Born in the mid-1970s, a period when his newly-born country Bangladesh was undergoing a violent turmoil, Numair Atif Choudhury went on to obtain a PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas.
How does one approach an ambitious first novel whose author, having worked on it for nearly 15 years, died before seeing the cover? His work is a genre-defying novel that ponders over the poetics of architecture and melancholia of a forest as it attempts to write the painful birth and subsequent history of a nation. A work that despite all its creative boldness and vigour may nevertheless leave you dissatisfied due to the absence of what one can term a soul, an umbilical cord that runs through a great narrative holding it together through the many dives and deviations.
Yet, one cannot dismiss Babu Bangladesh!, not merely because a deceased looms over its words. Born in the mid-1970s, a period when his newly-born country Bangladesh was undergoing a violent turmoil, Numair Atif Choudhury went on to obtain a PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas. As he braced for a professional career in Bangladesh, he died by drowning in the Kyoto river in September 2018. His manuscript, by then, had reached a discerning editor-publisher.
Narrated from the vantage point of 2028, the novel is a fabulist biography of Babu Abdul Majumdar, a writer, politician and mystic. He disappeared in 2021 before a man began his research on this fascinating character, a witness to Bangladesh. Recovered in 2025, Babu’s private diaries lend more colour to the character. The man is driven towards constructing this impossible biography because Babu’s CV “allows expounding on subaltern practices, in addition to permitting reflections on current world orders and disorders”. There’s another motive. He finds his own reflection in Babu. With both the subject and the biographer constituted of the same ‘yarn’, the book, at times, presents the illusion that Babu perhaps wrote his own biography in the guise of an unnamed narrator. An illusion that adds a rich layer to the text.
The novel begins with a Khalil Gibran quote: “A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wing. Alone it must seek the ether.” Soon we are introduced to the mysterious character of Babu, who has been “publicly quoted” by the likes of Thich Nhat Hanh and Arundhati Roy, and whose tattoo Annie Clark boasted on her left buttock. Bangladesh is teeming with conspiracy theories around him as his footprints can be seen in Ecuador, Peru and CIA offices. I couldn’t recall such a stunning beginning of any recent novel. The next chapter is “carpeted in the shadow of a building”, Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, the National Assembly complex in Dhaka, designed by the iconic postmodernist Louis Kahn. Through the fascinating geometries of the Bhaban, Babu ponders over the philosophy of architecture, the loss of circular abodes that pushed men towards building “artificial and improvident horizons”.
Babu’s biographer digs deep into the subcontinent’s history, offering wonderful insights about a land in which temples were adopted into mosques, and vice-versa, back and forth; Byzantine hinges became Buddhist shrines and Hindu porticos merged with arch-and-dome. Such effortless harmony among religions eventually fell to fanaticism that caused first the 1947 Partition and then the genocide that led to the liberation of Bangladesh.
Choudhury’s erudition is awe-inspiring. He brings a range of references, from history, literature and myths, often taking up a subaltern debate. In the story about Bangladesh, the killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and the subsequent political imbroglio, Roman Catholic missionary Francis Xavier makes an entry, receiving the narrator’s stern opprobrium for his forced conversions and “wholesale destruction of Hindu temples”. The narrator takes unceasing turns, halting at every corner, amused by seemingly minor things, illuminating the world with a mercurial gaze. One learns that every forest has a keynote, or architecture, as Goethe said, was “frozen music”.
With such a rich tapestry why does one complain? It’s because the novel leaves a rather sad question: Where are humans in this overwhelming narrative of intertextuality, not proper nouns or historical personalities that flash through the narrative, but characters with their wounds and blisters? Humans who make readers laugh and cry, prompt them to retreat into a solitary corner with the novel. Could Choudhury have worked on the draft a bit more had he not been checkmated by his fate? Too many loose threads spill out at various junctures that needed a little grafting, weak spots that pinch a reader. It ends up as a grand skeleton, sadly, without flesh. One cannot obviously stop marvelling about the author, but cannot help recording the disappointment either.
(Ashutosh Bhardwaj is a fiction writer and journalist, and is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla)