The hero vanishes

  • This posthumous novel, set in Bangladesh, bristles with an unfulfilled promise
  • From politics to near-future fantasy, the plot covers a wide and eclectic ground

Numair Atif Choudhury died in an accident soon after finishing the final draft of his debut novel, Babu Bangladesh!. Published posthumously, the book traces the life of the eponymous hero, Babu Abdul Majumdar, who rechristens himself “Babu Bangladesh" as he embarks on a political career.

Set in the Tangail district of Bangladesh, where Babu is born in 1971 (the year Bangladesh wrest its freedom from Pakistan), with frequent detours into Dhaka, the novel is an audacious undertaking. Narrated by Babu’s biographer, who is on a quest to record his subject’s tumultuous life based on unreliable first-person accounts and Babu’s diaries, the book seems to aspire to be the Midnight’s Children of Bangladeshi fiction. Like Saleem Sinai, who is born in 1947, Babu is also birthed on the cusp of violently changing times as nations break, though the similarities between them end there.

Choudhury’s towering ambition, writ large over the text, is his strength as well as nemesis. Babu Bangladesh! begins in the year 2028. We are informed that its hero has been missing since 2021. His absence is lamented by those impressed by his trailblazing work as an activist, environmentalist and political leader, including the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh and writer Arundhati Roy. The US president, “Tulsi Harris", bemoans Babu’s disappearance off the record on a visit to Bangladesh in 2022.

Set against this fantastic backdrop, the narrator recreates Babu’s life in vivid vignettes, from his conception during the peak of the bloody fight for freedom in 1970, to the causes he threw himself into. From the rights of sex workers to the protection of tribes in the hilly regions, Babu had his finger in many worthy pies, though his methods weren’t always ethically sound.

Yet, in spite of his public appeal and the apocryphal stories about him, it is frustratingly difficult to get a sense of Babu as a human being. It’s true that as a biographer, the narrator’s intention is to present an account that is untainted by bias. But the bigger problem is the novel’s impossibly opaque structure and lengthy, convoluted digressions.

From Bangladesh’s Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament) to the ecology of rainforests, Babu Bangladesh! hops, skips and jumps among subjects that are esoteric and abstruse. Almost all these detours, unfortunately, read like information dump, with tenuous relevance to the trajectory of the plot.

Evidently, Choudhury was an inspired writer and immersed himself in his research. In fits and starts, he manages to hook the reader with a good yarn, but a tighter editorial harness would have helped him hone that skill.

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