Elias was a major Bengali fiction writer particularly noted for his subtle sense of humor, realistic use of dialogue and dialect, and for his Marxist commitment to the lower class in both towns and villages in Bangladesh. His last major novel, called Khoabnama (Dream Book), is set in rural Bangladesh during a long historical period spanning several centuries. Some of the major characters in this novel are landless farmers, who still constitute a large segment of the population in Bangladesh. The novel weaves together numerous stories and episodes of struggles, frustrations, hopes, and dreams of these people. What follows is an episode in which the landless farmer Tameez wants to work on the land owned by a large farmer (Abdul Aziz) in an arrangement known as “sharecropping,” which has a long tradition in many countries, and used to be common in the Southern United States. The landed farmer provides the land itself and the landless farmer not only cultivates it and produces crops but also provides seeds and other necessary means of cultivation. When crops are finally produced, the landed farmer receives two thirds of the crop and the landless farmer gets only one. Besides showing how exploitative this system is, the passage also portrays part of a well-known historical struggle of landless farmers against sharecropping.
Contrast the way Tameez is living with the way his ancestors lived as explained in the last paragraph.
Tameez pays a price for his decision. He leaves Khiyar (1) in order to become a sharecropper in his own village. He stomachs all kinds of criticisms. He does not have a cow. He does not have a plow or a yoke or a harrow; nor does he have a single cowrie (2) to buy even a handful of seed. So how can anyone possibly trust his ability to sharecrop? With hands together, however, Tameez desperately prays for a piece of land. He tries to persuade the landowner, Sharafat Mondol, to lease him at least a bit of land. He also tells Mondol that he will be reimbursed for the expenses of cultivation after the harvest.
Tameez’s proposal sounds attractive. It is not that such sharecropping arrangements have not worked in the past. But Sharafat Mondol’s eldest son, Abdul Aziz, is a clever and cautious man. He lives in Joypur where he works as a clerk at an office of land registration. There is perhaps no one in the entire village of Lathidanga who can match his knowledge of matters relating to land. So Abdul Aziz pays in advance only half the prices of cows and other means of production like ploughs, yokes, harrows, and seeds. He whispers to himself, ‘you have nothing yet you want to sharecrop, eh? Well, then, you should simply follow whatever terms and conditions I dictate now.”
But Abdul Kader comments, “These folks have been here for a long time. Even Tameez’s father once worked on our land. . . .”
But landless farmers have meanwhile gone out of bounds. Their agitation (3) has already begun in town and it seems that the wave of protest may soon reach this eastern part of the village across the Korotoya River. Farmers in Khiyar are now insisting on two shares out of three, wanting to give only one to the landowner. Of course you can always demand whatever you want–you don’t have to pay taxes for speaking out. But the farmers argue that one important fact remains unchanged: the landlord cannot command the land to walk into his courtyard and deliver the crop. Or does he suppose that land is a heron that it can fly in a flash from that monstrous Arjun (4) in Kamarpara to the tree overlooking the mansion of the Mondols? What the hell does he know about the value of land? Does he know that plowing even a tiny piece of land costs at least a pound of human blood, oozing from the body like salt?
Abdul Aziz of course watches the uprising in Khiyar–a nagging pain in the ass, of course–while he also wonders if it will soon make the peasants’ blood boil in his own locality. Yet he feels no compulsion to please anyone in particular. All he wants is simply the full enforcement of the sharecropping rules in his locality. “Follow the rules or get the hell out of my land”–that’s the only policy Abdul Aziz seems to care for.
How can Tameez soothe these anxieties of Abdul Aziz? Abdul Aziz is simply Abdul Aziz: one who effortlessly writes his name in English “M. A. Aziz” at one solid stretch (5), one who attends all kinds of meetings and forums, who retails–whenever he gets a chance to do this–all the horrid stories of oppressions Hindus have inflicted on Muslims, and who therefore urges all Muslims to unite under the banner of the Muslim League (6) so as to put an end to those oppressions, But now even Abdul Aziz cannot help scratching his head. Whatever may happen, the fact still remains: Abdul Aziz holds a position in an office of land registration in Joypur where his both hands stay equally alive and active. But as he leaves Joypur to spend a few days in his village, his left hand turns uncomfortably passive, (7) although it daily wipes the shit from his ass after his inevitable response to the inescapable call of nature. Abdul Aziz, however, compensates for the momentary inactivity of his left hand by the unleashed activity of his tongue and teeth.
Tameez himself watched farmers make a great commotion to the West. (8) But does he like all this fuss himself? No, he doesn’t. He still believes the landowner should dictate the terms of sharecropping arrangement simply because he is the owner of land. Yet these landless farmers, armed with weapons, have tried to claim the larger share of the crop. To halt this move, however, some landowners have hired a group of workers to harvest the fields. Although Tameez comes from the eastern part of the country, he has easily gotten one of these jobs. The landowners have, it seems, also informed and bribed the police. And how many places can be policed at once?
That day Tameez had begun harvesting in a cheerful mood because he had been offered a wage-rate better than usual. He was working enthusiastically, thinking that the sooner he finished harvesting the paddy, the better. But as soon as the sun had reached the middle of the sky, he heard the angry demonstrating farmers swooping in. But God-the-Great saved him: he broke into a run before they could catch him by the scruff of his neck. Even the thin wives and daughters of the angry farmers joined in with brooms, large knives, potatoes, and sticks. Had not he run through the field or had not he quickly leapt over the harvest lying scattered in the field, he would have surely received at least a mighty blow from a broom or even a whacking blow of a cooking potato or two. Who knew?
Perhaps he did receive one or two. If a woman beats a man, it is unlikely that he will spread word of it. By the time Tameez reachedf the landowner’s courtyard, he felt their fuss was absolutely pointless and disgusting. Land is after all Lakshmi (9) and crops are her offspring. If the crops are caught in a tug of war, the very body of the land gets hurt! (10) Crops are the soul of the soul of the landowner. Tameez was anguished by the mob’s sheer insensitivity to the sufferings of the land. True, his father and grandfather and great grandfather had all lived on fishing; they were not traditional land-farmers. Yet Tameez empathized with the pain of the land. A long time ago, long before Tameez was born, the legendary largest type of fish–the Baghar fish, as it was called–used to add to the spectacle of the famous Poradaha (11) fair, simply because none but Tameez’s great grandfather–Baghar-the-boatman–could catch it. This is why Tameez’s father later adopted the name of his own grandfather, the name of the famous fish-catcher, to keep the glory of his family alive. This ancestral glory, however, ended with Tameez’s father, who had been known more as Baghar’s grandson than as anything else. And Tameez today is known as simply as Tameez.
Translated by Azfar Hussain
(1) The name of a village in northern Bangladesh.
(2)”Cowrie” means “penny.”
(3) This is a historical reference to the uprising of landless peasants against large farmers in Bengal in the nineteenth century during British colonial rule (1757-1947). The protesting farmers demanded larger shares of the crops.
(4) The name of a tree.
(5) The language of the majority of people in Bangladesh today is Bengali. During the British colonial rule (1757-1947), people who could read, write, or use English–the language of the colonizer–were held in great esteem and benefited from certain social and economic privileges which others without knowledge of English simply could not share.
(6) The leading sectarian political party led by middle-and upper-class Muslim activists. The other sectarian political party led by middle-and upper-class Hindu activists is known as Congress. During the British colonial rule in India (1757-1947), when Bangladesh was part of India, these two parties, which came into being in the twentieth century, were not only involved in anti-colonial struggles against the British rulers but were also responsible for much of the tension between Hindus and Muslims on the Indian subcontinent.
(7) The activity of the left hand has a specific local meaning in Bangladesh: while the right hand does the assigned job, the left hand takes the money as a bribe. The fact that Tameez is a corrupt and dishonest man is indicated by the activity of his left hand.
(8) The western part of the country.
(9) Lakshmi is the Hindu goddess of prosperity.
(10) Land is often personified in Bengali literature.
(11) The name of a semi-urban area in the northern part of Bangladesh.
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