Leaving Behind a Brighter Future
Upsetting our idea of the real, this posthumous novel is a brave battle cry
Babu Bangladesh! is a fantastical novel set in the future about a revolutionary who changes the trajectory of Bangladesh’s history. Written in a deliciously fresh style by Numair Atif Choudhury, it is presented by a nervous narrator who does his best to piece together a ‘biography’ of the elusive Babu who disappeared after changing the course of the nation, leaving behind only scant traces of his life.
The narrator says, ‘This is not a work of deification or a glorious account of a dashing, wavy-haired titleholder...I have tried to ascertain the true airs Babu breathed and the rough chemistry of how flesh and bone settled to carriage a soul.’ It is thus a collection of interviews with ‘folklorists, historians, ecologists, astrologers and anthropologists’—fragments framed as possibilities without proof. Often, the biographer is confused by the contradictory truths he uncovers, leaving the reader to decide what is real. This engaging method of storytelling reflects reality; we never really know what is real, only what is presented as real by the geopolitical forces that are in power.
The book is written in sections. The first, ‘Building’, is about Babu’s initiation into student politics and the sprawling National Assembly complex in Dhaka designed by Louis Kahn who preferred the ‘perfection and openness of circles’ over rectangles. The second, ‘Tree’, tells the story of Babu’s parents and the fight for independence in the war of ’71.
The third and fourth parts—‘Snake’ and ‘Island’— outline Babu’s political rise and his encounters with a mythological island in the
Bay of Bengal, peopled by mermaids and matriarchal superheroes of indigenous tribes (alongside gigantic snakes charmed by gypsy people), with CIA agents and investment bankers, pulling
the strings. The final section—‘Bird’—is the most lyrical. The narrator explores human frailties—greed, corruption, fear and ignorance—contrasting them against the beauty of nature.
Babu reminds the reader of the sacrifices made by the people of Bangladesh for its independence, presenting a vision of a future free from corruption and geopolitical oppression, fair to all people and environmentally sustainable. It is a brave battle cry for the youth of Bangladesh and the world, but do we have a real Babu among us?
The novel reverberates with Choudhury’s respect for the environment, for women, indigenous cultures, equality of all beings and magic. The perspective is fresh and convincing, the subject is vast and magical and, more than once, I stopped to wonder—did that really happen? It is a grave loss that the author is no longer with us. He died in a drowning accident in 2018, but his words should guide us as we navigate through turbulent water. ■
In Numair Atif Choudhury’s novel, one can never really know what is real
BABU BANGLADESH! by Numair Atif Choudhury FOURTH ESTATE `599; 412 pages