It soon dominated his whole life - from refusing to go to family weddings because the women were not segregated, to recruiting as many people as possible to the cause.

While at Cambridge University he even tried to recruit Kafeel Ahmed into HT, who was later alleged to be part of the attack on Glasgow airport.

Shiraz has now ‘come-out’ and now wants to expose HT for the organisation it is.

HT Britain is trying to market itself as a conciliatory and moderate organisation that condemns violence as a means to achieve political ends.

With access to other former HT insiders, and HT literature the group wanted to keep hidden, Shiraz will reveal that HT Britain’s conciliatory approach is merely a crude facade that conceals the same radical and extreme views.

Update (1 October):

The BBC Panorama documentary on Hizbut Tahrir on Shiraz Maher (former Hizbut Tahrir senior) aired today and can be seen here. The documentary is essential viewing and will disabuse anyone of the illusion that the Hizbut Tahrir is a “benign, progressive Muslim organisation”.

by Sid H Arthur - Human Rights 27 Sep 2007 11:31 am

Free Arif

Free Arifur Rahman

I join the bloggers who call for the immediate and unconditional release of 23 year old cartoonist Arifur Rahman. Arif was arrested by the Bangladesh military government for drawing a harmless cartoon that was published in the leading Bengali language newspaper Prothom Alo. He was not allowed legal represention and was sent to jail without any due process.

Bloggers campaigning:

  • Shourobh
  • Mash
  • Third World View
  • Dhaka Shohor

Join the facebook group.

by Sid H Arthur - Race & Identity 27 Sep 2007 11:12 am

Foxy Racist!


Bill O’Reilly the FOX-News pundit, who’s on record for having made more than a few arse-cringeingly inappropriate comments during the Hurricane Katrina broadcasts has done it again.

He started out by praising the staff and largely black clientele of the restaurant for being “very, very nice” and “tremendously respectful”. Warming to his theme, he said: “I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks.”

Cue the ‘taken out of context’ contextualisations from FOX News.

by Sid H Arthur - Ethnicity & Censorship 26 Sep 2007 04:33 pm

Charles Protests Brick Lane

Prince Charles has pulled out of the Royal Premiere screening of Brick Lane scheduled for October 29. From AIM:

A spokesperson for Clarence House admitted to the Times today that Prince Charles was unable to make it because of the controversy surrounding the film as well as the royal couple’s busy schedule.

“Obviously there has been quite a lot of controversy about that film which everyone was aware of. … The appropriateness of the film chosen is important but so is the date. It is a mixture of both reasons.”

The controversy that the Royals are fleeing from refers to last year’s protests which prevented location filming on Brick Lane. The protests, organised by thugs operating from a sweet shop on Brick Lane, received so much publicity at the time that the film producers had to change the location to somewhere else. As AIM reported at the time:

Abdus Salique is quoted in the Guardian today, warning that “nobody can come with a camera and make a film about that book here”, adding that Monica Ali was “not one of us” and had “insulted us”.

Mr Salique hinted at a potential outbreak of violence. “Young people are getting very involved with this campaign. We had more than 100 people attend yesterday’s meeting. They are willing to blockade the area and guard our streets.”


Another local resident, Abdul Goffur, told AIM magazine that the protest was “blown out of proportion”.

“It’s a minority and they’re trying to make themselves known,” he said. “But I live in Brick Lane and we’ve got a thousand guys who are in support of this. This film will be helpful in opening up our community and helping us progress as a community as a whole.”

The irony is that a tiny, reactionary and potentially violent contingent of protesters claimed to speak on behalf of the entire Bengali community in the East End and yet complained about the lack of authenticity of Ali’s book! The range of opinion of the book that exists within the Bengali community is wide, knowledgeable and heterogenous. But you wouldn’t know that from the news coverage which focused on these thugs who hadn’t even read it.

Predictably a certain section of the British liberal intellegentsia sided with the reactionaries. Germaine Greer showed us how they are unable to move beyond the “noble savage” perception of East End Bangladeshis.

Prince Charles thinks nothing of sharing the dais with the clerical bigot Maulana Delwar Hussain Sayeedi at the East London Mosque, but finds it prudent to avoid controversy by cancelling the Royal Film Premiere. You couldn’t make this up!

Make it a point to see the film in spite of Prince Charles, Germaine Greer and the book burners of Brick Lane.

by Sid H Arthur - Bangladesh & Censorship 25 Sep 2007 05:12 pm

No Ray of Sunshine

It is never difficult to distinguish between a Khilafist with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.

That’s my reworking of P.G. Wodehouse’s memorable line. Of course, he wasn’t referring to Hizbut Tahrir, but the sentiment remains the same.

Photo: Amirul Rajiv

Yesterday thousands of “activists” from Hizbut Tahrir in Bangladesh marched the streets of Dhaka to protest the publication of a cartoon which was not in the slightest offensive to Muslims, no matter what the Khatib of Baitul Muqarram would like us to believe.

Most of these HuTs are young men who have been recruited from private universities and this means that they are the products of relatively privileged backgrounds. There are many life and death issues which you would think would offend the sensibilities of Khilafa-glorifying students that would compel them to hit the streets in protest. A cursory glance at their literature would suggest that they would be protesting the parlous state of the schooling system, the lack of wealth distribution, the lack of jobs for graduates, secularism, usury in the banking system and so on. All of which, I would have thought, would rate highly in the ‘Offensive Charts’ if you were a Khilafist.

But no. Instead, they’re protesting a minor cartoonist’s affectionate parody of Muslim naming customs. This was the offence to the Prophet Muhammed and Muslim-majority Bangladesh to some and an example of “evil forces out to destabilise the country” to others high up in Authority.

And who are at fault behind these offences according to the HuT? The Jews of course, if the banner pictured above (which reads “Close down Prothom Alo - Friend to the Jews”) is anything to go by. The Jooooos are behind it!

Fine Young Cannibals
Photo: Amirul Rajiv

Compare and contrast these fine young cannibals with the nobility and courage of the Burmese monks. There on the streets of Yangon are the penniless sons of peasants who are putting their lives on the line for their countrymen, peacefully facing the guns of a military government who have killed dissenters indiscriminately in the past and will no doubt kill again.

Whereas our private-university-educated firebrands solemnly carry out the pretence that they are religious elites. See how they strut in their Khilafa-chic, all fists, t-shirts and black Shahaada bandanas.

They would like us to think that it takes bravery to be Khilafa-poseurs in Muslim-majority Bangladesh and agitate for the installation of the Blasphemy Law, censorship and for the jailing without trial of journalists. Yes, brave as cockroaches in the dead of night.

by Sid H Arthur - Religion & Politics 25 Sep 2007 11:47 am

Queer Nation

In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. In Iran we do not have this phenomenon, I don’t know who has told you that we have it.

So said Ahmadinejad at Columbia University.

Well, you could have fooled us Mahmoud. Who’s the hotty you’re sucking the face off?

Queer as Folk

Perhaps what he means is that he’s doing his best to rid the nation of gay people.

by Sid H Arthur - South Asia & Politics 24 Sep 2007 12:31 am

Burma: Religious Support for Democracy

Myanmar (Burma) has been under the kosh of a brutally repressive military junta since 1962 but the tide might finally be turning.

The last 4 days have seen protest by tens of thousands of monks marching to Yangon; and their lines are growing.

Burmese Monks

Burmese religionists leading the popular uprising against an anti-democratic, totalitarian, military dictatorship!

The irony is that in neighbouring Bangladesh, the religionists have always been hand-in-glove with the military in robbing the people of democratic rights.

Bangalis could look east for religious and political inspiration. And a golmalist can but dream.

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