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More human than human

  • Published at 04:50 pm February 9th, 2019
Humayun Ahmed
ILLUSTRATION: Jahid Jamil

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If coincidence is the occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident but seem to have some connection, what does one call the non-occurrence of events that fail to happen at the same time by accident even though they seem to have some connection?

I have wondered about this ever since I discovered the works of Humayun Ahmed some years ago purely by chance.

In 2005, I was making my annual pilgrimage at the Kolkata Book Fair with the express purpose of picking up my stock of new and old Bengali books that were not available in bookshops in the city of New Delhi I had made home since I left Kolkata in 1998. It was more out of curiosity than any real purpose that I walked into a stall selling books from Bangladesh. Like most Bengalis from West Bengal, my reading of modern and contemporary Bangladeshi literature was scandalously limited. I had read a couple of works by Taslima Nasreen and deeply admired Akhteruzzaman Elias's Chilekothar Sepai (The Soldier in the Attic) and Khoabnama (Dream Chronicles). Barring a few literary or academic folks, this was pretty much what most people knew about literature from 'opaar Bangla' ('Bengal on the other side').

While flipping through a row of books, I chanced upon a slim hardcover with the silhouette of a man's face and a red blob inside his head on the cover. I had never heard of, let alone read anything by, the book's writer, Humayun Ahmed. With no blurb at the back or front flap of the book to guide me I started reading Ami Ebong Amra (I And We), a title intriguing enough, right there just to get an idea about how the tone of the writing was, since it was impossible to know anything about the storyline by flipping a couple of pages.

It starts with a character by the name of Misir Ali conducting an experiment in which, since the last four days, he has been sprinkling three teaspoons of rice grains across the window ledge and then observing from a distance how, out of the two sparrows that perch themselves on the ledge, one eats the rice grains and the other doesn't. The results of the experiment are the same each day: the male sparrow eats the grains, the female sparrow doesn't.

But it's the sudden shift in the second half of the first page that made me put down my polythene packet with books in it and continue reading. The writer had switched gears and like a clean, seamless shift in the shunting of a rail line, he was now talking about how Misir Ali "was allergic to specialists". They were arrogant, dogmatic and started answering questions even before listening to the question fully. Then, just after providing an illustration of such a specialist, with Misir Ali having gone to understand why the male and not the female sparrow always ate, there's another seamless “shunting”.

I learn about Misir Ali's physician telling him, rather skeptically, that he should stop stressing, sleep earlier, rest more, stop smoking, listen to music, read light books and visit parks.

The narrative then switches to Misir Ali sitting on a park bench in the afternoon reading "a 300-page book called Laughter, Laughter, Laughter". The book "has 2,000 jokes. He's progressed from the first page to page number 33—laughter hasn't come to him yet. The book costs him a hundred takas. It seems he's wasted a hundred takas." (My translation) 

By the time I turn another page or two or three, still rooted to the spot, and read about a strange man walking up to Misir Ali and ultimately introducing himself as a psychopath who has killed two people and will be killing a third, I'm hooked. As I read Misir Ali's staggeringly calm reply to the stranger in the park, "You've killed two. You'll kill a third. Go ahead. What's the point of telling me? It's not as if you need my permission," I recognized that I was reading something special, something I realized that incredibly had been eluding me all this while in the form of an anti-coincidence.

Since 2006, I have read as many Humayun Ahmed novels and stories I've managed to get my hands on. With the sheer number of titles that he left before his untimely death, I have hardly managed to get my foot in the door. But quite early on in my reading journey I became aware of the fact that Ahmed's subject was humans. Not strange humans or degenerate humans or humans bordering on the inhuman. But Humans. And if in the process the spotlight shone directly on strangeness, degeneration and inhumanity, what his writings really uncovered was how utterly and exhilaratingly “normal” all that was.

If Misir Ali, a teacher of clinical psychiatry at Dhaka University, is the laconic, asocial, Dr Jekyll of zen-like reason and explorer of the human mind solving mysteries, then Himu, Ahmed's other abiding character, is the jobless, aimless, anti-social, Mr Hyde of subversion, fiercely guarding a moral universe under the threat of hypocrisy and good manners.

Ahmed created an astounding, lyrical character in Himu, a mix of Travis Bickle, the crusading-loner in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, and those fiercely intelligent anti-heroes created by 40s-50s psychological crime fiction master Jim Thompson. I loved him from the very first moment I met him in Moyurakhhi where he gets into a car after being mistaken by a lady for someone else.

There's a madness in the method with which Ahmed lets Himu loose on the high society lady and her daughter, which continues as he is hauled in for a while to the police station where he unleashes his intelligence and anti-authority credentials before the second-most potent symbol of the Establishment, the police—the most potent being the family, of course.

One of the thrills of reading Ahmed is that it entails a breakdown of set notions—whether about good and bad, hero and villain, or the rational and the irrational, real and unreal. This conscious blurring of demarcated lines is made most apparent, and arguably with the most creative force, in the novel, Ami-y Misir Ali (It's Me Misir Ali).

The two characters, Lilly and her much-older, wheelchair-bound husband Sultan appear to us as unhinged. We aren't sure whether this is an impression we get because of their eccentric natures (and our standard reaction toward eccentricity ranging from the uncomfortable to the hostile). There are occasions in the story where Misir Ali finds himself unable to differentiate between nightmares he's having and the cold hum of reality.

In the first Misir Ali novel, Debi, the real-unreal divide completely breaks down in the mind of Nilu, the young wife of another older gentleman. Nilu finds herself leading a lonely marital life and is suffering from what seems to be a deep psychological trauma that has its source in a violent sexual encounter when she was a child. Ahmed unfurls the story through Mishir Ali's investigations and try to identify what is the cause of Nilu's simmering hysteria-schizophrenia and what is the effect.

But it's not only Ahmed's characters, icons not only in contemporary Bengali literature but contemporary literature as a whole, that leave a searing mark. Ahmed was also an “idea” writer. His science fiction and speculative writings remind me of the stories of Ray Bradbury, where the 'science' is just a prop used in the fiction to explore idea-puzzles.

Stories from the collection Onhok, for example, are really quick but deep diving expeditions into the human condition. In Jadukar (Magician), a boy meets an alien who lets him use his mind-reading machine to find out what his father and teacher are thinking after he is hiding from them, as he has failed in his Math exam. Once he 'hears' his father and teacher both worry about him, he happily goes back to them, immune to their shouting and beating that follow—because "he is now sure that all this is not what they really think. In any case, he could clearly see in the lantern's light his father's wet eyes. He was searching for him in tears".

So many of Ahmed's characters, like Bablu the 'thought-reading' boy, find comfort in what they think the people around them are thinking; while many others of Ahmed's characters, like Bablu's father, do something and think something else.

I've had a late start with Humayun Ahmed and reading all of his remarkable and astonishing works will be as satisfying as it will be depressing for me.

Satisfying because of the sheer pleasure of reading his sharp, beautiful and piercing books that have inexplicably not yet been discovered outside Bangladesh—neither in Bengali-reading West Bengal in India (is this because of copyright reasons?) nor in the non-Bengali-reading world because of the absence of any translations, especially into English.

And why will reading every Humayun Ahmed book depress me? Because with him unable to write any more, I will soon be able to catch up with all that he's written and then have nothing new of his to read. Coincidence, you think?


Indrajit Hazra is a writer and journalist based in New Delhi. He is the author of The Burnt Forehead of Max Saul and The Bioscope Man