(Photo: Twitter)
(Photo: Twitter)

Opinion | A marvellous debut novel, but the author’s last one as well

‘Babu Bangladesh!’ could go down in history as a defining piece of literature on the volatile nation

Once in a rare while, a debut novel appears unannounced and hits you on the back of your head like a truncheon and leaves you stunned. Such a book is Babu Bangladesh! by Numair Atif Choudhury, which, if I may say so, could be the Midnight’s Children for that tumultuous nation. And it comes with a tragic backstory—soon after completing its final draft, Choudhury died last year in a drowning accident in Japan.

Bangladesh had a horrifyingly bloody birth in 1971, with the then West Pakistani military carrying out a systematic genocide of millions, ethnic cleansing of Hindus, and rapes of hundreds of thousands of women. The nation is still haunted by that holocaust, and has had a history of stable disequilibrium. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the father of the nation, within a year of coming to power, began betraying the secular constitution of the new nation and started pandering to Islamist elements (the word “secularism" was expunged from the constitution in 1977, but was restored in 2010; Islam, made the state religion in 1988, remains so). Amid rising corruption and nepotism, Rehman and almost his entire family were assassinated in 1975. A series of military coups later, General Ziaur Rahman came to power in 1977, only to be assassinated in 1981.

Since then, Bangladesh has seen another military dictatorship, and a fractious and often-violent democracy. The constants have been rampant corruption, the seemingly unstoppable rise of Islamist forces, persecution of minorities, the acquisition of power with the help of foreign intelligence agencies, the military as an extra-constitutional power centre, and regular natural disasters by way of cyclones and floods. Yet, its economy has performed remarkably well in the last decade, and it could overtake Pakistan in terms of per capita gross domestic product this year.

Choudhury chronicles all this, but the story of this anguished nation can perhaps only be told faithfully using the device of magic realism, and that is what Babu Bangladesh! does, written from the vantage point of 2028. Choudhury’s hero is conceived by two freedom fighters as Bangladesh’s war of liberation begins in March 1971. Growing up, he is fascinated by the mysteries of the Sangsad Bhaban, the sprawling National Assembly complex in Dhaka, designed by the legendary Louis Kahn, and acknowledged worldwide as an architectural marvel. Babu becomes obsessed with its secret geometries, the hidden nooks and crannies, and the whispered stories about the peculiar goings-on there—people behaving irrationally, strange visions, unearthly entities lurking in the shadows. Some very bizarre things transpire, involving an Islamist terrorist attack, which cannot be explained by reason.

Babu Bangladesh! is divided into five sections—Building, Tree, Snake, Island and Bird. It charts Babu’s life from his birth to his baffling disappearance in 2021, after a vast sum is stolen from the ministry of culture and distributed to impoverished painters, writers, musicians and artisans, leading to a cultural renaissance. Weirdness abounds. A banyan tree on the Dhaka University campus becomes a symbol of Bengali resistance, and Pakistani soldiers have meltdowns as they try to destroy it. Snake-worshipping indigenous people, steadily being driven out of their forest habitats by rapacious business interests and military men, weave their primeval magic. Could an enigmatic man from an ancient Yazidi tribe actually be the avatar of a bird-god? An island appears overnight in the sea, containing mind-boggling secrets, and then, disappears.

But, as the novel’s nameless narrator tries to reconstruct Babu’s story, he discovers that, as in the case of Bangladesh, truth itself is a trompe l’oeil. Versions of events differ radically, and each witness swears by what he or she saw. There is photographic proof of what Babu found on the island, but there is also credible evidence that the island never existed. Even the author’s first memory of Babu delivering a historic election speech is contentious—was it really Babu? Babu displays enough human weaknesses, yet some eyewitnesses ascribe superhuman powers to him. Choudhury leaves every contradiction and puzzle unresolved, saying only this about his investigation of Babu’s life: “At times we have whirled beautifully, but at other moments we have tumbled over our heads. That is perhaps the very best one can say of our journey." But who or what is he really talking about? Himself? Babu? Bangladesh?

Choudhury was obviously a reader with a wide and wild appetite. Babu Bangladesh! teems with arcane information from mythology to archaeogenetics, geomancy to microbiology. Quotations introducing sections range from the Satapatha Brahmana to Stephen King. It is a marvellous book, an enthralling combination of imagination, intelligence, erudition and empathy. It is deeply serious, yet playful; rooted in the soil of Bangladesh, but with arms outstretched towards the azure. And now that we know that the author will write no more, the last line of his only novel will resonate eerily for ever: “Farewell, my friend."

Till date, Babu Bangladesh! has been published only in India. But this book should reach readers worldwide.

Sandipan Deb is former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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