Remembering Numair Atif Choudhury through Babu Bangladesh! and his love for the homeland
The story Babu Bangladesh! was born at The University of Texas in Dallas around 2003-2004, where Numair completed a sprawling doctorate. Through the same ten years of scholastic pursuits, Numair laboured away on this one tale.
It is strange that we are surrounded by so many people hearing Numair’s voice for the first time through Babu Bangladesh! and yet he is not here. I now speak in my brother’s stead as he died accidentally months prior to his book’s publication. Ours is a family that never believed in happy endings and, neither Numair’s personal story nor his literary protagonist has one. Numair and I were born just 11 months apart, raised by a working mother, a literature teacher, who in our early years hand fed us our dahl chal and nourished us with tales from Shakespeare. We understood young that there was injustice and cruelty in this world through stories ranging from the hatred and tragedy in Romeo and Juliet, to the family manipulations and betrayals in King Lear, to the religious prejudices in Merchant of Venice. Therefore, it is reasonable that Numair would choose to tell a semi-historical story of his nation through a controversial political leader.
The story Babu Bangladesh! was born at The University of Texas in Dallas around 2003-2004, where Numair completed a sprawling doctorate. Through the same ten years of scholastic pursuits, Numair laboured away on this one tale. I always thought this novel was such a monumental struggle for him, especially as he didn’t believe in writer’s block. While spending his years embedded in deep learning and research, putting his wanderlust on hold, Numair had written home in 2013, expressing, “I feel trapped in a country I do not belong in.” Self-reflecting, he shared, “I am open to criticism, and have changed all the parts that were not pleasurable to read. I respect my audience. Moreover, the book that is to be published must be of a mettle that justifies the claim it has made of a decade of my life.” Another year later, only a little further along with his narrative, Numair emailed a section from the chapter 'Bird' stating, “Here's something I edited today, took me forever to get the right voice.”
Numair was definitely a wordsmith. In my brief career as a journalist, I was always told to write succinctly and clearly without using elaborate words, but my brother loved words and their endless nuances. I believe his love of language germinated when he joined the UK Poet Laureate Andrew Motion's Creative Writing Department at the University of East Anglia, Norwich for a master’s program. Numair’s seminal literary style blossomed as part prose, part poetry. He had once objected to the use of the word seminal regarding his writing. He said, “It bears the connotation of something important, or groundbreaking. I am yet to earn such an accolade. More suitable words are hallmark, stamp (perhaps), earmark, characteristic... etc.”
Numair described his novel as a fictional biography that belonged to the genre of magical realism. He wrote to me that “The five chapters of the book employ old symbols and myths to weave newly magical tales. Buildings acquire consciousness to chart political outcomes, tribes of snake and tree worshipers compete for regional supremacy, as fish-humanoids emerge from the waters to teach us a lesson. However, the suspension of disbelief is optional; there are scientific and empirical explanations for all phenomena and the reader chooses whether magic transpires or not.”
Despite the American genesis of this literary saga, it could not be completed until its storyteller had returned to his homeland. In 2015, Numair felt his book was almost ready for publication and allowed himself the chance to journey home, after a decade’s absence. Post 9/11, most friends and family had advised that he should only leave the US on completion of his work due to his Muslim identity. Numair yearned to be with his countrymen but he self-exiled himself in Texas as he felt he could only create the challenging framework for his novel, nestled in an academic environment. In his absence, Dhaka had emerged as a megacity, ranking as the 20th largest metropolis in the world, flooded with rural migrants who were mostly climate refugees. Our hometown’s landscape had changed with new high-rise buildings and skyscrapers. Hence, he wrote to family recognising that his nearly completed bookwould need to be revised, stating, “I needed to know whether the Sundarbans was already going under water due to soil erosion and rising waters, or whether accretion would allow the mangroves to hold together. Despite what my studies from the US had indicated, it looks like the answer is the latter. This information itself requires me to edit quite a few pages from Babu Bangladesh! I needed to know the nuances and connotations that Bangladeshis read into the name ‘Babu’ and was unexpectedly rewarded with light from scholars here that confirmed for me that the moniker is gender-neutral. This is huge for me. I passionately wished my title to be inclusive of women... I have also been learning about the revival of Salafism/Wahabism in Bangladesh, and new insights have realigned my final chapter, Bird. The current Dean of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology who is writing a book on this subject, spoke to me on the phone regarding recent developments and is critiquing three important paragraphs for me. This is godsent. There are countless other examples of how, in just days, I have learned from people who have dedicated their lives to issues my novel addresses. I have been learning since my feet touched ground here.”
Walking through the dusty streets of his motherland, Numair decompressed, sharing, “I am delighted to be back. It has been thrilling for me to see so many old faces again... It has been surreal to wake up to morning prayers, to hear again birds calling from my childhood, and to find old trees, roads, and homes, vanished. It has been almost otherworldly to observe the limp dogs that live across our house. Dogs whose parents I had probably known. And these dogs, unlike me, have perhaps never experienced the whirlwind of estrangement, solitude, reunion, and renewal that is presently my world. I envy them that, and while I look through these dogs and mourn a past, I had been cut off from, I am absolutely thrilled to be back in their midst. In summary, I have been returned from the vacuum of my former life, and Bangladeshi air has rushed in.”
Although Numair had released approximately twenty short-stories in anthologies, magazines, and digests worldwide, he had not published in the last few years before his death while living in Bangladesh, despite several requests. He explained in late 2017, “All my attentions are devoted to the novel. There was an odd radio reading, and literary symposium, where I aired glimpses from my chapters, but I have been reluctant to compromise reception of the novel as a completed work. My pause in soliciting and entertaining opportunities in publishing commenced a decade ago, after a short-story of mine was printed in an anthology alongside giants like Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Hanif Kureishi, Anita Desai, and Michael Ondaatje. It was then that things ‘got real’ for me.”
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 ends the commonalities between Numair and his fictional protagonist.
It’s possible that Numair may have never been able to finalise this semi-historical opus as his nation’s story unfolded daily. Changes were made past his final deadline for submission in order to incorporate Bangladesh’s deeply inspiring student demonstrations in the summer of 2018. Numair perished in September 2018, while travelling to present a paper on anthropological magical realism at a literary conference in Japan. He drowned while walking alongside the Kama-gawa River in the midst of the rainy season, in a slip and fall accident, which rendered him unconscious. As one of his dearest academic colleagues in Independent University Bangladesh noted, the very same powerful waters which inspired him creatively was also his destroyer. I travelled to Japan to bring my brother’s body home. And as I arranged his final voyage, I will forever remember how the Bangladeshi Ambassador handed over Numair’s passport and explained that he would now be transported as freight and released as international cargo, while I was a passenger, arriving through customs and immigrations.
Perhaps, the spirit of the narrator of Babu Bangladesh! needed to be interned in his native soil for this tale to be born. I feel it is best to explain Numair’s void using his own words written on the tragic death of a family friend: “The earth, air, and water now know you by name, but you will never leave your space here, where your feet had placed you, right beside me.” Numair babu and Bangladesh are now one.
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