Babu Bangladesh! looks at the times and places that the protagonist, Babu Abdul Majumdar inhabited. However, narrating Babu’s llife, the author Numair Atif Choudhury chronicles the political history of Bangladesh from its birth till the present time, or rather till his demise in 2018. It is no coincidence that Babu’s birth is concurrent with the birth of his motherland, Bangladesh. Thus, as Babu traipses through the pages of the book and we share his adventures and experiences, what unfolds in all its expanse is the story of a newly born nation.
The title of the novel comes from the eponymous hero Babu who when entering politics and in search of a catchy campaign name, “a simple and universal moniker that would appeal to the masses,” remembers an incident from a restaurant he worked at. He was infatuated with the owner’s stepdaughter and tongue-tied in front of her. As the narrator relates it: “One busy Friday night she spied Babu in the dining area and called out, “You there…what’s your name, again?...wherryafrom?” Babu replied “Me, I’m Babu, Babu…Bangladesh-” referring to the very title itself. And as we further keep going, the preface of the book gives us the titles of five sections. Topically they are: i) Building, ii) Tree, iii) Snake, iv) Island, and v) Bird.
The Preface starts by introducing the reader to Babu: “In his prime, Babu had gained repute as a spirited environmentalist who advocated for development in poverty-stricken regions.” And again, “In Bangladesh, Babu is remembered as a writer, a politician, and as something of a mystic!” The first person narrator, the biographer, introduces himself in the first few pages and relates how he came to possess biographical information on Babu. He is given, under quite mysterious circumstances, a total of 147 pages which include “the epiphanies, triumphs and failures” of Babu’s life. The different sections, though seemingly disjointed, are interwoven here together by the very presence of Babu himself, and we discover that the five concepts are used as a backdrop to explore the political and social events of the time.
The focused structure in Section I is none other than the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, the National Assembly complex designed by the American Architect, Louis Kahn. We are given the background of how Louis Kahn came to be the architect and not Mazharul Islam, who was originally appointed the principal architect. The first twenty years of Babu’s life are entwined with the stories surrounding the Sangsad Bhaban. The description of the building is an ode in prose form, vibrating with emotion, bringing the building to life.
The segment entitled TREE takes us back to 1971 and here the Bot Tala becomes the centerpiece around which the Liberation War plays out. But here too, like the other chapters, the writer meanders into various topics related to trees, the worship of trees (tree idolatry), the presence of trees in holy books and different religions, the Tree of Knowledge, so on and so forth. Take for example: “In the five hellish days that the attack on the bot lasted, our heroic protestors relied on botanical aids to sustain themselves. After emerging from the pool of dead at night, they groomed themselves using neem twigs for their teeth, coconut-palm oil for their hair, turmeric as a disinfectant, as well as sandalwood soap, jute loofahs and local medicines made of root, stem, leaf, fruit, flower and bark extracts” (163).
The third section, SNAKE, mostly deals with Babu’s political prominence. The timeline is between 2001 and 2006. Here we see Babu’s experiences with snake worshipping matriarchs. We learn of the serpent goddess Manasa and her connection with Nagaland. In this section we find Babu spending time with the Jumma at Madhupur. We are told how local Mandis, Bormons and Kochis “pretended to convert from animism, Hinduism, Buddhism ... to Christianity ... to avail themselves of educational, medicinal, residential and sanitation facilities” (237).
It is inevitable that there would be a chapter on Island, for though Bangladesh is not an island, water is the lifeline of the nation. An island crops up out of the water one day providing the writer a backdrop to be able to discuss different aspects connected with water and the worship of water. The information we’re given does not pertain to Bangladesh only. The writer takes this opportunity to induce Greek myths which run parallel with Chinese and Indian ones. Even tales and legends of the Middle East pop up here and there occasionally. We are told of the fish people and sea monsters and creatures that are half-tortoises and half-dragons. Fact and fantasy run hand in hand and at times one can easily mistake one for the other.
Though Babu Bangladesh is a work of fiction, much of the background or setting is so factual as to be at times quite deceptive. For example, there is mention of the Braille Glove which was actually invented by an eighteen-year-old student in 2002. In the book, however, it is Munna, a friend of Babu’s who is given partial credit for that.
In this case, the author decidedly uses elements of magic realism. Working as a sous-chef at the Curry Palace in Astoria, Queens, Babu finds his condiments changed from how he leave them at night, “many a night, he would ritually prop condiments for his grandmother’s boti Kebab, Kanu’s biryani and his mother’s saag-aloo, only to find in the morning a strange fusion of spics that seemed derived from Greek, Dominican and Egyptian influences.” And the trivia that one picks up along the way is enormous. One example is the mention of the shahi tukra and you are given a few lines on the origin of the name and a foot note of a detailed description. It cannot be stressed enough that Chowdhury was a voracious reader and an erudite writer.
What binds the book together is Babu’s escapades and not chronology. It is written from the vantage point of 2028. Just as the narrator admits to the loose unity of the book, there is no denying that this narrative indeterminacy brings in a fractured nature of the book, which ultimately illuminates the writerly integrity on the part of Choudhury himself. I see this as a postmodern book — each segment seemingly disparate, but together one gets a meaningful whole — the odyssey of a nation.
Babu comes out as the champion of the innocent, the righter of wrongs, the helper of the poor, rooting out corruption wherever he goes. So, who is this Babu, really?
I see Babu as an alter ego of the writer. Just as Babu is obsessed with the architectural design of the building, the seemingly uneven walls and hidden pathways and turnings, Choudhury was fascinated with the building. It seemed alive to him and he imagined stories unfolding in its hidden nooks and crannies. Events happen which defy logic and he used magic realism to convey just that. There are other similarities between the person Numair (who was fondly known at home as Babu) and the persona Babu. Both were writers and poets; both were environmentalists with a keen interest in trees and the beneficial uses of plants; both shared an obsession with the Sangsad Bhaban, with birds and with water. Perhaps the experiences that Babu goes through were an exaggerated version of what Choudhury had undergone but more so what he saw himself in a fantasy world undergoing.
I would highly recommend this book, not just for those interested in one of the emerging economies of South Asia, but also for those who have lived through a lot of the adventures that Babu goes through. Lastly, in a poignant and eerie prediction, Babu vanishes in 2019. The writer, Numair Atif Choudhury, met a tragic end in 2018 and vanished from our lives. The book ends on the note “Farewell, My Friend.”
I can only add to that, “Farewell, my friend.”
Razia Sultana Khan is a fiction writer and an artist.