Numair Atif Choudhury’s novel, Babu Bangladesh!, which has just been shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2019, pretends to be a biography of a Bangladeshi politician.
Much like that of real politicians, Babu Bangladesh’s life is very public, yet very secret at the same time. He is both a world-renowned statesman, and a corrupt, maligned figure, whose shady dealings are as plentiful as his achievements, and whose legacy can only be discerned through the distortions of his enemies and his devoted followers.
In pursuit of source material, our faux-biographer is both intrepid and fearless. He has found that "cases have been classified as cold, doors have been slammed and bolted firmly", and "paper trails and digital vaults have been shredded." Moreover, the biographer writes that he has been "roughed up, defrauded and even drugged", and has "acquired viruses, been endangered by the theft of my identity and had my mailboxes filled with spam."
It doesn’t help that Babu Bangladesh himself is not present, while his political opponents, keen on destroying his legacy, are in power. Instead, Babu has disappeared into the ether — the book reports that he "departed for unknown skies" in 2021.
The book combines a very real, almost pedantic tone, with deviations from reality. Two delicious deviations appear early in the novel. One has been excerpted and is depicted on the cover of the book. In it, Babu Bangladesh appears in a political rally by bursting through a poster featuring a tiger’s face, accompanied by loudspeakers playing back the roars of "an extraordinarily fierce tiger from the Khulna zoo", as well as "comet pumps, flame EFX and cherry bombs."
The political spectacle is scarcely exaggerated, given India’s own penchant for a ‘3D-holographic’ Dear Leader — but what happens next is a defining moment in the novel. The controlled explosions used to announce Babu "do not remain controlled", and Babu is set on fire.
Peering backstage through the smoke, our narrator and his brother watch people put out the flames wrapping the figure, and then pile on Babu’s clothes and its contents onto a stretcher that is whisked away in an ambulance. But is the rally cancelled? Certainly not — magically, a replica of the leader, wearing the same outfit, emerges on the stage and delivers a thunderous speech.
Much as the public at Narendra Modi’s rally was left puzzled over the reality and unreality of the hologram, we too wonder — is 'Babu Bangladesh' one man? Or is he the embodiment of history itself, the product of millions of myths and aspirations, and therefore, someone who exceeds the bounds of mortal flesh?
The second event is a hilarious account of how the fictional biographer chanced upon a gold mine of Babu Bangladesh’s diaries, written by the man himself. Did he find them in an archive, secretly stowed away by a family member? Did he have to battle a political opponent for them, or bribe someone from Babu’s political inner circle?
No, he found them in the possession of that quintessential constant at every Bengali household, East or West— the maachhwala, or the fishmonger. Though Babu himself has turned vegetarian, — this is a world where climate catastrophes have turned Bangladesh into an archipelago, and Babu Bangladesh, as one among the new breed of ‘environmentalist’ statesmen, at least as far as the public eye is concerned, has forsworn meat — he maintains a relationship with this institution of Bengali culture.
Finally, when Babu is surrounded on all sides by his political enemies, it is only his maachhwala that he can afford to trust. Since the biographer happens to also purchase fish from the same maachhwala, who in the 2020s speaks of ‘organic catfish’, and attends lectures on ‘ecolabelling’, our narrator manages to get hold of this treasure trove of insider information.
More direct than Salman Rushdie
Numair Atif Choudhury’s book has been compared with magical realism masterpieces and authors, namely Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and the works of Chilean master Roberto Bolaño. The compulsions of marketing aside — where authors are asked to describe themselves as the ‘next such-and-such’ — the comparison, while warranted, actually does a disservice to Choudhury.
Brilliant though these other authors are stylistically, while being politically self-aware, Choudhury is bringing us something significantly different.
In magical realism masterpieces, authors often refract real events through the magical imagination of their narrators: Saleem in Midnight’s Children brings home the castrating / sterilising horrors of the Emergency to his main characters; Marquez magically erases the memory of the Banana Massacre from his town of Macondo with rain.
Choudhury, on the other hand, is both direct and incisive with his recounting of history. Reading his book is to uncover a litany of massacres and atrocities that have been whitewashed or papered over. As a product of a St Xavier’s College, I found myself suddenly within the covers of the book, when Choudhury presented the history of Saint Francis Xavier, after whom so many educational institutions are named:
The ‘holy’ man had little love for the Indians in his parish. Francis Xavier wrote to his clergymen about the ‘unholy race’ of the Hindus: ‘They are liars and cheats to the very backbone…the Indians being black themselves…the great majority of their idols are as black as black can be, and moreover are generally so rubbed over with oil as to smell detestably, and seem to be as dirty as they are ugly and horrible to look at.’ In 1545, he obtained permission to create an Inquisition in Goa from King John III of Portugal and the Vatican. Along with forced conversions, the wholesale destruction of Hindu temples and the torture of thousands of men and women, lakhs of Hindus were murdered and worked to death in mines, ships and factories. As significant sections of the Hindu population fled Goa, the evangelist’s campaign of terror spread along the western coast of India.
This is not to say he cannot hold his own stylistically, one that is clever and unobtrusive — as if in our world, where histories are snowed under volumes of fake news, it is important to be forthright. For his stylistic chops, take an early passage, where he says:
In his prime, Babu had gained repute as a spirited environmentalist who advocated for development in poverty-stricken regions. While he is now overlooked by mainstream and gulfstream eyes, his initiatives are applauded by collegiate programmes, leftist organisations and ecological societies scattered over the continents. Concert-goers might have caught a glimpse of Babu’s face flashing across massive LED screens at U2 and Asian Dub Foundation shows. Thich Nhat Hanh, Arundhati Roy and Cornel West have publicly quoted him.
The ironic list is both very current and very clear, and is direct in its foregrounding of new modes of activist celebrity. But the cleverness lies in the construction of ‘mainstream and gulfstream’ eyes, with the Gulf Stream, which runs along the East coast of the US, calling to mind the cultural dominance of that country in our times — and of course the fabled Gulfstream private jets, used to ferry world leaders and billionaires.
Choudhury deploys his stylistic chops strategically. Consider this beautiful passage, where he recounts Babu Bangladesh’s idyllic youth in Tangail:
Underneath it all, the young boys found sweetness more satisfying than any [chom chom]. They discovered an uncomplicated approach to life and to loving unrestrained. They could see this in the lulls between the onset of chaos. They detected it in little things, in the way stall-owners greeted their customers, in the way mothers called to their families at dusk, and in the way husbands would wash their wives’ sandals before dinner. It was an age tinged with the promise of rewards to come; when things had not yet gone sour. Villagers would turn up with their rural ways intact. Babu and the boys came across young girls who would cover their heads with the ends of their saris and run away laughing. They then met others of their age who would gift marbles, share their food and climb for fruit with no sense of property or shame. On the outskirts of the city, by the shores, itinerant fishermen sang river songs to them. The gang watched in awe as gypsies dozed off on their bowsprits, rocking on their haunches as the river surged.
But immediately before this passage, there is a mention of the "dreadfully mismanaged famine of 1974 when 2 per cent of the population perished under [Mujib ur-Rehman’s] guardianship", and the story of his assassination. Immediately after this passage is the account of the horrifying drug crisis that ravaged Bangladeshi youth in the 1980s (much as it is ravaging Punjab's youngsters today, along with ones in other parts of the country).
In this way, Choudhury conjures nostalgia — evocative of youth and deep love of one’s homeland — and places it amid the squalid and terrible politics, the massacres and the disappearances. It speaks to me like no other book has, on the experience of nation that so many of us have: as simultaneously invoking overwhelming, sudden-tear affection, and a heart-sickening nausea at the atrocities committed in its name.
The more I absorb the book, the more it saddens me that Numair Atif Choudhury, its author, passed away due to an accidental drowning shortly before its publication. As he descends into myth, my hope is that this book will rise to legendary status. In this time of extreme xenophobia against Bangladeshis amongst Indians, I hope many read Babu Bangladesh!.
Updated Date: Sep 11, 2019 09:29:59 IST