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A Bengali songbook is helping rewrite local history in the Australian Outback

Meet Samia Khatun, the young scholar behind the riveting tale of a book mistaken for a Quran, and a community lost in time.

india Updated: Nov 26, 2017 13:01 IST
Madhusree Ghosh
Madhusree Ghosh
Hindustan Times
‘I recognised the script — it was Bengali — and it wasn’t religious verse, it was poetry,’ says Khatun, describing how she began her journey of discovery.

What would a 122-year-old book of Bengali poetry be doing in an old desert mosque in Australia?

That question led postdoctoral fellow Samia Khatun on a journey into the outback, where she encountered Aboriginals who still spoke a smattering of Bengali.

It all started with a mistake — when the book was first found, it was assumed to be a Quran.

“I saw a photograph in this book called Tin Mosques and Ghantowns: History of Afghan Cameldrivers in Australia by Christine Stevens and I realised it wasn’t a Quran,” says Khatun, 35. “I recognised the script — it was Bengali — and it wasn’t religious verse, it was poetry.”

Khatun, a Bangladeshi, was then doing her PhD at the University of Sydney.

Her dissertation was titled, ‘Camels, Ships, Trains: Translation Across the ‘Indian Archipelago’ 1860-1930’ and set out to examine cross-cultural interactions arising from the little-known but historically significant South Asian presence in Australia in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

So when she heard about the ‘Quran’ at Broken Hill, an isolated mining city in New South Wales, she travelled almost 500 miles to the town’s historical society — and confirmed that they had been mistaken for over a century.

Khatun is now writing a book of her own, on her discovery and its cultural connotations, called Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia.

“I immediately sent some photographs of the book to my mother, who identified it as a Puthi, a kind of songbook,” says Khatun.

This rare 500-page volume was printed in Calcutta in 1895, and its presence suggested that there was once a sizeable community of Bengali speakers in this middle-of-nowhere place, because these poems are meant to be sung and performed for an audience.

The songs are based on stories of Islamic and Hindu prophets and were meant for village audiences, since most people in rural Bengal would then have been illiterate.

“The fact that it was here revealed that the performative cultures of South Asians had reached the absolute interiors of Australia,” Khatun says.

As she began to try and trace the book’s journey from Calcutta to Broken Hill, it became clear that if one wanted to know about the history of South Asians who travelled to the interiors of Australia at this time, the best people to talk to were those from the Aboriginal communities, because they had an uninterrupted history in the region — and also, because many of the South Asians had married into Aboriginal families too.

The book is now being preserved by the Broken Hill Historical Society as an even rarer treasure than they thought.

And Khatun is writing a book of her own, on her journey of discovery and its cultural connotations, called Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia.

It traces the roots and influence of the subcontinental community that settled in the outback here — Bengalis migrated to be part of the camel industry, the mosque itself was built by Afghans who were trading in the camels.

“The subject of Dr Khatun’s book is fascinating as it’s not only the story of one book but also of an entire community,” says Abhijit Gupta, book historian and professor of English at Jadavpur University.

“It tells the story of book production in Calcutta. It’s a printed puthi, mass produced at Battala more than a hundred years ago. Some migrant worker may have carried it to Australia as a talisman, so it’s also a story of the ways in which knowledge travels across continents, what is preserved, what is lost – this is a story of all of that,” Gupta adds.

Australianama, published by Hurst in London and Oxford University Press in New York, is due out in 2018.

First Published: Nov 25, 2017 20:38 IST