I was born in a liberated Bangladesh, a good few years after 1971. But the songs of freedom, the deaths of freedom fighters, the evolving definition of Bangladesh, and questions of what it meant to be a Bangladeshi were still hanging heavy in the air. Growing up in Dhaka in the 1980s, I was lucky to experience these emotions first-hand. My parents, who survived the nine-month-long war, raised their children with all the comforts they could possibly offer, including books in Bengali by writers writing for children born in the liberated Bangladesh. These writers, whose works were circulated in every literate Bangladeshi household, included Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul Islam, Sukumar Roy, Satyajit Ray, Ashapurna Debi, Lila Majumdar, Sunil Ganguli and Shirshendu Mukherjee. Humayun Ahmed was not one of them.
It was not until the mid-80s that Humayun Ahmed’s novels Shankhonil Karagar (Shankhonil prison) and Nondito Noroke (In a blissful hell) became popular at annual book fairs. Ahmed wrote like he was one of us, a person of the new Bangladesh; he could have been our father, our uncle, our elder brother, or even someone girls wanted to fall in love with. He spoke our language, the language of the moment, uncomplicated and lucid. In his books he wrote about the war; about Bangladeshi family dynamics, melancholy and cultural innuendoes; and about the silent, small and large crimes against women, and their aftermaths. And he wrote it all in the most genuine of ways, as though he had lived through each of these experiences, just as many of us had. When we read him, we felt like these were our stories, only the characters were slightly eccentric.
Around that same time Ahmed wrote regularly in the Bangladeshi version of Mad magazine, called Unmad, which, ironically, means ‘mad’ in Bengali. His columns were popular for their humour. He made people laugh in a new but basic way, tickling not the intellectual nerves but the everyday, common senses. By the late-80s Ahmed had become a household name. Everyone knew who he was, both his critics and his fans. At first, his writings hit a chord that rang softly, and then they took the country by storm.
Ahmed taught middle-class Bangladeshi men how to express love to women without resorting to old poems. Women began to fall in love with cotton saris, glass bangles and long, lonely afternoons all over again. His books always carried a love story, be it about a newly married couple struggling under a broken tin roof yet soaking in an abundance of love, or about an angry, jobless young man whose girlfriend marries into a rich family yet keeps him in her heart for the rest of her life. If one let one’s guard down, Ahmed’s novels often drew a trickle of tears, because his stories provided resolutions to emotions which ran deep through young Bangladeshi veins.
Many of Ahmed’s works romanticised Tagore’s songs, even borrowing titles from them. In his own simple manner, Ahmed brought Tagore to those who otherwise would never have picked up the old master’s books or listened to his songs. Ahmed did the same with the great works of Hason Raja and Lalon Fakir, and fed middle-class Bangladeshis these songwriters’ ideas and philosophies in small doses. Soon, he was the most widely read writer in Bangladesh.
Because Ahmed’s books were so easy to read, some critics called his writing ‘borderline trash’. ‘Too light to be literature,’ they said. Even then, every staunch critic’s household contained at least a few of Ahmed’s books, perhaps sneaked in by teenage daughters who read him late at night under their blankets by torchlight.
But it was not till 1988 that Ahmed’s influence over Bangladesh became palpable. Before this point, Ahmed had brought books to non-readers; now he brought imagination to the otherwise stale world of Bangladeshi Television. His drama serial Ei shob din ratri (These good days and nights) caught the attention of all Bangladeshis. People started organising their dinners and chores around the show so that they would never miss it. Most of the characters were, once again, from middle-class backgrounds, and shared the middle-class’s common problems, joys and sorrows.
The success of Ei Shob Din Raatri was followed with an even bigger hit when Ahmed wrote Bohubrihi (Assorted grains), a comedy serial that coined new sayings in Bengali. After long days at work and school, the show’s eccentric characters were a joyous reprieve. As people gathered in villages and towns to watch Bohubrihi, Ahmed realised the power of his creation. And what he did with this power made Ahmed not just a great storyteller but also an honourable Bangladeshi. Through Bohubrihi, Ahmed reintroduced basic but often forgotten morals to Bangladeshi society. For example, when the characters in Bohubrihi declared Tuesday a ‘truth day’ when no one should lie, Bangladeshis started calling Tuesday the ‘truth day’ as well. Regardless of whether the number of lies told on Tuesdays actually decreased, Ahmed conveyed an important message through the silly antics of his comedy show.
Ahmed also wrote about the 1971 Liberation War for drama serials such as Bohubrihi, for a short film called Aguner Poroshmoni (The magic touch of fire), and in books such as Jochna o Jononir Golpo (The story of moonlight and mother). He focused both on those who fought against and for Bangladesh. This awakened patriotic sentiments in Bangladesh at the time when the political situation was far from ideal, first under Hussain Muhammad Ershad’s autocratic regime (1983-1990), followed by a decade-long power struggle between two female leaders, Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The assassinations of Bangladeshi presidents Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975 and Ziaur Rahman in 1981 had already shaken the hopes of a united, progressive Bangladesh. As things grew worse with time and citizens grew cynical of their leaders, Ahmed’s books did wonders. Through his stories, he brought back the patriotic days of 1971 when love for Bangladesh came before politics.
Apart from the Liberation War, Ahmed injected love of nature into his dramas as well. Unlike his other TV serials which were often set in Dhaka, Ahmed’s next drama serial, Ayomoy (The man who would not die, 1990), was set in a village and evoked a love of trees and birds, of green space and open sky. Bangladeshis felt the need to get out again and visit their own villages, or explore new roads under the full moon. Ayomoy made middle-class Bangladeshis aware of St Martin’s Island in the Bay of Bengal, turning it into one of the country’s most popular vacation destinations.
Ahmed retained his strong mass-media appeal in mid-90s with Kothao Keu Nei (There is no one anywhere) andAj Robibar (Today is Sunday). Kothao Keu Nei went on to become the most popular of Ahmed’s serials. In the last episode of this drama, the protagonist Baker bhai, who is a local thug with a heart of gold, is handed the death sentence. The week leading up to the finale, in which the court would give its verdict, was a historic time in Bangladesh. People rallied on the streets demanding justice for Baker bhai. Student debates on television pondered whether a death sentence would be just in Baker bhai’s case. Posters of Baker bhai went up all over the country. When, despite all these efforts, Baker bhai could not be saved, people held funerals for him in various parts of Bangladesh.
People outside of Bangladesh could not understand this middle-class madness over Baker bhai’s sentence. But those who were in the country at the time know that the illogical popular response owed to the fact that the middle-class Bangladeshis had forgotten to feel. The times were such that political leaders came and went, without being able to solve the problems of corruption or rising unemployment or cure the depression of a confused nation. Nothing was simple or easy at the time, except Baker bhai. Middle-class Bangladeshis felt united in their emotional attachment to him, as if there was a piece of them in Baker bhai and, in some ways, his death also meant their own end. When they took to the streets for Baker bhai, they were fighting for themselves.
Today, Ahmed lies buried near Dhaka, after losing the battle to colon cancer on 19 July 2012. A sad truth: he will no longer be writing books or creating drama serials for the masses. But he does not need to. By portraying middle-class Bangladeshis on screen and on paper, Ahmed created a generation which knows what it means to belong to that group. Just like his character Baker bhai, Ahmed will continue to live in Bangladeshi hearts through the way we speak, think and believe, as a badge of identity, much in the way Tagore songs are. Ahmed will live as long as the Bangladeshi middle-class does.
~ Iffat Nawaz is the Deputy Chief of Party for USAID’s environment project in Bangladesh. She is also a columnist for the Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star, and is working on a novel.