The Ugly Asian, for want of a better adjective, is a political novel. However, as far as being a structured work with a solid and captivating storyline embellished by well-developed characters, it will be found wanting by more than a few discerning readers. To put it bluntly, it is a poor imitation of a good novel. The author, Syed Waliullah, is better known as a novelist writing in Bangla, with outstanding works like Lalshalu and Kando Nadi Kando to his credit. The Ugly Asian is written in English, and has been published some fifty years after it was written. Niaz Zaman, who has done the editing of the book, notes in her Introduction that one page of the novel has been lost due to its typescript having been given by Waliullah's wife to two different persons, but one feels that its inclusion would hardly have improved the Ugly Asian's quality.
Zaman notes that Waliullah might have been inspired by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick's acclaimed novel The Ugly American. As far as I can recall from having read the book some forty five years back, the “ugly American” was the good American, but I have not been able to pinpoint the “ugly Asian” in Waliullah's novel, let alone decide if the person was good, bad, or ugly. If, indeed, as Zaman characterizes it, the novel is a “political allegory”, it can only be limited to political happenings in a newly independent country coming out of the clutches of colonialism, and of the situation obtaining in many of those countries long after they had distanced themselves from their colonial past. The Ugly Asian is set in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties, and, although no country is specified, one may surmise that it was located in what is now Bangladesh. There are politicians, academics, and revolutionaries of the new country in the story, as well as a number of Americans, ranging from a visiting journalist to the ambassador to an intelligence officer to a Peace Corps volunteer to a technical expert, who interact with them and with each other, certain incidents that occur in different parts of the country, which are loosely interlinked, and that is about it. If Zaman's assessment that, “As a window on the past and as a lesson for the future, The Ugly American makes important reading”, has validity, it is to the extent of certain political realities having caused problems for political institutionalization in new countries, and their often depressing outcomes for various sectors of governance.
The American journalist, Johnson, begins his odyssey to the Asian country by asking himself this rather enigmatic question: “Where do you find a country…and where does it begin?” His editor, who had sent him on his assignment to find out about the political situation in that country, “accepted America's world leadership with considerable apprehension. He had grave doubts whether she was equal to the task she had to perform in the most crucial period of mankind's history….America had a great deal to learn, and learn quickly. Leadership was not a bed of roses.” Some of his apprehension is reflected in the prevalent worldview of the American diplomats stationed in that country, which was steeped in the almost visceral categorization of looking at events and viewpoints as being either black or white (shades of George W. Bush's “either you are with us or against us” philosophy at the beginning of the twenty first century), essentially the Cold War perspective. Therefore, if any political activists of the newly independent countries held views that differed from those that were espoused by the Americans, the chances were that they would be classified as being communists. Almost as a natural corollary of this perspective, the United States would often back ruthless dictators who would deal harshly with communists, other left-leaning citizens, and dissidents of their respective countries. In an interesting commentary made by an American diplomat to Johnson, we detect an inverse link between the two phenomena: “Maybe they are not all Communists. Maybe, basically they don't dislike America. They only dislike those who can't be trusted as their leaders. If they are beginning to dislike us, it is because we support such leaders.”
To get a clearer perspective of such Cold War thinking, I am reminded of the former US Ambassador to the UN (and the first woman from that country appointed to that body), Jeane Kirkpatrick, a Democrat-turned-Republican and appointed to the position by another Democrat-turned-Republican, President Ronald Reagan, inveterate anticommunists both, who pushed for American support for anticommunist governments around the world, even if they were authoritarian dictatorships, on the belief that if they went along with Washington's objectives, they could be guided along a democratic path by example. If she did not actually say it, she certainly exemplified the aphorism sometimes ascribed to her about such dictators: “They may be bastards, but at least they are our bastards.” Waliullah manages to bring out this aspect of post-World War II international politics in his novel.
There are other political observations and commentaries, too, a number of which holds as true today as they did then. For example, this: “When a leader is disinterested in his own country, he always gets surrounded by people who are interested only in one thing: to serve themselves.” Now just visualize the political history of Bangladesh, and compare it with this bit of observation; some things seem to go on in perpetuity. Then there is this hard truth underlying the nature of politics: “…in politics one can't afford to be so moral always.” Or consider this shrewd observation of Johnson: “Washington sometimes tolerates neutrality when it is obliged to do so, but can't think of encouraging it. The pitfalls of neutrality are too grave for Washington to look upon it with leniency.”
Because it is difficult to find a well-structured story in Waliullah's novel, I am placing before the reader some of his observations that have painted a fair picture of some of the international political scenario and its effects on Third World nations during the Cold War years. Professor Ahsan, in his conversation with Johnson, at one point says as much when speaking about his newly independent country: “Our national problems are so gigantic that we have neither the time nor the ability to think of anything else. If you have any international problem, I would like you to settle it somewhere else and not to bring it to my country.” He then alludes to the proxy wars that were fought almost as long as the Cold War: “For you the Communists have become the Red Indians of this country…. You will let hell loose in this country if a section of our people try (sic) to establish a Communist system. You will fight the imaginary Russians here tooth and nail, because fighting them has become an honourable conduct for you but you will not admit that we ourselves, without any instigation from the Russians, can decide to have their system in our country.”
If Ahsan is ideological in his arguments, another American, Anderson, has a negative opinion about the generic politician of a Third World country, one which is applicable to this day: “I can tell you, you can buy any of them (the politicians), any time. Sometimes a refrigerator or a tape-recorder or even a promise that a nephew will be sent to the States is enough.” It says more about a Third World politician's greed and lack of self-respect than the Americans' policy of exploiting their weaknesses. Another of Ahsan's accusations indicate the oft-held view of American exceptionalism (mostly by the Americans themselves): “Is it because your sense of superiority as a nation that has gone far ahead of other nations as did the Romans or the Mughals in the past?” Johnson had earlier encountered another professor, an ardent admirer of all things American, whose “crying need for some fiscal and monetary measures” to suit “the nascent economy of the newly independent country” fell on deaf ears: “Neither the government nor his students bothered much about what he said….” The same response (or non-response) to the academics by the same kind of people is almost as prevalent today as then! The American journalist's reaction on meeting the two academics was one of huge disappointment: “I have wasted two evenings in this country…. One at the house of the Professor of Economics who swoons at the very name of America. Another (is) this anti-American who would evidently like us to vanish from the face of the earth. But he will vanish much sooner than us --- if we do at all.”
An interesting person whose character could have been developed more is Tini, the all-things-American-loving professor's daughter, who turns into a revolutionary, and who beseeches Johnson, “We want you to tell your government and your people about the actual state of affairs so that they stop supporting the present government here.” And this thoughtful explanation regarding the meaning of patriotism: “Perhaps you love your country because it gives you much. We love our country because it cannot give us anything.” We also briefly come across Mrs. Krim (actually Karim, but she hates vowels, she confides in Johnson), a social butterfly whose essentially air-headed activity has let loose a string of momentous happenings. There are examples of political cross-currents, machinations, and fluidity in the book, but that is what The Ugly Asian is: less of a structured novel, more of a book of political observations and comments.
Shahid Alam is an actor, educationist, critic and former diplomat