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The Black Coat

Neamat Imam

Hamish Hamilton

Pages: 240 Rs. 499

In the famine-ravaged fields of Bangla, we are all Mujib

Neamat Imam’s first English novel raises the bar for South Asian fiction in terms of engaging with the politics of a time and a place. It is destined to be a future classic, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

ADITYA MANI JHA  15th Jun 2013

Sheikh Mujib delivering the March 7, 1971 Dhaka speech

was born in 1988, the year two epochal books were released; Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines and Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Their other, obvious strengths (and weaknesses) notwithstanding, these two novels represent, above all, two divergent and powerful approaches novelists take towards history and politics. Rushdie, like the drunken-boxing, filibustering caricaturist that he is, relies mostly on the excesses of his own invention. History, in the hands of a 'post-literate' stand-up comedian such as Rushdie, becomes as real as your scraped elbow. However, he also reduces his novel through indulgence, to the point where the last fifty pages or so are like a vessel for the readers to project their own anxieties about religion – instead of letting the story's integrity be paramount. Ghosh, on the other hand, is deeply wary of the trapdoors that our own inventions contain. At one point, the narrator says, wistfully, "I could not persuade her that a place does not merely exist, that it has to be invented in one's imagination; that her practical, bustling London was no less invented than mine (...)". And yet, later on in the novel, the narrator's views have changed subtly (for the book was a bildungsroman too), and he has realised the bias that comes with being an inventor – an armchair-travel enthusiast. "Everyone lives in a story, he says, my grandmother, my father, his father, Lenin, Einstein, and lots of other names I hadn't heard of; they all lived in stories, because stories are all there are to live in, it was just a question of which one you chose."

Neamat Imam's The Black Coat, published a quarter of a century after the aforementioned pair, takes an approach which seems superficially closer to Ghosh's; although it has more than a taste of Rushdie's knockout satirical flourish. Twenty pages in, however, you realise that Imam's methods and his concerns are all his own. The cover of the book promises "A dark and dystopian portrait of Bangladesh under Prime Minister Sheikh Mujib", but that's really underselling this book, for it makes no mention of how devastatingly funny it is. The underlying tragedy is, of course, the 1974 famine in Bangladesh, which brought the nascent nation to its knees with a death toll of over a million. Imam's narrator Khaleque Biswas, a journalist and a fervent patriot, finds himself conflicted much before the whispers of a famine start going around.

The last time I read a novel which affected my idea of the past to this extent was The Blind Assassin, and that was about three times the length of Imam’s book. I suspect that The Black Coat will be used ­­— again and again — as the gold standard for any book which seeks to engage with South Asian politics or history.

"In 1974 alone, over one-and-a-half million people died in Sheikh Mujib's liberated Bangladesh. How big was that number? Five times the number of Bangladeshis killed by Pakistani forces during the entire period of the liberation war in 1971." Observations like these are what make Biswas an outspoken critic of the new Mujib regime, and he's promptly fired for his troubles. The pivotal moment of his life happens when Nur Hussain, a taciturn, seemingly simple-minded peasant under his care begins to recite Sheikh Mujib's famous Dhaka speech of March 7, 1971; having listened to it on a cassette Biswas keeps playing. From that moment on, Biswas sets about turning Hussain into as precise a simulacrum as he can, making a killing by hiring Hussain out as a Mujib proxy at Awami League rallies.

mam is extra-careful with his handling of Hussain's character. He is presented not so much as a stoic as a real-life blank slate. "It was useless to consult him, not only about the singer, about anything, important or unimportant. He would choose silence over words, as if he never spoke. He would look into my face, as if I would not have asked the question if I had not had it answered already. He did not care. He had no feelings." As Biswas is immersed deeper and deeper into the Awami League's machinations and its systematic trampling of dissent, Hussain begins to understand the monstrous nature of his mimicry. The facade of silence begins to crack even as Biswas is no longer queasy about using Hussain to fill his own coffers. Through the erosion of Biswas' journalistic ethos and his altruistic intentions, we witness how a nation obliterated its identity by allowing one man's persona to overwhelm everything else on the horizon. The titular black coat, a national symbol at the beginning of the story, becomes the vehicle for wolves to go about in sheep's clothes.

In this regard, the scene which I enjoyed the most has Biswas buying his first Mujib coat, and being severely awkward while doing so. Just as he thinks he has managed the task of discreetly purchasing the coat and making himself scarce, the shopkeeper foils his plans. "The seller asked if he should put it in a special gift package. I felt relieved. 'Please go ahead,' I said immediately. 'Thank you.' He took an eighteen-by-twelve inch envelope with a photo of Sheikh Mujib on it and placed both the punjabi and the coat inside delicately, as if they were precious, fragile items. That made me nervous again. I did not want to carry a Mujib coat in my hands; now I would have to carry Sheikh Mujib himself." By the time you finish the novel, you realise how loaded that statement really is.

The last time I read a novel which affected my idea of the past to this extent was The Blind Assassin, and that was about three times the length of Imam's book. I suspect that The Black Coat will be used — again and again — as the gold standard for any book which seeks to engage with South Asian politics or history.

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