In his 2001 book The Trial of Henry Kissinger , Christopher Hitchens describes America’s participation in the tensions that gripped central Asia during the late ’60s as “it goes on and on and on until one cannot eat enough to vomit enough”. Such were the stakes, the geopolitics, the complexity of each problem and its prospected resolution.

The Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 is no different. A subject that is so complicated and knotted on the inside can hardly be regarded as a convenient site to set a novel or a film in. And that explains why only a few have tried to do so. A novel with this setting, therefore, comes attached with the notion of taking its politics seriously. But the writer must balance the politics with the story to ensure that the storytelling principles are not abridged.


In The Time Of The Others; Nadeem Zaman; Pan Macmillan India; Fiction; ₹599


Nadeem Zaman’s debut novel In The Time of The Others initially promises to do just that. But it eventually unravels, scattered through the many lives that are too thin to grab the interest of the reader. The Dhaka-born US-based writer invests his energies in tracing the politics of the conflict but offers precious little in the way of character.

The book opens with the young Imtiaz Khan, who arrives in Dhaka — a city that does “not wear silence well” and which is on the cusp of unrest. Khan, while visiting his uncle and aunt, runs into local revolutionaries, foreign journalists and Pakistani military men, all of whom, in one way or the other, set the tone for the onslaught of violence that occupies the second half of the book. With Khan as its indecisive, naïve core, the plot is largely a charter of violence that continues for months, and not every character is likely to survive.

Loiterers or people generally bereft of blood-soaked purpose are, for some reason, hard to find in the book. It is like a primetime television debate, most of the time. Characters pop in, say something fervently and disappear for pages, at times chapters. Understandably, Zaman has tried to throw in different voices as ingredients into the pot, but because he chooses so many people to do it with, the resultant curry neither boils nor sustains its texture for the duration of the book.

Ironically, the sense of coherence missing in the first half of the book is balanced by the consistency of chaos and violence in the second. “So much talk among so-called revolutionaries,” Zaman writes at one point. If only he too had borrowed from the heft of that statement and worked it into the narrative, to unshackle it from devices that, for the most part, seem derived from minutes-of-meeting notes, like one memo after another.

As the protagonist finds himself sucked into larger-than-life situations, various characters introduce the reader to the wider contexts at play. Foreign journalists contemplate the role of Kissinger in supporting West Pakistan’s violent rhetoric, a judge named Mubarak sees the liberation war as a development that is shadowed by the 1947 Partition, young activists steeped in romance alongside anger and rebellion.

And then there is the military man Shaukat, a man whose skin is the colour of his flag and his teeth the extent of his political bite. He remains wholeheartedly preserved by a sense of loyalty. His wife Umbreen, therefore, has the short end of the stick in their marriage.

For perhaps the umpteenth time, a novel casts an oppressor, a man on the wrong side of history, as abusive, sexist and unlovable on a personal level. At one point, Shaukat’s superior tells him, “All wives are fine when they keep their mouth shut.” Such bro-talk, it seems, is always reserved for men on the other side, the ones we need to criminalise. It is a cliché so standard that the list of these men in literature must now be inexhaustible.

At no stage in Zaman’s novel does a character truly emerge, or catch one’s attention, as people stung by sudden tragedy or moved by immense passions.

For a world built on shaking grounds, it is surprising, really, that the ruins in this book feel so flat. The entire first half of the book passes by like the 60 minutes we spend switching between debates on prime-time TV.

There is little, except Shaukat’s dilemmas and, to an extent, judge Mubarak’s contemplations that the memory retains. It’s not as if there isn’t promise or scope in other people. Judge Mubarak, for example, a man who must continue to hand out death sentences against his will, is a criminally under-explored character.

Zaman’s writing is serviceable but the book could have used closer editing. Sample this sentence where the writer describes a man’s preference for meaty women: “Voluptuous because of the abundance of flesh they carried in their skin, on their bones, which a lover would never be annoyingly poked by”.

Eventually, there are too many shallow participants and a sketchy narrative that goes nowhere for at least half its length.

By the time the blood spills and the stakes are irrepressibly raised by violence and loss, a cold snore of boredom is difficult to stifle.

Manik Sharma writes on arts and culture