Recently, I was part of a chain mail with colleagues and writers about the grouses of Bangladeshi-Canadian author Neamat Imam. His polemical, Orwellian first novel The Black Coat has had little support in Dhaka so far. Imam believes reviews of the book have been suppressed in his country because it is a satire about the regime of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League now in power. Mujib led Bangladesh to independence from Pakistan in 1971. He is regarded as Bangladesh’s founding father, and the current prime minister Sheikh Hasina is his daughter. Mujib switched from parliamentary to a presidential governance, but his socialist zeal made him the hero, the Bangabandhu, that the new nation wanted. The euphoria soon waned. In its formative years, debilitating poverty and unemployment crippled Bangladesh. A famine in 1974 left tens of thousands dead.

The Black Coat is set in the 1970s. Thousands immigrate to Dhaka, the country’s new capital. Among them is a young, uneducated man named Nur Hussain whose only talent is mimicking a political speech of Mujib. Out-of-work journalist Khaleque Biswas uses Nur’s talent to make money. The political establishment helps him to exploit the nationalistic sentiments of the city’s poorest, in course of which differences emerge between the two men. Eventually, Nur turns violent and refuses to stick to the script. Through this tension, Imam explores the primal idea of power as a corrupting mechanism and how irresistible power can be. Mujib’s trademark attire had a black coat but in the book it is the obvious metaphor: a shroud over freedom.

'The Black Coat' by Neamat Iman
'The Black Coat' by Neamat Iman

After the mails poured in, I spoke to Imam while he was in China. He said he has sent copies of the book to some of his closest friends, including a former colleague (Imam was a professor of English at Dhaka before he moved to Canada), and they have neither reviewed it nor communicated with him despite repeated attempts to reach them. “I expected people to speak about the book. This is like a deliberate, collective silence. It is self-censorship because people are afraid," he told me over telephone.

Recently, The Fictionists, a webzine that publishes writings on Bangladesh, published two excerpts of The Black Coat. A few days later, they pulled them off the site, with a disclaimer. The disclaimer said, “Some of you have expressed concern over the excerpt of The Black Coat that appeared on this blog, wondering whether there is any need to discuss the novel here when the local mediascape remains silent about the book. …Meanwhile, we agree with the reader who pointed out the cover of The Black Coat features an important historical figure. We have therefore removed pictures of the cover because we understand it may be a sensitive issue for some. …In essence this is unnecessary self-censorship, especially from a minor blog that if off the national radar, but experience shows there is little tolerance for rationality from the powers that be." A Bengali blog, Amarblog.com, removed a post by Imam on Mujib and secularism in which he quoted another author in an anthology on human rights in South Asia published in India. That author writes how Mujib began to conclude his speeches with “khuda hafiz" instead of “joy bangla" towards the end of his tenure, demonstrating his shift from a secular leader to one flattering Islamist sentiments.

The Black Coat is not officially banned in Bangladesh. The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s largest English daily has reviewed the book. Calling it “a poignant political tale", the reviewer unequivocally praises the book: “Imam has shown a lot of courage in dealing with one of the most tumultuous and controversial phases of independent Bangladesh’s history." In his review for Mint Lounge, Arunava Sinha said, “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." It has also received favourable reviews elsewhere.

There is no doubt that a controversy such as this would immediately harness international support for the book, so I wrote to Bangladeshi writers and journalists living in and outside Dhaka. All of them say this is certainly not a case of official suppression of dissent. A news editor at New Age, a national daily in Bangladesh told me that at least a dozen bookstores have the book and there is growing interest in reading it.

From all their mails it appears that the Awami League has a lot going on in terms of preserving their depleting support base and are quite distracted towards the end of their current tenure. It is possible that the government is not really being able to channel any attention towards a novel published in a “foreign" country at the moment, however unflattering the story is for their leader’s reputation. The war crimes tribunal, which is prosecuting several Opposition politicians for having participated in mass atrocities during the War of Independence, is at a crucial stage. These are, of course, personal views.

But what clearly emerges from all the writers’ reactions to Imam’s claim that there is self-censorship among Bangladesh’s media and intelligentsia, is not outright denial of unofficial censorship, but a sense of caution about the book’s fate in the country.

In Bangladesh, like in India and Pakistan, censorship is not necessarily imposed by state directives, but is a matter of government, politics, and national and religious sentiments. We have embarrassing histories of interpreting offence, often dangerously by the ruling power. There are immediate threats of violence when a book, a painting or an author visiting a literary jamboree are considered offensive. Such routine protests and attacks are almost always because of political gain. Salman Rushdie, MF Husain, Taslima Nasreen, Humayun Azad—the list of writers and artists who have faced bans or threats is endless. Websites pulling off content they deem inflammatory, based on readers’ reactions, could be in Mumbai or Bangalore.

So Imam’s dismay is not entirely ill-founded. We anticipate and fear attacks on free speech and creativity. Self-censorship and fear could be the reasons we don’t have biographies, satires, films and novels about political leaders while they are in power. Several books about Indira Gandhi which were critical of her, by Uma Vasudev, Kuldip Nayar, Janardan Thakur, among others, came out after she was out of power. A few biopics on her are still scripts. The tomes on Narendra Modi, a few of which appeared before the momentum of his campaign as BJP’s next prime ministerial campaign even began, may not be as safe if he actually comes to power in 2014. I find it impossible to dismiss Neamat Imam when he says, “Why is everybody silent in Bangladesh? If it is a bad book, I expect it to be critiqued."

Political Animals is a new fortnightly blog about the intersection of politics and art

Close