Rajesh Kumar Jha
(Babu Bangladesh by Numair Atif Choudhury. Published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins Publisher, India, 2019. Pages-402. Price- Rs. 499)
‘The concept of eternal return is found in Indian philosophy, in antediluvian Egypt and later in the Pythagorean stories. If every human being is but a Sisyphus, forever rolling a boulder uphill only for it to roll back down, why can we not spare some love from our amor fati to extend to others around us, each of whom rolls their own boulder?’ This quote is from the passage which describes the importance, indeed the cosmic significance of number 28. And why is number 28 important in Babu Bangladesh?
It is important because March 28, 1971 is the third day of a macabre exercise which is frustrating the Pakistani army. Pakistan army has landed in Dhaka in 1971. Amid brutality of untold dimensions, it faces a massive tree defying its mortars and heavy guns like an entity possessed of a hidden and inexhaustible source of resistance and energy. It’s a banyan tree standing in the middle of Dhaka university which is sought to be destroyed by a Pakistani general. That is how the novel connects the seemingly disparate strands into a gripping tale.
The novel ‘Babu Bangladesh’moves from the mundane to the sublime, from newspaper reportage to philosophical ruminations of a profound kind without any emotional jerk to the reader. Moving through its pages is like sitting under the Parijat tree in the divine garden of Indra at one moment and crossing the filth laden nullahs of Dhaka or Mumbai at another. As a reader one is transported from one extreme of emotions to the other so effortlessly that it feels incredibly sublime and full of realistic gore at the same time.
The narrative of the novel is woven around the life of Babu Abdul Majumdar who names himself as Babu Bangladesh to fight elections in Bangladesh. The story of Babu is actually the story of Bangladesh in all its various facets as it has evolved from the time of its liberation from Pakistan up to the modern times. It tells the story of the idealism and compromises of a young man and a young nation in their meandering journey from the high horizon of a state built on the four pillars of secularity, nationalism, democracy and socialism to the low lands of compromise with forces of fundamentalism and orthodoxy. The journey is not uni-directional but complex and often mystical in its operations.
After being embroiled in an assassination attempt on the PM in Dhaka Babu Bangladesh moves from being a fiery student leader to working in a seedy hotel in New York only to come back again to Bangladesh to ‘meet formidable challenges, stain his lungi and almost lose his dignity’ yet becoming ‘authentic and organic’ like many of his countrymen. The mythical Babu Bangladesh becomes a lawmaker winning the seat from a predominantly tribal area of Madhupur only to become a betrayer himself to the cause of environmental protection and interests of the people.
The narrative structure of the novel revolves around the unexplained and strange disappearance of Babu Bangladesh after his name comes up (or does it really?) in a case where money was siphoned off from the government account by some hackers and distributed to artists in Dhaka. The tale of intrigue and mysterious happenings in the novel moves in a staggeringly vast expanse covering the stories of fish-man species, Jumma tribe with links to Negrito population of Africa, birds which can speak the human language, a submerged island used by the army to siphon off public money and similar other stories woven seamlessly in a gripping manner.
Even as the cabal of foreign capitalists, CIA operatives, army generals trample upon the soul of Bangladesh and plunder its rich resources, choke the life line of its people, Babu is almost killed by the snake belonging to the Liasisspecies which, scientists say, has become extinct more than 40,000 years back. Nothing could cure him till the Malida comes with his Hajong cure. But Babu can’t get away from paying to the snake spirit who he had betrayed and offended. The Sutradhar of the story agrees that much of what he has recounted ‘lies beyond the scope of empirical and the rational’. He also ruminates that these might be ‘dismissed as the Bangladeshi penchant to weave superstition and phantoms into the most mundane of events.’
The novel straddles past, present and future-from 1971 to 2028- in a manner that is haunting at one level yet never loses hope of redemption for all of us. The novel weaves the political history of Bangladesh into the culture, mythology and history of the land to lay bare a wide expanse in which one can chose to drown or swim. It portrays Babu Bangladesh as a kind of galactic Hyperion , one of the twelve Titan children of Gaia (earth) who overthrew his father only to be overthrown later.
No story of Bangladesh, contemporary or from yore can be complete without charting the legendary role of water in shaping its past and present. Indeed water is a central theme of the story as ‘long before ideas about nationhood, community, currency or even language had birthed, water was a master institution.’ The story of the fish humanoid found on the submerged and ‘created’ island taking revenge on their molesters tells the deeper story of how nature is taking revenge for being ravaged mindlessly.
At places the reader may find the description a bit dry and technical in nature as in the explanation given about the architectural design and novelty of the parliament house Sangsad Bhawan in Dhaka. The description stretches over so many pages giving out technical details of architecture but this is just a small part of the magnificent story line sketched in the pages of Babu Bangladesh. The scholarship and deep intellectual roots of observations strewn across the book don’t become tiring due to the beautiful and agile language at display in the novel. The creative use of metaphor and evocative images is carried effortlessly in a smoothly flowing language reminding us of the style of Herman Hesse in his great novels like Sidhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund.
The book has been likened by some to the genre of magical realism best epitomized by the great story teller Gabrial Garcia Marquez. No doubt when we read ‘ A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, …. made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door,… and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack 36 eggs to make bread’ in One Hundred Years of Solitude, we are transported to the land of the fantasy exploding into facts. When one reads Numair Atif Choudury in his first and only novel Babu Bangladesh, the reader is left wondering if he is reading a political potboiler or mythical story of gigantic complexity.
The story told by Numair Atif Choudhury magically connects the bits and pieces of reality into a rainbow that is at once enchanting and frightening, evocative and dreadful. While reading Babu Bangladesh it is impossible to distinguish where the fact merges into fiction, the reality overlaps the mythology and science melts into folklore.
One can’t but wistfully hope that the news about the death of the author in a car accident in 2018 is part of the novel, a fiction like the disappearance of Babu Bangladesh as bird.
Alas, Marquez of Bangladesh was required to tell us many more stories as he would have seen the world from the vantage point of the thousand eyed cosmic bird of the Yazidis.