Over the last three days, I’ve been watching a house being torn down. The right term for what’s being done to it would actually be ‘deconstruction’. There are no bulldozers, no massive attacks on the building, no roaring sound of machinery on the roll.... yet. It’s more like a structure being chipped away. Except, the house shows signs of much more than just chisel and hammer wounds. Once you look carefully, you realise that the building is first being disembowelled.
On the third day of my visit to the deconstruction site on Friday, I learn that Humayun Ahmed, the great and prolific Bangladeshi writer, has died. Ahmed died the night before at the age of 64 in a New York hospital after battling colon cancer for a year. Which, I guess, is a kind of disembowelment.
As I stand next to a cement pipe in front of the stretched-out horizon of the house’s facade, I recall the working principle of Ahmed’s protagonist and master of counter-intuition Misir Ali, “Close your eyes and try to see.”
A decrepit building is not a liveable house. It has no purpose. And yet, even in the humid afternoon, with a block tower of apartments that houses a spanking new Adidas store and a Hyundai showroom on the ground floor next to it, the old mansion is humming with a Gothic beauty. The roots of decapitated trees falling down the building’s front could have been made of stone like some fantastical creation by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. The green clumps of foliage underline the chance of it being haunted.
Ahmed’s writings have been very popular, especially in his native Bangladesh and with a growing fan base in India’s Bengali-speaking West Bengal. “Did you know he made so much money that he bought an island?” I overhear a Jadavpur University student tell another. And yet, most of his writings over the last 30 years are anomalous, quite contrary to the reigning fare that has been consumed not only in Bengali, but also in other regional languages and English across the subcontinent. If you haven’t heard of Ahmed, it’s not because he didn’t exist. It’s because he hasn’t been translated into English yet, that link-cum-power language that makes ‘unknown’ writers ‘known’ and their books seem, by magic, worth reading.
The more than 100-year-old building at Chiriamore near Shyambazar is forgotten, even by most Calcuttans familiar with the almost never-changing landscape of north Calcutta. Being forgotten is the kissing cousin of being unknown. This mansion, the Paikpara Rajbari on its last legs, belonged to the Sinha family, zamindars of Kandi in Murshidabad in central Bengal and Paikpara in north Calcutta. Half of it had been demolished earlier, with the aforementioned (and relatively tasteful) apartment block now standing in its place. The time for the other half, a 19th century-style structure standing in a mid-20th century landscape, is up. But for some time, it’ll still be there as an anti-building, a structure that has no purpose but is defiantly magnificent to behold anyway.
Ahmed’s Misir Ali is a psychologist who solves mysteries by observing human behaviour. There’s always an underlying current of the laconic-comic running through his stories. When Ali confronts a psychopathic killer bragging about his crime in the novel Ami Ebong Amra (I and We), he tells the man as if tut-tutting his smoking habit, “You’ve killed two. You’ll kill a third. Go ahead. What do I have to say? It’s not as if you need my permission.”
The Paikpara Rajbari is beyond renovation. There are scores of other old and not-so-old wonderful buildings in disrepair in north Calcutta that can be — and are probably being — renovated. This is not one of them.
Subcontinental fiction (and culture in general) hasn’t really spawned any popular anti-heroes. But Himu, another of Ahmed’s iconic creations who features in another series, is that rare anti-hero. The fiercely intelligent Himu is decidedly eccentric, bereft of social graces, is constantly waging little wars against good behaviour and, with no occupation or vocation, serves no visible purpose. He reminds me of the heroes of the 40s-50s crime writer Jim Thompson and those glorious sociopaths conjured up by Dostoyevsky.
The Paikpara mansion and Humayun Ahmed’s massive body of writing do not need ‘saving’. The first had its fair share of glory days, and the latter leaves behind a legion of admirers and readers. To take a look at the building, just take a taxi in the next few weeks to Shyambazar in Calcutta, cross the Tala bridge and ask for the Hyundai showroom. And to get a taste of Ahmed’s work, read a translation of Ahmed’s ‘science fiction’ story ‘Ohnhok, Or The Kindly Ones’ that’s up on my Facebook (firstname.lastname@example.org) and wait for more translations to appear. Trust me, both will be worth your while.