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The ballad of Bangladesh

  • Published at 03:33 pm August 10th, 2019
Babu Bangladesh!
Photo: DHAKA TRIBUNE

Book review

The field was packed with eager spectators. The stage was set for a great spectacle—a young politician was to deliver a fiery speech before hundreds and thousands of people. Before that, however, there would be a theatrical entrance. Clad in a sparkly shawl, the leader would jump to make a magnificent entrance on stage complete with cherry bombs, comet pumps and special effects. Among the teeming masses, a little boy held his brother’s hand in anticipation. The jump had happened after all; the boy and his brother saw the young MP contestant’s clothes catch fire and his attendants rushing to him. Yet, there was a “new” one on stage, good as new, beaming at the masses and delivering a fiery, career-making speech for his followers to remember. There he was—same man, same clothes, same smile. Later on in life, the same little boy became the biographer of this mysterious leader. As his investigation would reveal, no stunt doubles were hired, nor were there special effects—at least, nothing advanced enough to exist in Bangladesh circa 2001. If that was the case, then who was it that jumped, and who delivered the speech? 

When one picks up a pastel-green copy of Babu Bangladesh!, this faceless man of action, a young political leader known as Babu, can be seen making that momentous jump on the cover. Numair Atif Choudhury’s debut novel presents the reader with this enigmatic figure—an activist, a man of letters and a man of mystery who disappears in 2021, from a futuristic Bangladesh. Just seven years after his disappearance, the powers that be are busy trying to wipe Babu’s name from all records. The biographer, who happens to be our narrator, takes on the magnanimous task of documenting the life of this political luminary. No one in their right mind would throw such an open challenge to the ruling powers, whether it is in a Bangladesh of the present, past or future, but our biographer did. In his quest, he unearths secrets that span continents, powerful arcane wisdom and forces that are political, supernatural, national and international. From my description, one might think of Babu Bangladesh! as a fantasy book. However, it is more than what meets the eye. 

Bangladesh, a land of paradoxes, has been forever divided about its heroes. The Bangladeshi everyman lives a kind of Orwellian reality that shifts whenever there is a shift in power. The names of our convention centers, airports and planetariums change overnight while political parties pick strange bedfellows. The public watches all and remembers all, it seems, but we also take pride in being goldfish. Our loyalties change as does the direction of the wind. Today the enemy is Eurasia, tomorrow it is Eastasia, as if it has always been. Hence our reality is unlike any other. Our history is in a constant state of flux, our heroes become villains and then back to being heroes again (freedom fighters, Nobel laureates, cricketers, you name it). Perhaps that is the essence that Numair seeks to capture through his skillfull worldbuilding and his treacherous yet formidable prose. 

In Babu Bangladesh!, history begins where the story pauses, and then history picks right up where it left. We see Babu’s fulfilling childhood, his various ambitions, his steady rise to populist politics and his growth as a character. At the same time, we find the story of Bangladesh being told parallelly. Numair sweeps the readers off their feet when he delves into the lush green of the Madhupur forest, the serenity of the Sangsad Bhaban or the environmental balance preserved by the Santhals throughout the ages. The prose entangles, enchants and keeps one coming back for more. Along with that, the author also brings certain not-to-be-discussed issues out in the public, such as the roles of political leaders who once held power, both positive and negative. Has a book ever dared to discuss leaders in such a light, considering how much trouble it might cause once the authorities are “angry”? Babu Bangladesh! does exactly that, and remains conscientiously neutral throughout. That brilliant portion where there is a biting criticism of some people preferring “Allah Hafez” over “Khoda Hafez”, or the other way round, will always be etched in my mind. The two practically mean the same thing, and yet. 

I have used the word “treacherous” earlier while describing Numair’s narrative, because there is no telling where reality ends and imagination begins in Babu Bangladesh! In an instant, a breathtaking description of Louis Kahn’s design of the Sangsad Bhaban takes an unexpected turn. The iconic building grows a consciousness, or rather a conscience to prevent all wrongdoings within and around its walls. While a malignant business deal is being signed in a secret conclave, a Sangsad Bhaban wall collapses and kills the corrupt signatories. Take this almost true-sounding excerpt, for example, 

“A particularly bizarre occurrence involved the entire 800 million ton (an estimated figure) Sangsad Bhaban disappearing for days…just before a military dictator was to relinquish his post. An abyss of fog and mist rolled in to shroud the entire complex. Roads and walkways were suddenly covered in carpets of algae and moss, conspiring to thwart attempts to approach the facility by car or foot.” 

All of this is told in the strictly official, yet mesmerizing tone of the biographer which almost compels the reader to actually believe in the make-believe. The “biography” is complete with witty, informative footnotes that make one actually re-think how much we really know about our country. Numair’s wisdom, love and care simply shine through when he takes the reader lovingly through his crafty maze. Hence, when fish-humanoids of the future emerge out of the water, or when tribes of tree and snake worshippers get into a tryst for territorial supremacy, the reader is spellbound. It all sounds like it actually happened in a lucid, dreamy Bangladesh created by Numair. Anything is possible here. 

In a cruel twist of fate, the author passed away in a drowning accident in Japan last year, just before the release of this momentous book. He had been working on Babu Bangladesh! for fifteen years and it simply shows; an author’s labor of love never deceives. Numair Atif Choudhury has left Bangladesh a true gem, a wondourous time capsule to the past, a curious time machine to the future. There are a few “predictions” in his futuristic Bangladesh, such as a cataclysmic money heist of Bangladesh Bank in 2021. That however, happened a few years earlier than scheduled, in February 2016 to be exact, in the “real” Bangladesh. There are many such curiosities in the book that eerily mirror the present and the future, enough to get the novel a cult following. 

For the young generations, the book is an important culture trip that they can breathe in, without for a moment getting bored. For those traveling abroad, this is the book for your foreign friends, one that tells the story of Bangladesh quite seamlessly. And for those who have lived through history, this book is proof that Bangladesh, in spite of its many hurdles, will continue to enchant, disenchant and then enchant again. 

Qazi Mustabeen Noor is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters.