In 2001, when I was fifteen years of age, I was fortunate enough to take part in one of Babu's famous rallies. He was running for a parliamentary seat from Tangail district and had enlisted the aid of a famous campaign manager, Dynamite Ali. The competition was fierce, but Dynamite Ali was no pushover. He was an adman well known for his ability to organize theatrical and rabble-rousing demonstrations. Having worked in this line for decades, Dynamite was credited with helping many of the most disreputable and shameless legislators into high places. But it was hard to hold anything against him, as he explained on BBC Asia in 2003, ‘Come on, who doesn't deserve fireworks, my friend? What the politicians do is their decision. I hire the same crowd, give them tea and cigarettes, drums, music, and what else you won't believe it. I don't write what the man on the podium says. I just make it look good, and bhoom! Everybody can at least have a little fun!
Babu first met the political conjurer two weeks before the speech. Dynamite's wizened eye went up Babu one time, and then down. Dynamite pronounced, 'He's a jumper, huh? Perfect. Babu will be our Bengal Tiger, he will pounce like a big cat. He will jump for us. Yes, my dearest friends, he will jump,' here he struggled, ‘straight into the people's hearts,' he finished triumphantly, beaming. Turning back to Babu, he added sweetly, 'Oh, and please don't shave any more, our dear Babu Bhai. I need whiskers for this.'
And that's exactly how it was done. As Dynamite drew it, the rally would come to life in the Madhupur Maidan gathering. Accompanied by speakers blasting tiger roars at maximum volume, a hairy Babu would fly out through a gigantic image of a pouncing tiger with outstretched claws, descending into the crowd. Emblazoned in the requisite oranges, reds and blacks, if Babu's feral visage was not going to leap into hearts, he would at least make children howl.
As the plan went, after bursting through the grand image, Babu was to walk to a mike on the platform and deliver his momentous speech. Accompanied by small explosions, smoke, confetti and the aforementioned roars, Babu would speak words that would enthral the nation. This speech, writers bragged, would stay suspended in the air for decades to come.
The grand day came. Babu emerged into promising morning light sporting a respectably scruffy countenance and an orange leotard. Two stalwart supporters helped him through an Olympic stretching regimen. Impressive leaps and great displays of agility were exhibited. Reporters flocked to the location, having caught a whiff days earlier that something big was cooking. In the late afternoon, after hours of publicity shots and vocal exercises, after multiple interviews and dozens of pots of watered-down tea, Babu mounted the bed of a truck, encircled by a crowd of horn-blowers and megaphone-criers. The procession moved to the dazzling stage. I was with my elder brother in Madhupur village that day. We were there to run errands, but found ourselves pushed stage-front by a massive crowd.
As Babu arrived at the maidan, he waved to unenthusiastic bystanders and exposed an entrancing shawl. This hypnotizing amber-coloured wrap had been handpicked by Dynamite himself, as I discovered years later. It sparkled like a thousand shimmering cat's eyes. Many bystanders had been trailing Babu for another glance at the fascinating garment.
The rally was set for seven in the evening. Dinner was the only real concern for most of the audience. Gastronomic tensions were a little relieved with the rumour that kebab rolls would be served - my brother decided we could wait a little after all. Most of the local unemployed were in attendance, as were many youths absconding from female heads of households, skittish neighbourhood dogs, office and factory workers on their way home, and irate female heads of households. Dynamite was known to indeed serve up great plates of steaming rolls.
We watched a drape go up as the glittering tiger poster was revealed. This was my first exposure to a party gathering, and while I was excited, most around me viewed the proceedings with jaundiced eyes. Drummers quickened their tempo as fumes billowed from the sides of the podium. The speakers now blared the terrifying and loud recordings of an extraordinarily fierce tiger from Khulna Zoo. Neighbourhood canines went dead silent as audience members became lukewarm about where this was going. The dhols beat even louder, the smoke became denser, and as the chant started – 'Babu! Babu! Babu!' - I joined in. Organizers clapped frenziedly and even the jaded got to their feet, sensing an unusually high level of energy. As things built to a climax, an amplified scream came from behind the painting and Babu came tearing through, shredding paper and clawing the air about six feet above the stand.
His beautiful shawl swirled around him, crackling with electricity, an effect accentuated by comet pumps, flame EFX and cherry bombs. Babu landed beautifully in the midst of controlled explosions. But they did not remain controlled. No, things unfortunately went very wrong. The charges had been overloaded, and all of a sudden, after a loud report that left ears ringing, I saw Babu lurch backstage as his clothes caught fire. As I later verified with my brother, Babu then rolled in the dirt while assistants beat him with mats and rugs.
Due to the smoke cover, those further back in the crowd were unable to observe these events. However, from our vantage point we watched as the stunning shawl surged and rippled and beckoned, turning its eyes on us, seductively leading our minds away – over brilliant blue waters to dark emeraldine jungles, into unfathomable and misty, murky wilds, teeming with countless noises, dark scuttling forms and a thousand slinky things. We watched with blissful smiles on our faces as a stretcher appeared and the contents of the shawl were loaded on to it. The cloak, unrelenting, glimmered red and violet. We continued to smile as the stretcher was loaded into an ambulance and made passage into the night, and a replacement in an identically beautiful cloak was pushed onstage. This new garment, same as the preceding one, now claimed our gazes. It winked gorgeously and bade us forget what was happening backstage, my lovely, for here is the real action, still onstage, watch me move, let us dance.
My singularly strong-minded brother, wiser than his twenty-two years, succeeded in snapping out of his trance to grab me by the arm and drag me away. He had been more than amply spooked. He pushed, barked and spat his way to an exit, as a 'new', perfectly unruffled and unscathed Babu walked to the mike. But it was still Babu. The statesman took a deep breath and delivered the historic speech. I only heard a few sentences of it before my brother jostled us into a taxi-scooter and ordered the driver to step on it, I heard just a minute or two of Babu's proclamation via the sound-system. But it was hair-raising in its ferocity. His delivery was hot enough to draw blood – and the necessary votes, as I would soon learn. Years later, when I review this keystone oration, even with the volume turned all the way up on my home stereo, its transmission is in no way comparable to what I had fleetingly experienced that day in 2001.
Despite this fiery primer to Babu, I spent the subsequent years indulging my own fixations, oblivious to what the man was up to. Of course, I would read of his ventures in the papers, and while it seemed he was doing great things, I had not shaken off my misgivings about him. My brother, however, spurred on by what we had witnessed, slogged to investigate the Babu-truth. Not considering himself a writer, he would eventually share his findings with me and birth this endeavour.
What concerns us in this book remains tethered to this very elusive nature of Babu-truth. What really went down? In this anecdote, for example, did medics truly sneak someone away? There was no stuntman hired for the event; Babu had trained to make the leap. So who then ultimately took to the podium and rendered the famous speech? My sibling and I were too young to do anything but theorize about possible explanations, until years later I revisited the site for answers. A local midwife with a precocious memory recounted to me how a group of indignant attendees, once freed of the cloak’s bewitchment, questioned Dynamite's organizing crew Having detected the same switch we did, they alleged the wool had been pulled over their eyes, and that the charming man with the speech was an impostor. Conspiratorial talk about intra-party assassins surfaced for a brief while, but these rumours led nowhere. Even a check of hospitals within a ten-mile radius yielded no burn or trauma victim fitting the bill.
Away from mesmerizing wardrobes, from pyrotechnics, and from distractions that obscure vision, it is apparent that, all over again, we are encountering one too many Type-A Babus. Babu-smoke is difficult to part. While those close to Babu claim that his spirit was singular and have emblazoned him tirelessly, in my nine-year quest I have time and time again been burned and left clutching at ash. As frustrating as it is to see narrative threads ignite, the story must go on.
- 16 December 2028
(Excerpted from Babu Bangladesh! By Numair Atif Choudhury, Published by HarperCollins India, 2019. Reprinted with Permission.)