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  • Mimicry and Counter-Discourse on the Palimpsest of Nagori:The Play of Saint Anthony and His Double, Sādhu Āntoni
  • Syed Jamil Ahmed

Hardly half a kilometer southeast from the Church of Saint Nicholas Tolentino at Nagori, thirty-five kilometers northeast from Daka, Bangladesh, stands the Chapel of Saint Anthony at Panjora. Here, on Friday, 6 February 2009, nearly seventy thousand people gathered to pay homage to the most important saint for the Bangladeshi Catholics: Saint Anthony of Padua, who was born in Portugal in 1195 and is locally known as Sādhu Āntoni.1 It was his feast day, which is celebrated here on the Friday before Lent, instead of 13 June as in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar.2 During the preceding nine days, novenae3 were offered in the chapel, and a form of indigenous performance known as Sādhu Āntanir gān (lit. "the lay of Saint Anthony") was performed in his honor. (See Plates 2 and 3.) On the feast day, masses were held, homilies were delivered, and offerings of candles, biscuits, money, silver and gold chains, pigeons, chickens, and goats were made by many devotees in fulfilment of their mānat (a vow made for granting a favor).4 Most devotees were Christians, but Hindus and Muslims came as well. For the Christians residing in and around Panjora and Nagori, the celebration brought great joy because this is an ever-growing tradition with 220 years of history, which draws devotees from across religious divides (Fig. 1).

Indeed, the increasing popularity of Saint Anthony's celebration is significant because the Christians account for only 0.3 percent of the total population, compared to 89.38 percent Muslims and 9.52 percent [End Page 40] Hindus (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics 2007: xiv). More importantly, the current global perception of the country, succinctly articulated by a US congressional report, is that "the secular underpinnings of moderate Bangladesh are being undermined by a culture of political violence and the rise of Islamist extremists" (Vaughn 2006: 1). The extremists are particularly violent if Muslims convert to Christianity. On the night of 18 September 2004, Islamists reportedly slit the throat of a Christian village doctor named Joseph Mondol at Doanipara village in the Jamalpur Sadar upazilla (subdistrict). He had converted from Islam fifteen years previously (Daily Janakantha 2004: 4).5

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Figure 1.

Devotees at the mass held at the ground in front of the Chapel of Saint Anthony at Panjora during his feast day celebrated on Friday, 6 February 2009.

(Photo: Syed Jamil Ahmed)

In the wake of the current violence against Christianity, it is pertinent to ask how Saint Anthony survives—even prospers—in Bangladesh. With this objective, this essay examines the saint as a cultural signifier among the Christians of Nagori and adjoining villages. It draws on empirical data (field observation of performances of Sādhu Āntanir gān and interviews with stakeholders) as well as secondary sources (archival documents and previous research on Christianity in Bangladesh). It proceeds in three stages. The first of these reads Nagori as a palimpsest, and, urged by Bornstein's argument that a text is not an ahistorical or transhistorical monument, but "historically situated both in its original creation and in its later constructions," it recovers prior inscriptions [End Page 41] and current accretions on the "place-as-text" (1993: 2). The second stage, inspired by a phenomenological standpoint, articulates my personal critical commentary on two performances of Sādhu Āntanir gān. This section relies strongly on States's "figural description of 'proof' by metaphor" (1992: 370) and seeks to "bracket" the phenomena as a lived experience so as to grasp its "essence"—that "situation of hiding-that-persists" (Heidegger cited in Cozma 2007: 110). The third section analyzes the two performances in the context of what I call the "spatial history" of their creation and shows how one of them enables colonial discourse, and the other largely mounts postcolonial subversion.

The Palimpsest of Place

As I rode a motorbike on a narrow tarmac road running east-northeast from Nagori to Tumulia three kilometers away, I realized that there were no bare-bodied children...