Impersonator's tale

Impersonator's tale

Making recent history as backdrop of a novel is unusual, as the author has to carefully tread on the course traversed by persons who shaped the events, which are fresh in public memory.

The birth of Bangladesh in 1971, preceded by repression of unimaginable magnitude by Pakistani military, the inspiring role of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in galvanising the entire population, the chaos after liberation, coups and counter-coups all still influence political debates in the country. Natural disasters including a famine of epic proportions added to the agony of the newly-liberated nation, making the task of governance a formidable challenge. When the rulers failed to rise to the high expectations aroused during the liberation, the woes of citizens multiplied.

It is this failure of governance that is at the core of The Black Coat, the first novel penned by Neamat Imam, a Bangladeshi-Canadian author. It is an indictment of Mujib’s rule (1972-1975). The critique of the troubled legacy of Mujibur Rahman takes the reader through a maze of developments including the wide use of propaganda, highhanded actions of private militia, suppression of every form of dissent and curbs on press freedom  leading to the suspension of the constitution and declaration of Bangladesh as a one-party state. Mujib had declared himself president for life. Within a few months, Mujib was assassinated in a military coup. Imam seems to fully endorse the western view of Mujib as an authoritarian ruler who was unequal to the task. He approaches Sheikh Mujib as a contemporary Bangladeshi politician, one who “distorts information, lies, cheats and thinks irresponsibly.”

The idea of The Black Coat germinated from an Australian documentary on the 1974 Bangladesh famine in 2005. In the film, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was heard claiming that around 27,000 people had died during the 1974 famine. Imam was shocked to find from foreign sources that the actual number was about one-and-a-half million. “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. No religious clash, territorial disagreement or deadly disease subjected our people to helplessly witness the untimely decline of such an astronomical number of lives.”

The novel is a tragic tale of power, pretence, idealism and greed. The plot is woven around Khaleque Biswas, an idealistic journalist, who is thrown out of his job for trying to tell the truth. Like millions of fellow Bangladeshis, he too adored Sheikh Mujib during the liberation war and dreamt of a better life. One day, a youth Nur Hussain lands up at his door in Dhaka. Biswas has the difficult task of finding a job for the good for nothing youth. After failing in his task, he makes Nur his domestic help. The youth soon displays his remarkable skill to mimic Sheikh Mujibur’s famous March 7, 1971 address. Biswas finds Nur speaking parts from Mujib’s speech at a public place. He recreates parts of Mujib’s speech in front of slum-dwellers, rickshaw pullers and shopkeepers, rousing his audience “exactly as Sheikh Mujib had done”, with people in the crowd throwing coins at him saying, “Take this money, please…. Protect our motherland.”

To make the mimicry more authentic, Nur is given a ‘Mujib’ hair cut. The transformation is complete when Nur put on Mujib’s trademark sleeveless black coat which is an all pervasive symbol in the novel. The black coat makes the leader the iconic Mujib: “Wearing that coat, he could easily stand beside Gandhi, Castro, Mao Tse Tung, or any other world leader of that stature”. Soon, those wearing black coat become targets of mob fury.

Nur’s stock rises as he attracts the attention of a senior MP of Awami League, who wants to use his performance at the party’s political rallies. He is also granted an audience with Mujib himself. This is also the beginning of Nur’s disenchantment, even as Biswas tries desperately to cling on to his faith in Mujib in the face of misery that he sees all around him. From a blind admirer, Biswas metamorphoses into a sceptic and fierce critic towards the end. Imam deftly handles the gradual transformation. He recreates haunting images of starvation, mass migration to Dhaka and the collapse of Bangladeshi dream through grim surrealistic scenes. What better symbol of the spectre of famine than that of a man eating screws at a construction site to quench hunger?

The Black Coat is a historical novel with a difference. Intensely political, largely biased against Awami League, the novel is bound to help reopen old wounds in the deeply divided Bangladesh still struggling to find its true identity. But this in no way diminishes the novel’s creative and artistic appeal.

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