On 2 November 2020, we had the second reading group for the new academic year on the theme of “Activism and Resistance”. We read the 1905 short story Sultana’s Dream by Begum Rokeya Hossain and we watched the 2009 short film The Distance From Here by Bani Abidi.
We tried out a new platform, Jitsi Meet, which allows for a better view of all participants compared to Blackboard Collaborate and has a better ethical approach to data and privacy than Zoom, two of our previous platforms. Ibtisam Ahmed, one of the allies of the LSFRC for this year’s theme, acted as a respondent to the texts due to his academic expertise and lived experiences of being a Bangladesh decolonial utopian scholar.
Context for Sultana’s Dream
It was pointed out that the story was written in Bengal during the period when South Asia was under British colonial rule. Bengal had been the capital of the British Raj, and had also been the intellectual and political centre of anti-colonial dissent. At the same time, the 1900s was a period in which religious and sectarian division became entrenched in the region, including the solidification of caste, class and gender divisions within communities.
Bengal was officially Partitioned into a Hindu-majority West and Muslim-majority East in 1905. Although that decision would be reversed in 1911, it set the blueprint for the eventual Partition of the Raj into India and Pakistan (and later, Bangladesh) in 1947. Thus, the short story draws on contemporary issues for its critiques of colonialism and Islamic patriarchy.
Context for The Distance From Here
Post-colonial South Asia has seen the unfettered growth of nationalism and patriotic dogma in its constituent countries. The borders that were created during Partition have led to multiple conflicts and refugee crises, which, in turn, have led to the strengthening of these boundaries as immutable barriers between sites of contestation and upheaval.
Bureaucracy, a seemingly apolitical and benevolent remnant of colonial power and control, has become a key factor in upholding these boundaries, especially in responding to the changing relations between India and Pakistan, and the impact they have on immigration and travel. Thus, the film, created over a century after the short story, reflects a different form of resistance to a similar problem: territorial control and the policing of bodies (this time with a focus on class and travel rather than on gender and science).
The group reflected on the accessibility of language (or lack thereof) in both pieces. The short story is intentionally written in English – which was the imposed language of the colonial power – both to make a point of resistance that could be read by the colonial authorities and to allow resistance in other parts of the Raj to not be left out of solidarity due to having different vernaculars. The film is devoid of speech but ends up having a similar impact because it allows the action to be imposed on and read as different locales, while, nonetheless, centring written English as key to the bureaucratic process, as demonstrated by the ubiquitous sound of the typewriters.
Thus, by universalising the language of the pieces, they transcended the specific geopolitical situations in which they were created. Yet, there are also linguistic turns in the short story that were explicitly Bengali in its approach to satire. Even though the language may be a “foreign” imposition, its usage is definitely a local standard which falls within the wider usage of Indian-style English as an anti-colonial tool and an adopted dialect.
Economics and Technology
Sultana’s Dream offers an innovative look at sustainable technology and an ethos of environmentally friendly agriculture. Science fictional technologies include the harnessing of solar and wind energies, and these are then used not only for harnessing food and energy but also for public gardens as displays of communal wealth.
This was not simply an ecological critique; it also reflected on the damage that colonial industrialisation had done to the region. The mechanisation of textiles and crafts had destroyed the livelihoods of local artisans and their suppliers. Meanwhile, the hoarding of food supplies and shipment of foods deemed “exotic” had played a significant role in the famines that had affected Bengal under British rule. The story falls within the broader tradition of critiquing colonial industrialisation that stemmed from, and fed into later iterations of, farmer revolt.
In The Distance From Here, technology is more normalised, almost mundane, as demonstrated in how airports and immigration offices use metal detectors, typewriters and other machines, often in cramped and industrial areas. But a similar economic critique is present. Modern-day South Asia sees a large number of migrant workers who are working class and/or from lower castes travel abroad (especially to the Middle East) for employment.
It is an exploitative system that preys on the vulnerable, often stranding them abroad due to bureaucratic “accidents” in processing their paperwork. Thus, travel becomes a neo-colonial dynamic of control for some bodies, while the technology of such objects as typewriters can be quite sinister if used incorrectly.
Marginalisations and Justice
The two pieces approach specific identities as precarious. Sultana’s Dream places women in the role of the oppressed who have rebelled and changed the status quo. They have rejected both colonial conquest and local patriarchy, going so far as to place men within the confines of a segregated mardanna – a playful reversal of the zenanna. (Interesting to note is that gendered norms and language in parts of pre-colonial and colonial India did implicitly include trans individuals, so it would be disingenuous to read the story as conventionally gendered in its binary of man/woman, though there is a lack of non-binary and third gender bodies.)
During the session, it was noted that the reversal of roles in the story, in addition to being intentionally tongue-in-cheek and satirical, was also a rejection of the idea that equality can happen in the absence of justice. Thus, the sequestering of women is responded to in kind, rather than a more traditional and conciliatory approach to equality. This is a further reflection of the type of early eco-feminist critique that stemmed from anti-colonial peasant revolts.
The Distance From Here is not as gendered in its marginalisation, with the focus falling on class instead. There are subtle hints to wealth in the clothing of the travellers/applicants (slightly worse-kept and more examples of local clothing such as saris) and the bureaucratic gatekeepers (better kept and more examples of Westernised clothing such as dress shirts).
The lack of ambient music, often a common feature of airports in leisure locations also stresses the oppressive nature of the type of travel that is accessible to working classes and migrant labourers. This is not a space of enjoyment but of cold, calculating functionality. The possibility of immigration and travel, while physically transcending borders, does not actually represent a sense of freedom; only a shifting of the location of oppression.
Dreams, Metaphors and Joy
Both pieces take advantage of their fictional nature (the story literally being a dream, the film an artistic metaphor) for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, using fiction to express criticism is a common tactic of activism and resistance in places where censorship and punishment are high. In the British Raj, there were several pieces of legislation passed to control printing presses and newspapers. In modern South Asia, media can and often does fall under intense national scrutiny when commenting on cross-border issues. Thus, fiction creates an in-built protection for the creators.
On the other hand, the endings of both pieces allow for an interpretation as a call to action. In Sultana’s Dream, the protagonist is left with an aspiration towards the dream-society she visited, especially as the utopian Ladyland wants to diplomatically engage with other countries that have a progressive approach to women’s rights. In The Distance From Here, meanwhile, an unnamed character defies the strict lines and queues in the airport and walks freely, at the very least offering, if not encouraging, the possibility of change from below.
In both cases, this aspiration towards change is seen as transformative and joyful. It is with that hope that the session closed with an appeal towards solidarity for issues affecting South Asia today. The exploitation of migrant labourers and local workers is upheld by global capitalism and the neoliberal marketplace, including industries like fast fashion in the UK. The rise of authoritarianism and minority rights abuses in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are all overlooked by global governments for the purposes of strategic interest. And individuals fleeing these systems are subjected to an inhuman asylum and refugee process here, including indefinite detention periods. There is much work still to be done – including work that can be done by people living outside the region.