Blending feminism and humanism

Purabi Basu is a pharmacologist by profession. Apart from several articles in her own field, Dr Basu is also an exceptionally fine short story writer, receiving the Anannya Sahitya Purashkar for 2005. Among her collections of short stories are Purabi Basur Galpa (1989), Ajanma Parabasi (1992), Se Nahi Nahi (1995), Anitya Ananda (2000) and Josna Karechhe Ari (2005). Recently Niaz Zaman and Robab Rosan from New Age talked to Purabi Basu about her writing.

New Age: We understand that you spent your early years in a mofussil town. Can you tell us something about where you were born and went to school?
Purabi Basu: I grew up in Munshiganj, where I was born, went to a government girls’ school there. I also studied for one year at Haraganga College. Then I came to Dhaka and got admission at the Government Intermediate Girls’ College, completing my Intermediate from there. I then enrolled in the Pharmacy Department at the University of Dhaka. I completed my master’s and PhD from the United States of America, where I had accompanied my husband, Jyotiprakash Dutta.
NA: You do not use your husband’s surname of Dutta. Is there any particular reason why you don’t?
PB: In my creative writings I use my maiden name, Basu. There really isn’t any particular reason. Perhaps Basu sounds sweeter than Dutta. Of course, in official documents I use my husband’s name. When I was in the second year, I got married and as you know in forms a married woman has to write her husband’s name. I used my husband’s name when I was filling up my honours form. So, my honours certificate gives my name as Purabi Dutta. But in my creative writings I use Purabi Basu.
NA: We were given to understand that you are a descendent of Jagadishchandra Basu.
PB: That is a mistake. Though I was born in Munshiganj and my family title is Basu, I do not belong to the family of Jagadishchandra Basu. We just happen to come from the same place.
NA: You are now an American citizen. Do you have any plan to return to Bangladesh?
PB: I came back three times to Bangladesh, but unfortunately I had to leave every time. This time, however, I hope we will be able to come back to Bangladesh.
NA: What did you do when you were in Bangladesh in the 80s?
PB: I used to work in BEXIMCO and then joined BRAC as a director in the health, nutrition and population department.
NA: Apart from creative writing, you have also written on your own subject, have you not?
PB: Yes, I have also written scientific papers which have been published in different journals.
NA: When did you start writing fiction?
PB: I started writing when I was in school. I used to write stories, rhymes and poems for children in Konchi-Kachar Asar and Chander Hat. I used to do some writing in the early 1960s. Then I did not write for a long time. I resumed writing in the late 1980’s.
NA: When did you start serious writing?
PB: The late 1980s/ early 1990s. I wrote columns in major Bangla newspapers, including the Dainik Bangla, Ajker Kagoj and others. Most of my stories were published in the literary page of Sangbad. I also wrote for the Bichitra. During the Liberation War of Bangladesh, I lost many of my writings. Jyoti also lost many of his writings. You perhaps know that he was the adopted son of Dr Gobindrachandra Dev. We used to stay in Dr Dev’s house. In 1971 the Pakistan military killed Dr Dev and ransacked his house. We lost a lot of our writing at that time along with other things. Dr Dev had visited us in America and we requested him to stay. But he came back to the country and later became a shaheed.
NA: You were staying in America in 1971. What was your experience like at the time?
PB: Both my husband and I worked for the liberation there. We took part in demonstrations and in several campaigns to create awareness about what was happening in Bangladesh.
NA: Your husband is a well-known writer. Has he in any way influenced your writings?
PB: My husband was an established writer when we got married. I know he is a good writer, but I do not feel that I have been directly influenced by his writings. He has his own writing style. His readers also say that Jyoti’s writing is rather abstract. I write simply. We are quite different in our writing styles, choice of subjects, language and forms. Of course we discuss literature. If Jyoti reads a book, he tells me to read it and then we discuss the book. Or if I read a book and enjoy it, I tell Jyoti to read it. We are very interested in literature and film. We both enjoy good movies
NA: Do you discuss your own writings?
PB: Yes, we discuss our own writings. But Jyoti does not criticize my writings. He encourages me but does not tell me to change anything. I interpret his attitude towards my writing as somewhat indulgent. He perhaps thinks that I will not be able to improve my writings. Of course he denies that he is indifferent towards my writing and says that he believes that every writer should enjoy his/her liberty and write whatever he or she wants. He also says that readers can express their opinion to bring changes in writings, but a writer should not try to influence another writer. Many of my writer friends give me suggestions and I follow their suggestions to improve my writings. My husband only makes editorial corrections, changes incorrect spelling, for example, nothing more.
NA: Has your writing been influenced by your expatriate life? Has the Bangladeshi diaspora formed the subject of your stories?
PB: Most of my stories are based on the life and people of Bangladesh. I have used the life of expatriate Bengalis as subjects in hardly three or four of my stories. To be frank, I cannot write on these subjects. There are a lot of subjects in America, but I cannot write on them. They do not inspire me. I am much more comfortable writing about Bangladesh.
NA: What inspires you to write?
PB: I become highly upset if I see any discrimination. I write against all sorts of discriminations, religious, racial, gender, social. I have written a lot about the condition of women in Bangladesh. I have also written about communalism. I think I have written on every aspect of our society. However, I have written just a handful of stories on the liberation war. Among them are ‘Ghare Fera Bahattur’ and ‘Dushsamayer Album.’
NA: Have you thought of writing a novel?
PB: Actually I did write a novel, sometime in 1972. I wrote it in just one month. Malati Malati is a triangular love story. Jyoti read it and he suggested that I publish it but I did not. I don’t think that I’d like to publish it now. It seems rather immature. But yes, I do want to write a novel but the thought is daunting. The canvas of a novel is much wider than that of a short story. Still one day I might write my novel.
NA: You have written or compiled a number of books which are distinctly feminist. Would you call yourself a ‘feminist’?
PB: I am not very comfortable with the word ‘feminism’. Feminism to me is the state and condition of women and their rights in society. Though feminists differ, I think the goal of all feminists is the same. However, I think writers should project their messages — of women’s rights, for example — in a subtle way.
NA: Do you like being called a feminist writer?
PB: I consider it a compliment when someone calls me a feminist writer because I write on women’s issues and rights. But I also do not want to be confined and limited in what I can or cannot write about. In many of my stories, I have male protagonists and I also write on different social issues. I am also concerned about the rights of men.
NA: We know life abroad is rather difficult. People are busy most of the time. Are Bengalis in New York able to read or discuss Bangla literature?
PB: From late 1992 to 1997 we formed an informal literary circle in New York called Yuktarashtra Bangla Sahitya Parishad. We would meet once a month. Whoever was host for the day would decide where we would meet, whether in his or her home or in some other public place. We had no president or secretary. We would read and discuss each other’s writings. Actually, we were quite productive. Even though there was the pressure of having to produce something to read at the meetings, it was also quite exciting to have something to do. We would be in a festive and competitive mood, trying to write better than the others. We would also invite any Bengali writers and poets who happened to be visiting America to our gatherings. We were lucky to get Shamsur Rahman, Syed Shamsul Haq and Kabir Chowdhury. After we returned to Dhaka in 1997, the organisation lost momentum and now is dormant.
NA: Do you know of any expatriate Bengalis who are continuing to write in the US?
PB: Yes, there are several. But, as far as I know, there is no formal platform to arrange regular discussions. Most writers send their writings to Bangladesh to be published.
NA: You enjoy movies. Do you have any plans to write scripts for movies?
PB: No, but I think many of my stories would make good movies. I would be happy if someone were interested to make a movie based on my short stories.
NA: How does your science background help you in your writing?
PB: That’s a good question. I think my science background has influenced quite a few of my stories. I use a lot of scientific facts in my stories. For instance, in some of my stories, I have used a lot of biological information
NA: Do you have any plan to write science fiction?
PB: No, not at this moment. However, I have recently written some articles on medical and biological science for lay readers.
NA: Have any of your stories been translated into English?
PB: Yes, but not as a collection. Shafi Ahmed translated one which he titled ‘Design to Disaster’ for Voice of Bangladesh and ‘Arandhan’— which was translated by Niaz Zaman and Shafi Ahmed and included in Infinite Variety— has also been translated anew and included in A Matter of Taste, published by Penguin India.
NA: That is a feminist story if there is any. Why did you choose the theme of cooking to show the revolt of Radha?
PB: Well, I thought that if there is any chore that women have to do every day of their lives it is cooking. That is why I made my protagonist refuse to cook.
NA: ‘Arandhan’ used sadhu bhasha. Do you normally use sadhu bhasa for your stories?
PB: No. But the style seemed to fit the theme.
NA: And as it was about food, it got included in A Matter of Taste. Thank you very much for your time.
PB: Thank you.

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