The Black Coat | Neamat Imam
This is probably the strangest English novel to come out of Bangladesh—one that employs a dispassionate, journalistic voice telling an utterly surreal story to convey the anger and pain that the betrayal of hopes leads to. Bangladeshi-Canadian writer Neamat Imam turns the horrifying reality of the famine that followed the country’s independence from Pakistan—which all but undid the expectations that freedom had brought with it—into an absurdist theatre of the privileged and the victims. In the process, he also challenges the notion of the golden age that prevailed for at least one generation in Bangladesh about the independence of the country in 1971 and its aftermath.
The key statistic that propels this work: Five times as many people died in the famine of 1974 in Bangladesh as in the war of independence. The key spin: According to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman—the greatest hero of Bangladesh, who wrested freedom and led the country thereafter—the number of deaths from the famine was only about 27,000, not 1.5 million. Imam has crafted an extraordinary novel around this distortion of truth, tracing the internal journey from blind belief to utter disillusionment that the intelligent mind would have to undertake when confronted with this fact.
Everyman is Nur Hussain, who turns up at the doorstep of Khaleque Biswas, a journalist intent on telling the truth who has just lost his job for his efforts. In a bizarre bid to make money, Biswas gets Hussain, who appears to have no skills that can earn him a living, to dress up as Mujibur Rahman and deliver the leader’s classic liberation speech of 1971 at street corners. People gather around to listen as Nur Hussain mimics Mujib perfectly, having been coached extensively by Biswas, and toss coins at his feet.
A symbol of the people’s faith in Bangabandhu—the friend of the nation—Hussain eventually attracts the attention of a senior apparatchik in the Awami League administration, who wants to use his performance as an opening act at the party’s political rallies. And thus begins Hussain’s disenchantment, even as Biswas tries desperately to hold on to his faith in Mujib and his vision in the face of what he sees all around him.
This novel could have become straightforward polemic without nuance in the hands of a lesser writer. But Imam recreates the spectre of starvation, refugees, and the resultant overrunning of the Bangladeshi dream through a series of nightmarish scenes set in starkly unnatural shades, although the reality they portray is grimly naturalistic. Throughout, Biswas’ urgent narration reveals his grip on his view of Mujib as the saviour loosening, as the unpalatable truth of the leader’s real intentions seeps into him. The novel climaxes with Biswas’ despairing attempt to muffle the voice of this other truth.
This, of course, is an alternative reality of sorts—one that Imam conjures up with many deft touches. His strongest symbol is Mujib’s sleeveless black coat, which not just Hussain but also other characters in the novel begin to sport to reflect their frightening identification with a form of totalitarianism that swaps an ideology for power and greed. As an instance of just how casual the attitude towards truth is, Imam writes how the black coat is being bandied about in Bangladesh as its contribution to global fashion. Rich with political statements, this is a novel that achieves its intent in a remarkably creative and artistic manner.
In one sense, The Black Coat belongs to a stream of writing from Bangladesh—much of it in English—that questions the heroic celebration of everything to do with the freedom movement. The first wave of literature from independent Bangladesh sang glorious paeans of praise—not undeservedly—to the courage of those who participated in the movement, especially those who were killed. But subsequent writers have questioned the repression and terror that followed the wresting of freedom, including the use of propaganda, which Imam’s first novel in English—he has also written in Bengali—skilfully makes use of.
But this novel is much more than a link in the literary chain of antiviews about the history of Bangladesh, attempting to restore some of the missing bits. It is also the successful creation of a claustrophobic and catastrophic world as perceived by the people who are forced to participate in it—and of the roots of protest and, ultimately, rebellion. As a novel coming out of the recent history of South Asian countries, The Black Coat will be a tough act to follow for Indian writers in particular.