Of friends & foes

Lead review

Of friends & foes

A tale of friendship, love and loss, Anis Ahmed’s ‘The World in My Hands’ highlights the perils of modern day society and the evils that consume relationships, writes Monideepa Sahu 

This is the story of two bosom friends who choose their separate paths, while coming to terms with the excesses of a totalitarian regime. Hissam, the journalist, opts for what he hopes is a pragmatic approach in negotiating precarious alliances with the strongmen controlling his country. In the process, he compromises his deep trust and friendship with Kaiser, the upright self-made business tycoon.

Both these men find the world; love, status, wealth and everything else that matters to them, within reach. But before they can safely grasp those dreams, they are swept away in the cataclysmic unfolding of events, and the outcomes of their personal choices. Natasha, Hissam’s childhood crush and Kaiser’s devoted wife, is friend and confidante to both men. Warm and gracious, she strives in vain to keep their friendship alive in a chaotic and hostile world.

Ahmed’s novel is set in the fictional country of Pandua, a thinly disguised portrayal of Bangladesh today. A sharp satirist, Ahmed has a sparkling sense of humour. He can make readers laugh out loud as he pokes holes into diabolical military rulers, established social conventions, academics, politicians, irate rioters, intellectual think-tanks and self-righteous NGO promoters. From newshounds chasing scoops to self-help books and spiritual gurus, nothing escapes his sharp eyes and witty barbs.

He does this while delving deep into serious issues through a carefully crafted tale woven around well-delineated characters. His observations are funny but apt. He provokes though while eliciting laughter, never sinking to smart-alecky displays of mere verbal dazzle.

Indian readers will relate to these characters and their foibles since we face similar mindsets and situations in our own country. There’s the “Vice Chancellor’, a literary man, or so he fancied himself, having written an impregnable thesis on the countryside in Hardy’s novels, and known among the younger faculty and smarter students as the Cloud of Great Unknowing.”

A think-tank of prominent Panduan citizens gather to address vital national concerns. But they end up as more of a talk shop, happy to be interrupted with sponsored high tea. Then there’s “the Panduan spirit. Meek when facing authorities alone, but full of ferocious vengeance when part of a great crowd... Any true Panduan would quit his job before passing up a good riot.” 

The characters struggle to adapt to a changing Pandua. “The coups d’état of the seventies, almost a seasonal affair, were far bloodier, but they also involved only the actual players: political leaders and army officers... They had never seen anything like the present Emergency, a veritable pogrom against the entire population.”

Kaiser’s name is on the regime’s broader hit-list of over 800 other prominent civilians and captains of industry. Hissam knows it is a matter of time before Kaiser is on the chopping block. Hissam tries to buy time and hopefully a reprieve for his friend. But in the process of negotiating with the powers that be, he ends up compromising not only his own position, but everyone and everything he holds dear. 

The regime grows increasingly malignant in its efforts to consolidate its stranglehold over Pandua. Kaiser and other targets “are not terrorists,” as Barrister Quader points out forcefully. “These are not even people who pose any kind of flight risk. These are people with extensive involvements in this society. People with substantial properties. To take them away in the middle of the night, under false pretence, to hold them in undisclosed locations, to hold them indefinitely without bail, the regime cannot possibly pretend to have any moral authority over its predecessors — whatever their crimes, whatever their corruption — when it acts in such a cruel and contemptible manner.”

Imprisoned for being an enterprising captain of industry, Kaiser sees his homeland degenerating into “one set of people doling out punishment to another, whom they viewed with jealousy and contempt. It could only lead to a new cycle of vengeance.” Unable to bend and somehow survive, Kaiser finally breaks. Hissam bends too much to treacherous masters, mastering the art of flattery and compromise until he too is consumed. Disgraced and discarded, Hissam sinks to writing a political blog, “the last refuge of intellectuals with limited means and unlimited meanness.”

Finally, matters come to a head and “with bullying and intimidation off the table, the BNI seemed to be out of ideas.” Pandua erupts, and it is the little people, ordinary students and men on the street, who rise in rebellion. Natasha and her son overcome personal tragedy to do their utmost for a few needy but deserving people. Babul, the street child turned general stores owner, is the successful-on-his-own-terms face of their NGO, CHEERS. 

The plot is fast-paced, leading to a poignant and satisfying conclusion. The strongest point of this novel is Ahmed’s sense of humour, delighting us in every page while provoking introspection and thought.

The World in My hands
K Anis Ahmed
Random House2013, pp 376
299

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