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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 34, New Delhi, August 8, 2020

Akhtaruzzaman Elius: A Journey from Partition to Emancipation | Debatra K. Dey

Friday 7 August 2020

by Debatra K. Dey


Reading Akhtaruzzaman Elius (henceforth Elius) against the backdrop of both undivided and divided Bengal is painful as it depicts the horrified exclusion of have-nots both before and after partition. By profession a college teacher in Bengali born just before the partition, Eius has composed only two novels one in the context of 1971 and another in the context of partition along with twenty-five odd short stories and a few Articles. He identifies his time spreading from the great famine in Bengal in 1940s to the end of last century as an amalgamation of grief, disgrace, failure, helplessness and betrayal. Elius confronts his time in his unique manner with all its humility where socially lower communities including Hindus and Muslims are represented with their limitations to think beyond two square meals and historically being excluded from ‘enlightenment’. The central character of Khoabnama (Dream Elegy), a landless Muslim youth in his early thirties conceives independence as insurance to his larger share in crop and when all his dreams had been brutally shattered he did not have a second thought to join in the movement. On the other side, the elite whom Elius describes as ‘basic democrat’ remains indifferent as they were largely untouched or less affected during the period of famine and partition. The same saga continues in independent Bangladesh with wider gap between rural masses and urban middle class classically presented in Chilekothar Sepai (Soldier at the Attic). No serious reader could avoid the dichotomy in the novel when a rickshaw puller in Dhaka unhesitatingly sacrificed his life for independence and a revolutionary could have a pleasant slip in the same time frame. In short stories, he is articulative in depicting the agony of partition, insecurity of common people with the trauma of partition, opportunism of political elites in independent Bangladesh and the unchanged lives of the downtrodden. The paper focuses on how this exclusion still stands true in present Bengal as per Elius. It seeks to explore how and why Elius is more concerned with the breaking of dreams and how his characters’ dreams of a better life get shattered continuously.

[Draft paper for presentation at 23rd Annual Conference of Indian Political Economy Association to be held on 8-9 November 2019 at Punjabi University, Patiala]

Aktaruzzaman Elius (henceforth Elius) in was not a prolific writer in any sense. In his credit he has two novels, twenty-five short stories and handful of articles issues covering from primary education in the colonial period to the responsibility of a political worker dedicated for the emancipation of the society. His first collection of short stories was published in 1976 while his first novel ‘ChilekotharSepai’ (Soldier at the Attic) was published in 1986 written in the context of peoples’ movement in 1969 in East Pakistan. His epic novel ‘Khoabnama’ (Dream Elegy) was published after ten years of his first one written in the context of the partition of Bengal. His short stories cover the national liberation movement of 1971 vividly while the resistance of common people remains at his core. Are these enough to look into Elius’s work from the prism of political economy? Surely not, because in his works Elius tries to find the roots of inequality, power struggle, the vested interest of the elite and middle class and of course the ray of hope in the lives of poor and uneducated proletariats whether he may be a landless labour in a remote village of the then undivided Bengal or a rickshaw puller in the city of Daka in East Pakistan.

He identifies his time spreading from the great famine in Bengal in the 1940s to the end of last century as an amalgamation of grief, disgrace, failure, helplessness, riot partition and betrayal. Elius confronts his time in his unique manner with all its humility where socially lower communities including Hindus and Muslims are represented with their limitations to think beyond two square meals and historically being excluded from ‘enlightenment’. Born in 1943 during the period of famine in Bagura of the northern part of Bengal he completed his master degree in Bengali Literature from the University of Dhaka. By profession a teacher in Daka College for decades, Elius believed that without going to the deep of any problem of our society if any artist remains busy with the wetness and sorrow of our relatives and friends it may create some degree of temporal tension but for the posterity, our works will be considered as gibberish. He desires if the Artists avoid the hardness of life in their contextuality then there is no need to present their creation (Elius, 2000a, pp: 148). The aim of this paper is not to critically view Elius’s literary creation but to understand the hidden political economy existing in his works particularly in his two novels. It is told that Elias knew that his target audience is a particular group of people, though a few in numbers, they have the tenacity and anger to fight against any vested interest (Elias, 2000a). He was passed away only at the age of fifty-four in the month of January 1997 suffering from cancer depriving many of us from getting his unique way of presenting myths and reality. On Elius, Zayed (2017) comments that like many greatest writers in the world Elius may note me, great entertainer. Readers should focus more on his style of innovative language and radical thematic content both of which grew organically out of the soil of the world he builds in his work.

Reading Elius is not only a pain stacking job but at the same time it is also painful against the backdrop of both divided and undivided as it depicts the horrified exclusion of have-nots both before and after partition. The larger backdrop of his literary works covers the colonial period to post-liberation movement in Bangladesh. Elius mentioned that though Bengal was agriculturally rich and its craft especially fine cotton products had a world market its vast population remained uneaten for centuries. He starts the novel in the context of the Second World War due to which abnormal rapid price hike of all commodities even touched the remote agrarian economy of Bengal. Famine and massacre of hundreds of thousand people are the two common result of the war (Mazumder, 2016).Hunger was a major concern of Elius as he writes in an essay on Gunter Grass “Since ages we have not eaten well. Bengali poetry which was written a thousand years ago began with the news of rice less pots. Those who have no food in their stomachs, their stomachs would burn and rage. Yes, starvation and half-fed stomachs are the prime cause of our gastric ulcer” (Dasgupa). The effect of Permanent settlement Act 1793 had a devastating effect on rural economy. Now, most of the land of this part of the country had been handed over to absentee landlord most of which are Calcutta base higher caste Hindu. On the other hand, almost all the farmers are either Muslims or lower caste Hindu beautifully presented in Khoabnama. In an interview, Elius opined that these two bottom sections of Bengali society in terms of hierarchy remain closely for centuries which cannot be thought from middle-class backdrop. The difference between Arbi and Sanskrit lies in the upper strata, not at the level of proletariat. Demand for Pakistan did not arise from this basic class rather it was the aspiring middle-class Muslims who advocated for Pakistan (Bhattyacharya, 2012). In this larger context Elius countered partition by bringing Tebhava, the question of class leads his readers in a more complicated reality. The central character of Koabnama, Tamij a landless peasant at his early thirties dreams for a higher share of his production tilled by his labour but abruptly denied by the landlord had to gone by an organic change from a loyal sharecropper to an ardent supporter of Tebhaga. Fisherman Tamij turns into sharecropper Tamij and after partition when Tebhaga was actually crumbling he opts to fight for it. The most inspired prose in the novel recreates Tamij’s quest for emancipation and this may sum up the politics of Elius (Das, ibid). Rahaman (2019) notes that in Elius’s literature ‘class antagonism’ exists not between opposing classes but also within the same ‘objective class’ as a class is not a static whole but dynamic. In Khoabnamapeople with different occupations belonging to the same class but they maintain an antagonistic relationship. Elias envisaged an organic consciousness that can be traced in the trajectory of Tamij. It may imply that class consciousness should emerge from the social experience of people’s lives rather than being imputed from outside. Increasing participation of common people over time around the demand for higher share across religions spreads insecurity among the landowning class in the rural areas. One can recall that in the election of 1946 in West Pakistan the ratio of vote in favour of Pakistan was less than 50% while the same was 98% in East Pakistan (Bhattacharya, 2012). As per The very political economy which breeds Tebhaga allowed forces in favour of partition to communialisation of class struggle (Rahaman, ibid). Even the folk singer Keramat Ali was pressurized from the leaders to compose songs on Pakistan but Keramat fails to compose such song rather he is keener to compose on Tebhaga. He has the experience of Tebhaga where his songs inspired people in the battlefield. Again Elius poses class struggle before partition in his unique style. The leaders assured Tamij and his class that in Pakistan they would get their appropriate share of crop hitherto denied. However, at last Tamij lost her father and stepmother while his wife and baby girl whom he didn’t able to see for once remained in the village and he had to flee in Daka to avoid arrest warrant framed by his landlord.Thus the dream of Tebhagawas not only shattered but also gone to grave permanently. In Elius’s term “I believe that subalterns of Bengal revolted several times but we could not give them due recognition. Whenever any movement reaches its climax some had hijacked it and latter part these movement becomes a betray” (Translation author, pp:29, Bhattyacharya, 2012). Dasgupta argued that Elias’s denouncement of Partition even to the members of his own class reflects his Marxist point of view because Partition was calculated class collusion, if not a conspiracy, between the Muslim League and Congress, between the upper middle-class leaderships of both these power blocks reinforced as they were by the share-the-pie stratagem of the Birlas and Ispahanis. Elius expresses his discontent about partition in his very own unique was as he asks through Choto Mia what else Muslim League in Bengal offered apart from famine. In opposite Hindu bhadraloks consider, Muslims pretty subordinates uttered ‘Our Shyamaprasad is right. We demand a divided Bengal even in an undivided India’. Further Das states that the conflict is not only between Hindus and Muslims but also between the haves and have-nots. In Elius’s term ‘The partition of 1947 was catastrophic, so deplorable, so heartrending and meaningless that we are realizing it more every day’.

In the context of Bengali partition literature, Sengupa (2015) classified Khoabnama as a unique exploration of subaltern voices and a view of history from the below. The novel is a looking back at the history of the region to contextualise the social revolutionary aspirations of the poor peasantry and the urban underclass and to situate it within the larger scheme of linguistic nationalism that results in the birth of Bangladesh. It is further mentioned that the same place that saw the Fakir —Sannyasi rebellion that nurtured Tebhaga, that will see the birth of Pakistan will also be an important place for other rebellions. The possibilities of social, linguistic and political revolutions are thus embedded in the soil: the immanent possibilities of insurgency are nurtured by the land. In a similar way Ghosh (2014) claimed that politics of Elius’s literature is ought to be insurrectionary and to be more accurate, it must be said the politics posed by Elias’s literary aesthetic is insurrectionary. To quote: “In fact, one should further qualify one’s take on Elius by contending the politics that the aesthetic-or more precisely the aesthetic economy-of his literature renders evident is insurrectionary, as opposed to being merely insurgent”. Mazumder (2016) opines that Khoabnama is different from both other east Bengal Literature as well as other partition literature because no other creative text peasant particularly the communist-led Tebhaga movement as an antithesis and in opposition to partition and its false promise. It is mentioned that Khoabnama might be the only Bengali counterpart to Khuswant sing’s Train to Pakistan. In his own words Elius to his wife ‘This book (Khoabnama), I tell you, will help students of history and sociologists in the future’ (Dasgupta).

After partition, the socio-economic condition of the peasantry in East Pakistan remained almost same as Elius depicted a sharecropper in absence of bullock in his kart he put himself in place of a bullock in Chilekothar Sepai. As partition was the aspiration of elite and middle-class Muslims in post-partition East Pakistan these sections become more powerful. Elius describes them as ‘basic democrat’ in this novel as well as in his essays. He viewed the movement of 1969 as massive participation of working-class in his language ‘bus conductor, driver, helper and Rickshaw puller’. In describing the huge participation of common mass in the movement Elius took the help of history as if it is the culmination of upsurges against the colonial ruler from the Fakir Sannyasi revolt to the martyrdom of Somen Chanda a radical writer before independence in the street of Dhaka. We observed that when Khijir a rickshaw puller whose mother and wife both were the kept of his employer or Chenktu a landless peasant were more forward while the middle-class representatives were skeptical. In result both Khijir and Chentu were killed, first one by a bullet from Police in the midst of a procession while the latter one was murdered brutally by the rural feudal lord. Interestingly Khijir became the leader of Osman another main character of the novel a job holder in Daka has gone through a change during this period. Educated Osman resides in Daka for his job while his parents live in India slowly becomes desperately associated with the movement where Khijir leads his way. Khijir a man from the working class who valiantly resists the exploitation of the ruling class and their agents while leftist student leader has deep reliance on materialistic and rationalist world outlook momentarily shivers in fear when he hears the story of some supernatural being residing in a banyan tree while walking across it. On the other hand Chengtu, an uneducated sharecropper remains calm at the moment though his world view is constructed by those superstitions. Such exploration and organic understanding of the miniscule of human life defines Elias ( Rahaman, ibid). As the novel progresses reader will found that again this mass movement was hijacked by Bengali nationalism advocated by basic democrats which deliberately avoids the question of the emancipation of peasantry.

His two novels had covered a turbulent time from partition to national liberation movement of East Pakistan. And it appears that his short stories attempted to consider the post-liberation time which to him personally completely frustration. It is said that in his short stories he is actually talking with the future (Bhattyacharya, ibid). As per Elius at a stage of capitalistic development novels are not enough to portray an individual as self-independence turns to self-centric approach. In this context, short stories are more appropriate for determining an individual’s moral disease and degradation. In his opinion, an individual is also subjected to various ups and downs in the society so to capture one person in a short story one needs to cover various issues rooted in our dearth as our dearth is the wealth of capitalists.

Among his twenty-five short stories liberation movement of East Pakistan occupies a major place. He tries to see the movement from a distant place with an impassive mood. National Liberation movement has changed the fate of innumerable family and individuals in East Pakistan. However, there was a huge difference between basic democrats and common mass. In one story a Professor of University normally shy in his nature had been abruptly changed after arrest due to wearing a raincoat of his brother in law who is absconding rather noted as ‘miscreant’ in the Police record. At the end, the voice of resistance comes out also from this opportunist section. But in another story he showed how the powerful section of the rural areas had surrendered to the Military while a sharecropper or a college student did not care for their lives. His unique line regarding Military aggression ‘Military comes like Cholera, the military comes like malaria’ is still relevant in the present context. This class conflict comes in all most all his stories regarding the liberation movement. The middle class who opposed liberation took the baton after completion of war and the direct victims remained in the same condition. They use Bengali nationalism or religious unity as a tool to continue enjoys their status. A left activist turned businessman in a story earns huge money ‘by the cultivation of culture, socialism and business’ is enough to sense his insinuation (translation by Author). His frustration about liberation rises its pick in a story named Milir Hate Stain gun (Mili holds the Stain gun) where Mili a middle-class girl at her teen opposes the way her brother’s intention to increase wealth by hook and crook using the liberation movement symbolically by giving a Stain gun to Abbas Pagla, a participant of the liberation movement to finish the revolution to materialize the dream of the people.It just shows how power play of ruling elites and party cadres succumb their dream. In short stories his other major concern was the hardship and difficulties of minorities after partition and liberation. In one of his short story “Khowary’ occupation of the dwelling of a Hindu friend by the members of a youth front that goes by the name of National Youth Organisation, the encroachment of the fundamental rights of the minority, darkness and debauchery of various kinds are collectively the subject matter. It reaches an open-ended finality with their departure and ultimatum on the resident to empty certain portion of their house for the youth front’s use, leaving him to immerse in profound isolation as well as uncertainity (Ahsan, 2016). The threat comes not from the common people but from the powerful section to occupy minority wealth. This had been started from partition and continued before and after liberation and it hunted Elius throughout his works. In his articulation in this sphere, he is more concerned about the representation of social reality in any stream of literature. He directly criticized Bengali Bhodroloks for disliking them from the downtrodden in their everyday life and that generates further disassociation from society.

Elius is more elaborative and open in his Articles published over a period of quarter of a century. He dedicated his collection of Articles to his comrades of Bangladesh LekhakSibir, a progressive forum of writers reflecting his in heartened social commitment. He is more open and confrontationalist in his Articles where he covers issues ranges from social liability of an author to the context of introducing colonial education system in a country of a rich heritage of knowledge and wisdom.

As a reader, it appears to me that Tamijin Kowabnamalosingall his belongings turned into a distressed migrant in the city of Dhaka was transformed into Khijir in Chilekothar Sepaia have-not in all sense as a consequence of capitalistic development excluding majority of its population. Elius viewed post-liberation time as a huge dissolution because deprivation of the common people was further aggravated by the ruling class. Elius will be remembered not only for describing the inhuman livings of the proletariats but most importantly the resistance from their class had been depicted in a unique way where rural myths including superstition, magic reality all are pretexts. The dream of an emancipated society will not depart as far as Elius moves us towards deeper investigation to the roots of inhuman exploitation and inequalities.


Ahsan, Md. Firoz Mahmud( July 01, 2016): Akhtaruzzaman Elias’s “Khowari”: A Metaphorized Hangover of the Postbellum Bangladesh , Unpublished document,

Bhattyacharya, Rupraj (2012): EliuserSristhiBhuban, Bangiyo Sahotya Parisad, Kolkata 2012

Das, Subrata Kumar (Undated): Akhtaruzzaman Elias Intermingles Dreams, Myths and Realities, 17.09.19

Dasgupta, Subharanjan (undated): Aktaruzzaman Elius: Dream Book , downloaded on 17.09.2019

Elius, Aktaruzzaman (2015): Chilekothar Sepai, Prativas,

(2000): GolpoSamagro,

(1998): Khoabnama, NayaUdyog,

(2000a) Sanskritir Bhanga Setu, Naya Udyog,

Ghosh, Pathik( 2014): The Insurrection of Akhtaruzzaman Elias, Radical Notes, June 2018

Mazumder, Auritra (2016): Can Bengali Literature be Postcolonial?, Comparative Literature Studies, Vol.53, No.2, Special Issue

Rahaman, Raihan (2019): A Personal and Critical Engagement with Akhtaruzzaman Elias, New Age Youth, February 17, 2019, 17.09.19


Zayed, Al Hassan (2017): A Writer’s Writer: AkhtaruzzamanElius, The Daily Star, June 03, 2017


Debatra K. Dey, Dept. of Economics, Srikrishna College, Bagula, West Bengal

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