At this 30th year anniversary, the online magazine of Shuddhashar is a biography – or autobiography? – of Shuddhashar and its publisher.
I was first introduced to Shuddhashar in February 2018. At that time, Shuddhashar had been online for a little more than a year. I read the articles. The bimonthly magazine issues were hopeful but unfocused: a new beginning on an uncertain path. Looking back, I understand that those early online issues were fraught not only with uncertainty, but also with the anxiety and disorientation that comes from being abruptly uprooted and then waking up in an unrecognizable land. In Bangladesh, however, Shuddhashar was hopeful and full of purpose and direction – first as a magazine that drew inspiration from intellectual youth who questioned the world as they saw it, and then as a publication house that sought and promoted new voices and new ideas. In Bangladesh, Shuddhashar had a community that gathered to celebrate the written word and the promises of using the pen to fight injustices, narrow-mindedness, superstition, and hatred. Tutul and his companions wrote and published to change the world. They saw their work as belonging to an illustrious lineage of writers: poets, songwriters, novelists, essayists, including Kazi Nazrul Islam, Rabindranath Tagore, Jibananda Das, Hasan Raja, Lalan Shah, Ram Mohan Ray, and on and on. Intellectuals with courage, insight into society, and flair. Shuddhashar’s writers and publishers were confident, courageous, and not in danger. They belonged in a Bangladesh that promoted secular values, freedom of expression, and democracy.
Abruptly, everything changed.
In Norway, Shuddhashar online emerged from a deep determination to show that a pen can fight back against the unforgiving blade of a machete.
But to forge ahead and promote freedom of speech, Shuddhashar had to find its voice, all over again.
In those early online Shuddhashar issues, there were well-wishers from Bangladesh, Norway, and elsewhere who contributed articles. Following his “little magazine” style, Tutul attended events, listening for thought-provoking ideas and asking people to write. Dedicated and awe-inspiring organizers from International Cities of Refuge Network wrote articles that described bleak conditions of freedom of speech in many countries, and the challenges of writing in exile. William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher who was also nearly killed by militant Islamists in Oslo, contributed his thoughtful perspective. Khushi Kabir, feminist activist in Bangladesh and strong supporter of at-risk writers, shared her voice. Shamim Runa contributed a wonderful short story in serial issues. Several poets, playwriters, essayists wrote.
When Tutul asked me to write, I was troubled. He wanted an article on American politics. I am no political scientist, and my practice is to understand different perspectives as a cultural anthropologist. I teach not to persuade students that one position is correct, but to give tools of critical thinking, source evaluation, and empathy. Furthermore, politics in America, in 2018, was a mess, and I was finding it increasingly difficult to talk about politics to people even within my own family. For many who have written for Shuddhashar, however, one thing is evident: Tutul is persuasive. I struggled and wrote. My first article came out in Issue 7, an issue that included 10 articles. Since then, each article I write is a struggle, but I’ve concluded it’s worth it. Why? Because each time I write, I learn something. I get stretched to think broadly and deeply, often outside my comfort zone. I’m forced to use the pen and attempt to communicate something I hope will be interesting to the very diverse readership of Shuddhashar. I hope that other writers for Shuddhashar feel the same satisfaction of struggle when writing.
Shuddhashar, now drawing on 30 years of publication experience, new connections, and diverse media is blossoming again. From its base in Norway, Shuddhashar online is almost 3-years old, but it has evolved rapidly because of the collective efforts of several contributors all over the world, well-wishes and urging from members of ICORN and PEN, and because of the innovation and determination of its publisher/editor. New sections such as Free-Thought Podcast and Op-Ed have launched with integrity and urgency. They are fantastic additions.
Personally, my favorite section remains the magazine issues, that, since 2019, have centered on critical themes: Authoritarianism, Poetry, Feminism, Blasphemy, LGBTQ+, and Exile. These special issues tell the story of Shuddhashar: the evolution of a “little magazine” – with its inaugural 1990 issue on poetry – and the energetic collective with expanded horizons, new voices, and opened eyes; and a publication house that militant Islamists accused of blasphemy for supporting women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, free thinking and speech. Unprotected by a political regime that, like other authoritarian rulers, condemned dissent, Shuddhashar fled Bangladesh. From Norway, the magazine’s special issues take a deep dive into the very personal subjects that led to the exile of Shuddhashar, Tutul, and many other writers and their families. Through diverse voices and experiences from different nations, the special issues of Shuddhashar online tell its own exile narrative.
Up to this point – marking its 30th year anniversary history behind its 3-year-old online platform– Shuddhashar online magazine has been an autobiography told through other peoples’ lenses, refracted through their own personal experiences.
The articles are intriguing for their diversity, scope, and sincerity. As a teacher-scholar-ethnographer, I regularly send students to Shuddhashar to read insider’s perspectives on LGBTIQ+ rights and experiences, blasphemy accusations, living in an authoritarian regime, and exile. These articles are valuable and often raw glimpses into people’s experiences that my students would otherwise never encounter. I also love that I get to read some of my favorite, distinguished scholars right alongside articles by young students and activists. This diversity is refreshing, and I don’t know many other magazines or journals that highlight writers at different intellectual stages and vantage points as effectively as Shuddhashar.
Sometimes, I worry that the significance of this mixture is lost on readers and potential subscribers. For instance, if I was 18 or 22 years old and understood that my article was published in the same issue as an article written by Wendy Doniger, Michael D. Jackson, Jeanne Saada-Favret, Gayatri Spivak, Ali Riaz, Marieme Helie Lucas, Sindre Bangstad, Kalyani Menon, or the many other superbly distinguished academics who have contributed to Shuddhashar, I would have been unable to sleep for a month. It is risky to avoid a niche as either an intellectual journal or a popular magazine for lay readers or a news journal. Most platforms have a singular vision, and this makes it simpler to pitch and build support. But Shuddhashar’s approach is the commitment of a real public intellectual – to reach different audiences, inspire, uplift, listen, learn, and connect with people wherever they are. That is democracy of knowledge.
I observed that Shuddhashar online is an autobiography refracted through other people’s experiences. There’s another point I want to make. Whether directed by a singular person or a collective of writers, editors, and artists, Shuddhashar is always imagined as a collective. Conceptually and ideologically, this is important. However, this year – 2020 – Shuddhashar has literally brought to fruition the efforts of a collective, including guest editor Shakhawat Hossain Rajeeb, Free-Thought Podcast hosts Ikhtisad Ahmed and Ibtisam Ahmed, Op-Ed coordinator Siddhartha Dhar, and interns Mbali Hlubi and Drew Davis. This is resulting in a multiplication of excellent activities. These new voices and perspectives will push us – readers and writers of Shuddhashar – to stretch our horizon even further.
Personally, I find that shuddha in Shudddhashar is not simple to translate. It can mean pure or true or faultless; it also means genuine. In my opinion, a genuine voice (shuddhashar) comes from the heart. No one has a monopoly on Truth; rather, discovering what is true is a constant struggle requiring constant self-examination and honesty. With that in mind, we should all listen (and read and write) and strive to be our most genuine selves for the betterment of our world. For that, Shuddhashar is good to listen to and write with.
Lisa Irene Knight is a professor of religions of South Asian, cultural anthropology, and chair of the Department of Asian Studies at Furman University, South Carolina, USA. She published Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh by Oxford University Press.