After partition in 1947, the western half of the province of Bengal was ceded to India, and the east to Pakistan. "Pakistan was to be for the Muslims, and India for the rest," writes Philip Hensher. "To the left was West Pakistan, where they ruled, and spoke Urdu, and wrote in an alphabet that flowed like water under wind. To the right was East Pakistan, where the Bengalis lived. They spoke Bengali, which chatters like a falling xylophone, and is written in an alphabet that looks like a madman trying to remember a table's shape."
The Pakistanis didn't like the Bengalis, and the Bengalis did not enjoy being ruled by the Pakistanis. Attempts were made to re-educate the reluctant new citizens of East Pakistan – to get them to speak Urdu, and to discard their faith in Bengali poetry and music. It didn't work. In 1970 war between the two broke out and after a nine-month bloodbath, a new country was born: Bangladesh, the country of Bengal.
Philip Hensher's husband, Zaved Mahmood (fictionalised as Saadi), was born in late 1970 into a large, and defiantly Bengali, family in Dhaka. His grandfather kept poems and books walled up in the cellar, awaiting some theoretical moment when people would be free to read again. When the war begins, the whole Mahmood clan gather in the darkness. Most of the children are old enough to understand that any noise might well prove fatal, but Saadi is just a baby. In order to keep him from crying, he is fed and passed from person to person all day: by the time the war ends, "Months of feeding, of keeping me quiet with mishti doi [sweet yoghurt], had produced a gargantuan infant."
Hensher's fictionalisation of Saadi's early years flits from time to time, starting in the years shortly after the war ended. Saadi and his friends are playing street games based on TV characters: the girls are fond of Dallas, the boys like Kojak. But the most popular game is based on the American series Roots, since it allows for a large cast, despotic slave owners, and – most thrilling of all – imaginary slave auctions. Except that the game they're playing isn't about southern black history, but more local events. One boy, Assad, is the son of someone who had supposedly "taken money from the Pakistanis, and had told them where they could find intellectuals – musicians, poets, scholars, professors, schoolteachers – to kill".
The book slides backwards, pulling the reader back to the time before Mahmood's birth. There is the wider family but there are also those who are connected to it: the two musicians Amit and Altaf, his father's chauffeur, Rustum, and their neighbours the Khandekars.
As tensions increase, many people make the decision to flee to Bengal's capital, Kolkata. When, after a long journey, Amit reaches the border – without Altaf, and without his tabla – he "saw all at once his future… He saw his life in India, arriving at his cousin's house with nothing but a small grip with a slashed lining and an apologetic face.He saw himself working at what he could get, sleeping in the corners of rooms, negotiating and explaining with Indian officials, getting nowhere in the course of weeks. He saw no end to the war that was coming."
It's a mark of Hensher's skill that the frequent leaps between dates read so seamlessly as to be unnoticeable. Instead, what snags in the mind are his pictures – of Saadi's father in the back of a rickshaw wrestling legal papers "like a large escaping fish", or Mrs Khandekar passing tiffin-pails to Altaf filled not with food but with something strangely heavy, wrapped in muslin. He has an ear for the ways in which stories glue people together: legends, calcified old anecdotes, necessary falsifications.
"Saadi" tells his story well, but it's the relationship between Amit and Altaf which really sings off the page; chaste, but made of love and music. In the five years that Amit is away, he supposes that Altaf will marry or move away. Instead, when he returns after the war to the same flat in the same street, he finds Altaf there drinking dusty firewater in the afternoon light, the tabla untouched. It will take a while, Amit understands, "to master his understanding of the parts of Altaf's life that had been abandoned, fallen into disuse, and the parts such as breathing which had continued nevertheless".
It's said that when a writer is born into a family, that family is doomed. They don't say what happens when a writer is imaginatively born into his partner's family. By coopting Mahmood's history and making of it something that is neither memoir nor novel nor history but a synthesis of all three, Hensher has created a greater thing than just a record of childhood, or war. It probably isn't Zaved's story any more, but it's great just the same.
Burgess Powers creates web sites and applications like this one!