Numair Atif Choudhury passed away in September 2018, just a few months before the release of his first and only book Babu Bangladesh!. What he has left behind is a formidable legacy that is as diverse and promising as the nation of Bangladesh. It is not just impossible but futile to compartmentalize the book under a genre – set in 2028, the story starts in 1947 with East Pakistan just coming into being. The enormity of Babu Bangladesh!, without exaggeration, is comparable to Salman Rushdie’s magnum opus, Midnight’s Children. There’s been no dearth of writings on the partition(s) and the subcontinent’s postcolonial identity crisis as authors from India and Pakistan often write with an urgency that comes from the need to document historical landmarks that engulfs lives a little too often than one would like. Even though India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are tied together by the bloody cord of partitions, English writings from Bangladesh have been few and far between. It’s not to say that Bangladeshi writings have been missing from the scene – authors like Tahmima Anam and Monica Ali have tasted critical and commercial success. Yet, to me, it is only with the publication of Babu Bangladesh! that it feels like Bangladeshi literature has finally arrived.
From the very beginning, the novel is clear in its goal – an unnamed narrator is determined to write a biography of the writer, politician, mystic Babu Majumdar. Born in 1971 alongside Bangladesh, the nation and Babu were both conceived by the feverish passions of people like Babu’s parents who had dedicated their youth to fight for the freedom of their motherland. The generations that came before Babu fought for the Bangla language, electoral representation, and secular democracy – decades of bloodshed later, the struggles culminated in the formation of Bangladesh and the birth of Babu’s generation that got to mold the country into a modern nation where politicians had the “luxury” to worry about the climate crisis, corruption and poor literacy rates instead of constantly having to mobilize the locals against the tyranny of Pakistani generals.
Writing about the life of a public figure should be a fairly easy task but that’s hardly the case for Babu’s biographer. As he speaks to people and unearths Babu’s private writings, it becomes evident that in war-torn lands, the body of the individual is the vessel of the land’s history. Babu’s childhood in Tangail anticipates his future as a public figure – Babu forges unlikely friendships and survives the post-1971 civil war as the nation reels under the weight of Mujibur Rehman’s assassination and the splitting up of the country between supporters of Bangladesh National Party and the opposition. The first section of the novel, “Building”, is about literally building the nation of Bangladesh from the remains of East Pakistan. Here Numair writes the struggles that legitimized Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban as the new parliament and a sanctum of democracy. As Babu comes of age at a time of intense political turmoil, his identity seamlessly merges with that of a country also struggling to find her footing. The next section, “Tree”, takes us back in time when Babu’s parents were college-goers and budding nationalists. At this point, I realized that this would be a narrative that’s circular in space and time. Section II is definitely the most difficult section to read – Numair is relentless in writing about the atrocities committed against the Bengalis by Pakistani tyrants. This section is centered around a Bot Tree (Ficus benghalensis) at Dhaka University. Young revolutionaries gathered at the shade of the tree to talk politics and in times of duress, it was the same tree that sheltered the future citizens of Bangladesh. Harrowing, unbelievable, and true, this section immortalizes a forgotten genocide that happened less than fifty years ago. While Babu is mostly missing in action in “Tree”, Numair does a wonderful job in reminding us that the act of nation-building is never solely done by a single group of revolutionaries but takes concentrated efforts of generations of equally passionate people. The next two sections of the novel, “Snake” and “Island”, chronicle Babu’s journey in politics. A young man with lofty ambitions of transforming Bangladesh into an ecological paradise, Babu’s dreams are quickly dashed to the ground as he realizes that winning elections with popular votes isn’t enough to bring about any tangible changes in a nation rife with corruption and muscle politics. These two sections of the novel forewarn of the climate catastrophes that await us and how countries like Bangladesh will bear the brunt of poor environmental policies and negligence of the Global North. In the final section of the novel, “Bird”, Babu takes flight from the public eye as rumors about “theft” from the Ministry of Culture came to light when struggling artists suddenly find credits in their bank accounts from the government exchequers. Babu’s identity as a mystic is debated in this section as he increasingly becomes an enigma for his followers and opponents alike.
Babu Bangladesh! is unlike anything I’ve read before – it’s massive, polyphonic, and humane. Numair is liberal in mixing genres and timelines, the story stretches out in every direction and emulates the vastness of Bangladesh’s bloody but proud history in a span of a few hundred pages. This is a work of an indomitable writer – his intelligence, genius, and farsightedness burst forward on every page. A debut work of such fantastic magnitude gears up the reader for more works of similar brilliance but unfortunately for us, this will be the only Numair Atif Choudhury title to ever exist. What could’ve been one of the most significant voices from the subcontinent, Numair’s life was cut short in an accident in Kyoto at the age of 44.
The author worked on this book for 15 years but never got to see it in print and the concluding line of Babu Bangladesh! is eerie in its finality – but it leaves us with the hope of Numair’s pioneering work encouraging newer, younger voices to bring forward their truths.