Humayun Ahmed’s fiction reflected a desire to be free from the constraints of mundane reality
It’s been six years since the death of the raconteur par excellence.
I have come across many Humayun readers who try to find faults in his work from the perspective of hardcore reality, calling some of his plots downright absurd, deeming the characters “unreal.”
Well, what many fail to understand is that his characters are supposed to be a mix of fantasy and reality.
Maybe I am not wrong in stating that when Humayun Ahmed was writing, he severed all ties with mundane reality and consciously inserted powerful emotions into everyday settings.
A sort of a blend between the humdrum and the sublime.
What readers now miss is the writer’s unquestionable ability to take us away from our drab surroundings and into a cocoon where eccentric idealism often has the last laugh.
We grew up in a time -- in the decade after independence -- when contemporary Bengali literature desperately needed a breath of fresh air; it required a daring literary maverick who would challenge the hackneyed format but not stray too much from the established social premise.
Hence, the mavericks presented in Humayun Ahmed’s work are set against an easily recognizable middle-class social background.
If one separates the social setting, as used by the writer for the foundation of his work from the profoundly unorthodox protagonists, the immense, almost overpowering, peculiarity of the characters have the potential to unsettle us.
Making us love the maverick
Within the Bengali culture, the vagabond romantic has never had too many admirers; Humayun changed that slowly and with purpose.
The entry of Himu -- the yellow Punjabi-clad aimless urban wanderer -- came at a time when the conventional concept of the romantic hero had become a little formulaic.
This was around the early 90s, when Ahmed had already made his name through TV dramas and other endeavours.
Baker bhai, the goon with the golden heart -- as shown in the television drama Kothao Keu Nei -- can be considered a precursor to Himu. Of course, in a very loose sense.
However, the notion of the quirky protagonist made its entry with Baker bhai, a character who is not driven by the common human aspirations of social elevation, prosperity, and security.
Yet, the country fell in love with the character, his foibles, shortcomings, and his amazingly simple philosophy regarding life.
Humayun Ahmed’s bohemian approach was already a success.
Unknowingly, we became addicted to Humayun’s quirky creations -- the guys who know they will never ever be hot-shots or become recognized faces in society.
Sometimes I feel that Himu picked up where Baker bhai left off, setting off on a trail of iconoclasm.
Was Misir Ali any different?
No, Misir Al -- the enigmatic recluse psychiatrist -- was no different either. However, books which featured Misir Ali trying to solve a puzzling social phenomenon, appealed to a niche section of readers.
Again, this was a genre which was pioneered by Humayun: Semi-haunting tales featuring unexplained occurrences. A bit like the The X-Files, though preceding the popular American TV series by more than a decade.
If one rates the oddballs in Humayun Ahmed’s work, Misir Ali would possibly lead the list. A man who lives on his own in Spartan surrounding with very few material possessions and a passion for the supernatural. In all Misir Ali thrillers, the austerity of the man is a matter of conspicuousness.
I like to think of this as Humayun Ahmed’s way of telling readers: “Without adding too many creature comforts, one can also add adrenaline and suspense.”
Misir Ali attracted bizarre cases, things which border on the paranormal. Some cases he can solve, but most he cannot -- a way of indirectly telling the readers that there is a lot in this world which can defy logic.
And then there’s also the latent message: “Let some things remain unsolved, otherwise stormy night-time story-telling sessions during a power failure would fizzle out.”
However, Misir Ali is also the epitome of a fervent socialist -- a person who values knowledge, wasting no time in the pursuit of capitalist bling.
Misir Ali emerged in the literary scene in the early 80s, when Bangladesh still had a very potent anti-imperialist intellectual class, devoted to propagating the idea of a social revolution that would bring equality.
Whether Humayun Ahmed was also an ardent socialist, secretly harbouring a movement by the masses, we will never know.
Where do all these mavericks stand now?
Surely, in an undeniably enterprise culture driven society, social heretics are pariah.
Well, not really.
The greatest achievement of Humayun Ahmed was that he managed to implant in us an affinity for the unconventional hero.
That’s why, the unemployed young man getting wet in the rain or feeling unbridled ecstasy on a full-moon night pulls more people than the protagonist who is a master of bling.
That’s why the man who shows no proclivity towards material possessions and lives each day as it comes, has millions in a hypnotic hold.
It’s the thrill of the danger, the feeling of the unknown, a life of uncertainty which Himu, Misir Ali, Baker bhai encapsulate.
We miss Humayun Ahmed because the man who taught us to admire the eccentric is gone. The prosaic and the frivolously thin flamboyance in literary heroes are pervasive.
These heroes can say: “I love you swift and fast.” But as Humayun Ahmed once said: “It’s easier to say ‘I love you’ than saying ‘ami tomake bhalobashi’.”
Towheed Feroze is News Editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.