Scenes From Early Life | Philip Hensher
If you try to read Scenes From Early Life as a novel that belongs to a specific genre, you will be disappointed. While set in Bangladesh and written by an English novelist, it is not about the relationship between the colonial masters and the subject race. In fact, there is no English character in the novel; its dozens of characters are entirely from what was once East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh.
While written about the region, except for a few references to pickles or colourful rickshaws—never gratuitous, I should add—the tone, the language, and the sensibility is English, if there is such a thing, and not South Asian, if there is such a thing either. While sexuality often plays an important role in Philip Hensher’s novels, it is largely irrelevant in this story. While dealing with the time of Bangladesh’s liberation war, the novel is primarily about human relationships, and, critically, the world seen through the eyes of a pampered child. While it is ostensibly fictional, it is also part-memoir. And here’s the final part: While it is part-memoir, it is not Hensher’s memories at play here, but those of his husband, Zaved Mahmood.
Flashback: Hensher fictionalizes a war-torn childhood in Bangladesh. Photo: Lovelace/Express/Getty Images
In spite of these oddities which make it hard to place it in a particular slot, Scenes From Early Life, despite its generic sounding title, is engaging, engrossing, lively, and by the time you reach its end, truly memorable. This is as much a triumph of Mahmood’s recollection of his memories as of Hensher’s skill. In a sense, Hensher has done to Mahmood’s childhood with this novel what he did to his own growing up in The Northern Clemency, his acclaimed 2008 novel.
This novel begins in the period when tensions between the two halves of Pakistan are rising, and Saadi is a little child, the favourite of his many aunts and uncles, growing up in Dhonmondi, the upscale residential area in Dhaka where Bangladesh’s first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, also used to live. Hensher weaves in the tumult outside by observing people’s actions at a personal level—during the war, the patriarch hiding his Bengali library in a basement to protect it from Pakistani soldiers should they attack the family home, and after the war, the ostracizing of the children of collaborators, by making them play humiliating roles in games (for example, in a game the children develop out of Alex Haley’s saga of black enslavement, Roots, the ostracized child is allowed to play the exciting game only if he agrees to play the role of the slave). Other games the children play also draw on American television shows (the girls like Dallas, the boys prefer Kojak). And there is a moving tale of a friendship across religious barriers: Amit, a Hindu, and Altaf, a Muslim, both united by their passion for music. The violence which accompanied India’s Partition of 1947 had brought Altaf to what he thought would always be the eastern wing of Pakistan, where he formed an unlikely friendship with Amit. And yet, the violence of 1971, which Pakistan unleashed on people who became Bangladeshis, drove Amit to the Indian border.
Not only is Amit forced to flee the city he loves, he has to leave behind his beloved musical instrument, the tabla. At the border, “he saw all at once his future … he saw his life in India, arriving at his cousin’s house with nothing but a small grip with a slashed lining and an apologetic face. He saw himself working at what he could get, sleeping in the corners of rooms, negotiating and explaining with Indian officials, getting nowhere in the course of weeks. He saw no end to the war that was coming.”
Scenes From Early Life: Fourth Estate (London), 320 pages, £18.99 (around Rs1,630).
Hensher’s treatment is unique—the narrative is not a memoir (since Mahmood hasn’t written it, although it is made up of his memories, as told to Hensher and as imagined by the author), and it is not a novel, because it is not entirely fictional. Finally, it is not history either. You won’t learn what happened in Bangladesh in 1971—that is not its aim, and that is not the effect either (to read those in great fiction, turn to Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age and The Good Muslim). But importantly, Scenes From Early Life becomes bigger than the sum of its parts.
Mahmood, who I know (he is a human rights lawyer), wouldn’t have told the story of his childhood in this manner, but that ceases to matter. It is Hensher’s achievement to have woven such a sublimely smooth fabric, like “Dacca muslin”, as it were; from the bittersweet experiences of a tragic time which tore apart so many lives.
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