Leav­ing Be­hind a Brighter Fu­ture

Up­set­ting our idea of the real, this post­hu­mous novel is a brave bat­tle cry

India Today - - LEISURE - —Shazia Omar

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

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