A debut novelist evokes an emotional history of the troubled birth of Bangladesh
This is a historical novel that follows a less trodden path. It is not the traditional history of kings and their making and unmaking through war or intrigue. It is also not the, now equally mainstream, history of people that is called subaltern studies. It is the emotional history of people whose dream changed in a few crucial years to a nightmare.
It is the story of five tumultuous years (1971-75) in the life of a Bangladeshi at the birth of his nation when the golden dawn of freedom rapidly turned red with misrule, chaos and suffering under its founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Khaleque Biswas, an impecunious journalist who first chronicles his nation’s war of independence in a paper that is born in that struggle, is landed soon after with an unenviable responsibility: that of having to give shelter in his very modest flat in Dhaka to a young villager who has absolutely nothing and no skills on the basis of which he can find a job.
Biswas soon loses his own job after he naively wants to report the missteps of the new dynamic of making hay in the first light of freedom and is almost at the end of his tether when he makes a fortuitous discovery. The young man, Nur Hussain, can mimic with startling accuracy Sheikh Mujib’s historic speech, whose broadcast on March 7, 1971, galvanised the nation, which was still in gestation. Thereafter follows an incredible journey: Biswas dresses Nur Hussain as Sheikh Mujib, becomes his impresario and manager, makes him perform first by the roadside before poor people and then at the ruling Awami League rallies, and is finally contracted to share the platform with Sheikh Mujib himself.
Within this physical journey is the emotional journey of Biswas, who grew up in rural poverty, unable to resist the first chance in his life to come into some money. So he sells his soul by running an apparently emotionless young villager who seems to feel nothing and want nothing, content with only the humblest of meals. The novel performs two tasks graphically. One, it depicts the horrific denouement of the 1973 famine in which over a million people died and through which Biswas single-mindedly pursued money. The other is the unfolding of the police state, culminating in the creation of the dreaded militia-led Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League, which terrorised its own people and into whose vortex the manager and his dumb subject get sucked.
There is an overriding metaphor. It is the story of how a fantastic mimic of a revered leader makes ripples even as the leader himself is found to be deeply flawed.
Early in the novel the protagonist observes: “I saw people coming to Dhaka, but I did not know why Dhaka was the only solution for them. Now I saw what I did not want to see. I saw hunger, dissatisfaction, rampant poverty, looting. It was only eighteen months into Bangladesh’s independence, and the country was falling into a deep pit of brutality.” On his strategy of using Nur Hussain: “These people are in a trance – the indolent, seductive trance of Bengali nationalism. We are creating a trance within that trance so that they reach into their pockets.”
The unraveling comes when the hitherto dumb Nur Hussain reveals he has a mind of his own and cannot be relied upon to keep delivering Sheikh Mujib’s historic speech to drum up public support that the now hated Awami League desperately needs. Next, an attempt is made to find a replacement, and the qualities listed for a potential recruit are revealing: “One who is obedient… One who follows the rules… One who speaks only, and does not think or dream or analyse or speculate.” This is the final thought in Biswas’ mind as he looks back at the dead body of the shattered dreams of the millions killed by the famine, his own lost integrity and the effect of any penance he could do: “I would still be avoiding the truth that I wanted to see reflected in our national consciousness – guilt for the dead.”
In this first novel, Neamat Imam, a Bangladeshi Canadian writer, is able to offer the authentic feel of sight, sound and smell. He is also able to imbue the journalist protagonist with a detachment that puts in perspective the horror of famine and the trauma of having to live in it and lose one’s soul. The novel can be appreciated at two levels. It is a gripping depiction of a phenomenon that finally unravels a thriller that chronicles a historical interregnum. But to any Bengali who is familiar with the land and its people, this is a chance to relive a bit of history and savour many local flavours. Mention should be made of the cameo portrait of an itinerant folk singer and philosopher, Shah Abdul Karim, who inevitably brings to mind the legendary Lalon Fakir. Also noteworthy are the descriptions of rural Bengal: “Let’s go … to the little village of green leaves and quiet nights, where the fish jump in the air to kiss the sun.”