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The Babu who becomes Bangladesh

Manik Sharma | Updated on August 30, 2019 Published on August 30, 2019

Nation’s own: The novel begins in 2028, when the narrator decides to piece together the life of one of the greatest leaders in Bangladesh’s recent history - K Bhagya Prakash   -  The Hindu

Numair Atif Choudhury’s first — also the last — novel is a wide canvas that’s dedicated to the country both the writer and his protagonist hail from

It is natural for a novel that speculates or reimagines the history of the Indian subcontinent to tap into the violent past of undivided India. Numair Atif Choudhury’s wide-scoping novel, Babu Bangladesh! is an ambitious canvas that attempts to make sense of the farcical birth of Bangladesh and the fictional man, Babu, who has inadvertently come to symbolise it. Choudhury tragically passed away not too long after preparing a final draft of the novel, which he had worked on for 15 years. Babu Bangladesh! is worth the wait.

The novel begins in the future, in 2028, when an unnamed narrator decides to piece together the life of Babu Abdul Majumdar, considered one of the greatest leaders of Bangladesh’s recent history. Choudhury takes his time to explain the reasons behind the elevated status the protagonist enjoys.

As the biographer goes through letters and audio tapes, and collects anecdotes, Babu’s life starts to seem as monumental as the country he grew up in. Violence is never far off, as a young Babu “almost” witnesses the butchering of a domestic help by a mob that is politically motivated. From his childhood, Babu shows signs of things to come. “An eleven-year-old he had been sufficiently self-aware to squirrel away notable moments for posterity,” Choudhury writes.

Babu grows up to be many things — activist, environmentalist and politician — shaped by the violent history of Bangladesh. Choudhury painstakingly recreates Operation Searchlight of 1971, the most definitive episode of the country’s past. Amidst the violent attempts to crush the rebellious students and teachers of Dhaka University, there are absurdly off-handed conversations between soldiers, a ludicrous plan to sabotage their barracks, and the farcical ineptitude on behalf of the state while attempting to uproot a tree that anchors all the chaos. Babu Bangladesh! jumps so many genres — exposition, epistolary, travel, magical realism and so on — that you are convinced Choudhury will eventually write himself into a corner he will struggle to leave. It’s to his credit that that doesn’t happen.

The novel shifts modes and timelines, frequently changing focus, though not the restive, staid pace it is narrated with. The author is in no hurry to downgrade Bangladesh’s history to the point where it becomes the ethos of a novel that, rather wisely, fixates on a personality instead. In this case, the personality of a single man, as the writer uses other characters to flit in and out of the narrative, only to build on the hubris, the myth and the maze around Babu. Choudhury is as inventive with his language as with crafting a maze of events that describe Babu’s ascent to national leadership. From terming a scholarship Babu receives as “savant garde” to a college senior telling Babu “politics will be good for growing hair on your chest”, Choudhury’s consistent supply of sarcasm and wit lightens the toll of a book that is both heavy to read and contemplate.

 

Babu Bangladesh! has been written to fit history. Its greatest provocations, though, manifest on a granular level when Choudhury manages to erase the border between fact and fiction. Repeatedly, I was forced to consult the internet for names and terms that sounded ludicrously constructed but do exist for real. As if the absurdity of reality is near-unmatchable, the author wants to say. And so is the DNA of Bangladesh. Babu Bangladesh! isn’t entirely one thing, or at least disproportionately one or the other. You could compare it to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Roberto Bolano’s style, or consider it an upgrade, dare I say, on the scattered mess that Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness intended to be.

It is safe to say that Babu Bangladesh! is demanding and rewarding in equal measure. It takes a fair bit of patience and precocious levels of concentration to get through the pages. Regardless, Choudhury’s readers will match, at least, a fraction of the toil the author has evidently gone through in preparing the magnum opus — his first and, unfortunately, his last.

Choudhury drowned in Kyoto’s Kamo River last year, leaving behind a final draft that does justice to the decade and a half he had dedicated to it. Never again can I think of Bangladesh and not imagine Babu Bangladesh! as its edictal brief, or Babu as its truest son.

Manik Sharma writes on arts and culture

Published on August 30, 2019
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