Journalist Khaleque Biswas, who was not at the front but fought from the pages of a newspaper, is deeply anguished at the scope of devastation in 1971 and wants to write about it. Even as he loses his job for trying to tell the truth, a friend from a village sends Nur Hussain to his doorstep, who arrives in Dhaka like hundreds of others in search of jobs, food, a better life. I saw people coming to Dhaka, but I did not know why Dhaka was the only solution for them I saw hunger, dissatisfaction, rampant poverty, looting. It was only eighteen months into Bangladeshs independence and the country was falling into a deep pit of brutality.
After the entry of Hussainand the absurd theatre that followsImam builds up the tale with the black coat, Sheikh Mujibs signature style. Biswas, now unemployed, conjures up a plan to keep afloat, coaching Hussain to do a flawless rendition of Sheikh Mujibs historic victory speech in Dhaka on March 7, 1971, complete with black coat, spectacles, pipe et al.
As people gather at street corners to hear Hussain and toss coins, Biswas allows himself to be pulled into the clutches of the Awami League functionaries, which end up in the duo having a session with the prime minister himself and delivering speeches at Awami League events.
Critic-turned-desperate follower, Biswas tries to keep the faith in Sheikh Mujib, while Hussain slowly gets disenchanted with the leadership as he sees wave after wave of refugees descend on the capital. The Bangladeshi-Canadian writer weaves in powerful images of poverty, hunger, despair, migration and this historical fiction, his first novel in English, is one of the best to come out of the subcontinent in the recent past. One of the most devastating is the story of the Screw Eater who finds screws at a construction site really delicious. He didnt want to wake up hungry any more. We encounter a 15-year-old who offers to remove a dead body so that he can buy food, two guards who are shot for trying to steal two bags of rice and Hussains ultimate act of rebellion as he begins to feel betrayed like thousands of others at their saviours unravelling.
In Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinskis Imperium, where he travels through the Soviet Union after its break-up, we encounter death camps, the huge divide between haves and have-nots, government officials who are mean to the bone and so forth. Imams fictional account of the 1971-75 years is bone-chillingly realistic. But even three decades later, if the news pouring out of the subcontinent is any indicator, reality is harsher than Imams fiction. People still go hungry, the chasm between the rich and poor is wider and the leadership largely at sea on how to bridge the gap.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer