Professor Humayun Ahmed, who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from North Dakota State University, and who was one-third scientist, one-third writer, and one-third filmmaker, died at the age of 64 on Thursday night in the United States after a nearly year-long battle against colon cancer. The heart of every Bangladeshi has grown heavier and heavier since his death.
Humayun was a custodian of the Bangladeshi literary culture whose contribution single-handedly shifted the capital of Bengali literature from Kolkata to Dhaka without any war or revolution. The influence of Humayun’s long and distinguished literary career has been incredible. His writing is so influential that his readers not only experience a fulfilling satisfaction upon reading his books, but usually end up becoming fans of his fictional characters, such as Himu, Misir Ali, and Baker Bhai. His creations generate the scent, sounds, and vibrations of feelings and moods, which have proved to be immensely powerful for his readers’ minds. However, in death, Humayun’s celebrity seems likely to exceed his popularity, even at the height of his fame. His funeral, which was held in Dhaka on Tuesday, became a Super Bowl-like event as millions of Bengalis from all walks of life flocked to the Shaheed Minar to bid him farewell.
Humayun’s death has proven that the tragic and completely unexpected passing of an icon familiar to millions can create an emotionally unifying experience for a nation. Bangladesh does not have oil, coal, or fossil fuel, but it’s still more united than many others because it gave birth to a patriot like Humayun Ahmed, whose work was strong enough to emotionally unite all Bangladeshis upon his death. What, then, is our assessment of Humayun’s importance in world literature?
Humayun, who was known for his depiction of the tribulations of ordinary middle-class Bangladeshi life, reached the peak of his fame with the publication of Nondito Noroke (In Blissful Hell) in 1972, which remains one of his most famous works, winning admiration from literary critics, including Dr. Ahmed Sarif. He wrote over 200 fiction and non-fiction books—all of which were bestsellers in Bangladesh. He may be the only writer in the history time whose every book became a bestseller. This achievement alone would probably entitle him to place his name next to Shakespeare.
Furthermore, Humayun made a huge contribution to the field of fine arts, especially in filmmaking. He is hailed as one of the most influential architects of television drama of all time, authoring landmark sitcoms such as Ei Shob Din Ratri, Bohubrihi, Ayomoy, and Kothao Keu Nei, which featured a fictional character Baker Bhai, who was wrongly convicted and executed. Baker Bhai became such a popular character that before the last episode was aired, thousands of people across the country urged Humayun to change the script just to save his life, the life of a fictional character. This made Humayun a household name, which allowed him a great deal of autonomy for his future projects - motion pictures. His films have covered many themes and genres—addressing such topics as the Bangladesh Liberation War, the middle class crisis, and many socio-economic issues. His first film Aguner Parashmoni, based on the Liberation War of 1971, was a huge success, winning National Film Awards in eight categories, including Best Picture and Best Director. His film, Shyamal Chhaya, was submitted by Bangladesh as an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. As with Satyajit Ray, Zahir Raihan, or Tareque Masud, it is difficult to define in words the effect Humayun had on Bengali films. But he was indisputably the most talented Bengali filmmaker, more so than his three famous predecessors. In fact, I cannot name any other Bengali filmmaker who better illustrated the history of the country’s independence through film; Humayun was ahead of his time. Had Humayun done nothing else, the creation of such films alone would have entitled him to be one of the greatest Bengalis of all time.
In understanding Humayun’s significance, we must remember that had he not lived, his books and films would never have been created. For this reason, some people even contend that it is Humayun, rather than Tagore or Nazrul, who should really be considered the greatest Bengali of all time. Carried to its logical conclusion, that argument would lead one to place Humayun higher than Tagore or Nazrul. However, I am a little skeptical about accepting such logic. It is true that Bengali literature would have remained piteously incomplete, and even imperfect, without the works of Humayun. However, it is also quite apparent that without the works of Tagore or Nazrul, Bengali literature would have broken up into mutually unintelligible dialects. Hence, it is fair to place Humayun after Tagore and Nazrul.
In fact, I am confident that if anyone conducted a survey to list the five greatest writers of Bengali literature, Humayun would be third, if not first or second. Furthermore, one should consider what others have said about Humayun. Several years ago, I asked Muhammad Yunus how he assessed Humayun’s overall impact, and he replied, “Humayun’s works are the most profound and most fruitful that literature has experienced since the time of Tagore and Nazrul.” Al Mahmud, the poet laureate of Bangladesh, shared with me a similar thought: “One golden age of Bengali literature ended with Tagore and Nazrul and another began with Humayun.”
Fiction writer Imdadul Haq Milon considered him to be the almighty of Bengali literature, controlling all their actions and thoughts. If so, he is a generous lord, because he created immortal characters, such as Misir Ali and Himu, and they, upon entering our memory, have become more alive than the living. Misir Ali is a rational psychologist committed to unraveling the mysteries around him through logic. On the other hand, Himu, who works with anti-logic, appears to possess strong intuitive power, though he dismisses his intuitions that come true as mere coincidence. While Misir Ali forces us to realize that logic is above emotion, Himu forces us to understand that within ourselves live the better side of our nature which always struggles with our subtle dark side.
Although Humayun created literary fever through his works, which spread all around Bangladesh, unfortunately he still remains as one of the great unsung heroes for those who live outside the Indian subcontinent. With that said, literature, of course, is not all about recognition. In a time when hardly any of the roles are being played correctly in Bangladesh, Humayun played his role of a writer and filmmaker remarkably well. As a result, his name has become synonymous with the greatness of Bengali literature. Hence, to a Bangladeshi, his loss is manifold. He made young people—especially students who had been bred to political passion—understand that there was something more important than politics: reading books, and appreciating the fine arts.
Humayun may be regarded as one of the world’s most successful writers, but despite his innumerable professional successes, he found it difficult to maintain a harmonious relationship with his first wife. In fact, so pragmatic was Humayun’s approach to love, that when he realized that his 32-year marriage to Gultekin was floundering, he filed for divorce in 2005, and married Meher Afroz Shaon shortly afterwards. Many people have tried to understand Humayun’s behavior through the poems of Nazrul: “I am disorderly and lawless, I trample under my feet all rules and discipline! I dance at my own pleasure; I am the unfettered joy of life.” Did Nazrul’s poem justify Humayun’s decision? The answer can be found in the poetry of Persian poet Rumi, who claimed that no one is a saint by saying, “If you are a saint, you do not belong to the human race”. Rumi also wrote:
“Stretch your arms; And take hold the cloth of your cloths; With both hands; The cure for pain is in the pain;
Good and bad are mixed. If you do not have both, You do not belong with us”
People are not going to hate Humayun, because he was not a saint. In fact, they love him so much because he was so human. People love the prickly faced Humayun and his childlike search for the magic-story in the forest of Nuhash Palli—now the place of his eternal rest. This is why without Humayun, all Bangladeshis’ lives would be paler and poorer. The fact that Humayun wrote books, and made the sitcoms and films that were the background melody for millions of Bangladeshis’ childhood, gives us the basis to love our motherland.
This is why it is impossible for 170 million Bangladeshis to hold back their tears, or not to wonder what might have been if he had been able to beat cancer. A poem—similar to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s elegy on the death of John Keats — might be applied even more appropriately to Humayun:
“Why do you weep for Humayun—thou think he is dead?
“Why do you weep for Humayun—thou think he is dead?
Oh, no—he lives as long as the moon lights
Why do you mourn for the Shakespeare of Bangladesh—thou think he is perished?
Oh, no—he never died
He wakes; he walks—and still writes for us
Oh weep not, Oh mourn not
‘Tis death is dead, not Humayun
He lives as long as the sun shines.”