Contrarian Thoughts on Humayun Ahmed
– by Bookworm Blogger
So Humayun Ahmed finally died a few days ago. Not unexpected really, considering his advanced age and his prolonged battle with cancer. You don’t really win fights like those in the end. He didn’t either.
I got the news as I was sitting in the bus, going to the mall. Facebook feeds on the mobile, of course, what else. All in all – and it’s now been several days, so my reactions have had time to settle – I find myself almost entirely unmoved by this event. Except perhaps for a brief moment of heaviness just after I heard the news. After all, this IS Humayun Ahmed. THE name to contend with in modern Bangladeshi fiction.
Sure, he was a very talented writer. Yet my enduring memories of reading Humayun are few and far between. In total, I can’t say that I read more than 12-15 of his books – and the last one was a good 20 years ago. Perhaps because towards the end – and for me, that would be 1992-93 – the crap content was so high that I felt there were far better uses of my time than reading the ramblings of some loser kid in a yellow punjabi or whatever the latest fad was that the Humayun word-machine was churning out to keep greedy publishers and childish readers happy.
But first, those enduring memories. Being really affected, for instance, by “Shongkhonil Karagar” when I read it in my teens. Or admiring the total out-there weirdness of “Tara Tin Jon”, which was a far more imaginative book than the usual crud that is android-focused science fiction coming out of the west, far superior to Star Wars or Star Trek or Star Whatever.
I remember reading a thriller set in Rome – Omanush? Irina? – and being oh so struck by the face of the girl on the cover. Many years later I found myself standing in front of the original painting in a gallery in London, at a Modigliani exhibition. Strange tricks that time, travel and memory will play. Another memory – Dhaka, early 1990s, quiet afternoon, I’m walking in the sun towards my math tutor’s place just a few days before my O-level exams, walking down the rail tracks from Tejgaon to Mohakhali, open book in hand, Humayun’s novel “1971”. There’s a scene of gripping horror, a Bengali villager is having bricks suspended from his testicles by the Pakistani invaders. I am reading, reading, in rhythm with my footsteps on the wooden sleepers, reading, unable to stop, I reach my sir’s house, but instead of going into his flat, I head straight for the roof and read the next few pages, baking in the summer sun, in Dhaka one April afternoon in 1991. Reading Humayun Ahmed.
By 1992 or 1993, when I picked up the boi-mela habit, and when I had also started to read a little more widely – Western literature more so than domestic lit, I’m slightly ashamed to say – by then I realized that in every boi-mela, this guy was churning out 5, 6, 7 novels, each one no more than 50-60 pages in length, each one priced at 40-50 takas, each one pretty similar to the last one, and each one could be read usually in a single sitting, in a little over two hours even if you were a particularly slow reader. So just WHY is this called a “novel” again? The technical term, I thought, was a “novella”. Uponnashika, NOT uponnash. So why not advertise it as such? Or perhaps even call it a longish short story, because a novel, as I was coming to understand it in those days, would at the very least be defined by its scale – or mechanically speaking, its length – say, David Copperfield coming in at 500 pages, or War and Peace at 900 pages, or even Vikram Seth at 1,300 which had just been published then. (“The Stranger” or “The Old Man and the Sea” were, for me at the time, rare and happy exceptions to the rule that a novel ought to have, by rights, some heft to it.) Even the “opar” novelists – Sunil, Samaresh and Shirshendu – seemed to be operating with far more ambition, more scope and scale than Humayun Ahmed and his ilk, the whole farce of bashing out 10,000 quickie words while the publisher was sipping tea in the drawing room, waiting for a manuscript that would be coming out as a “novel” just the day after tomorrow.
Was it a publisher-driven phenomenon? Reader-driven? Author-driven? I confess I never did manage to figure it out. There was definitely some kind of market force at work, but the bottom line is that I felt short-changed more and more when I started to read a Humayun novel or novella or novelette, and by 1993 I had just about quit, out of boredom or distaste or maybe just the transparent lack, in my eyes, of honesty, effort, or literary merit. Tired of the repetition, tired of the cookie-cutter quirky characters with predictable names and predictable mannerisms, the hackneyed phrases – the “uthal pathal jyotsna” and the “oshombhob rupoboti” and the Nilu-Bulu-Nowabuddin Ahmed shahebs. Over and over again, in every book, without fail, without change.
The man became lazy, and he sussed out his readership pretty early on. So he [started to] write infantile fiction for what he realized was a largely infantilized, over-emotional audience. And he played a massive role in cultivating that infantilization. There are thousands of bookshelves in thousands of living rooms and bedrooms up and down the length of Bangladesh, where there are scores and scores of Humayun Ahmed titles, but not a single book by any other Bengali writer. No Tagore and no Sharat, no Manik and no Tara, no Shawkat Ali or Shawkat Osman, no Alauddin al-Azad or Akhtaruzaman Ilyas. No “opar” writers either. Maybe the odd Milon, the odd Sunil scattered here and there. But every time I see a bookshelf like that, I get the impression that here are readers who look upon books mostly as a form of easy time-pass, who are indifferent to the challenge of exploring a new writer, a new world, uninterested in getting out of their comfort zone, out of the warm cocoon of word-pap that Humayun Ahmed wove for them so assiduously for so many years. Indifferent, in other words, to exploring the glittering Ali Baba’s cave that is the world of books, of literature. Snobbish on my part? Perhaps, though I don’t really believe so.
Then again, it’s a global phenomenon. There are bookshelves everywhere full of Dan Brown and Michael Crichton and Stephen King and James Patterson and little else besides. So would it be fair to conclude that, although they are writers of different genres, languages, cultures and sensibilities, the Milons and Humayuns of Bangladesh perform essentially the same function as the Kings and Crichtons of the west? That is, writing best-sellers for the common reader for whom books don’t pretend to serve any higher purpose at all? No questions raised, no light shed, no facades torn away? Just dull, unchallenging stuff, repeated ad nauseam until the reader wouldn’t know good prose or a challenging book if it hit him in the face?
But maybe that’s it? To encounter challenging literature, you have to be interested in the CHALLENGE in the first place. There’s no rule that says you HAVE to be, and to claim otherwise definitely is snobbery and humbug. Everyone has their own set of pursuits which, to them, is as valuable as anyone else’s set of choices. I have no quarrel with that. My beef here, mainly, is with the blind deification of a mass-market writer of pulp fiction, easy pap, the unthinking elevation of his status into some kind of literary god, something that he really was not, something he consciously chose NOT to be.
Which is a pity really, because it will be a long time again before we get a prose stylist like him. Weaver of words that went down easier than a cold drink on a hot day, words that could spin an intimately familiar world inside your head – before you even knew it, you were right inside it. And, by the way, Elebele 1 is still the funniest Bangla book I have ever read, right up there with that first delight of reading Wodehouse. Timeless, unforgettable.
So what should Humayun have done with that inimitable unique style? Write books that explored the world around him with a bit more honesty, integrity, enquiry? More doubt and more questioning? Turn away from the hundreds of cans of vegetable soup that he churned out in the end? He made his choice. It was he who decided that a science lecturer’s salary was not for him, it was he who wanted to build Nuhash Polli for himself and his family. It was he who could afford 1 crore taka to go to the US for his cancer treatment.
On the other hand, Akhtaruzzaman Ilyas, whose name will reverberate down the decades as long as Bengali books are read, spent 25 years in a small rented flat in Tikatuly, and the last few of those years as an amputee unable to get out of the house, let alone fly to America. For all that he wrote Khowabnama and Chilekothar Shepai, wouldn’t he have wanted to be able to afford some decent treatment for the cancer that ate up his leg before he died? Who’s to say? Who’s to judge?
What about the stuff on TV? Oddly enough, as much as I remember loving Ei Shob Din Ratri and Bohubrihi and of course Ekdin Hothat, I also remember being bored by Ayomoy and Asaduzzaman Noor’s overstylized acting, and I remember positively being turned off by the sheer hau-kau that surrounded Kothao Keu Nei. I mean seriously? Those natoks remind me now of nothing more than the blatant, naked, emotional manipulation of which Steven Spielberg is an acknowledged master in Hollywood. The storyline designed to wrench every last emotion out of the happily complicit audience, the predictably quirky/amusing dialogue, the even more predictably oddball/lovable characters – it’s all there, right down to the last planned twitch of the puppeteer’s string. Bangali emnitei emotional jaat, so in Humayun’s hands, they were little more than putty primed for the moulding. That people were holding rallies on the street to save Baker Bhai’s neck tells you pretty much all you need to know about Humayun’s razor-sharp insight into the nature of his audience.
Funnily enough, somehow I also think that Humayun Ahmed wouldn’t have made it this big, had he started out today in 2012. It was easier to build a mass audience, a mass following on that scale in the Bangladesh of the 1980s and 1990s, when we were still largely one nation (at least the middle classes were), when BTV was the only channel in town, TV natok was the only real entertainment available, and books/novels had no competition, not from the internet, not from televised cricket or T20, not from Hindi serials and reality shows, not from a hundred million cable stations clamouring for your attention on an hourly basis. In the desh of the 80s, we were free to immerse ourselves in Sheba Prokashoni books as kids, and Humayun Ahmed when we were older. Perhaps his appeal was also the product of a particular time and place, the final hurrah of a unified Bangladeshi urban middle class, culturally homogeneous and mostly uniform in its hopes and aspirations, its loves and hates. And then the great fragmentation that’s taken place these last 15 years, until we have a society so atomized and self-seeking that interests and self-interest have broken down almost at the individual level, let alone at the level of family or social class.
As for the sad spectacle of the battles over the burial and the media pitting the wife against the ex-wife. Bear in mind that it’s not all that uncommon; there must have been a good 40 or 50 years’ gap, for example, between Picasso and Francoise Gilot. To pretend that Shawon is the devil incarnate in all this while Humayun was some dhowa tulshi pata, merely the hapless victim of a honeytrap, all that is transparent absurdity. Unfortunately, aam-public emon that even this seems to have become a matter of hot dispute among the Facebooking middle classes.
Rest in peace, Humayun Ahmed, for all that you were and for all that you could have been.