More so than other working-class authors, it is easier to view From Bengal to Birmingham as an established piece of literature simply due to the fact that it exists in a published, hardback edition. To consider it as a literary piece of work and analyse it as such, within a traditional framework, is therefore easier than say, a hand-written manuscript. Regina Gagnier nonetheless provides a framework within which she claims most working-class autobiographies will fit.
There are six different types of autobiography, and Faizur Rasul’s fits in to two of them. The first is a “political narrative”. Gagnier states that they are “politically radical” (351), and Rasul’s embrace of Bernard Shaw’s staunch Socialist standpoint are a key feature in the text. Even more radical is the start of the text, where the opening gambit recounts the first rush for independence headed by Gandhi. Rasul’s involvement is depicted as a passionate, all-consuming affair, to the point where he no longer attends school once the movement fizzles out.
Arguably the more fitting type is what she calls “commemorative storytellers”. She says that
“[s]uch texts read like travel logs” (348), and Rasul’s is essentially just that. There is of course the journey from India to England, and then he travels around England finding his way eventually to Birmingham. One section of the book is exactly that, a travel log, still in its raw, diary entry form. With each entry headed by the time, date, and place name, as the example shows:
23.5.33, 11.30pm., Mrs Rogers, 35 Temple Rd, Windsor, Berkshire (130)
As mentioned in a previous blog, this is reminiscent of Mary Wollstonecraft’s writings, and most certainly fits in to the
travel genre. Rasul has an interesting and diverse story to tell, and so adopting several different narrative forms is only natural, and arguably a more effective way of communicating his experiences.
It goes on to slip out of Gagnier’s framework, as she states that commemorative pieces are “thematically arbitrary” (348) in their presentation. Being over two-hundred pages long, From Bengal to Birmingham would be a dull read indeed should it be thematically arbitrary, and Rasul thankfully recognises this. His book is strewn with socio-political commentary from his own views, and the difference in culture stands out also. From Bernard Shaw’s socialism, to Gandhi’s move to independence, it would be difficult to describe Rasul’s autobiography as “thematically arbitrary”.
The book ends on a religious note, breaking free from Gagnier’s fences. There is a maybe a slight confessional tone, but that is very much an angle that has to be forced. Gagnier bases her types on memoirs that she has analysed from the 19th century, and From Bengal to Birmingham is not published until mid-late 20th century, so it is not necessarily surprising her framework does not fit. Furthermore, Rasul is unique in his experiences. It is extremely difficult to find any memoirs from working-class authors that tell of a journey as large as Rasul’s, so he already exists as an anomaly. This reason alone will have no doubt been a major factor in finding a printing company willing to publish Rasul’s work, along with the fact that since the 19th century, printing presses had advanced a long way making production easier, quicker, and cheaper. That is not to take away from the merit of his work however, more to make a point on how it differs to the texts that Gagnier is classifying.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30. 3 (1987), 335-363
Rasul, Faizur. From Bengal to Birmingham. (London: Andre Deutsch, 1967)