Nadeem Zaman, author, The Inheritors - “Displacement has been a constant in my work”

BySimar Bhasin
Jun 03, 2023 06:44 AM IST

On displacement and migration as constants in his work, questioning the Western gaze, and how the Cold War was very hot in places like Bangladesh where the proxy wars between the US and the former Soviet Union played out

Tell us about The Inheritors. How did the idea for it come about?

Author Nadeem Zaman (Courtesy the subject)
Author Nadeem Zaman (Courtesy the subject)

In early 2021, during spring semester at the college where I teach, I’d included The Great Gatsby in the syllabus, and during class discussion one day it struck me how the issues – social, historical, political – in the book spoke to me through the lens of modern Dhaka and Bangladesh. How did I not see that before, was my thought? Inequalities of wealth, society intrigue, veneers, gossip, affairs, all of it. That was the seed. I began writing immediately and had a first draft not long after that.

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The influence of The Great Gatsby shines right through the narrative as it follows the lives of the young and the restless belonging to the upper echelons of Bangladesh society. Was that intentional?

Intentional and informed by Gatsby, in that the people in The Inheritors are also trying to fill some emptiness, some longing, and when they can’t, they seek alternatives in drinking and partying and just drowning out reality as easily as possible. How much privilege and wealth will be enough? What happens when they’re not enough? What is it that these people are seeking, are missing? I don’t know that these questions are ever fully answered, or if they can be, but seeing them wrestle the conflicts, both outer and inner, is the point. Our lives aren’t one straight linear progression of events, they’re in flux.

Displacement and migration following historic events is a central narrative thread. Did that happen organically or were these concerns that you had wished to highlight from the beginning?

Both, I would say. Displacement and migration have been constants in my work. This is also informed and influenced by postcolonial concerns through which I see and read, but the inclusion of those threads was a conscious and deliberate choice. Dhaka has been the centre of my fiction for so long now that more or less everything I’ve written that’s been published has the city as a recurring character itself. I have drafts of a mammoth novel that (like Nisar’s book) traces the story of one family from the establishment of Dhaka in the early 1600s down to the 21st century, merging the family’s history with the historic flashpoints of the city. So, while I claim no expertise over history, I do find fiction and history to be great and necessary collaborators more often than not.

256pp, ₹450; Hachette (Courtesy the publisher)
256pp, ₹450; Hachette (Courtesy the publisher)

There is an interlinking of personal history with that of larger political and historical events. Is that how you view your own connection to Bangladesh as a writer?

Yes. The events recounted in the book were either history that I grew up hearing about or moments I recall from when I still lived Dhaka, especially in the late 1980s and the first couple of years of 1990s, when the army regime fell. Nisar’s story, however, is fictional, meaning there are no similarities beyond the superficial between his and mine.

There is a marked difference between In The Time of Others and this novel. What was the reason behind the tonal shift?

The book demands the tone. You’re absolutely right to note the shift. I also feel a palpable difference between writing in the first and third person, even if the first person is through the voice of someone that is unlike me in every way. I still become the voice giving that distinct other voice its language, so part of me will always be evident, to me certainly, and possibly to the reader.

Were you also contending with the Western gaze on politics in erstwhile conflict zones situated in the Global South while penning this novel?

Living in the West, in the US, where Bangladesh is of as little geopolitical significance as can be without being completely unimportant as a nation-state, I am constantly aware of the gaze placed on it, and the reasons behind it. Western narratives have written, shaped, controlled, world history for so long and with such widespread reach and influence, that we’re always in a standoff with that gaze – correcting its blind spots, challenging its positions, its definitions, and its motives. For example, when I talk about the “Cold War” (quotes intentional), I call it the so-called “Cold War.” That period was very “hot” in places that weren’t the US or the former Soviet Union, and were grounds of the proxy wars between those countries - Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, to name a few. The Western gaze is a fiction – pun intended – and a construct, and its deliberate misconceptions need constantly to be questioned, critiqued, challenged, and dispelled.

Having written in both the short story form as well as full-fledged novels, which would you say lends itself more easily to a narrative about disproportionate progress and attempts at post colonial nation building?

Both. I’ve explored the same themes in stories and my two published novels to date. It depends on the scope of the story, what I want to achieve with it. Sometimes a short story can be a springboard for a novel, or it can be the other way around. Gatsby is less than 50,000 words. It could have easily worked as a long short story, but that wouldn’t have been enough for what Fitzgerald wanted to capture. I’ve looked over my stories often and seen a novel hiding between the lines. My way of exploring that is to just write and see where I end up and what the story wants.

How much of yourself do you see reflected in your protagonist given that he is presented as a writer wishing to compose a novel whilst attempting to connect with his homeland and his hybrid identity as a Bangladeshi-American?

Just those basics, you’ve summed them up well. Nisar’s family and life situation are otherwise completely different from mine. He still has – for the duration of the novel at least – his family’s place in Dhaka. He comes from wealth and still has that ancestral wealth as part of his existence, whether he cares or not. My case is the opposite. Except for a flat that my uncle owns and keeps on the land where once my grandparents’ house stood, I have nothing besides a bond with the city. I envy Nisar for what he has, even if it’s property and material things we’re talking about. That kind of belonging can be meaningful and precious, if only for the sake of memories.

What are you working on next? Any writing projects in the works?

I like to have something in the works all the time, preferably a novel, or an idea for one that I’m picking away at. At present it is another Dhaka novel, very different, in another century - the 19th. It’s been mined out of that mammoth book I mentioned above. Now let’s see where it goes...

Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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