As any of Iliyas bhai's anniversary nears, his admirers particularly of the Marxist variety gird their loins and decide to proclaim to the world what a great revolutionary he was. In fact, more Marxist the merrier approach towards his writings is common. As someone who knew him personally, I would hardly deny the political content of his writings but it was not there as an objective but an element of wider domain. He was not an ideologue trying to convert the world but a story teller with a sense of history.

But of course our sensibilities are measured by the length and width of our political pajamas. So one should not even be surprised if a literary faction stands up and declares, he was a member of the political party which almost came to power and he would have made a great Marxist president. What he has gained politically, he has lost some of the shine in terms of literature.

Iiyas bhai and history

I first met Iliyas bhai when I was a student of Dhaka University's History department. Late Aziz-ur Rashid bhai was a senior of ours by a year and one of the top students of our department. He was also a close relative of the author and often resided in his home.

I was a vocal leftie and also interested in History. It was the mid-70s and a time of change, transition and trauma. Most of us were trying to cope with events far beyond anyone's control as violence and uncertainty haunted us all. However, the so -called human spirit was very much alive so we quickly left all that passed behind and moved on to live and occasionally die.

Aziz bhai one day told me that he wanted to take me to Iliyas bhai who wanted to discuss some "history' related topics. Obviously, I wasn't invited just because I was a good student but probably also considered a "leftie" by some. But I believe it was mostly because I had already written on the topic of the Permanent Settlement of 1793, the mother of the zamindari system. That was a key factor as it was about the historicity of class struggle which liked both together. It's not ideology but understanding the forces and power of history.

We met at iliyas bhai's residence in Tikatuli, the neighbourhood of my birth and chatted on the Permanent Settlement and related issues for seven straight hours. It was one of the more amazing conversations of my life as we travelled not just over history but the attendant literature and subsequent society as well. And we never even got up to have a cup of tea. But most importantly we three didn't miss it. And therein lies the significance of his obsession with history, perhaps also mine and others.

The novels and the stories

The two novels on which all discussions focus on forgetting his literary oeuvre are both historical novels. They are also about human relations as well rather than any political dogma. But as it's easier to "brand" a writer, moving from there, people look for its revolutionary content and want to convince others, particularly FB radicals that he is almost a member of the party. In the many conversations we had, I don't remember once when he was thinking of forwarding any ideology. He really had less interest in such issues beyond a historical sense of injustice. But appropriating his identity by ideology serves others not him.

The result of such politicization has been the neglect of the author's achievements and diminishment of his literary identity. Suddenly he is no more a writer but an almost picketer, a slogan loyal politician. He has to put it crudely been used politically and in the process undervalued by a dominating section of the current literary warriors.

This act of slicing up his literature and upholding a purely political view of his works which mostly focus on his two novels has hurt his status deeply as he has been narrowed down. His political brand has become more important than his literary one. He has been turned into a political person largely and the loss is shared both by him and his readers who don't even know that he wrote some of the finest short stories in Bangla.

I remember his first collection of short stories, "Onno Ghor onno shor "(Another voice, another room) was reviewed in weekly Bichitra and dubbed him, "the voice of the old city." I was amused and felt that the reading of the book was not deep. I asked him what he thought of the review. He smiled sadly, and said, "What can I do? Some people can't go beyond their own selves and read and say what suits them. Who wants to be a writer limited by an area or idea?"

That problem continues to plague Iliyas bhai and his works. We don't read his work openly. We read what we think he should have written and lose sight of the author.

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