Gabhi Brittanto: timely review of a satire

Ahmed Sofa had the courage to speak truth to power. In his satirical novel Gabhi Brittanto (1995), he mocks the practice and politics of vice-chancellorship and intellectual poverty in our public universityies. Nahid Riyasad reviews and finds surprising similarity of the novel with present time.


Cover of Gabhi Bittanto

Cover of Gabhi Bittanto

In contemporary Bangla literature, we have not seen many non-conformist authors. Among this small hoard, Ahmed Sofa is a prominent name. He is a lone voice against the vested quarter who reproduced the colonial legacy of exploitation in post independent Bangladesh, thus helping us to construct the image of a society which has been rotten within. Among his works, Gabhi Brittanto (1995) is a canonical piece, which exposes the grim side of politics lurking in the universities. This work is a political allegory written in the style of a satire. Though he doesn’t mention a name for the institution the story revolves around, but we can all guess from the description where he states the university to be the oldest and most prestigious of the country. Notwithstanding the reputation, this very institution, in recent decades, has become a house to nurture unhealthy power. Instead of enriching the students with knowledge and research, it has shown more success in becoming a battle ground of student wings of political parties in power, creating havoc with direct support of the university authority. Sofa, in his novel, draws the picture with humour, brutally demolishing the façade of the authority.

Set in the post-autocratic Bangladesh, the story line of this novel is rather simple. Miyan Muhammad Junaid, a chemistry professor of the institution, holds the highest post, the vice-chancellor of the university. However, his ability to pull off such a huge responsibility is in question, because the election process is highly flawed and predominantly biased. He has been nominated for the VC election because he has a comparatively clear image than his colleagues. Another reason is Dilruba Khanam, a young teacher who has already won the hearts of many with her feminine charm, apparently had had a problem with the previous VC, this made her support Junaid strongly.


Ahmed Sofa

Ahmed Sofa

The novel starts when Junaid has been elected as the VC; being a rounded protagonist, Junaid goes through transformations and changes fueled by his recently acquired chair. Substantial changes become apparent in his wife’s behaviour also as they move into the VC quarters. As the VC quarter is a large bungalow-like house with ample free space, the premises becomes an instant hit to the elderly couple. This free space, in fact, steers the course of this novel. Junaid had a long cherished dream, to keep a cow for fresh milk. As he has space now, this can be turned into reality. Coincidentally, a development contractor of the university turns out to be his relative. That relative spends a sizeable amount of money to make a house for the cow and finally gets a cow of highest breed. Obviously, the amount spent is not affordable by the VC. This also indicates that vice-chancellors have ample opportunity to take unethical benefits from persons, who might later, want to get a return.

As that cow fulfills VC’s dream, he starts giving it a significant amount of attention and care which his wife does not take very well. Gradually, he starts holding colleague’s gathering beside the cow-shed, which in time grows into a large and strong group. After some time, he starts doing his administrative works from the cow-shed, he even sets a temporary office there. Sofa, aptly puts the incident as that this might be the only university in the world which is run from a cow-shed. This could be a serious satire as well as a very ugly truth which, in reality, controls the highest educational institute of the country.

Throughout this novel, from time to time, Sofa indicates at the absurd practices in the academia of our country. His observations have brought out the true nature of most of the university teachers of our country. They live to thrive administratively.  During the pre-election meetings of Junaid’s panel, the senior professors are seen drooling over the chair of VC, as if this is the only way to decorate their long academic career.  Professors are seen working behind each other, to demolish their opponent panel in the poll, as if they are politicians of a party who are preparing for the upcoming election. This raises an obvious question: should the university be under absolute political control? There are other instances, where, the activities of the VC have been questioned. At one point, one of the young colleagues has invented a ground breaking formula through his research with a foreign university. To astonishment, Junaid does not pay any attention to this invention because he was upset of his cow’s bad health. In the ending of the novel, the VC is selected for an international project which will, in turn, bring him a large sum of money. He has been selected to praise the government and the country in front of international audience, he gets his chance for his place in the hierarchy and because he is easy to manipulate.

In July last year, during a senate meeting regarding the VC election poll, University of Dhaka, has experienced a shame which might legitimise the complaints in the novel. Supporters of previous VC and present VC, who are teachers of the highest educational institute of the country, got into a fight. During the brawl, punches were exchanged, as reported in the media, which left several injured. Now, compare the scenario with that of Gabhi Brittanto, seems legitimate right? Another more recent incident might clear the role of the vice-chancellor. During a students’ protest this January, ruling party student wing Bangladesh Chatra League activists have attacked and sexually harassed protesters. Students demanded justice in front of the VC office following the assaults and again BCL comes in the scene. According to media reports, BCL has rushed to ‘rescue’ the VC from the ‘rampaging’ students; as if, BCL has taken over the duty of law enforcement in Bangladesh. This incident, not very surprisingly, has been backed by the present VC thus legitimising their atrocities.

University, as an educational institute, undoubtedly, has one singular goal that is to produce more knowledge through research and train people to become researchers. In order to do so, the head of the university, VC, needs to showcase a sheer keenness for knowledge. In this novel, the tendency is shown to be missing and is replaced with obsession about mundane earthly objects. This clearly shows that the head of the university, traditionally, is becoming detached from knowledge and becoming more attached to the power position, the ruling party.

Heartbroken, we are observing that practices of Sofa’s time are still triumphant, even after more than twenty-years. We may find vice-chancellors of different universities to be busier in an array of non-academic activities. Also, government wants to maintain their dominance over the educational campuses, there is no better way than putting a person on that chair who subscribed to their political positions and supports their partisan interest. This practice, should it prevail, will in turn rupture the purpose the higher education that is to build the intellectual backbone of the country, produce generations of intellectuals — scientists, literary scholar, economist, nutritionist and more — who will speak for our national interest. Sadly, the Sofa’s satirical depiction is slowly becoming a reality.


Nahid Riyasad is a member of the Youth team.



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