Humayun Ahmed: Personal Reflections on the Anniversary
In the week following the tragic death of Princess Diana of Britain in 1997, the reputedly “stiff upper-lip” British showed emotional outpouring on a mass scale such as the world has never seen before. The aftermath of Diana’s death is now recognized as a watershed moment in modernity. The reason is not because of significance of Diana as a world-historical figure; most Britons now look back at that episode with sheepish guilt and shame. The aftermath is famous because it heralded a new phenomenon in the global culture, the phenomena of ‘mass emote’. These occurrences have been given many other names in different places and different times after death of Diana, but all of them had few basic commonalities. They are characterized by mass outpouring of concerted emotion, saturation media coverage, heightened significance of the present moment, and then very rapid dampening of the fervor in both the people and the media. Some have termed this new feature of global society as orgy of sentimentality with slow and long hangover.
The phenomenon of mass emote came about in the last two decades because of a combination of mass visual media, celebrity culture, group-think and herd behavior, and several other factors. Many of these have been around for a long time. But it’s only in the last few decades the 24/7 immersion in full-spectrum mass culture has become a feature of everyday life for millions all over the world. This mass culture has given rise to mass emotions. There is wonderful safety and comfort in masses; we are biologically programmed to think that if millions are doing this way, this cannot be wrong. Mass media guides us how to emote with mass sentimentality without having to think much; which is always a bothersome task. We can emote all we want without giving up anything and feel wonderful for being part of a greater whole.
I am not bringing up this phenomenon of mass sentimentality at the first anniversary of Humayun Ahmed’s death to characterize the aftermath of his death as yet another mass emote. I think as Humayun Ahmed was the most popular cultural icon of middle class Bangladeshis and one of the very few figures appealing to broad swathes of people, the popular response following his death was not over exuberant or unseemly. The same cannot be said of our media; where even the most respectable houses engaged in a shameless stirring of sensationalism and rating chasing. I thought of mass sentimentality because Humayun Ahmed was arguably the most sophisticated practitioner of Bangladeshi sentimentality.
A definition of sentiment according to Oxford dictionary is “exaggerated and self-indulgent feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia”. When mass sentiments are grounded on concrete, durable feelings and they conform to reality, they can stir people to achieve extraordinary things. When sentiments are based on insecurities and anxieties of the masses, their collective expression can turn fascistic. Theodore Dalrymple, a British author, wrote the following in a recent book on mass culture in Britain,
“When sentimentality becomes a mass public phenomenon, moreover, it becomes manipulative in an aggressive way: it demands of everyone that he join in. A man who refuses to do so, on the grounds that he does not believe that the purported object of sentiment is worthy of demonstrative display, puts himself outside the pale of the virtuous and becomes almost an enemy of the people….Sentimentality then becomes coercive, that is to say manipulative in a threatening way.” (1)
What can be said about Humayun Ahmed that has not been said before? Probably nothing. His admirers wrote millions of words after his death to weave his iconography while his detractors also had a field day in taking potshots at him from all angles. I do not intend to add anything new, rather at this 1st commemoration of his passing I want to express few words on the main reason why I admired him immensely and also the main reason why I was very disappointed with him.
I really loved to read Humayun Ahmed. There were several aspects that drew me to his writings but the thing that attracted me most was the humor. I think that Humayun Ahmed was completely on a different level compared to all other writers in Bangladesh in terms of humor in writing. Particularly, his mastery of absurdist humor was miles ahead of anyone else. I have had always loved humor in writers. Great novels can be mind-altering experience but to be frank, they are seldom fun. Great humorists on the other hand are timeless, they never get dated. People keep reading them because they want to, not because they have to.
I was lucky to get to know some of the masters of humor in English language like P.G. Wodehouse, Mark Twain early in school. I loved the wordplay, the understated irony, the exaggerated absurd situations, everything in classic British and American humor. In Bengali, I read Sukumar Ray, Shibram Chokroborti, Narayan Gangopadhaya etc time and time again, just with a few months gap in between. It always pained me that in this side of the Bengal divide we do not seem to have a writer capable of writing superlative humor in their fiction and prose. Humayun Ahmed was not a humorist per se like Wodehouse or Twain but he could weave absurdist humor in his writings like no one else in Bangladesh. I was happy to know that one of Humayun Ahmed’s favorite writers is John Steinbeck, who also became one of my favorite. I was very impressed with Steinbeck’s deep humanism in his big novels like ‘Grapes of Wrath’ or short novellas like “Of Mice and Men” but the two books that I loved most and I read again and again are “Tortilla Flat” and “Cannery Row”; two of the funniest books in American literature that are also deeply suffused with humanity.
The prose of Humayun Ahmed was lean and fast. Of course his subject matters were mostly sentimental but his prose was unencumbered. It was not burdened with pretentious sanctimony. He often had flashes of insight in his novels but unfortunately they remained flashes in the pan. He never explored them in detail. Perhaps that was his main failing in the canon of literature. Great works of art are essentially cerebral, not sentimental. They make people think for a long time, not give them warm feelings. This is why perhaps Humayun Ahmed will always be unfavorably contrasted with novelists like Akhtaruzzaman Iliyas.
In the early 90’s Humayun Ahmed decisively took the road to money and fame. Much has been written about his writings from that period and hence. I more or less agree with most of those scathing commentaries and I cannot add anything new. But I will say about my biggest disappointment with him.
Some of the people who have some knowledge about science, literature, arts, international affairs, etc. of the world manage to acquire to a varying degree an awareness that we may call ‘internalizing the human civilization’. It’s hard to define this awareness exactly but I would call this as being cognizant of the development of human civilization as a whole and not to think that any specific place, any specific time or any specific entity holds a special place in this unfolding saga of human endeavor. They know that our principles should not come from the local but the global. In simpler words it’s the difference between being aware of the universal vs. being provincial. I always felt that very few writers in Bangladesh had managed to acquire this universal view. Many of them are well versed about the knowledge of the universal but they still failed to internalize the essence and remained provincial. This is not about subject matter. Many of the most accomplished writers in world literature confined their writings to a particular place and time. If you can acquire the awareness, a specific place becomes timeless and universal.
In my youth I regarded Humayun Ahmed as one of the rare few in the Bangladeshi pantheon of famous who had this global awareness. Of course he didn’t write about global matters but I felt that I can detect outlines of a person’s mindset even from writings about ordinary topics. I still feel that way. My impression or theory of Humayun Ahmed’s mind is the reason I have such a great respect for him. Plus his humor, of course. I was not disappointed with the gap between the potential of his writings and the actual output. He chose his way and was enormously successful. Success has a higher order quality of its own. My main source of disappointment was his conversations with the nation.
Humayun Ahmed sometimes wrote about his views on politics and society. His writings were read by everyone who could read. He also let slip his viewpoints in his fictions and dramas and movies. Many people fault him for trying to please all sides and never taking strong stands. People say that he did not want to offend any major section of the people lest he become unpopular with them. This is a valid criticism. People often compared him with another of his favorite writer, Stephen King in terms of popularity. But Stephen King is an outspoken liberal who has often given very trenchant comments about conservatives. Did this hurt his popularity much? Probably not, conservatives who liked to read well written horror and thriller kept reading Stephen King. Still, trying not to offend anyone cannot be that great a fault so that I could be disappointed with him since he did not promise to take clear stands in the first place.
My source of disappointment was the tone he adopted when he conversed with the nation both in fiction and non-fiction. Last year, blogger Bookworm wrote a brilliant commemoration of Humayun Ahmed in Alalodulal after his death (Contrarian Thoughts on Humayun Ahmed – by Bookworm Blogger – https://alalodulal.org/2012/07/25/humayun-ahmed-2/). Bookworm had several superb observations in his writings but there is one that I need to borrow for this post. Bookworm accused HA for writing. “infantile fiction for what he realized was a largely infantilized, over-emotional audience. And he played a massive role in cultivating that infantilization”. Infantilization is the perfect word to capture the tone HA adopted in his conversations with the nation.
The two brothers, Humayun Ahmed and Muhammad Zaffer Iqbal, probably had more influence in shaping the sense and sensibilities of the middle class than any other persons in the last two decades. I don’t want to go in details of how I feel they infantilized their audience but I want to portray the vision that I have whenever I read one of their opinion pieces. It is of a mother holding a spoonful of Cerelac in front of a baby’s face and cooing, “who is the best baby in the world? You are. You are”. I think Humayun Ahmed knowingly chose blandishment and cajoling to get his message across because he regarded us infantile. The problem with this kind of messaging is that often babies forget the message of the conversation and remember only the sweet talk.
HA and his brother were masters of a higher order sentimentalism, a sentimentalism coated with a veneer of thoughtfulness. Popular responses to their writings almost always came from feeling never from thinking. They taught people that something must be special if you love it. He and his brother were instrumental in shaping a generation of Bangladeshis who wholeheartedly believe that if your sentiments are pure you cannot loose because your sentiment has a special destiny in history.
For a long time I believed that the two brothers were deliberately adopting this tone because they think this is the only effective way to talk with the nation. Later on I became convinced that Jaffer iqbal genuinely believed in the tone and content of his message. He has been so warped by his inner and outer demons that he is incapable of bigger perspective. But I am convinced still now that Humayun Ahmed was a rare Bangladeshis who not only internalized the universal but also has the magical talent to impart it to the masses. But he chose to go for a different path. Rather than uplifting the national consciousness he chose to become a ‘god of mild people’ and wallow in their sentiments. I do not disapprove of his choice but I wistfully think that gods of mild people probably do not leave their mark on history. They mostly go out with a mass emote.
(1) Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult Of Sentimentality