“The girl who, somehow strangely resembles Ranu, raised her eyes -a slight smirk hanging in the corner of her lips” – thus ended Devi (1985), closely followed by the second of the Misir Ali sequence, Nishithini in 1986. If you want to understand how Humayun Ahmed became a living phenomenon in his time and remains more successfully so ever after his death, the very usage of the word 'slight' will help you realize that for him less was more. Being the avant garde he was, Ahmed, with his writerly skills of a magician attempted to conjure up images that are both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, creating an otherworldly phenomenon altogether difficult to communicate but easy to 'feel' in your bones. The core idea of mystery in the fictional character of Misir Ali (the highly intelligent part-time professor at the University of Dhaka with a keen interest in parapsychology) and his surroundings here, actually, lies at the heart of the writer's conscious attempt to add a decidedly 'slight' touch of the remote over our existing realities. It's an endeavor to find the magic in the mundane. It's the discovery of the inseparable unheimlich at your home that makes Devi and Nishithini two masterpieces of a master, remembered and revered for all the good causes.
The process begins at the very opening scene of Devi, leaving the readers in a slightly uncomfortable feeling. Of course, there is nothing particularly exceptional about an old rented house wherein a middle class Bangladeshi young couple lives their nonchalant conjugal life, which, in turn, also reflects the macrocosm of the novel itself, otherwise subtle and undisturbed. Yet, a hint of something lurking in the dark and not quite ready to reveal itself permeates the entire setting. We are told that the home of the two, Anis and Ranu, is also a home to an entity you and I have heard about only in midnight stories. But, the strange sense of 'something more about to be' that never quite leaves the center stage is brought about not by any 'ghost,' rather a 'devi,' a rescuer, a goddess who saves you when you need her the most. Here, the protagonist is Ranu, the chosen human medium — through whom the goddess descends and then intervenes in the worldly clamors — sometimes made by men and sometimes by things more ominous, beyond human comprehension. For instance, towards the end of both the first part and the second, devi appears in the scene emanating a sweet scent and wearing nupurs on her ankles, saving Neelu, the daughter of the house-owner from a culprit in the former and Misir Ali himself from Firoz, one of his patients overtaken by a vengeful spirit in the latter. And every time, it is Misir Ali in whom you place your trust, for he is the one who seems to hold the key to a possible answer.
As general readers though, our first reaction is that of an irrepressible curiosity since with the progression of the plot a series of baffling things begin to happen, bombarding us with dead ends one after another. Neither the writer nor the readers themselves seem to understand why Ranu can foretell the future, why Jeetu, the little boy who lives in the same house can see a mysterious lady roaming aimlessly in the room, or how the goddess shifts her form into that of Neelu once Ranu dies. In Nishithini, the confusion ensues even more intensely as Firoz, a former patient of Misir Ali seems to be possessed by the malevolent spirit of a certain Mashuk Chowdhury, who was a tyrannous zamindar in the distant village called Mohangonj where Firoz went to meet his friend. The direct encounter between devi herself and Misir Ali at the end also bewilders us since we do not know whether she really existed or just happened to be a figment of his imagination, a means of distraction from the excruciating pain he was experiencing in the broken ribs- a horrific act which Firoz committed because the evil spirit 'told him to do so.'
When we are at our wits end trying to understand these situational complexities altogether, Misir Ali draws us more into the stories exhibiting an unflinching faith in the integrity of reason and systematic thinking. In the first part, the way he connects a childhood trauma deeply etched into the mind of poor Ranu and the lifelong struggle it has caused her, gives us a clear idea that this teacher of clinical psychiatry is not to be taken lightly. Through a close investigation of the bygone incidents, he induces hints from a dead body floating in the river and the eerie statue of a certain Rukmini devi in a nearby temple. It shows how truly Misir Ali embraces rationality as the chief source of practical knowledge, manifest even in the most anomalous and unusual of things. His chronological analysis of each of the problems demonstrates how methodical and scientific he is in his pursuit of the answer. Likewise, in the second, he attempts to detect a method in the madness of Firoz where according to Misir Ali, Firoz is turned into a serial killer by a subconscious stimulus he receives from the unforeseen knowledge of a half-naked zamindar in black pants and gold-framed glasses. For our psychiatrist, a return of the repressed shock makes him repeat the history of massacre in Dhaka that the zamindar introduced back when he was living centuries ago in Mohangonj.
Despite this Napoleon-like confidence Misir Ali shows in the invariability of the truth where nothing is 'impossible' for science to explain, at one point a parallel existence of what Coleridge called 'a willing suspension of disbelief' does withhold him and even us from standing at one extreme end of the spectrum. The minor yet significant insertion of certain details intensifies the aspects of the situation which are already shrouded in mystery. Even Misir Ali himself seems to suffer from delirium in Nishithini where he simply cannot distinguish between the imaginary and the real, sharing the same experiences which Ranu did- like hearing noises, smelling champa in the air, and literally beseeching the goddess herself 'in full flesh and blood' to reduce his all-consuming pain.
In the end, how Humayun Ahmed portrays these psychological underpinnings might not be apparent to the naked eye. Nevertheless, his personal attachment with transcendental ideologies, as in the sublime qualities of Nature just might be enough for us to realize that where his other creation Himu fails, Misir Ali thrives and vice versa. In other words, it is the never-ending possibilities of how individuals may perceive the world — and how those subjective perceptions ultimately contribute in creating their own versions of truths — which seems to be the prime focus both in Devi and Nishithini. For Ranu, it is a divine being that is always there for her — a piece of hope that she desperately embraces — so much so that it becomes her living reality, causing others to share the same intuition as well. As for Misir Ali, his staunch rationalism becomes the one simple constant by which he lives and makes the others nurture the same attitude towards any complications. No matter how temporary or vainglorious these brief moments of mutual connection might feel, ultimately, the mystery of the 'many things in heaven and earth,' in Ahmed's words, lies in the world that exists somewhere in between, 'right there for you to see but never to be fully grasped.'
Motiur Rahman is a Lecturer in the Department of English at East West University.