Syed Fattahul Alim
Humayun Ahmed was an outsider who took the literary world of post-independence Bangladesh by storm. Outsider, because he was conspicuous not by his presence in the literary movements of the 1960s that acted as the intellectual wellspring for the new crop of poets, novelists, short story writers and playwrights of the post-independence genre.
Humayun Ahmed appeared as it were from nowhere and then, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, held young generations for about four decades under the spell of his magical storytelling. His first novel Nondito Noroke published in 1974 was an instant success. Among many of his popular novels are the ones on Himu, such as Mayurakkhi, Darojar Opashe, Himu, etc. His novels on another interesting character Misir Ali include, among others Devi, Nishithini, Nishad, Onno Bhuban, etc.
Himu has eccentric manners with flashes of supernatural abilities that defy common sense and rationality. Misir Ali, on the other hand, is very rational and analytic and debunks many mysterious happenings. This contrast between the rational and the irrational in the characters he created was the stuff of Humayun's stories. But was it not rather strange that being a student of science, he had this bent for the paranormal in his stories? On the contrary, it is exactly because of his scientific background that he could play with the rational, the irrational and the paranormal with equal ease.
The old classical model of commonsense and rationality had broken down within the first two decades of the 20th century with the emergence of theories of relativity to describe macro-level phenomena and quantum mechanics to deal with the micro world of the subatomic. Little wonder Humayun could so effortlessly transcend the limits of the real and return with equal ease. This style of his writing can well be attributed to the genre of magical realism, but whether he chose to be an adherent of this style of literary narrative consciously remains an open question.
Humayun Ahmed was the Wonder Boy of our literary world. He traversed all the branches of fiction with equal ease. Had he not chosen to write novels on social life, especially about the joys and sorrows of the urban and the semi-urban middle class, he could well be our best science fiction writer. Fiha Shomikoron, Tomader Jonyo Bhalobasha, Tara Tin Jon, Shunno, Omega Point and so on were proof of his masterly strokes of pen as a science fiction writer. The TV serials on Bangladesh television were never so popular before Ai Shob Din Ratri, Bohubrihi, Oyomoy, Kothao Keo Nei, etc. The main character of the last serial, a local bully Baker Bhai, became so popular that at the finale of the drama when Baker Bhai was sentenced to death, there were protest demonstrations in different parts of the country by his fans in real life.
His pen was equally adept at writing children's novels and the books Shurjer Din, Botol Bhut, Putul, etc. bore the marks of his genius. Gradually, he began to tread the realm of film making. But again the god of success was with him. Films like Aguner Poroshmoni, Shyamol Chhaya, Srabon Megher Din and others directed by him were able to draw film lovers belonging to the middle class again to the cinema.
What was the secret of Humayun Ahmed? What was special in his novels, screenplays and films that his contemporaries missed? Perhaps the strength of his pen lay in the fact that he was not influenced by the literary movements of the1960s, the decade that was overburdened either with ideas of social commitment, especially imbued with the working class ideology from the political Left, or influenced by Western arts and literary movements of the day that emerged as a rebellion against the bourgeoisie edifice of official art and culture.
But in our semi-feudal post-colonial social and economic context, such literary experiments borrowed from the West might draw the curiosity of the small group of urban and highbrow cognoscenti or dilettanti of very modern art and culture, but not the general readers. It is hardly surprising that such readers, young and old, were looking for something indigenous, that told the stories of their own lives in their everyday language. They were more interested in the stories that narrated their suffering during the war of liberation, but not smothered with political propaganda, or not afflicted by stereotyping and ridiculing the traditional society and its belief system.
The kind of literary narratives that pandered to the small circle of elitist urban literati could never touch the heart of the general readers, who still longed for the novels of Bimal Mitra, Jarasandha, Banaful, Ashapurna Devi, Bibhuti Bhusan Bandopaqdhaya, Manik Bandopadhaya or modern-day Sunil Gongopadhaya and so on from West Bengal. We may also recall how enthralled our older generation was by Sarat Chandra and Bankim Chandra until the fifties of the last century. So, Humayun's secret was he could fill this void in Bangladesh literature after the 1970s.
This is not to say that other novelists, playwrights and poets of the 1950s, '60s and '70s were lesser by any measure than Humayun Ahmed. When measured in the yardstick of literary excellence there were many bright stars in our Dhaka-centred intellectual firmament. Syed Waliullah, Akhteruzzaman Elias, Shawkat Osman and Syed Shamsul Huq are no doubt among the literary stars of the pre and post-independence period. But what is at issue here is the level of popularity among common readers, and Humayun Ahmed was far above them in that respect. In fact, Humayun Ahmed was instrumental in developing the habit of reading and buying books among our run-of-the-mill readers of Bangladesh.
Suffering terminally from cancer, he made sure his pen did not stop. He loved life and was optimistic that he would recover and return home to finish his unfinished works.
But at 64, death has suddenly cast a pall over his future dreams and possibilities. But his place among the young and the old, who loved his writings and films, will forever remain etched in their hearts.
The writer is Editor Science & Life, The Daily Star.
The Daily Star, 23 July 2012