When the celebrated writer Humayun Ahmed (henceforward, HA) passed away a year ago on July 19, his death was mourned in an unprecedented manner by his countless fans and admirers in and beyond Bangladesh. He was a master storyteller, a magician of a writer whose popularity had been phenomenal for years. In death he achieved a kind of instant sainthood, leading to countless reminiscences, reflections, and commentaries flooding all forms of media, while tens of thousands of people attended his funeral in person, and million more did so virtually by following live coverage of proceedings over a period of two days. Between then and the first anniversary of his death, a lot has been said already about many facets of his life and work, his private life, his legacy and much more. For example, many have commented, rightly, on how HA almost single-handedly developed a huge Bangladeshi readership, weaning them off Bengali writers from West Bengal, and hugely benefiting a fledgling publishing industry. One of the reasons given for HA’s phenomenal popularity was his magical ability to tell captivating stories in a very accessible language, stories in which ordinary middle class Bengalis (of Bangladesh) found characters and environments they could easily identify with.
Now even though I am not a Bengali ethnically, I too remember having identified with characters in a couple of HA novels that I read more than two decades ago. But a question – one that we have not seen any answers to yet – came up in the virtual world last year as to whether HA ever wrote or said anything regarding the predicament and struggles of the indigenous people of this country. For a while I followed with interest various posts relating to such issues, including the reported lack of adequate coverage of HA’s death in the West Bengal media. To me, such posts function as reminders that the imagined community of Bangladesh remains an unfinished business. At one level, there is yet no satisfactory reconciliation between the Muslim identity of the majority on the one hand, and their Bengali identity on the other (comparable to the polarities of ‘Hifazat’ vs. ‘Shahbagh’). At another level, we may note that the ethnic minorities of the country do not quite feel at home in a country that came into being in 1971 promising equality and emancipation for all. Moreover, contrary to their hopes to be recognised as ‘indigenous people’, in recent years, a broken record from an old era began to be played quite loudly and frequently by certain quarters, who are repeating the same non-sense as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (August 9) approaches: “We (Bengalis or Bengali Muslims) are the true indigenous people of this land (Bengal or Bangladesh). The ‘tribal’ people came here from outside!” In the face of typical claims traditionally made by upwardly mobile Bengalis to be of Sheikh, Syed, Mughal, Pathan, or Aryan origin, such statements do come across as being rather odd. Anyway, although neither the recent claims nor the older ones make much sense in the context of the concept of indigenous people as used by the UN, or in terms of the perspectives of modern historians and anthropologists, outmoded notions about ‘self’ and the ‘other’ abound among Bengalis of different classes. (I have written in some detail about the actual historical ties of the Bengalis with the indigenous peoples in a piece titled, ‘Becoming Bangladeshi’, in Himal Southasian, 11 October 2012). In this context, one may wonder: What kind of views did Humayun Ahmed have on such matters? We may never know the full answer directly, but he did leave behind some clues as to how he might have looked at such matters.
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One set of outmoded notions concerning the origins of different ethnic groups in Bangladesh are based on racialist notions (focusing on physical differences) left behind by the British colonialists. Without going into the details of this matter, let us just note that ethnic conflicts over land in places like the Chittagong Hill Tracts is not something to be resolved by genetic tests as to who came there (or in ‘Chittagong’, ‘Bengal’, etc.) first. These questions will have to be resolved through dialogues, through mutually beneficial political and economic interactions, and ultimately through cultural processes that enrich the lives of all, without erasing diversity. In this context, to use a word that I am still learning to use (after relearning it from my teenage son), instead of looking at ‘genes’ (or physical differences), we need to pay attention to the ‘memes’ – cultural units of ideas, behaviour or style – that are being transmitted to, or circulating among, new generations of all ethnicities.
Unlike genes, memes are not transmitted through the bloodline. They have to be taught, and transmitted through education and cultural practices. Although popular beliefs in many parts of the world still equate human worth with the purity of bloodline (manifested differently by Nazi Germany, Apartheid South Africa, the caste system of South Asia etc), modern anthropology teaches us that genetic variations among humans have nothing to do with cultural, political and economic achievements or performances of different groups or individuals. If genetic inheritance was such a determining factor, Bangladeshis still mourning the loss of HA would not worry that someone like him may never be born again, as we could expect at least one of the six children of the late author to repeat the feat of their father. Perhaps we would have expected one of his three daughters to step in, someone who HA himself reportedly thought to be most like him, prompting him to quip, “She may not like me, but she is stuck with my genes!” The remark, by a father who had become estranged from his four children from his first marriage, was probably made in his characteristic style combining wit and humour, with touches of tenderness and melancholic resignation. Biologically speaking, it is not just HA’s daughter, but we all are ‘stuck’ with the genes of our parents, but when it comes to choosing who we are, or who we want to be socially, culturally and politically, there are always choices. For example, when many of HA fans turned up at his funeral dressed as Himu, a fictional character created by HA, they did so not because of any genetic propensity, but because they identified with a ‘meme’ that constituted HA’s fictional universe.
Those not too familiar with the character of Himu can learn, like me, from the internet that Himu is a young man in his mid- or late 20s, who appears, always clad in his trademark yellow panjabi, in a number of HA’s novels and televised dramas. It is learned that Himu’s father, who was a psychopath, killed his wife (i.e. Himu’s mother), so that he could raise his son as a kind of superman having the finest human qualities. However, against his father’s wishes, Himu turned into a half-mad wandering man who subsists on begging, living beyond the norms of Bengali middle class society, hovering on the margins of the lives of other fictional characters, offering to solve their problems using his anti-logic. This characterisation, the textual and visual construction of a character many HA fans recognise instantly, and identify with, may be said to represent a meme.
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HA created a fictional world that became an integral part of the life of a Bangladeshi middle class that came of age after the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation-state. HA clearly became a phenomenon, like no other of its kind, as was made so visibly obvious through his public funeral, involving both secular rituals and more traditional Islamic ones. The fact that millions of people mourned quite deeply the passing of a writer who authored hundreds of books and scores of televised dramas and films that they grew up with, and still carry with them, was a very visible example of what Benedict Anderson meant by an imagined community coming into being through ‘print capitalism’. Regardless of one’s view of HA’s ‘literary merit’, this phenomenon has to be reckoned with and unpacked, as some commentators have already noted, in the years to come if we want to gain a deeper understanding of Bangladeshi middle class ethos, and its necessary or possible transformation. Did HA himself have any view on the question of this transformation? In my opinion, the character of Himu contains elements of a possible answer to this question.
It is said that certain types of ‘mental illness’ are responses of the mind when it cannot reconcile the contradictions it encounters. In such situations, although ‘normal’ individuals may get on with life, maintaining safe distance from intractable problems, a psychotic individual may strive to reconcile these by constructing an alternate mental world where the contradictions are resolved, and a new order of meanings are created. Humayun Ahmed was a man of science (he had a PhD in polymer chemistry that he once taught at Dhaka University), and seemed to have sufficient knowledge of different disciplines. So it is conceivable that HA created the character of Himu by drawing on the sciences as well as obvious existing cultural sources like the bauls. Be that as it may, it is possible that through the character of Himu, and others like it, HA was trying to send a message to his audience to think outside of the established norms and values of Bengali middle class society. In any case, even if HA was not operating with such a self-conscious purpose, one could argue that through his fictional universe, at one level he was trying to reconcile the contradictions that still bedevil Bengali Muslim/Bangladeshi identity, characterized by a tension between secularist and Islamist strands that it contains.
HA was the son of a police officer who was killed by the Pakistani army during the Liberation War of 1971, so the question of reconciling national, religious or ethnic identities could not have been far from his consciousness. In fact, we know that he tried to re-enact the spirit of 1971 through some novels and films, but he tried to do it by steering clear of the stereotypical or rigid representations of Muslim identity of either the secularist or puritan Islamist varieties. Instead, in his fictional world, one would encounter things like Sufism-inflected folk songs, and even magic and the paranormal. His large readership was a clear indication that he fully understood the ethos of the ordinary Bengali Muslims who were not necessarily preoccupied with conforming to any strict interpretation of Islam, or secularist ‘scientific’ outlook. However, we must also keep in mind that ultimately, HA or the fictional world that he depicted, still remained rather distant from the real struggling lives of many more people who did not belong to the Bangladeshi middle class. When HA’s funeral was receiving live coverage on every single TV channel in Bangladesh, I asked a female domestic worker, whose family migrated to Dhaka from Kendua, HA’s native Upazila, whether she shed tears while watching the live coverage. She answered to me: “Why should I? They are rich (ora to borolok)!” I did not pursue the matter further, but was quite struck by her comment, which is of a kind that warrants further exploration.
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I want to end by mentioning a question of identity that my son has been faced with for some time. His mother is a Bengali Muslim, whereas I am a Tripura. Now, in a country where religious identity matters socially and officially, our son is growing up with questions that we cannot help him have easy answers to. My wife and I have convinced our son that he is first of all a human. But will Bangladesh, or the laws and customs of this country, allow him to define his identity in a way that he, or other children of his generation, would be most comfortable with? The way we find the answers to questions like this will vary from person to person, context to context. But one thing is clear: our children may carry our genes, but they do not have to be stuck with their parents’ cultural and political failings. They can make better, informed choices if we help them do so, not necessarily as a one-way transmission of ideas and values, but also through learning about, and from, them!
Prashanta Tripura is a development professional and former teacher, Department of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University.