Review: Babu Bangladesh! by Numair A Choudhury
Numair A Choudhury took 15 years to write his debut novel Babu Bangladesh! Sadly, he passed away soon after submitting his final draft to the publisher. Choudhary drowned in the Kyoto River last September, and, in hindsight, a drowning episode recorded by him in the book – “espy ropes of writhing and whirling liquids envelop him” – seems almost ominous.
Babu Bangladesh! is a work of genius and has pushed South Asian writing up several notches. Though Choudhary’s life was tragically cut short, he is likely to remain etched in memories as the real deal, the real Babu Bangladesh!
Babu Abdul Majumdar is a writer, politician, environmentalist and a darling of sorts of the supernatural world. The book opens on December 16, 2028. Babu has been missing since 2021, but his memory is kept alive in tattoos flashed by rock stars, in essays written by Booker-prize winners, and visiting US Presidents to Bangladesh.
The unnamed narrator of the novel, Babu’s biographer, has been fascinated by Babu since he was 15 years old. He “powders through rubble” for nine years to understand the enigma that Babu Bangladesh is. The “saint or sinner” – depending on which side of the Babu-fence one is on – has vanished following news of misappropriation of millions of dollars from the ministry of culture. The funds, for once, have found the deserving in the world of arts, and ushers in a cultural renaissance.
The narrator strikes gold when he finds 147 pages of Babu’s handwritten diary and is able to recreate his hero’s life and times. Even so, the going isn’t easy for him as he shuttles from Paris to New York to Istanbul to Tangail, rubbing the powers that be the wrong way, wondering if he too will have to disappear like Babu. Leads are few and far between, with Babu’s parents having migrated to Adelaide as climate refugees in 2023 and, perhaps, ending up as victims of the 2025 race riots there.
Effortlessly jumping genres and flirting with fantasy and reality, the book is divided into five sections – Building, Tree, Snake, Island and Bird. The book is as much the story of Babu as of the bloody birth of Bangladesh, and one is often reminded of Nadeem Zaman’s In the Time of the Others, also a part-fictionalised account of Bangladesh’s history.
Incidentally, Zaman and Choudhury were childhood friends and spent time together in the recent past. Choudhury made Zaman read a few hundred pages of the draft shortly before his death. In a beautiful tribute, Zaman wrote that he was “struck by how hard he drove himself on the page”.
Precisely why Babu Bangladesh! isn’t an easy read. As a child, Babu was drawn to the architectural marvels of Sangsad Bhaban (Bangladesh National Assembly), designed by renowned architect Louis I Kahn. While children his age played in the capitol’s gardens and water troughs, Babu was enamoured by its grand arches and facades, secret geometries, cosmic influences and – spookiness.
As much as he absorbs the beauty of the capitol, which now speaks to him and guides him, he abhors the transition of Bangladesh into a corrupt nation topping in “bribe-taking, lie-making, money laundering, and ass-kissing”. He decides to chart the course of his beloved country and plunges into politics. However, a promising career is cut short following a terrorist attack at the capitol.
He goes off to Dubai and then New York, where he is a sous-chef. He quits, fearing he may turn schizophrenic, returns to reform Bangladesh and contests elections from his parents’ hometown. Dynamite Ali, whom he hires to handle his campaign, makes him take on a zany name (Babu Bangladesh!) and plasters his smiling face “gazing at emerald skies” all over the constituency.
Babu Bangladesh! flits between the fantastical and the real – baring the First World’s desire for supremacy and timely djinn-ly interjections to confuse and thwart such attempts. Babu wins from his constituency three times in a row – thanks to the intervention of the supernatural forces, who back him up for promising to reclaim tribal forests from the army, and acknowledging his sustained concern for coastal populations, environmental degradation and poverty elimination.
Almost every turning point in the book has two or more explanations – ranging from the highly scientific to the almost paranormal. For instance, Samadi Island, possibly home to an isolated tribe, is discovered and explored for its precious stones and biological treasures, which is great news for global pharmaceutical companies. However, the island disappears overnight. Did the island submerge as some islands are wont to, given Bangladesh’s tempestuous relationship with the seas? Or did the djinn-ly beings intervene to save the half-fish, half-human tribe of the island from being exploited by the fully-human? Or were the islands just the figment of somebody’s imagination to “earn revenues”? The author leaves us with more questions than answers at all such crossroads.
In the section titled Tree, Choudhury details the 1971 Bangladeshi Genocide, among the deadliest five of the 20th century, in which professors and students of Dhaka University were indiscriminately shot dead. Here he lays bare his angst. And flair for writing.
“Until today, how many of the 75 million Bengalis in 1971 were killed remains unconfirmed. Academic estimates place it anywhere from 300,000 to three million. In the meanest twist of fate, Yahya Khan’s outrageous quota might actually have been reached. But he was wrong on one count – the rest did not feed from his hands.”
The readers will hurt reading about the demolition of the grand banyan tree – the Bawt Tawla - in the heart of the campus, as much as about the dying professors and students. The banyan was a meeting point for students and intellectuals agitating for an independent Bangladesh. The army’s initial failure to demolish the tree, and the resistance put up by the remaining students, including Babu’s parents, is heart-rending.
“With its burnt foliage and ashen bark, the tree wore a huge charcoal beard. Having been stripped of all its branches and roots, the banyan was naked of the life that had huddled about it. For the first time in hundreds of years, all that remained was the dead of its ringed centre.”
Choudhary studied creative writing and returned to Bangladesh two years ago after a PhD from the University of Texas, Dallas. He put his heart and soul into this book. He was a poet, a historian, an anthropologist, a decoder, a biologist, an environmentalist, an essayist, an ornithologist and a patriot. It is no spurprise that it took him 15 years to write this epic.
The subcontinent will sorely miss this important literary voice.
Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.