Babu Bangladesh is a revelation because of the manner in which it resolves the problem of left melancholy
Many works of Bangladeshi historical fiction, in Bangla, rotate around the 1971 Liberation War and its aftermath. From within this space, works by Shahaduz Zaman, Akhtaruzzaman Elias, Hasan Azizul Huq, Afsan Chowdhury, and others have touched on the presence of left politics on the battlefield or afterward.
For the most part, these works attempt a fact-based rendering of Bangladeshi left parties, which means a narrative of tragically lost moments.
An atypical exception to this has now appeared in the alternative reality narrative of a new English language novel, Numair Atif Choudhury’s Babu Bangladesh (2019).
The book is part of a small stream of English language novels about Bangladesh, and this project of projecting in a second language, with a presumably global audience, is worth pausing over for a moment.
Bangladesh has experienced a singular focus on Bengali as a unifying ethno-linguistic container. This centrality of language took official form after 1971, and any microscopic traces of bilingualism of the Pakistan period vanished.
In the last decade, there has been a small uptick in younger Bangladeshis who experience English either as first or as a parallel primary language, including a diaspora born abroad; from this has come a trickle of English language novels, of which Babu Bangladesh is the latest iteration.
Numair Choudhury began attending Oberlin College in America a year after I graduated from the same institution. The contingent of Bangladeshi students on campus was small and I saw Numair each time I came back to campus.
I vaguely knew he was enrolled in creative writing, but lost touch with his work until coming across a short story called “Rabia” in a literary journal 15 years later. A passage about the right way to comb hair stayed with me, but we did not manage to get back in touch.
After 22 years, the first news I received of Choudhury was last December when another Oberlin alum called to inform me that he had died in a drowning accident while attending a conference in Japan.
A news item two months later announced that he had been working on a novel for 15 years and Harper Collins was publishing it in India. Choudhury’s mother, educator Lubna Choudhury, had shepherded the novel’s posthumous publication since the final draft.
Babu Bangladesh is a revelation because of the manner in which it resolves the problem of left melancholy. The book is structured as a biography being written in 2028, reconstructing the extraordinary life of the “leader of his generation” and through him “the story of a nation itself” (cover copy).
Who is Babu?
Babu is described as a spirited environmentalist who rose to leadership until he vanished in 2021.
When Choudhury describes the groups that memorialize Babu -- leftist organizations and ecological societies -- I think of the indefatigable figures I know from the National Oil Gas Committee, led by Anu Muhammad, Zonayed Saki, Engineer Shahidullah, and others.
These groups have protested ecologically destructive projects in Phulbari, Roopur, and most recently Rampal.
At times, I felt certain that Choudhury had been tracing a research path similar to mine, as he foregrounds some of the same historic characters I am interested in.
For example, the novel briefly presents Maulana Bhashani as a central figure in Bangladesh’s history. But there are also two telling divergences in this narrative. Rather than Nurul Kabir’s biography The Red Moulana (2012), this novel calls Bhashani the “Red Mullah” (Choudhury 2019, 40).
The distinction is important; “maulana” is an honorific in current use, and while “mullah” has also been used in the same way in recent times, it has also been deployed to indicate religious obscurantism.
The other disjuncture is more crucial -- the novel calls Bhashani a “pivotal figure in Bangladeshi independence” (40).
However, in spite of the legend of Bhashani’s “Assalamu Alaikum” to West Pakistan at Kagmari 1957, his subsequent boycott of the 1970 election marooned parts of the pro-China left, marginalizing them within the 1971 Liberation War.
Choudhury’s alternative narrative begins a third of the way into this novel.
Up to this point, fictional events are unfolding in the backdrop of the actual historic record: Bangladesh becomes independent in 1971, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is assassinated in 1975, General Zia takes over and then is also assassinated in 1981, and the second military regime of General Ershad begins in 1982.
In 1994, the narrative suddenly warps away from actual events when Babu enters active politics by joining Jasad -- the left party that had a crucial role in the early 1970s but had vanished into irrelevance by the 1990s.
Historians have documented a trail of events that caused Jasad to leave public politics in 1974 and become an underground guerrilla group.
Bangladesh in the 70s had a dizzying cast of left political streams, but Jasad becoming a militant and secret group was certainly a crucial step in the demise of left politics within the electoral system.
In the novel, Choudhury has vanished the actual rupture of 1974; it is 20 years later and Jasad is an active, public, and effective left party that is described as “vehemently secular,” for “redistribution of wealth,” and “mobilization of female workers” (87).
Turning Bangladeshi history on its head, instead of the impatient, militant, and messianic Jasad presented elsewhere in history books, this Jasad is “pragmatic” and their student wing is a “docile and pensive lot” (87).
Choudhury’s novel imagines a Bangladesh where the 1974 move to guerrilla war did not happen.
In this parallel narrative, Jasad leaders and members are depicted as pragmatic and calm, while a deep dive into the archive actually shows us a left tendency marked by hasty analysis of Marxism-Leninism, an impatience in tactics, and a fervent belief in the teleology of victory.
What Choudhury proposes is an answer to a different “what if” question from what historians often think about -- what if events fell a few degrees this way or that? Instead, Babu Bangladesh turns to this question: What if left politics created a different human?
This radically different subjectivity is reflected not only in Jasad’s counterintuitive rewriting as a practitioner of public, incremental, non-violent, and feminist politics, it is also in the central character of Babu himself.
Babu Abdul Majumdar’s family’s religion is sometimes kept vague, and adjacent markers in the plot deliberately confound a clear identification. The cover of the book appears to bend things further in one direction -- Babu is wearing a white dhoti.
The drawing shows him leaping out of a Royal Bengal Tiger, the national animal of the country (ironically almost driven to extinction in the Sunderbans by projects like Rampal) and logo of the cricket team.
Babu also has no face, although the illustrator has given him a full head of hair and sideburns. What can all these clashing signifiers mean in the end?
After so many discussions about how the religious question divided British India and blocked the rise of communism, is the redemption of the Bangladeshi left a man with no visible religion?
As I complete one phase of my own research, I am wondering about missed chances to dialogue with Choudhury’s fiction while he was still alive.
Sometimes I imagine giving him my heavily underlined copy of books on Jasad history and introducing him to the new scholarship on Bhashani. But all those conversations are out of reach now. In many ways, I “knew” the author and yet did not “see” him -- a reminder that the time of remembering may end sooner than expected.
Naeem Mohaiemen researches the Bangladesh left through essays and films. Afsan Chowdhury and Firoz Ahmed gave feedback on this text.