Midnight's Third Child: Stories of Bengal that evoke a sense of yearning and connectedness

The essays cover distinct areas, exploring minority experiences and a wider Bengal, including, inevitably, West Bengal.

Irfan Chowdhury Dec 25, 2023
Midnight's Third Child

Artist, filmmaker, and academic Naeem Mohaiemen’s photos, visuals, and essays on art, cinema, and literary stories of Bangladesh over the last few decades, compiled into one anthology, make for a compelling montage. Mohaiemen teaches at the School of Arts at Columbia University, New York, and works on projects in Dhaka with organisations such as Bengal FoundationPathshala, and Chobi Mela. His writing speaks to both Bangladeshis and South Asians who work for a more diverse, multicultural society.

Midnight's Third Child is a recently published collection featuring 31 essays divided into three themes. The first is Sentry in the Attic, a reference to the novel by the prominent Bangladeshi writer Akhtaruzzamamn Elias, followed by Land of a Thousand Pictures and Writing on the Wall.

Mohaiemen’s creative writings, historical accounts, and opinion essays in the collection cover the arts, cinema, literature, and dramatic events over the five decades. They juxtapose a seemingly limitless optimism, a virtue in dark times, countering narrow nationalist definitions.  

To move forward

The title is a play on Salman Rushdie’s famous novel Midnight’s Children. A third child in a family has their work cut out to survive and grow and often faces aggression from older siblings. As they grow up and enter into adulthood they need to take stock of the past complexities and myriad unfairness to move forward and perhaps prosper.

The essays, updated versions of Mohaiemen’s previously published pieces, still provide relevant insights into events associated with important issues that many may have forgotten. For instance, the planned exhibition at France’s Musee Guimet or the controversies surrounding the film Meherjaan. They discuss complex, conflictual legislative challenges that undermine artistic potential and try to smother free expression, besides the much smaller wins of the arts communities.  

As in his previous visual work, documentary films, photography, and installations, Mohaiemen delves deep into issues and tries to decipher the essence, often from complicated political, social, and ethnic compositions. He also offers alternative views and possible ways to navigate them.

In fact, at the core of this work is an urgent call to readers: discard a binary approach to issues and seek multiple views and contradictions.

This is refreshing, especially in a tumultuous landscape of opinions and debates muddied by varied views and proclamations from left, far-left, right, ultra-right, centrist, pious, agnostic, secular, nationalist, or globalist points of view. Mohaiemen’s essays, including the introduction, urge the broader intelligentsia to come together for dialogue rather than foster divisions, to build spaces and communities, and to share ideas.

The essays cover distinct areas, exploring minority experiences and a wider Bengal, including, inevitably, West Bengal. The readers can make choices from a plethora of interests. Pieces such as “Mrinal Sen: In a Time of New Uprisings”, “Juktakkhor: Stranded on the Borders of Two Bengals”, and “Sarker Protick: Bengal Connected” would evoke a sense of yearning for loss and divisions created by the partition of 1947. They dig deep into reconnecting possibilities as well.

Among essays covering art and culture, several explore issues emerging in the Bangladeshi art scene, like “Cheragee Pahar: Far From the Madding Crowd”, “Dhali Al Mamoon: Unfolding Themselves”, “Chobi Mela: What Was Chobi Mela and What Comes Next” and “Depart: Magazines in the (Empty) Forest.”

Others capture prominent artists and their work - such as “Tareque Masud: On Adam Surat and Sultan.” The book cover features a photo of the late filmmakers Tareque Masud and Mishuk Munier, who produced work mostly of the alternative genre.

There are also interviews with personalities like the architect Salahuddin Ahmed, artist and teacher Dhali Al Mamoon, and Tayeba Begum Lipi, the co-founder of the Britto Artist Collective. These are invaluable for portraying the thinking of these luminaries around topics during a particular time.

Literary figures

Also included are Mohaiemen’s commentaries on well-known international literary figures such as Taslima Nasreen and Zia Haider Rahman. One is in exile (an unproductive period, as the essay suggests), and the other is formed by British diaspora life.

These essays capture the historical development of the art scene in the country and may provide impetus to future researchers, with materials like the graphic chronology of a photography biennial on pages 138-145.

Mohaiemen shows how to create space and to tease out the noise from real issues. In "Documentary: Social Realism's Quest for Reality", for example, he offers a brief history of the development of photojournalism in recent decades. Critically examining the wider demand elements in developing countries, he reveals the disappointing truth of continued dependence on Western countries for financial and technical aid as well as for recognition. Factors include a lack of maturity in building institutions and relatively slow progress in social acceptance around emerging issues like gender equality or same-sex love. He explores how images and their use in the developed world still fail to portray the reality on the ground.

The author’s use of the Bengali phrases to highlight issues and to offer remedies over a fairly long period, perhaps underlines how scholars who leave their countries never stop yearning for their homeland.

Is the book worth a reader’s time and money? It is well organised, with events and incidents aptly tagged to categories. It has been very carefully anthologised, with each piece stitching a narrative that, in the end, produces a much bigger story of the time. The table of contents alone would serve as a great archive of situations and historical records.

Conflicting voices

It puts several quality pieces in one place, some of which one may have missed in the past. The only downside is the printing quality. The current edition, black and white, uses paper that lowers the visual impact of some superbly curated photos. A niche market may be happy to absorb a slightly higher cost for better quality.

Those putting together the next edition might consider publishing the book or parts of it on better-quality paper. Another option would be to create a digital version.

Finally, what is in this book for those familiar with Mohaiemen's work? I, for one, admired his edited anthology Chittagong Hill Tracts in the Blind Spot of Bangladesh Nationalism (2010) and his well-argued riposte to Sarmila Bose’s Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War (2011).

Like many of his art projects, this anthology speaks in conflicting voices. It promotes tolerance and ways for accepting differing opinions and encourages the reader to step back and reflect on harmonious collective effort. It shows how careful consideration and thought-provoking expression on the way forward perhaps would be more useful than polemics.

Aspiring readers and writers, certainly those as curious as this author, could do worse than take a leaf out of this superb book.

Midnight's Third Child

By Naeem Mohaiemen

Published by Nokta and University of Liberal Arts (ULAB), 2023

Pages 305, Price USD 25

Available at: BooBook.co, Amazon, Rokomari.com

(The author is a public sector policy analyst and adviser based in Australia who writes opinion columns in Bangladeshi dailies and online platforms. Views are personal. By special arrangement with Sapan News )

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