Thursday, July 26, 2012

Tears for Humayun Ahmed

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?

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.” 


Himu arr nei

On May 29, 2011, on the 60th birthday of arguably one of our greatest actors on stage, television and cinema, Humayun Faridi, Humayun Ahmed, his legendary namesake, wrote a witty and moving tribute to him for one of the vernacular dailies of the country. In it, Ahmed began how he was once told by a journalist that there were five famous Humayun’s in this country – Politician Humayun Rashid Chowdhury, Journalist Ahmed Humayun, poet and academic Humayun Azad, Faridi and himself – and how the journalist would like to write a feature on five of them together. Ahmed, however, held off the journalist for the time being, until, one after another, the Humayuns began to disappear. Ahmed writes: ‘Two out of Haradhan’s five children are left behind. Who knows who amongst the two will fall off first!’

It’s been little over a year since Ahmed wrote that wonderful piece. And we’ve lost both our remaining Humayuns.

It is very difficult for the ardent reader, the television drama fan or the cinema enthusiast to exactly sum up their feelings on the loss of Humayun Ahmed. Ahmed was a magician of words, a dream weaver, a creator of quirky characters and humourous twists, a teller of spectacular tales, a man who could dance over the most profound emotions with light almost butterfly-like steps, a man given to passions, sentiment, and yet a man of exact science. For the last three decades Humayun Ahmed has rained upon us words, stories and emotions. He built a magic world around our mundane existences; he found humour in the most unexpected and ordinary things in our lives. In trying to entertain us, he captured the soul of our existences at different social layers, while the men who embarked on a conscious journey to ‘discover our souls’, churned out boring treatises and tried to dismiss him off as a mere entertainer.

 For anyone growing up in the 1980’s on a steady 9:00pm diet of Bangladesh Television, it is difficult to separate memories of our childhoods from Humayun Ahmed’s creations. There was the family drama ‘Ai Shob din ratri’ and the sitcom style drama that had you in stitches ‘Bohubrihi’. By the time Bangladesh Television aired ‘Ayomoy’, Humayun had established a singularly spectacular dominance over not just the publishing industry but prime time television as well. Mirza Shaheb and his long quiet walk down the corridors, his blind yet wicked mother, his boro bou and choto bou, Hanif – his security guard, the rags to riches story of Kashem Shaheb – have become indelible parts of our memory.

But besides the memorable characters and spectacular tales that Humayun created, there were also the dialogues, the one-liners that refused to leave our lips. A parrot mimicking ‘Tui Razakar’ or the beggar troupe singing ‘Diner nabi Mustafa’ keep on ringing in our ears, despite all the years having gone by.        

His crowning moment on television, however, was the death of the fictional character Baker Bhai in the drama serial ‘Kothao Keu nei’, a moment much reminiscent of the death of the creator of Baker Bhai himself. The entire nation went into frenzy, at first pleading and sending petitions to the author to save the protagonist’s life, then going into a state of literal national mourning, once the author decided to hang Baker Bhai after all, despite playing with their hopes for a little while in the last episode. There were ‘janazas’ held on the death of the imaginary character while hordes of loyal fans attacked the houses of actors who played the character ‘Kuttawali’ – the evil character in the drama, and ‘Bodi’ – the friend who betrays Baker Bhai. 

Over the next two decades Humayun Ahmed defied all logic of a poor, highly illiterate, country not being able to feed its writer, as one after another spectacular commercial success literally chased after him. There were stories about him – that publishers would line up outside his door ready to offer just about anything for a single manuscript, at the very moment he finished it. And most of those stories were true.

At the Ekushey Book Fair every February, stalls that contained an Ahmed title were literally swarmed by people, while their neighbouring stalls looked a distant poor relation. They said publishers were giving him a SUV for sitting through a single day of book signing.

And Humayun Ahmed was prolifically, almost incredulously, productive. He came out with five or six titles every year, but his real legend was built around the two characters – Himu and Misir Ali – the former a Meursault (The Stranger by Albert Camus) or Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin/Alyosha Karamazov–like character who lived outside society or always found his emotions in conflict with society. Both characters appeared in numerous stories, and often explored contemporary social issues in his signature light-hearted style – ‘Holud Himu Kalo RAB’ – being a perfect example. 

It is also during this time that Humayun Ahmed developed many of his detractors. They said he had ‘sold his soul to the devil’, that he repeated himself much too often, that he played with cheap sentiment etc. Some of the criticism may be true about some/many of his books during this period, as some of his novellas are like 60 to 90 page-odd breezers, which nonetheless carry a few masterstrokes, but too thin to be considered masterpieces.

They remind one of the legendary habits of famous painters at the height of their fame, like a Salvador Dali or even a Picasso, who were content to put a few brush strokes to their signatures, and set a price to it. We remember Dali and Picasso on the entire body of their work, and not just on each individual pieces, and there is no reason to doubt that in time his lighter work will fade off into oblivion only for the golden parts to strike out better.

The great French writer Honore de Balzac, after all, was considered an author of cheap, almost semi-pornographic fiction, during his lifetime. Look what posterity discovered in him.

Some of the criticism seems to also stem from the fact that he did not try to deliberately handle socio-political issues, that his stories apparently did not contain ‘messages.’

To set the record straight: Humayun Ahmed tried to tell, and told, a great story. He dealt with whatever issue came in the process of telling his story, and not the other way around, where political and social messages are veiled as stories. It is not his fault, and instead his great gift, that he could say simply, in the simplest of languages, what he wanted to say. Not all great literature read like ‘Ulysses’ or deal with war, poverty and hunger.

Unfortunately, for our country, where politics has often managed to hijack other professions – like journalism and education – the critics seem to think that Humayun’s literature, or for that matter anyone else’s, should always be serving the purpose of politics and society. Well, there are many great examples across the world where many great authors did not walk that walk.

In the last decade of his life, Humayun Ahmed literally gave himself a new life. He married for the second time a woman half his age, Meher Afroz Shaon, and had two children with her. This, in a conservative society like ours, gave rise to great controversy. Seeing that Humayun was clearly very happy in his new personal life, and yet by his own admission had hurt his near and dear ones through this act, it would be best for the loyal reader to remember that a writer gives to his readers and fans his creations to enjoy, analyse and judge, and not their personal lives.   

It was, however, also during this period, despite intense forays into film-making, that Ahmed wrote some of his best fiction. Three of his more recent works – Modhanno, Matal Hawa and Jochona o Jananir Golpo – stand witness to the author’s efforts to push his work on to a bigger canvas.

They are based respectively on the events of the partition of 1947, the mass upsurge of 1969 and the liberation war of 1971. In them, through his signature dose of quirky, intense, feisty characters Humayun captures the essence of the life and existence of people during those periods, while the actual historical events of the time, and in the case of the two latter books – the personal experiences of the author himself, are magically weaved into the narrative of the story.

In Modhanno, Humayun draws a vivid picture of Hindu-Muslim existence in the pre-partition period, without ever resorting to descriptions of violence, hatred or racism. In Matal Hawa, he tells the story of a household and the events taking place in them in 1969, which either have an eerie resemblance to political events taking place that year, or are indirectly related to them.

Jochona o Jananir Golpo, meanwhile, tells the individual stories of ordinary men, women and children who went to war or were compelled by circumstances to go to war, of the people who suffered because of the war, of opportunists who betrayed, of the great men of the period - Sheikh Mujib, Zia, Kader Siddiqi, Tajuddin.

It is a story of each one’s war completely unrelated to the others’, and yet it is the same war. Some people doubt the historical accuracy of the stories told in the book. True, Humayun Ahmed did slip once in a while when it came to informative accuracy, but he never slipped when it came to emotional accuracy.

Never will you read a better two page fictional description of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that so powerfully captures the magic he wound around his people at the heights of his power in early 1971. And towards the end of all three books, when all the separate narratives come together, Humayun Ahmed stamps his class as a great storyteller with spectacular endings to each book.

While the nation breaks into grief and mourns, one cannot help but notice the efforts of some of the ‘mourners’, harshest critics of Humayun during his life, at one end trying to grab a slice of the pie and at another trying to remind people that somehow Humayun was producer of ‘cheap’ literature.

For me personally, the three books mentioned above helped me understand, comprehend, and most importantly, in many ways, relive the periods that were dealt with in the book, which has such an enormous bearing on my life, though I had never been a part of it. Ever since I read those books I’ve looked at every person who lived through those times with a different eye. If that is not a purpose and achievement of a great author, I do not know what is.

Besides with just a few lines of description Ahmed could create a Himu, Misir Ali, Baker Bhai, Nandailer Yunus, Khadok and many other men and women – men and women who never existed and yet are more real than real men and women.

Ahmed could not just write in a simple language, he spoke directly to your heart, he was like a personal best friend to his readers who only existed through his words. And he explored human nature – low lifes and murderers, mean housewives and philandering men, rebels and anti-socials, historical men and periods, all in the fabric of the typical Bengali family and his signature quirky characters who could never shed the light-heartedness and humour in them. It seems Humayun’s crime, in the eyes of his critics, is that he could entertain as much as he could intellectualise.

On his passing away, there is no better way to describe the loss, then to say it just feels extremely sad. There will no longer be words raining down on us. Our favourite characters will cease to grow. That familiar voice will no longer be speaking to our hearts. There will be no more one-liners to use in our conversations. If Humayun could himself tell this as a story – a story of his passing away and disappearing from the lives of his readers – he would probably name the book: Himu arr nei.

BY :   Mubin S Khan.