This is my first visit to a literary festival outside India. Going just by cold, hard statistics, I ought to have been to Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad or even Galle before Dhaka. But then Numair Choudhury happened. Babu Bangladesh happened. Let us talk about more important and worthy firsts:
Numair Choudhury is the first Bangladeshi writer to be nominated for the Shakti Bhatt First book prize in its fairly illustrious 13-year history. I’m not saying it’s the Booker, but to my mind it is one of the most competitive, keenly contested prizes in the subcontinent since it is open to writers of all genres and nationalities published within India.
For the first time in the history of literary prizes in India a posthumously published novel has been nominated for a prize.
Numair was first introduced to me by his childhood friend, fellow writer, and, in his last few years, literary soulmate, Nadeem Zaman in November 2017.
From our very first conversation it was clear that he was deeply suspicious of editors and agents. It was also clear that he was aware that he had written an ambitious and enduring book. He was in no hurry to publish it. He was a perfectionist who was never really satisfied with anything that he wrote. After sending him a barrage of Facebook reminders, I managed to wrangle the full manuscript of Babu Bangladesh out of him. I am reading out his excuse for the very long delay:
“This delay is a result of the fact that I have not expended any efforts in presenting the novel to any one in years. I have simply focused on writing the thing.”
Babu Bangladesh could have been the political saviour his country needed or yet another charlatan, but he disappeared under mysterious circumstances before it could be deciphered which. In 2028, a biographer in his motherland begins to chart Babu’s life. From Operation Searchlight at nearby Dhaka University, announcing the bloody birth of a nation that went into the creation of Babu, through his formative years spent in the shadows of Shangshad Bhaban that acquires a life of its own, to nature fighting back against the onset of the effects of climate change in the Sundarbans and Bay of Bengal, fact, fiction and fantasy become one as Babu’s life mirrors that of Bangladesh, leaving the biographer with more questions than answers.
My editor and I were immediately struck by the novel’s ambition, scope and inventiveness; the irresistible, hypnotic and, I must be honest, sometimes disorienting blend of myth and reality. Numair experiments with various forms – magic realism, epistolary and exposition – to retell the history of a volatile and troubled nation through the biography of a fictional political luminary, Babu Abdul Majumdar.
I don’t know about those of you who are already familiar with Bangladesh’s history, but for readers back home in India, including myself, the novel is a literary maze wherein it is hard to distinguish between truth and half-truths, truth and complete fabrication, and half-truths and fabrications. Numair employs clever, extremely witty and sometimes hysterical word play in almost every second line making Babu Bangladesh, a biting and audacious satire on Bangladesh even as it is one of the few works of magic realism from the country in the English language.
His ingenuity and wit are evident in the way he conjures up fictitious political parties, NGOs, entrepreneurial bodies, corrupt journalists, international terrorists, dogmatic mullahs and, of course, those all-pervasive footnotes.
The novel has come under some criticism for its occasional detours and digressions into textbook like descriptions, but that is exactly how Numair wanted it to be. In his very first email to me, Numair wrote thus: “In essence, via the presentation of a larger-than-life Babu, the biography disintegrates into a rumination of Bangladeshi history, and by extension, the plight of newly emergent economies, hegemons and their global tentacles, and the evolution of sustainable markets and lifestyles.”
In my tragically short-lived association with Numair, the one good thing I managed to get him to do was to attend a major literary festival in Kerala in Feb 2018. Numair got the chance to meet writers, editors and literary festival directors from different parts of the world and he returned from the trip very inspired, rejuvenated and energised. One of the people he met was the novelist and poet Bernice Chauly, director of The Georgetown Literary festival, Malaysia’s largest literary festival. Bernice invited Numair for the 2018 edition. Numair died two months before the festival was scheduled to take place.
Numair returned to India in April 2018 which is when he met his eventual editor Rahul Soni from Harper Collins India. Numair took to him instantly, and with the approval of his extremely supportive mother Lubna Choudhury, Babu was vouchsafed to Rahul less than five days after his burial.
HarperCollins and I have tried our best to remain faithful to Numair’s text and vision though there were times when I was reminded of some lines uttered by the perennially exasperated and overwhelmed unnamed biographer of Babu: 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.
One big concern I had was that I did not have in my possession the latest draft of Babu Bangladesh at the time of Numair’s death. Thankfully, it was retrieved by his younger sister Talita Choudhury from his laptop that he had carried on his ill-fated trip to Kyoto.
Babu Bangladesh was published to critical acclaim in India in June this year. Barring one or two negative ones, most reviews have showered effusive praise on Numair’s ambition, imagination, and highly charged prose. While I am still on the lookout for an international publishing deal for Babu I am hopeful that some experimental and adventurous Indie US/UK publisher will take a leap of faith sooner than later. Like his editor at Harper Collins did. But most importantly, like Numair did more than a decade ago when he started conceiving Babu-world during his PhD at University of Texas.
In a heartfelt memoir piece published by his younger sister Talita Choudhury in a major online publication in India, she writes about the similarities between Babu and Numair. I quote:
“Numair and his protagonist Babu Abdul Majumdar share little in common regarding their personal biographies though both were bachelors who were born around the same time, had a parent who was an educator and attended college in the US. While Babu spent time playing on the fields of the parliament building during his youth, Numair and I witnessed the silhouette of the same building as we drove past it each morning on our way to elementary school year. We too were raised by a male nanny and an entrusted gardener who was so much more but only known as Mali bhai. The pair were also animal lovers. Here end the commonalities between Numair and his fictional protagonist.”
I would like to mention another major similarity between the author and his creation. Like Babu, Numair was very kind and deeply idealistic, a lover of our bountiful but greatly endangered nature, of peace, equality, justice, emancipation of women, a lover of magic and folklore, the downtrodden, the marginalised, the terrorised, the near-extinct. Most important, like Babu, he was a people’s person.
When he and I were having conversations about potential publishers for Babu, Numair told me he wouldn’t mind publishing with a small indie press that believed in the redistribution of wealth. I told him forget redistribution of wealth, publishers seldom share royalties’ statements on time.
In the last few months preceding his death, Numair was deeply disturbed about the political situation in Bangladesh in particular the student protest that made headlines globally. In a message to me he said:
Being careful with religious and political content
Things are getting bad in BD. This book could be my life Kan
So, if I’m gonna go out for it, it better be damn good
Sadly, this made his writing very self-conscious . In a subsequent message he wrote:
In Bird, I’ll be inserting four pages about a heroic and peaceful mission and direction taken by (so and so party)
Man, it’s the perfect thing to do.
If they still want to kill me because of the preceding criticism... Well, this is the least and the most I can do to protect myself for now.
Another dilemma that Numair faced was of the constant need to update the story, especially since the novel is narrated from a time in the distant future. In one of his messages he told me:
Put together quickly
Example: Rohingya crisis, yaba smuggling via Cox’s Bazaar, NGO corruption, Islamic extremism, and Rohingya prostitution, already happening. Will be a huge deal in next few years. Completely missing from book. Put together in two paragraphs, and inserted in Island.
I am going to end by reciting a poem that Numair wrote (yes, he was a poet too) on the death of a friend’s daughter in a terror attack:
None of this is contained
In a dome
You cannot be contained
And the paint is still fresh
The earth, air, water
Now know you by name
But you will never leave your space here
Where your feet had
right beside me.
This is an edited version of a talk given by Kanishka Gupta, whose literary agency Writers Side represented the estate of Numair Choudhury, at the Dhaka Lit Fest 2019.