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              Volume 11 |Issue 06| February 10, 2012 |


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Writing the Wrong

My Friend, Sayeed

Sharbari Ahmed

My first serious attempt at a novel was ill fated. It was a 700 page, meandering tome with only slightly believable characters set in historically accurate situations of which I had only a superficial understanding. I called it The Certainty of Dust, and was not entirely sure what the title meant. I thought it sounded very literary and weighty. I got it from a poem that now escapes my memory. My father said it was a depressing title. When I was not sure why, he explained that it was about death.

I was actually thinking about how dusty Dhaka, where it is set, was when I chose the name, but when he explained it like that it did seem a bit down in the mouth. I did, however, grow to love the characters: a plucky, beautiful widow with a precocious daughter, an unfulfilled, rich Gulshan maven and her social climbing mother, a well intentioned but ultimately condescending white American Consulate officer. The villain was the protagonist's brother-in-law, who I very unsubtly named Zulfiker, because, you guessed it, it was set (some of the time) in 1971, a time and an atmosphere I knew very little about. It was my symbolic dig at Bhutto as his namesake in the book was a megalomaniacal rapist.


As I said, I did grow to love these characters, even good old Zulfi, as I had taken to calling him inside my head, hence my 700-page commitment to them and their story arcs. I endeavoured, with very little experience—I was only a few months out of NYU's Creative Writing programme—to give these characters depth, complexity and something to strive for—pernicious or positive. Somehow, I lost stamina and so did they. I am not Tolstoy, and could not hold even my characters' attentions for that long and they weren't real! But I tried very hard to be wise and I created one character,who, I think about fondly from time to time, like a favourite cousin I don't get to see that often, and with whom I shared fun experiences. I used to think about him much more when I first put that novel down, but now he comes to me sporadically, and I actually recently caught myself wondering how he is doing, like he is real. I suddenly understood the reason for that was because he was real, in the figurative sense. He was the most authentic character in that ponderous novel, which one agent described as “interesting but overwrought”, much like the way people have described me at times.

His name was Sayeed and he was a man servant to a rich family, who fires him early on in the novel because of some misguided wickedness in the servant's quarters, and leaves him and his wife and son destitute. Sayeed was not perfect because I was heavily conscious of sentimentalizing the poor and casting them in some beatific light simply because they are the underdog. I instinctively felt—and still do—that it robs such characters of real literary opportunities. I spent time on this one, specifically his relationship to his son, who worshiped him. When I created Sayeed and his son Rintoo, I thought about African American men and how their paternal authority in their families and with their children was fundamentally stripped from them day in and day out by white bigotry and the Jim Crow laws that ruled the US well into the last century. I have often wondered how men, who are systematically emasculated by their own societies, actually reconcile their roles as fathers. These ideas and thoughts helped me to fashion Sayeed and his interaction with his son, who was young enough not to fully understand that his father was essentially invisible to his employers and many of the ruling and middle classes of Bangladesh. He was a non-entity to his government and not even considered a man by some. Sayeed was painfully aware that he had only a very small window of opportunity to be a hero to his son, as, soon the veil would be lifted and his real position in the pecking order would be revealed. So, he tried very hard to show his kid his true nature, that he was, in fact a man with an imagination, ambition and ideas. He was not a genius, and had difficulty holding on to jobs as he possessed a peculiar quality that made people feel he was not trustworthy. He stole things, yes, like bread and salty cheese and once, about twenty taka that he found under a bed, but in general he was honest, yet somehow cannot inspire trust. This is a fatal attribute in a servant.

When I did write that scene where the veil is definitively lifted and Rintoo sees how others perceive his father, it struck me as one of those moments in the human experience that is exceedingly painful. Watching a parent, whom one adores, being humiliated by another person and watching them not fight back, seeing them turn into someone else must be acutely painful. Most likely I did not write it well, but that is not the point. The emotion and motivation of the scene—regardless of its unhappy nature—is what stayed with me.

Recently, I was reading an excerpt of The Autobiography of Malcolm X co-authored by Alex Haley, the author of Roots. Malcolm X, one of the most famous Americans to convert to Islam since Mohammed Ali, writes of a group of African Americans who lived in the Roxbury section of Boston, MA, in the 1940's and called them selves “the 400”. According to MX, they gave themselves airs and described their professions as “bankers,” “engineers” and “lawyers” when, in reality they worked as cleaners for lawyers or Pullman train car servers or night watchmen at a bank. He commented on how pathetic that seemed to him. Because, at any moment, if a white man or woman, or even child was in their presence, their actual positions would be revealed. It was all precarious and built on quicksand. As I read this Sayeed came back to me unbidden after so many years. It occurs to me that it might be time to visit with him again. I am not sure, but I might now be strong enough to give him the attention and weight he deserves. Though, of course, I am still no virtuoso. I will have to send him a change of address card and move him into a new scenario altogether. Maybe my 700 page exertions were not in vain. Maybe I had to go through that, veer off course, meander and indulge myself to get to HIS story. Who knows? All I know is that I have missed him and it is time he and I got re-acquainted.


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