Books

East is East

By Shougat Dasgupta | 1 July 2014
Al Cane / Creative Commons
Bangladeshi immigrants in 1980s London. Working-class immigrant communities in the United Kingdom and North America have been a major locus for Bangladeshi novels in English, including those by the novelists Monica Ali and Zia Haider Rahman.

WHO SPEAKS, and who is being spoken for, have always been loaded questions for postcolonial novelists. If a nation is, at least in part, imagined into being through feats of storytelling, the storyteller acquires a kind of authority over the soul, such as it is, of the nation. For a certain kind of postcolonial novelist—say, VS Naipaul—the novel must remain an unfinished business: the protagonist cannot develop beyond a certain point; he is stunted and half-formed, like his nation. For another kind of postcolonial novelist—say Hanif Kureishi—it is the former imperial centre that seems half-formed; no longer cocksure, forced to cede ground to the immigrant, or at least to the immigrant’s children, to reconcile itself to a new order. For Naipaul’s failed nationalists and doomed Third World intellectuals, emigration and self-exile is necessary penance; for Kureishi’s first generation Londoners, the baggage of their parents’ histories, the baggage of the ‘home’ country has to be sloughed off so that a new kind of English person can be created. Other postcolonial novelists writing in English have also taken up the theme of finding, creating and claiming a place in new national communities.

Ideas of home and belonging are hardly particular to postcolonial or migrant literature. Novels, from Don Quixote on, have been preoccupied with the radical act of leaving home on journeys and quests, followed by a return; the protagonist fundamentally changed, matured by having lived a little. Home and away: you need the one to recognise the other. The English novel developed in the eighteenth century, alongside an empire expanding ever further afield. Englishness was confronted by foreignness, and the outlandish travel narrative was among the most popular literary genres of the time. Stories, Edward Said wrote in Culture and Imperialism, “are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonised people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history.”

The novel has been a way of asserting and establishing individual and national identity, of making coherent what seems incoherent, of answering (or failing to answer) essential questions: Who are you? Where do you come from? What is your place in society? For a writer like Salman Rushdie, the loss of home can be assuaged by restoring the past “whole, in CinemaScope and glorious Technicolor,” as he wrote in the essay ‘Imaginary Homelands,’ and by creating “Indias of the mind.” Rushdie, for a while, offered hybridity, the double perspective, as a happy alternative to Naipaul’s baleful gloom. His writing proposed that the subcontinental writer in English had access to more than one tradition; he or she could be open to the world in a way more parochial writers could not. Of course, the Ayatollah Khomeini had different ideas.

Perhaps, as critics and academics such as Jon Mee have argued, the playful embrace of cosmopolitan hybridity is a function of privilege and social class. The events of 11 September 2001 and the West’s subsequent war on terror made hybridity suspicious—for Muslims particularly, but also for other South Asians (as evident in the “revenge” attacks on Sikhs in the United States, for instance). Even cosmopolitan, socially and economically privileged South Asian novelists are now confronted with stark choices, and increasingly less able to take refuge in multivalent identities. British and American novelists, who did not feel the same pressure—whether Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, John Updike or the Jonathans (Franzen and Safran Foer)— largely failed to cope with 9/11 in fiction. The few successes in this regard, including war novels such as Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, are acutely self-critical, but unable to extend their imaginations and empathies to the Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani victims of American wars. Instead, some Western readers turn to Arab and South Asian novelists in English for the frisson of “news” from a reliable, sympathetic guide to a confusing, alien world. But writers are, or should be, in the uncomfortable business of asking questions, not providing the illusion of explanations or neat answers.

Could a certain type of subcontinental migrant to the West—well educated, well-to-do, first-language-fluent in English—become a janissary in service to the West, as the Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid suggests in The Reluctant Fundamentalist? In that novel, Changez, an Ivy League-educated banker, is riven by the prospect. The Bangladeshi writer Zia Haider Rahman’s much-touted debut, In the Light of What We Know, poses a similar question through its protagonist Zafar, another Ivy League-educated one-time-banker. The exacting New Yorker critic James Wood stamped his imprimatur on Rahman upon the novel’s release in May. Enthusiastic reviews in The Guardian and elsewhere appear set to make Rahman the South Asian novelist du jour in the West. In The Light of What We Know, a hefty, proverbial novel of ideas, is just the latest and most lauded of a clutch of novels and short-story collections to emerge from Bangladesh over the last couple of years. Read together, these books adumbrate a mostly unexplored part of the subcontinent in English, and reveal both the class divisions that still striate South Asia and the privilege that continues to insulate those who speak fluent English from their compatriots. Grimly and inevitably, the American cover of In the Light of What We Know invites the reader to look out from the porthole of a plane, with the wing partially visible, at a city glinting and vulnerable below.

IN MULTILINGUAL INDIA, it is possible to conceive of English as just another language in which to record, describe and transcend experience. But Bangladesh is much more homogenous, with some 98 percent of people speaking one or another dialect of Bengali. Its existence as a separate country found impetus first in the Language Movement of the 1950s—in people’s desire to free themselves from the yoke of Urdu imposed arbitrarily and without cultural consideration across East Pakistan in 1948. English has always been a language acquired through expensive education. It is also the language of displacement, of migration to the United Kingdom and North America. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal in 2011, Tahmima Anam, who is, alongside Monica Ali, the best-known Bangladeshi writer in English, said that in Bangladesh “people publish, write and consume books in Bangla. There hasn’t been great encouragement for people to write in English and participate in the global conversation about South Asia in English.”

Anam, who comes from a prominent family of writers and newspaper editors, writes in English because a peripatetic childhood and education left her unequipped, she once told the Wall Street Journal, to write well enough in Bangla. Less privileged, but equally illiterate in their parents’ language, are the British children of Bangladeshi migrants, mostly villagers from Sylhet with little education. Ali’s Brick Lane (2003), still the most famous Bangladeshi-origin novel in English, is the melodramatic and harrowing, but ultimately heart-warming, narrative of a traditionally embattled British minority that remains among the country’s poorest and least educated ethnic groups.

Zia Haider Rahman, whose father was a bus conductor, comes from the sort of working-class family Ali describes in her novel. In 2007, he wrote a series of op-eds in British newspapers excoriating the “lack of aspiration… embedded in the culture of many East End Bangladeshis.” In those tendentious articles, Rahman argued emphatically for the need to integrate, and held that the bugbear of multiculturalism had only resulted in the growth of Islamic fundamentalism among the children of working-class Brick Lane immigrants. He is subtler in his novel. Zafar, like Rahman, is highly educated and accomplished, with Oxford, Harvard, and experience as a banker as well as a human rights lawyer to his credit. In the Light of What We Know, however, shows that integration is not simply a matter of education and speaking English. The immigrant, however hard he might try, is always shut out from feeling like he truly belongs.

The pangs of migration and exile are at the core of recent Bangladeshi writing in English. Unsurprisingly, writers searching for a sense of belonging and a national identity seek them in the birth pangs of Bangladesh. The books I read for this review, all published in the last two years, are marked by the Liberation War of 1971—by its slaughter, broken promises and quickly dwindling hopes. The rape and mass murder of East Pakistanis fighting to create a country was so widespread that American diplomats described it as genocide. Henry Kissinger, then the US national security adviser, and US president Richard Nixon, paid little heed, backing their friend General Yahya Khan of Pakistan and mocking the “dying Bengalis.” (Their coarse comments, a matter of public record, were exhaustively excavated by Gary Bass in his 2013 book The Blood Telegram. )

The events and implications of 1971 are still a live issue in Bangladesh. The country’s leaders, in both the government and the opposition, are intimately connected, through parentage and marriage, to key figures in the war and the subsequent formation of Bangladesh. In February last year, tens of thousands of Bangladeshis coursed into Shahbag in central Dhaka to protest the sentencing of a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which collaborated with West Pakistan during the war, to life in prison instead of death.

Zafar, from In the Light of What We Know, is a literal product of the violence, born as the result of rape by a Pakistani soldier. Chitrita Banerji’s novel Mirror City, published early this year, begins in 1973, two years after the muktijuddho (freedom war), as the country nosedived towards famine, corruption and the eventual assassination of Bangladesh’s charismatic first prime minister and founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the so-called Bangabandhu (Friend of Bengal). The 1971 war, famine and Sheikh Mujib are also the subjects of Neamat Imam’s coruscating satire The Black Coat, published last May. And in the title story of Good Night, Mr Kissinger, Kazi Anis Ahmed’s short-story collection published in 2012 (a US edition was published in March), a Bangladeshi waiter at a fine-dining restaurant in New York fantasises about revenge while serving the cynical, Machiavellian Nobel Peace prize-laureate: “The dessert knife, still on the table, flashed before my eyes. Kissinger’s neck was soft and crumply enough that I could have pierced it with a blunt instrument.”

In a recent interview with the website 3 Quarks Daily, Ahmed, the scion of a prominent business family and the publisher of an English-language newspaper and the literary magazine Bengal Lights, asserted that the “Spirit of ’71, as we call it, is neither the sentiment of a particular generation nor a partisan confabulation. It is the essence of who we are as a people and a nation.” His own stories trace Dhaka’s growth into a contemporary developing-world megalopolis thrumming with discontent, with an overabundance of people and a lack of resources, with the destitute and the plutocrats living cheek by jowl. In such a city, the unity Ahmed’s “we” implies is evident only in a spontaneous uprising like Shahbag; on a daily basis, surely what is most manifest is the betrayal of the spirit of 1971—the inability or unwillingness of the Bangladeshi ruling class, like its counterparts in the rest of South Asia, to do anything about poverty and inequality.

Few South Asian writers in English concern themselves overmuch with the “essence of who we are as a people and a nation.” Most gesture, like Rushdie did in the 1980s, to the wider world, to the cosmopolitan rather than the derided parochial. Bangladeshi writers in English are no different, wanting to participate, as Anam put it, in the “global conversation about South Asia in English.” Ahmed also insists on a South Asian identity that exists alongside and without conflict with Bangladeshi identity. This—to be able to shed and assume identities like a snake does skin—as with Indian writers in English, is an assertion of privilege. Not everyone has the choice. What would a South Asian identity be? What to do with particular languages, histories and resentments? Perhaps the only people that might recognise a regional identity are a handful of South Asians abroad—students and professors at universities in the United States or Britain, for instance, where Indians find kinship with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis buttressed by shared class origins, and a common language in English.

WHO GETS TO PARTICIPATE in the global conversation about South Asia in English? A certain privileged obtuseness about this question is evident in the food writer Chitrita Banerji’s first novel, Mirror City, published this January. The novel is about a young Bangladeshi Muslim man and his Calcutta-born Bengali Hindu wife, who meet and marry at a graduate school in the United States and decide to return to a newly liberated Bangladesh. National hope and euphoria, though, is already foundering on the rocks of famine, poverty, corruption and a paranoid government. Dhaka is barely holding together and Uma, Banerji’s Indian protagonist, sees reflected in the city her own unravelling marriage.

She has fallen out of love with her husband, a history professor whose principal fault seems to be that he is not Alim Choudhury, the tall, dark, mysteriously grey-eyed businessman with whom she locks eyes across a crowded room:

Suddenly she found herself looking at a face that stood out in the crowd … He too was looking at her. One hand was poised over his jacket pocket … but it stayed frozen as their eyes remained locked for she hardly knew how long.

Banerji’s protagonist has something in common with the real Maria Chaudhuri, whose self-confident and equally obtuse memoir Beloved Strangers was also published in January. Chaudhuri, promoted in some quarters as a “brilliant new voice” from Bangladesh, subjects Dhaka, a city that makes her physically ill when she returns there for holidays from her college in the United States, to the saccharine glaze of her prose. Here she is on the men who make their living pulling richer people along the street to spare them the walk:

The tropical sun roasts the city and its dwellers into a caramel exhaustion. The rickshaw pullers lean against their parked vehicles, salt crystals gleaming on their strong brown backs.

Chaudhuri’s voice, like that of Daisy Buchanan in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, is one “full of money.” In her memoir, it is possible to detect the tension evident in many other new Bangladeshi novels too—the narrative voice is full of money, in opposition to that of the dispossessed.

The fictional Uma is also blithe, uncritical of herself and her motives, unseeing of the city and the country around her. On a field visit, Uma, who works for a foreign aid agency, sees a group of starving villagers. It is the beginning of a famine that will result in the deaths of an estimated million people. For the space of a couple of pages, Uma is on the verge of an insight:

When, she wondered as she came out of one cottage, would these villagers be galvanised from their lassitude and erupt in fury? What would happen to the comfortable lives of people like her? But, she reminded herself, most of the time people like her survived with their comforts intact in spite of uprisings and revolutions.

A dozen or so pages later, over which the book develops an unrelated subplot, the famine is summed up in a single paragraph that concludes with this sunny sentence:

Somehow, on the wings of some hopeful wind under a white cloud-flecked autumn sky, they had received a crucial message—that their ravaged villages were once again being visited by benign powers, the earth was once more receptive to seed, and the air was swirling with the currents of life.

No more is said about the famine until ten pages later, when Uma’s Swedish boss congratulates her on her compassion, on her inability to detach herself from the horrifying reality of her job, particularly as compared to her unfeeling Bangladeshi colleagues. The famine disposed of, Uma moves on to a subject that causes her far greater consternation—finding a suitable place to live now that she and her husband have to give up the sublet on their beautifully appointed and located flat.

Class goes unexamined in Mirror City. Early in the novel is a scene in which Uma, her husband and a friend, in their “shiny” Japanese car, take a detour through a “congested area, half bazaar, half slum.” A rock is flung through the car’s back window. This reminded me of Shazia Omar’s Like a Diamond in the Sky (2009), about junkies in Dhaka, in which a young addict offers a street kid 50 taka to throw a brick through the windshield of a white jeep idling at a traffic light. The image of the poor throwing bricks through the windows that shield the rich has an unsettling quality of anger to it. But that anger is an offstage threat in Banerji’s novel that never really materialises, unable to shatter the narrator’s carapace of privilege.

Anger is the fuel of satire, as is clear in Neamat Imam’s scabrous The Black Coat, published in May 2013. The anger of starving villagers, the anger that Uma is grateful does not break apart her careless, unthinking life, is front and centre in Imam’s book. The object of the villagers’ anger is Sheikh Mujib, the Bangabandhu, who turns from a revolutionary into a dictator, reneging on fundamental promises to his people. Khaleque Biswas, Imam’s narrator, is a journalist with the Freedom Fighter newspaper in 1971, filing wild, impassioned dispatches from the front:

In all my articles, I attacked and insulted the Pakistani rulers—present and past. I ridiculed them, invented stories about them, misspelt their names and designations to make them seem eccentric and trivial ... In emotionally charged language, I narrated how Pakistanis had jumped upon us like beasts with sharp claws and teeth and would not give up until they had sucked the last drop of our blood and turned our country into a wasteland.

When the war is won, Biswas’s zeal becomes embarrassing. He is too independent to be co-opted, to become a party man, and is sacked within a week. By this time, in the months after the war, already living with Biswas is the silent Nur Hussain, a yokel with little chance of surviving in the ferment of the capital: “He might be intelligent with goats, know their body language, grazing and foraging strategies, and reproductive cycles, but there were no goats in the city.”

But, out with Hussain one aimless evening, Biswas discovers his roommate’s talent at delivering Sheikh Mujib’s famously passionate 7 March 1971 speech, in which he articulated East Pakistan’s hunger for independence before an audience of some two million people. In the slum where they find themselves, poor people gather around Hussain and gratefully give him “whatever little money they had on them.” Biswas eventually becomes Hussain’s Svengali, giving him a makeover, turning him into Sheikh Mujib’s double with the aid of a haircut, thick-framed spectacles and the black coat of the title.

Latching onto Hussain’s popularity, the ruling Awami League hires him to warm up crowds before the real Sheikh Mujib appears. It is carnivalesque, this act—the sacred made profane, the fool turned king. What follows is Hussain’s profound moral disappointment in the leader he mimics, his rebellion, and Biswas’s psychological degeneration. It leads, inevitably, to calamitous violence. The Black Coat, its uneven quality aside, is as disenchanted and furious as the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun’s late-nineteenth-century modernist classic Hunger, or Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. In places, it’s as good a novel as Rushdie’s Shame—as concentrated in its scorn of our leaders, their lies and their corruptibility.

Some of the scorn that drives Hussain in The Black Coat is also in Zafar, the protagonist of In the Light of What We Know, though in his case it is held in abeyance because of his extraordinary academic and professional success. Zafar shares the bare bones of his biography with his creator: the East London upbringing scarred by poverty, which obsessive work and a talent for mathematics enable him to escape; the universities overwhelmingly attended by the children of the rich and well connected; the job on Wall Street, and the decision to give up the paycheque and instead work as a lawyer in Bangladesh. He is the model immigrant, but complete assimilation is elusive. Like Changez in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Zafar cannot get the girl, in this case an aristocratic English rose named Emily Hampton-Wyvern. It is a relationship so psychologically parlous that at one point Zafar is admitted to a sanatorium. Emily’s inscrutability, like that of the protagonist’s love in Hamid’s novel, represents that final, non-negotiable barrier to complete acceptance. Marriage and children are an old ploy, in literature as in life, to legitimise once illegitimate relationships. Zafar’s inability to marry Emily despite her being his fiancée shows him that he cannot be English, in some essential way; he cannot transform himself, as in an eighteenth century bildungsroman, from the foundling into the squire.

Both Rahman and Hamid frame their novels as conversations, albeit in Hamid’s case we only hear from one side. But where Hamid’s interlocutors are in opposition—a Pakistani and an American—Rahman’s are nominally on the same side, old friends who lost touch for about a decade. It is Zafar’s unnamed friend who is the narrator here, reporting their conversations and filling in the gaps with the aid of Zafar’s voluminous notebooks to ostensibly tell the latter’s story, “the story of the breaking of nations, of war in the twenty-first century, marriage into the English aristocracy, and the mathematics of love.”

This glib grandiloquence is an early sign that this narrator is not to be trusted. Zafar and his friend went to Oxford together “but that, to put it imprecisely, was the beginning and the end of what we had in common.” Where Zafar was poor, the narrator’s “father was born into a well-known landed family in Pakistan, where he met and married my mother.” The narrator continues:

From there the newlyweds went to Princeton, where they had me, making me an American citizen, and where my father obtained his doctorate before moving to Oxford so that he could take up a chair in physics.

The voice of money and that of dispossession come together in one novel. It’s for this alone, this frank juxtaposition of the betrayer and the betrayed, that Rahman deserves credit for a novel that is otherwise occasionally ragged, and pompous rather than profound. Certainly, Zafar’s tendency to lecture, to splay the feathers of his autodidactic prowess like an incontinent peacock, is annoying. But Zafar sets great store by his ability to explain the world; knowledge is his one certainty, until he discovers that knowledge is no harbour, and that knowing all the answers is no aid to understanding the world or your place in it.

On a September morning in 2008, Zafar turns up unannounced at his friend’s roomy South Kensington house in London, dishevelled and rake-thin. His friend, close to forty years old, is undergoing an early midlife crisis. His marriage has failed, and his bank is about to sacrifice him to appease public outrage over “mortgage-backed securities, collateralised debt obligations, credit derivatives, and everything else that was now being laid for a bonfire.” Zafar is a welcome distraction. He has just returned from Afghanistan, where he went (or did not) at the behest of Emily, where he was (or was not) a Pakistani (or British) spy involved (or not involved) in an explosion at a café that results in the death of an American mercenary. The uncertainty is part of the novel’s structure, where every additional piece of information—and this novel is full of information, almost a parody of hysterical realism (a term coined, funnily enough, by a disapproving James Wood)—to describe the nature of the contemporary novel that “knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being.”

Class infiltrates every one of Zafar’s relationships, and prevents him from ever being at ease in the company of other people. It’s another explanation for why he tries so hard at everything; every fact, every piece of arcana is a buffer against his betrothed’s unfathomable, unknowable conventions, against the imposing house, with its double doors and shelves of books, in which his friend was raised. Overwhelmed by the poverty of his own upbringing and the concomitant anger and alienation, Zafar’s fondest memory, one of those Wordsworthian “spots of time,” is a boyhood return to Bangladesh where, walking to his village in the middle of the night, he finds himself under an inky, starlit night sky, in a thicket full of wild pineapples:

As an adolescent back in Britain, I believed that what I saw in boyhood was a representation of a beginning, a homeland without politics, that such memories built up a picture of a time and place, that these things I had seen, these things I had tasted and smelled, the stuff set down in the store of memory, that they were an ark from which a whole world could be recreated ... It was an ambitious idea to begin with, but even before the ambition perhaps it was simply wrong in its root, a false premise: to think it possible to recreate a world.

It is there too that he meets and finds momentary solace in the arms of his mother. But memory, the imagination and writing cannot retrieve a lost paradise. Zafar’s story, from inception, is one of violence and betrayal. An abiding influence in the novel—the digressive, ruminating, lugubrious poetry of WG Sebald apart—is F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which is also a story about class, about the impossibility of belonging when you don’t already belong.

Nick Carraway, the narrator of Gatsby’s story, it should not be forgotten, is as insulated by privilege as his cousin Daisy is. Others, Nick’s father tells him early in the novel, have not had his advantages. Nick rhapsodises about Gatsby in the way a bookish romantic might rhapsodise about a cowboy. It’s not really the cowboy the romantic is entranced by but the idea of the cowboy: it’s easy, in other words, to eulogise Gatsby after his death. Something similar is going on with Zafar’s friend, who is just as eager to express his love and esteem for Zafar, even if his actions suggest otherwise. Betrayal, in the end, is inevitable.

In the Light of What We Know is a book about the limits of knowledge. For Zafar, Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which show that mathematical propositions exist which are true but cannot be proven to be so, serves as a metaphor for the world’s inherent inscrutability. Each chapter in this long novel is bolstered by at least one epigraph, usually by several. They represent Zafar’s ceaseless intellectual rummaging, his particular search for answers and for a key to the self. Zafar’s questions are those of the postcolonial nation, birthed by violence and flailing for an identity. Who gets to partake of the fruits of our relatively new nations? What does it mean to be a citizen, to belong? These are questions the English-language novel has tried to answer throughout its history, and they have been given fresh charge by colonialism. Who am I? And, by corollary, is there a “we”? And, if there is, who are we?

IN THE ENGLISH NOVEL: AN INTRODUCTION, the literary critic Terry Eagleton wrote that, like a novel, “the nation is polyphonic, internally differentiated, a chorus of many voices orchestrated into one.” It’s that “heteroglossia,” argued the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, that capacity to incorporate many opposing voices, which accounts for the mimetic genius of the novel form. The novel’s malleability allows the writer to at once faithfully represent a society and to invent it, to take shapelessness and give it shape. Individual identity in the social realist novels of the nineteenth century up to World War I was generally reconciled with society and the nation-state; as Eagleton points out, the novel was primarily a comic form.

The modernists, traumatised by war, were less optimistic that reconciliation could be achieved, that the individual was not forever alienated from his fellows. This tragic irony—of attempting to bring order to a world that grows more fragmented, more arbitrary and more unknowable—is made more piquant for English-language novelists from the subcontinent. They choose—or, if they are not multilingual, are forced by circumstance—to write for their compatriots in a borrowed language and in a borrowed form. For a novelist like Mulk Raj Anand in the 1930s, writing novels in English was a political act, borne upon a torrent of anger. He may have earned a doctorate at Cambridge, but Anand came from craftsman and peasant stock, and traced a trajectory as unlikely for him as it was half a century later for Rahman or the fictional Zafar. In the preface to a later edition of his 1937 novel Two Leaves and a Bud, Anand wrote that the “heroes” of his novels “were the reflections of the real people I had known during my childhood … They were flesh of my flesh and blood of my blood.” In novels such as Untouchable (1935) and Coolie (1936), Anand’s mission was didactic: to tell the English in their own language that Indians deserved independence, to offer his countrymen a vision of a modern India, and to find a language in which to express his experiences and his hopes.

Bangladeshi writers need apologise neither for their use of English, nor for the fact that, like many other South Asian writers, they tend to look for readers largely outside their home country. Of the few stars of Bangladeshi writing in English, Monica Ali’s attentions are located outside the country, and Rahman is not writing about Bangladesh so much as the postcolonial, post-9/11 individual adrift in the world. Anam, another star, is scheduled to wrap up this year her trilogy of novels that present an ambitious narrative of the nation. An extract in Granta published last year was promising, and presented the first serious literary treatment in English of South Asians being sold into bonded labour in the Arabian Gulf, living and dying in hell to build those lavish, ludicrous skylines. But, at least for readers outside the country, the corpus of Bangladeshi writing in English is still incipient. As with other kinds of South Asian literature in English, the most easily detectable threat to its development is the straightforward assertion of cosmopolitan privilege by expatriates who are smugly at home everywhere.

Shougat Dasgupta is a freelance journalist based in Delhi.

WHO SPEAKS, and who is being spoken for, have always been loaded questions for postcolonial novelists. If a nation is, at least in part, imagined into being through feats of storytelling, the storyteller acquires a kind of authority over the soul, such as it is, of the nation. For a certain kind of postcolonial novelist—say, VS Naipaul—the novel must remain an unfinished business: the protagonist cannot develop beyond a certain point; he is stunted and half-formed, like his nation. For another kind of postcolonial novelist—say Hanif Kureishi—it is the former imperial centre that seems half-formed; no longer cocksure, forced to cede ground to the immigrant, or at least to the immigrant’s children, to reconcile itself to a new order. For Naipaul’s failed nationalists and doomed Third World intellectuals, emigration and self-exile is necessary penance; for Kureishi’s first generation Londoners, the baggage of their parents’ histories, the baggage of the ‘home’ country has to be sloughed off so that a new kind of English person can be created. Other postcolonial novelists writing in English have also taken up the theme of finding, creating and claiming a place in new national communities.

Ideas of home and belonging are hardly particular to postcolonial or migrant literature. Novels, from Don Quixote on, have been preoccupied with the radical act of leaving home on journeys and quests, followed by a return; the protagonist fundamentally changed, matured by having lived a little. Home and away: you need the one to recognise the other. The English novel developed in the eighteenth century, alongside an empire expanding ever further afield. Englishness was confronted by foreignness, and the outlandish travel narrative was among the most popular literary genres of the time. Stories, Edward Said wrote in Culture and Imperialism, “are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonised people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history.”

The novel has been a way of asserting and establishing individual and national identity, of making coherent what seems incoherent, of answering (or failing to answer) essential questions: Who are you? Where do you come from? What is your place in society? For a writer like Salman Rushdie, the loss of home can be assuaged by restoring the past “whole, in CinemaScope and glorious Technicolor,” as he wrote in the essay ‘Imaginary Homelands,’ and by creating “Indias of the mind.” Rushdie, for a while, offered hybridity, the double perspective, as a happy alternative to Naipaul’s baleful gloom. His writing proposed that the subcontinental writer in English had access to more than one tradition; he or she could be open to the world in a way more parochial writers could not. Of course, the Ayatollah Khomeini had different ideas.

Perhaps, as critics and academics such as Jon Mee have argued, the playful embrace of cosmopolitan hybridity is a function of privilege and social class. The events of 11 September 2001 and the West’s subsequent war on terror made hybridity suspicious—for Muslims particularly, but also for other South Asians (as evident in the “revenge” attacks on Sikhs in the United States, for instance). Even cosmopolitan, socially and economically privileged South Asian novelists are now confronted with stark choices, and increasingly less able to take refuge in multivalent identities. British and American novelists, who did not feel the same pressure—whether Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, John Updike or the Jonathans (Franzen and Safran Foer)— largely failed to cope with 9/11 in fiction. The few successes in this regard, including war novels such as Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, are acutely self-critical, but unable to extend their imaginations and empathies to the Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani victims of American wars. Instead, some Western readers turn to Arab and South Asian novelists in English for the frisson of “news” from a reliable, sympathetic guide to a confusing, alien world. But writers are, or should be, in the uncomfortable business of asking questions, not providing the illusion of explanations or neat answers.

Could a certain type of subcontinental migrant to the West—well educated, well-to-do, first-language-fluent in English—become a janissary in service to the West, as the Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid suggests in The Reluctant Fundamentalist? In that novel, Changez, an Ivy League-educated banker, is riven by the prospect. The Bangladeshi writer Zia Haider Rahman’s much-touted debut, In the Light of What We Know, poses a similar question through its protagonist Zafar, another Ivy League-educated one-time-banker. The exacting New Yorker critic James Wood stamped his imprimatur on Rahman upon the novel’s release in May. Enthusiastic reviews in The Guardian and elsewhere appear set to make Rahman the South Asian novelist du jour in the West. In The Light of What We Know, a hefty, proverbial novel of ideas, is just the latest and most lauded of a clutch of novels and short-story collections to emerge from Bangladesh over the last couple of years. Read together, these books adumbrate a mostly unexplored part of the subcontinent in English, and reveal both the class divisions that still striate South Asia and the privilege that continues to insulate those who speak fluent English from their compatriots. Grimly and inevitably, the American cover of In the Light of What We Know invites the reader to look out from the porthole of a plane, with the wing partially visible, at a city glinting and vulnerable below.

IN MULTILINGUAL INDIA, it is possible to conceive of English as just another language in which to record, describe and transcend experience. But Bangladesh is much more homogenous, with some 98 percent of people speaking one or another dialect of Bengali. Its existence as a separate country found impetus first in the Language Movement of the 1950s—in people’s desire to free themselves from the yoke of Urdu imposed arbitrarily and without cultural consideration across East Pakistan in 1948. English has always been a language acquired through expensive education. It is also the language of displacement, of migration to the United Kingdom and North America. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal in 2011, Tahmima Anam, who is, alongside Monica Ali, the best-known Bangladeshi writer in English, said that in Bangladesh “people publish, write and consume books in Bangla. There hasn’t been great encouragement for people to write in English and participate in the global conversation about South Asia in English.”

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