Monday, July 23, 2012

Humayun Ahmed: When the author and the reader became one

Humayun Ahmed’s body belonged to the writer but the soul belonged to us. The man who for nearly four decades had painted with words the middle-class sensibilities of an entire people has passed away. It was not just grief for the departed but pain of the knowledge that no writer shall probably ever again depict so well what was in essence our own face, our fate, us.
On July 23rd we buried us.

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Few deaths have been mourned this way in our history. A writer however great is limited by the responsibility to create, make sense, convey beauty of the craft — the very nature of his art. But Humayun Ahmed transcended that limit not through art but by writing in the same rhythm of the beating heart of his readers. His gift as a writer is not the point because he had become his readers through his work — the image the people had of themselves. They read him to affirm, confirm and ultimately validate the sprit and notion of a people.

Again, he was us.

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Many years ago, in the mid ‘70s when his fame was just being established, he had in an interview said that his writing was unexpected. He was a brilliant student, better than brilliant a chart toper. His preparation was for the life of an academic. But he had become a writer and it had changed his life. He gave up that world to become a full-time writer and filmmaker and shifted his space.

It was also a transition for a man who was so dearly held in so many lives, a challenge to his own image. The academic who also wrote novels changed and became the new Bangladeshi, a far more dramatic character than the older image of the scribe who is slightly helpless, the harmless kurta-pajama type we are used to imagining. By adopting a new lifestyle, he killed the stereotype of the Bengali author. There were critics of that but as the subsequent events of his life show, he had gone beyond them all.

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What prepared him for this role? He came from an enormously gifted family whose father was killed in 1971. He spent a part of the war days as a Dhaka University student, seeing firsthand the terror of that year. But he emerged with a great sense of the people in distress and joy and related to the extraordinary power of those who survive.

The events of 1971 were key to the understanding of his people and when he began to write, he became the writer who had as if read almost every personal diary that had been written. Art at some point of time became almost irrelevant because he was not doing literature but writing our autobiographies.

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This was not skill but a gift and one cannot argue with that nor perhaps locate it in the literary world. He not only wrote stories that brought to life the nuances of the middle-class — educated, aspiring, agonized, dreaming but often not in control — he knew what the maladies of his class were. His readers knew that it was a mine where the treasures of their own self would be found. His two most noted characters — Misir Ali and Himu — are an amalgam of such insights as they traverse the dark part of the spirit and mind often in conflict with each other. It is no accident that Misir Ali explores the psyche trying to live with the normal, abnormal and the paranormal in the same plane.

It is no accident that Himu is capable of enormous internal conflict and absurd behaviour confounding the very same society and people that had given birth to him. It is by bringing together these elements that are common in our society that the author constructed the new world. In some ways, the author was like the fabled French author George Simenon, whose character Inspector Maigret tries to solve cases but in actuality is holding a mirror up to show who they all were. We shall never know where the characters ended and the author began. And that mystery made him so addictive.

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Humayun Ahmed documented the rising middle-class more successfully than any writer in Bangladesh. He could communicate with his readers in an almost supernatural way. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay of an earlier era connected with the readers but not with images of their own world. Humayun Ahmed took the ordinary lives and made them look outstanding. He made the mundane fascinating and in doing so anointed the world of the real with the glory and permanence of fiction. Few writers have tried that, even fewer have been so successful.

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Somewhere in some space the writer, the readers and the characters all met and each took the cloak of the other and became a little bit of each other. We mourn something far more significant than the passing away of a writer; we grieve the death of our collective imagination that was personified by this man. The time for a critical review of his work will be done later. Today it is about the sadness of his death. He and his readers had become one in his fiction. Today we bury that both.

BY : Afsan Chowdhury.