During my adolescent years, I devoted a significant portion of my time exploring the idea of 'summer love'. The cinephile in me went from cheesy Disney Channel flicks like Lizzie McGuire: The Movie (2003) to masterpieces like Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom (2012), while the bibliophile in me devoured Andre Aciman's Call Me By Your Name (2007) and John Green's An Abundance of Katherines (2006). However, I had to acknowledge all the ways in which these stories didn't feel relatable to me. Being a Bengali, I've grown up reading about the intense romance shared by Devbabu and Paro or watching the pangs of unrequited love in Satyajit Ray's Charulata (1964). Should I then dismiss the 'summer fling' as an irrelevant Western trope? A thing of the sunny Florida beaches and umbrella topped cocktails?
Humayun Ahmed would beg to differ. In 1990, with the publication of his novel Mayurakkhi, Bangla literature bore witness to the creation of Ahmed's most beloved male protagonist, Himu—an almost saint-like man with seemingly psychic abilities. Soon, we would meet his on-and-off love interest Rupa. The idea of a casual romance and our proverbial 'summer fling' would be implanted deep in Himu's stories from then on. While the iconic character was troublingly apathetic and erratic, it was his interactions with women that made the concept of a 'no-strings-attached' romance conceivable for a Bangladeshi audience. Romance has always been an epitome of turbulence and passion in Bangla literature, fuelled by sacrifice and flamboyant gestures. Himu stood out with his indifference and nonchalance. He flirted as often as he lied. And his sociopathic traits almost always intermingled with his personal life.
Rupa—seldom seen in the texts—is hinted several times to be the first woman Himu fell in love with. Humayun Ahmed kept the mystery alive by offering glimpses of Rupa only through brief phone calls and Himu's memories of his time at university. In the meantime, in true Casanova nature, Himu skirted out of meaningful attachments with any of the women around town. A phone call in Mayurakkhi with the character Meera comes to mind, during which she asks Himu why he's reluctant to meet her a second time after their first date to collect his belongings. "I'm not fond of face-to-face interactions," Himu says in response, "since it can often result in me developing feelings really fast. Phone conversations keep such tendencies at bay." A classic morning-after conversation if there ever was one.
Humayun Ahmed's creation eventually went on to receive a mixed response from the audience. Even today, fans of Himu don't necessarily idolise him as an icon, but they do often credit him as an inspiration for the regular man to look beyond societal constraints. To them, Himu is an everyday superhero, easy-going, relatable, and funny, with a heroic side to him that doesn't come off as 'gaudy' or 'overpowering'.
One fan, Jannatul Ferdous Tulona, explains, "Himu is a superhero of sorts who chooses to walk amongst ordinary men as just another face in the crowd. But there's so much more to him, a power that is often overlooked because it's too subtle to meet our conventional standards of heroism."
Another admirer of the character, Shafqat Shafiq, considers Himu to be his spirit animal because of his bohemian lifestyle, and how he was "never out of mind, observed everything, yet was invisible". Shafiq points out how Himu's personality was largely centred on Humayun Ahmed's attempt to create "an individual liberated from the shackles of societal pressures, who was able to understand the rationality and the motivations of the person he was engaging with, better than the person themselves." For many, this ability and Himu's layered persona acted as an appeal to their very sense of humanity.
Yet there are others who disagree with the fandom. The millennial slang 'im14andthisisdeep' is often used amongst such circles when describing Himu as a character—a reference to a popular meme that satirises young people's pseudo-intellectual approaches to life whilst remaining ignorant of true vapid nature in reality. Critics of Himu believe that the slang applies strongly to the ideologies Himu is seen to preach as witty remarks, especially about women and their minds.
Adhora Ahmed, a vocal critic of the Himu series, points out, "Himu randomly throws around these one-liners that might seem deep but actually aren't so. An example would be his tendency to generalise women's nature without basing them on actual facts. That also somewhat correlates with him being very careful not to form emotional attachments with anyone. For someone who refuses to take the time to get to know people well, throwing around little nuggets of wisdom based off of surface-level observations is just pretentious."
'The Himu effect', as I like to call it, came into play a little over a decade later after the first book came out, the trend having been discovered by Ahmed himself when a member of his PR team, in partnership with Banglalink, organised a Himu-themed youth festival in the early 2000s. In his autobiography Kathpencil (2009), the late author recalls how, at the time, young Bangladeshi couples could be found taking leaves out of Himu's books, dabbling in casual relationships built mostly over text messages on their mobile phones.
Like Himu's relationships, their's were also focused on making memories and living through the nostalgia of past flings, instead of romantic promises that might risk becoming empty over time. Many Bangladeshi men—broody and contemplative—had begun to identify with Himu's nomadic way of life. The after effects continue to this day, in which aspiring male writers take to Facebook in an attempt at writing poetry that they hope will go viral, all inspired by Himu's brand of romance. Often, these can be offensive and embarrassingly unoriginal. Bangladeshi couples even now like to dress up as Himu and Rupa for Facebook's sake, in an effort to portray their relationship to be just as iconic as that of Humayun Ahmed's fictional creations. Charity organisations such as 'Himu Poribohon' also allow members a platform where they can practice role-playing, and also preach Himu's ideologies as mantras for a better life.
It's hard not to feel awe at this popularity. However, somewhere along the way, I feel that Himu's author gave in to his readers' demands for cheap thrills by offering thinly-stretched narratives which ultimately amounted to nothing. As someone who both appreciates and is sceptical of Himu's iconicity, I'd describe the male protagonist as a product of unfulfilled potential. For a character as intriguing as him, his actions grew increasingly routine in the books, and as a reader, I yearned to watch him do more beyond just charming everyone he met.
But charm everyone he did. There's no denying Humayun Ahmed's contribution to popular Bangla fiction, and his power over readers who continue to look to his characters for entertainment and inspiration in the wake of a legacy conceived as long ago as in 1990.
Rasha Jameel divides her time between majoring in microbiology and pursuing her passion for writing. Reach her at email@example.com.
Stay tuned for more summer-themed stories such as these in Daily Star Books' upcoming 'summer reads' issue this Thursday, July 23, 2020. Follow Daily Star Books on Facebook and @thedailystarbooks on Instagram for updates.