There are no two ways of saying this. But Numair Atif Choudhury’s debut novel, Babu Bangladesh is a work on a scale we have not seen recently. When Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was released, The New York Times had hailed it as a novel about India’s coming of age, a novel that firmly announced the arrival of a subcontinent on the English literary landscape of the world. In fact, so profuse were the praise that the NYT, writing in that same review, described the book as a “continent trying to find its voice.”
But while the western press tended to conflate Midnight’s Children with the stories of the subcontinent as a whole, in the decades since Rushdie’s masterpiece we have seen the emergence of literatures in English from other countries on the subcontinent. Pakistan, pre-eminently. So, what about Bangladesh – East Pakistan in its earlier avatar – the other country with deep wounds from the twin tragedies of the Partition and the 1971 Liberation War?
It was already home to a rich literature in the Bengali language. It had seemed that Bangladeshi English literature had finally come of age with the publication of Tahmima Anam’s debut novel, A Golden Age, which revisited the Liberation War from a more nuanced perspective than many readers were accustomed to.
In the years hence, however, what seemed to be missing was that singular voice, that was both embedded within the heat and dust of the country and, at the same time, a voice which transcends the borders from within which it springs. Numair Choudhury’s Babu Bangladesh seems finally to be that novel from Bangladesh.
Impossible to put in a storytelling box
The plot of Babu Bangladesh is impossible to summarise. The novel, following in the footsteps of authors like Umberto Eco, is ostensibly a book within a book. It starts off with an unnamed narrator trying to piece together the life – or, more appropriately, lives – of a man named Babu. A man who “is remembered as a writer, a politician, and as something of a mystic. Depending on the nature of their interactions with Babu, some salute him as a saviour while others are less generous in their reckoning of our bifacial snapper.”
The unnamed narrator unearths documents left by Babu before his presumed disappearance and starts to piece together a narrative of a life that, on the face of it, refuses to be tied down to a single story. In fact, early on, the narrator describes an incident from his first encounter with the eponymous hero of the novel. In a public speech which was supposed to have been addressed by Babu to a crowd of his followers, the narrator witnesses a man who “looked like” Babu collapsing, and a doppelganger taking his place on the podium.
Which leads the reader to a major doubt: Who is the real Babu, or more precisely, is there even a real Babu? These ellipses about Babu’s identity powers through the novel. In fact, till the very last page, the “biography” which, by its very definition, ought to be a story about a person’s life, is tinkered with to a point where the final product is anything but what it was set out to be.
History as the individual
The notion of who Babu really is is left open from the beginning. We don’t know whether Babu was good or bad, a devil or an angel, and that, as the narrator himself says:
“...while the desire to uncover truth remains a motive, if tragedy has indeed broken his face, I cannot suggest whether the man was an accidental hero, a dogmatic infidel or a charlatan. Truth, in my search, has grasped very quietly. Unlike Hermes, I cannot take pleasure in the ambiguity of my messages. I emphasise again again: neither can I posit that Babu is gold, or am I about to engage in alchemy. This is not a work of deification or a glorious account of a dashing, wavy-haired titleholder. Preserving standards of objectivity, I have tried to ascertain the true airs Babu breathed and the rough chemistry of how flesh and bone settled to carriage a soul.”
But as the novel progresses, as we begin to get further glimpses of “Babuness”. From his early childhood in the small town of Tangail, near Dhaka, to the intimate friendships forged along the way, what slowly emerges is the way the shadowy notion of Babu’s identity merges seamlessly with that of Bangladesh itself. Indeed, the title of the novel gestures quite eloquently towards this possibility.
For example, one of the friendships that a young Babu forges is with Kanu, a young Santhal man hired by Babu’s parents to take care of the boy. Meanwhile, history moves from the devastating 1971 Liberation War, through the murder of Mujibur Rahman, the man who led the demand for independence from Pakistan – an act that Numair describes as Bangladesh’s national “act of patricide” – through the overthrow of the secular Constitution and the arrival of the military dictatorship of Ziaur Rahman, and finally to his assassination, which led to an almost-civil war like situation, splitting the country between the Bangladesh National Party and the opposition.
It is during this crucial, bloody period, when a young Babu, walking through the green paddy fields of Tangail, witnesses BNP party workers ruthlessly hacking Kanu to pieces. The incident is written in a matter of fact way, cold in its normalcy. And yet it seeps deep into Babu’s subconscious, allowing him to retreat into himself, and fuels his appetite for the world of books and ideas.
A maddening tapestry
Much like the narrative threads trying to tie down Babu’s life and failing – possibly as they are meant to – the novel too refuses any sort of formal classification. Peppered throughout are Tristam Shandy-like digressions – such as a meditation on Kabbala, ruminations tying up cosmic geometry with sacred architecture, historical snippets from the bloody history of Christian missionary work on the subcontinent, and even long descriptions of the political and historical situation in Bangladesh. The novel just refuses to quieten down.
Not only digressions, the novel also includes, at frequent intervals, short footnotes that explicates a relationship, or adds colour to a character trait, or even pontificates on history. In fact, the writer’s voracious and unquenchable literary appetite becomes palpable in the process. From Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magic realism – a banyan tree on the campus of Dhaka University acquires a symbolic connection with Bangladesh’s bloody liberation struggle against Pakistan, an event that saw the merciless killing of a large number of students by the Pakistani military – to Thomas Pynchon’s unquantifiable erudition and Roberto Bolano’s delight in the unlimited possibilities that literature can provide, the signs are tattooed all over this novel.
It would be easy – and perhaps somewhat lazy – to compare this novel to Midnight’s Children. But those comparisons are all perfunctory. For what Babu Bangladesh truly achieves is laying bare the polyphonic voices that make Bangladesh – voices so numerous and diverse, like Babu’s own identity, that it is almost impossible to pin them down. In a world where majoritarian politics is the global flavour, and where identities are becoming fiercely parochial and “national”, Numair Choudhury reminds us through the character of Babu that such a turn is at best a chimera. And the only way to revert to the truth in this world is through fiction.
A novel like this can only raise expectations for a stunning second work. There won’t be one. Numair Choudhury died in an accident in Japan in 2018, before his first novel could be published. But Babu Bangladesh remains, with the author’s magisterial vision of a complicated, polyphonic Bangladesh, and, by extension, a subcontinent stretching forwards and backwards in time, and in every direction in space.
Babu Bangladesh!, Numair Atif Choudhury, Fourth Estate.