Know Thy Neighbour

The Bangladeshi literary gaint Humayun Ahmed ought to be read in India and particularly in Assam

Elections 2024
01 March, 2013

MY GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE in Teteliguri—a village about 50 kilometres east of Guwahati, northeast India’s largest city—was a chaotic place, home, when I was growing up, to more than 20 relatives. It was there that I spent most of my school vacations, there, in that L-shaped house—where at least three women were required to lift the huge cauldron of rice off the hearth—that I began to read.

One of the rooms had a large wooden almirah, almost touching the roof and crammed with all kinds of books in Assamese, Bengali and English—popular, unpopular, pulpy, erotic, fantastic, romantic and literary. It was in that almirah that I discovered a few novels in Bengali by the Bangladeshi writer Humayun Ahmed. These were from his Misir Ali detective series; I remember devouring these gripping stories like I did no other. Later, I would forget about Ahmed and discover other authors to fall in love with, learn from, analyse in order to write assignments for grades. Even later, I would miss the innocence with which I used to approach books in high school without knowing anything about their authors.

And then a year ago in Minnesota, one of my Bangladeshi friends, Shahed, started raving about the popularity and greatness of a particular Bangladeshi author.

“Did he create a character called Misir Ali?” I asked him. “I think I’ve read him.”

“Yes, he did! He also created a character called Baker Bhai for his tele-serial Kothay Keo Nei (No One’s Anywhere) , who was so popular that people took out processions in Bangladesh to protest his unjust hanging.”

We were talking on a snowy evening, at the university library. Shahed said, “My cousin participated in that protest. Humayun Ahmed is in America now—I heard he is undergoing treatment for cancer.”

I had never heard of a protest march in support of a fictional character before. So I’d been reading this author as a child in my grandmother’s house without a clue as to how influential he was. In the next few days, I plied Shahed with questions about Humayun Ahmed. Why didn’t you go to the protest? Recommend some of his literary novels to me, I don’t like reading mystery novels anymore. He didn’t have much to say, but assured me he would put me in touch with people who knew about Humayun Ahmed’s work.

In the next few days, he fixed meetings for me with every Humayun Ahmed ‘expert’ who lived in Minnesota. Most were immigrant students, ardent fans of his popular fiction. All of them told me about his mystery novels or the ones that had been adapted into films—so famous that everyone in Bangladesh knew them. But no one could say much about his literary novels. Neither could they tell me the reason behind his enormous popularity, why 200,000 copies of his 300-odd titles are sold every February at the Ekushey Book Fair in Dhaka and why his funeral in July 2012 was a nationally televised event, attended by thousands of fans. Eager to read more of his work, I turned to the internet, where free, digital versions of his novels had been uploaded onto a number of sites. Reading them, a picture of modern Bangladesh emerged before me, suggesting the reasons for his fable-like popularity.

HUMAYUN AHMED, WHO WAS BORN a year after the independence of India, debuted as a writer in 1972, a year after the birth of Bangladesh, with his novel Nondito Noroke (In a Blissful Hell), an instant critical and commercial success. He was a student of chemistry at Dhaka University then, and would later leave for snowy Fargo to attend the PhD program at North Dakota State University. In 1972, he also published another novel Shongkhoneel Karagar (A Prison Blue as Sea Shells), its title borrowed from a phrase in a poem by Rafiq Kaiser. The critical acclaim received for these two novels and a few others that he wrote, earned him the prestigious Bangla Academy Award in 1981, an award he shared that year with Abdul Mannan Syed, popular Bengali poet, critic and editor. In 1985’s special Eid issue of Bichitra magazine, Ahmed published 1971, a novel set against the Liberation War—a theme that he had explored in Shyamol Chaya (Dark Shadows, 1976) and would revisit throughout his career, not only in novels but also short stories, screenplays and movies. The sweeping, epic, Liberation War novel Josna O Jononir Golpo (The Story of a Mother and A Moonlit Night, 2004) is perhaps the culmination of his preoccupation with the bloody war that gave birth to Bangladesh.

Primarily a fiction writer, Ahmed also wrote screenplays, poetry and non-fiction. Though he had a successful teaching career, he later gave up his teaching to concentrate on writing and filmmaking. He wrote the screenplays for at least ten films, directing some of them such as Aguner Poroshmoni (Fire Sorcerer’s Stone of Fire), Sravan Megher Din (A Cloudy Day in Sravan), Dui Duwari (Two Doors), and Chondrokotha (Stories of the Moon). For television, he scripted popular dramas such as Ei Shob Din Rati and Kotho Keo Nei (which featured Baker Bhai). He also wrote columns for daily newspapers. During his treatment in the States, he began a column called New Yorker Akashe Jhokjhoka Rood (Bright Sunlit Skies of New York), expressing his admiration for Haruki Murakami in one of them.

In the late 1980s, he began publishing two detective series featuring Himu and Misir Ali. The eponymous Himu was so popular that after him it became a fashion among young men to wear yellow kurtas and walk barefooted on the streets. Misir Ali, Ahmed’s other detective creation, is a simple man, a university professor of Abnormal Psychology. He changes house too often and solves problems in the lives of people with his logical reasoning. What emerges from Ahmed’s successful forays into multiple genres is the image of a compulsive storyteller who used all kinds of mediums to circulate his tales. Isaac Bashevis Singer said that the purpose of great literature is to “entertain and to instruct”. Reading Ahmed, I often find myself wondering why his work wasn’t more questioning, and why his sole aim seems to be to entertain.

So what makes Humayun Ahmed’s literary output—especially his early books, which established him as a major voice by the 1980s—important? It might have been difficult for him to venture into other modes of storytelling, had he not earned success with his novels. Is he a significant writer because he wrote several novels on Bangladesh’s most important event—an event that will probably always haunt Bangladeshis and has been constantly revisited by its artists, scholars, novelists?

Many writers have produced fiction set against the Liberation War. Anisul Hoque’s Ma (Mother, 2003), Muhammad Zafar Iqbal’s Amar Bondhu Rashed (My Friend Rashed, 1994) and one of the most notable English novels to have emerged from South Asia in recent times, Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age (2007)—are all set against the same event that preoccupies Ahmed. But there are other reasons why Ahmed inhabits the undisputedly pre-eminent position in the minds of the common readers of Bangladesh.

I see the rise of Ahmed intrinsically linked to the birth of Bangladesh as a nation. In 1971, Bengali-Indian writers dominated the bookshelves in Bangladesh: Sunil Gangopadhyay (creator of the famed Nillohit), Ashapurna Debi (who was a household name in both Bengals by then because of the widespread popularity of the first book in her trilogy Prothom Prutisruti [The First Promise]) and Mahasweta Devi. Bangladeshis needed a literature of their own, a literary hero of their own—which is the subconscious or self-conscious anxiety that accompanies any kind of nationalism. A newborn nation is like a person placed before a crowd to introduce himself but finds it difficult to speak. It is a fundamental human need to introduce oneself properly—in other words, narrate oneself. The same is true of a newborn nation and a newly emerging community. Ahmed gave voice to this desire. In a way, he introduced the Bangladeshis to themselves by writing their numerous biographies. His precise, dexterous enunciation of their yet ineffable identity ensured him a permanent position in the minds of the Bangladeshis.

IT SEEMS SURPRISING that Nondito Noroke and Shongkhoneel Karagar—Humayun Ahmed’s first two novels published in 1972—are silent about a war that left a long trail of corpses. The similarities between the two novels are striking. They unfold in Dhaka, soon after Bangladesh was freed. There is almost no mention of the Liberation War, the nine-month-long bloodbath that led to the birth of Bangladesh and yet, in the novels, two significant, innocent characters die because of birth-related issues.

In Nondito, the demented Rabeya, who roams around the neighbourhood, with safety pins on every inch of her sari because she doesn’t know how to cover herself, dies after a failed attempt to abort after she was raped. Shongkhoneel startles the reader in the first chapter with the death of the main character Khoka’s mother, Shirin, during childbirth. Both deaths lead to tumultuous changes in the single family featured in both novels, uncovering dark secrets to do with incest, rape, and past loves, which Khoka must grapple with. In Nondito, mentally imbalanced Rabeya was impregnated by Master Kaka—Khoka’s father’s unmarried best friend who lived with them all his life. This person had even brought up the children of the house.

When this shocking secret is revealed to the family, Khoka’s step-brother Montu kills Master Kaka with a boti (chopper); the novel closes with Khoka and his father waiting outside a prison holding a letter addressed to the jailor that will allow them to lay claim to Montu’s body after he is hung to death. During the Bangladesh Liberation War, between 200,000 and 400,000 women, according to varying estimates, were raped by Pakistani armymen, leading to between 25,000 and 30,000 forced pregnancies. It cannot be coincidental that two significant novels written soon after 1971 had birth and abortion as their chief motifs.

1972 was perhaps too early for a young Humayun Ahmed to deal directly with fresh wounds. He may have needed a certain distance to fully internalise the birth pangs of a nation, which is perhaps why he began to directly address the war only in novels he wrote in the 1980s and why it was only in 2004 that he published his war epic Josna O Jononir Golpo.

What he portrayed discreetly in his first two novels, he deals with greater detail in his novel 1971. A slim book, it is a gripping narrative about the torture inflicted on the people of a remote village called Neelgunj by ‘Majorsab’ of the Pakistani army, who enters the village suspecting the presence of muktijoddhas (liberation war guerillas) in the nearby forest and subjects the inhabitants to all kinds of humiliation including physical and sexual assault. Aziz Mastar, the only poet of the village, is incarcerated in the school where he teaches, with a battered, bruised and bloodied imam, who wonders if the Pakistani army will give him some water to wash himself so he can read namaz.

Nilu Sen, the only person in the village who owns a transistor, is shot dead without warning and Majorsab holds a kangaroo court to solve a long forgotten case concerning the murder of Chitra Buri’s (the beggar of Neelgunj) son. A man called Moti is deemed to be the culprit and put to death. The Major’s companion is a Bengali officer, Rofiq. He witnesses the torture of his own people and gradually starts to reason with the Major, resulting in him being shot by the latter. Just before he is shot, Rofiq tells him that he is sure the Major won’t be able to return to West Pakistan, that he will die before he can get there. Though he is fully armed and has unleashed terror in the entire village for the whole day, the Major starts sweating in fear—an image that ends the novel.

What also emerges from these early novels is a clear picture of contemporary Bangladeshi urban life, a picture that reaffirms the resilience of a people after a bloody war. In Nondito, Khoka’s aspiration to turn himself into the financial pillar of his family by doing well in his masters exam was perhaps a desire familiar to young people in the newly independent nation. Khoka’s story could have been the story of every urban, middle class (Bengali) youth—most of whom get a job, move up the social ladder, get married and help parents. Khoka is especially worried about his mother; he wants to give her a little respite from the daily housework that she has been doing all her life. He wants to take her for an outing to a place called Sikakundo, but he is unable to pay for it. Once, on finding his mother weeping, he consoles her,  saying, “I want to do a lot more for this family than my Baba has done.” After he gets a job at a government college with a monthly salary of 420 takas, we cheer for him when his mother says “besh ekti Lokhimoto meye aante hobey” (You will have to get a good wife like Goddess Lakhshmi).

In Shongkhoneel, similar ambitions are present but the main character here, also called Khoka, is trapped in his circumstances. He is unable to break away from a family whose dynamics are rapidly changing, whose past he is discovering which makes his present difficult. In Debi, the first book in the Misir Ali series, we find Neelu and Beelu, sisters who are exposed to a modern education in the Dhaka of the late ’80s or early ’90s. They constantly read fiction—mostly Indian-Bengali authors like Nimai Bhattacharya and Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay. They go to restaurants, watch Bollywood movies, go out for dates, enjoy life in Dhaka to the fullest.

During the mid-1990s, Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin achieved global attention for her provocative and dark critique of patriarchy and religion in her country, which forced her into exile. Suddenly, a country of millions was disproportionately represented, globally, through the translated works of a single author, monopolising popular perceptions of Bangladesh. In Guwahati, I remember seeing Nasrin’s books being sold near railway tracks or vendors of her books sitting under black umbrellas and vying for attention with sellers of fish and vegetables. There were new almirahs in my grandmother’s house then and even they were adorned with copies of Nirbachito Kolam (Selected Columns, 1991) and Nosto Meyer Nosto Godyo (Fallen Prose from a Fallen Girl, 1992). The controversy surrounding Taslima Nasrin’s works had circulated only one story about Bangladeshi women, often overshadowing the reality of lives like Ahmed’s Neelu and Beelu, even if these were the lives of a privileged few.

Ahmed’s fiction creates space for various stories about Bangladesh, challenging the gloomy single story that is prevalent. His propensity for this variety is best seen in his novel Josna O Jononir Golpo. About 450 pages long, it follows the fate of a large cast of characters from diverse backgrounds: among them are Shah Kalim, a poet; Irtazuddin, a religious man; Nazmul, a gallant freedom fighter and so on. They witness the breakout of the Liberation War and live through the horror. Ahmed’s intention to include as many narratives as possible is perhaps movingly reflected in his lament in the foreword to this novel about the absence of representation in Bangladeshi fiction of the contribution of Indian soldiers to the war. He mentions how he made a long list of names of Indian soldiers who were killed during the war. Eventually, he says, he had to exclude that list because it would have extended the length of the book by another 100 pages.

THIS COMPLEX PICTURE OF BANGLADESH must be circulated at least in Assam, where I come from, if not all over India. Ahmed’s fiction not just showcases modern Bangladesh to its own citizens but to people outside his own country too. To understand the importance of his gesture, we must examine the stereotypical image of the abject Bangladeshi immigrant that most of us in Assam unquestioningly subscribe to.

The Assam Agitation (1979 to 1985)—the six year long mass movement against illegal migrants from Bangladesh—loomed large in my life when I was growing up in Assam during the ’90s. Neighbours who came over for a casual chat conjectured how we would soon become a minority in our own land. Assamese dailies and weeklies often predicted that we would soon have a Bangladeshi chief minister if the voters’ lists kept swelling annually with the names of alleged Bangladeshis. The (documented or undocumented) immigrants who came to work in our homes and pulled rickshaws on the streets of Guwahati worked for much lower wages than the local manual worker and created the image in our minds of the abject Bangladeshi. In this climate, there was no space for positive and multi-layered images of Bangladeshis.

Towards the late ’90s, things became worse with Taslima Nasrin’s books appearing alongside Assamese bestsellers at book fairs and bus stops—jostling for space with illustrated sex manuals, mythological tales and glossy periodicals. The hapless illegal immigrant and Nasrin’s courageous, deeply critical depiction of Bangladesh only fortified the belief that Bangladesh was the other, that it was very different from us, that we weren’t like them. Fiction about Bangladesh was limited. Bengali books did appear on the bookshelves of serious readers, but these were mostly by Indian-Bengalis; Humayun Ahmed was read by a select few.

The riots between immigrant Bengali-Muslim settlers and Bodos broke out on 20 July last year, a day after Humayun Ahmed had passed away in New York. The ensuing debate in the Assamese media and Assamese households was often ugly. Personal exchanges turned bitter if one challenged friends who supported mass killings and deportations. Deportations? If there are fifty lakh Bangladeshis in Assam, it’d take 250,000 trucks to deport everyone, I told a friend, hoping he would understand the absurd nature of such a demand.

Just as terrifying was the deep-rooted prejudice. After Humayun Ahmed passed away, I made a trip to Panbazar, Guwahati’s book market. There, I met another friend and told her I was looking for some novels by the Bangladeshi writer Humayun Ahmed to refresh my indistinct memories of reading him in high school. Looking displeased, she asked me sarcastically, “So, why this Bangladeshi-preeti suddenly?” My friend, an avid reader, who is often seduced by the narratives of writers who live seven seas and thirteen rivers away, didn’t know of one of South Asia’s most widely read authors who had died just about a week earlier.

Whenever Misir Ali received a letter, he had the habit of reading it at least thrice to understand the author properly. He knew the importance of language, the way it dehumanises as well restores dignity. Jyotiprasad Agarwala, modern Assam’s most important poet, embraced East Bengali immigrants as “new-Assamese” (noo-Axamiya) in his poetry. Of late, the spectre of uncontrolled immigration under alleged political patronage has eroded this liberal outlook to a great extent in Assam. Perhaps, only stories and poems can heal this. I wonder if discussions in Assam would have been so polarised, if Bangladeshi-preeti would be considered a crime, had Ahmed’s books been sold on the footpaths of Guwahati, and if through these wonderful novels people in Assam had come to know our closest neighbour better.