Numair Atif Choudhury, in his debut novel Babu Bangladesh!, does not promise an easy read. Neither does he provide any sort of judgement. What he does offer, though, is a masterful portrait of two simultaneous journeys: one, of the sensational political luminary Babu, whilst the other charts the passages of a nation in its infancy, wedged between webs of violence, extremism and the rule of the corrupt. The verdict on Babu at the end is left in the hands of the reader — should you seek one — because, despite Choudhury’s apparent, often fanatical, obsession with the material, his decision for his narrator to neither glorify nor villainise the protagonist is, perhaps, the biggest feat in this epic debut.
Choudhury spent 15 years penning Babu Bangladesh!. I spoke to his literary agent Kanishka Gupta about the novel and he said, “[Choudhury] once told me he wanted to figure out a way in which the name of every country in the world could go into the book.” The final product — which was published sadly after Choudhury’s tragic death in 2018 by drowning in the Kamogawa River in Kyoto Prefecture, Japan, soon after he had submitted his final draft to the publisher — signals the author’s quest for truth, intellectual complexity and imaginative scale.
The book begins in the future, the year 2028, and employs the narrative voice of a biographer obsessed with dissecting the enigma that was Babu Abdul Majumdar, famously known as Babu Bangladesh. Split into five sections — ‘Building’, ‘Tree’, ‘Snake’, ‘Island’ and ‘Bird’ — the book shows how, in the aftermath of the misappropriation of funds from the Bangladeshi ministry of culture, Babu disappears, although we don’t know if he was the culprit. His unanticipated departure activates a frenetic rumour mill, leaving behind whirlpools of speculation as people try to make sense of the mysterious turn of events.
An astonishingly epic debut novel is a masterful portrait of a country as well as a fitting epitaph for its gone-too-soon author
Starting from the glimpses we are offered of Babu’s childhood years, the reader gains insights into a world that sets him apart. Unlike how kids typically grow up, Babu’s formative years are spent discovering the charms and mysteries of the capital of Bangladesh, its architecture and supernatural forces. With the passage of time, Babu’s disillusionment with his country and its sold-out power elite reveals itself, steering him towards a career in politics. Unfortunately, his endeavours in that direction hit a roadblock when the capital is hammered by a terrorist attack. The plot thickens as Babu’s journey takes him to Dubai and then to New York, where he becomes a sous chef at the Curry Palace restaurant in Queens. However, as his suspicions that he may be succumbing to schizophrenia get the better of him, he turns homeward, preparing to contest elections from his home constituency. With the help of Dynamite Ali — who Babu hires to manage and run his political campaign — as well as the intervention of cosmic powers, Babu wins the election thrice.
Babu Bangladesh! oscillates between fantasy and reality, blurring lines between genres. As Choudhury tells us at the end of the book, “Can we accurately hear how reverberations from former journeys travel through present times, into a future that is unknown to us, yet shaped by our collective resolve?” This is precisely the goal of this novel, to collapse our linear notions of time and space. Traces of Gabriel García Márquez matched with Deepak Unnikrishnan’s magical realism frequently surface, opening a window into Choudhury’s sprawling imagination.
Vivid accounts of the destruction of the grand banyan tree — symbolic of the Bangladeshi independence movement — spark deep indignation and pathos in the reader. Similarly, we learn of a bird-god of Yazidi origin, who assists Babu in turning into Robin Hood. Even for readers unwilling to suspend disbelief and buy into magical realism, Choudhury’s attempt is second to none, reminding us of his command over experimental prose. However, despite its methodical detailing and erudition that borders on lyricism, Choudhury is dealing with colossal levels of complexity and, at over 300 pages, his book can lapse into a demanding and occasionally dense read.
This is precisely the goal of this novel, to collapse our linear notions of time and space.
“In trying to bridge what has been folded into the blankets of the sky and the soil we dwell in, we have rotated like a dervish ... At times we have whirled beautifully, but at other moments we have tumbled over our heads. That is perhaps the very best one can say of our journey.” These closing lines of the novel mirror Choudhury’s vaulting and plucky ambition with this brainchild, which makes Babu Bangladesh! an undeniably groundbreaking enterprise.
In addition to the rave reviews and endorsements that the novel continues to garner from readers and critics in the subcontinent, it would be well deserved for it to gain traction among Western literary circles as well, in order to universally recognise a crucial new voice from the global South. Given the range of urgent and contemporary themes that the book addresses — fundamentalism, corruption, cosmic intervention — Choudhury’s writing is likely to resonate with audiences beyond South Asian borders.
After I finished reading Babu Bangladesh! I said to my literary agent, “Choudhury’s writing is too sophisticated and exquisite — it doesn’t read like a debut!” However, perhaps Babu Bangladesh! is meant to be precisely that: an unapologetic inaugural attempt at embracing his protagonist’s, and his own flaws and virtues as a writer, with equal compulsion. As is generally the case with first attempts, Babu Bangladesh! offers an earthy, non-sanitised story. It is a compelling magnum opus, indicating a time in the creative trajectory of a writer when he hasn’t yet been jaded by background noise or the tricks of the trade. It is befitting, then, that Babu Bangladesh! — a zealous, unfiltered, dream project — should be Choudhury’s first and final novel.
A verse by Khalil Gibran leading to the opening of the novel goes: “A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wing. Alone it must seek the ether.” Unfortunately, with Choudhury’s untimely departure, we have lost a significant and timely global voice in literature. This is no miniscule tragedy; his loss will deprive readers the world over of his soulful, trailblazing written sounds, shutting the windows into his fearless, genius mind.
On the brighter side, however, Babu Bangladesh! cannot help but bring to mind the words of Henry David Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.” With the publication of this novel, at least Choudhury does not fall prey to that.
The reviewer is the author of the forthcoming novel Skyfall and works at New York University’s global campus (UAE)
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 29th, 2019