Ir is not often that one’s introduction to a new book begins right with its cover. But when you lay your hands on Bangladeshi-Canadian author Neamat Imam’s debut novel The Black Coat, the first thing that strikes you is the picture of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman covered—or more perhaps appropriately smeared—by the title of the book. Why? Why is it that the face of the architect-in-chief of Bangladesh’s independence is covered in such a manner? Why is it that the black sleeveless coat that Mujib has turned into a fashion statement, at least for the Awami League rank and file, has become the title of the novel? Attempts to answer the questions set you off on your journey through the 240-page book.
Whether or not readers in Bangladesh agree with the contents of The Black Coat and how much of it they agree with, the fact remains that Imam has shown a lot of courage in dealing with one of the most tumultuous and controversial phases of independent Bangladesh’s history (1972-75) when the country, barely recovering from the effects of a brutal war of independence, had faced a crippling famine, poor governance and law and order problems under the notorious Rakkhi Bahini, climaxing in the abolition of multi-party democracy and an ushering in of the infamous Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL) dictatorship.
The main protagonist of the novel is Khaleque Biswas, a journalist who used to work for a newspaper, Freedom Fighter, chronicling Bangladesh’s freedom struggle and who tells the story of the first four years immediately after the country’s independence that shows his euphoria over freedom dissipating into disillusionment in the aftermath of famine, poor governance and BAKSAL rule.
Biswas faces a new situation when Nur Hussain, an unskilled man from a village, takes shelter in the former’s small flat in Dhaka. Biswas cannot give Nur any employment in the media and he himself loses his job as a journalist when he wants to report on the reality of his country by criticising the new government’s “misrule” immediately after independence. No other media organization recruits him and a disillusioned Biswas says, “I reflected on my conversation with the editors. I could not understand what had gone wrong……Their columns were boring. They created a surreal world with words and pictures. ….They had willingly surrendered to the stifling control of the government instead of attacking it…..The person who goes against the government is not an enemy of the people. Those who accept their government’s limitations in silence are the real enemies.”
Born in rural poverty, Biswas, in his desperate bid to stay afloat in life, discovers a new way of making money. He finds out Nur’s capability of perfectly mimicking Sheikh Mujib’s historic 7 March 1971 speech that had galvanized an entire nation into the independence war. Biswas becomes Nur’s handler, uses Nur’s mimicry to collect money by making him perform on the streets of Dhaka and then, with the help of Awami League leader Moina Mia, at the party’s public meetings before sharing the dais with Mujib himself. It is through this physical journey across the country that the writer shows the evolution of Biswas’ emotions and his crumbling faith in Mujib’s ideals and values.
But what was the alternative to Sheikh Mujib and the Awami League at that time? Biswas’ answer is that the famine had already made Mujib “somewhat unpopular”. “If the present course of events could not be thwarted, as some predicted, the country would soon fall into the hands of those who opposed independence. They meant the Islamic fundamentalists, who were still living among us like intelligent predators, and wanted to reunite our country with Pakistan at any cost. The defeat of Sheikh Mujib would mean their victory and the eventual extinction of the Bengali nationhood. That could not be allowed to happen. Not on our soil”.
Reviewing Imam’s book in The Mint, a tabloid newspaper in Delhi, literary critic Arunabha Sinha notes: “Rich with political statements, this is a novel that achieves its intent in a remarkably creative and artistic manner”.
In a separate review of The Black Coat in the Business Standard newspaper, Subir Roy says Imam, in his first novel, “is able to offer the authentic feel of sight, sound and smell. He is also able to imbue the journalist protagonist with a detachment that puts in perspective the horror of famine and the trauma of having to live in it and lose one’s soul.”
Pallab Bhattacharya is a senior Indian
journalist based in New Delhi