A great raconteur but a flawed man
Towheed Feroze

Understanding the disconnect between Humayun Ahmed’s work and the life he lived

    Photo- Khaled Muntasir/Dhaka Tribune

Someone once said that a writer should not be judged by his personal life but by his books, the characters in his work and their actions. As an aphorism it sounds appropriate but once a writer becomes a social commentator, presenting the subtle evolution of society as well as human nature, his own life inadvertently gets entangled with his works.

Maybe an example will make things clear, take an actor for instance, however idealistic his roles in films, once s/he has secured a place among the fans, his/her private life soon starts to be juxtaposed against the characters portrayed in film.

So, if a hero is an immoral drunkard in real life, his real life bad boy image soon begins to erode the good guy played in the movies. Of course, in Hollywood of the forties and fifties, actors and actresses were expected to be a little flamboyant in real life, thus creating the exalted world of superstars where adultery was an added spice to life, and infidelity was the forbidden fruit of choice.

Then again, the lure of the wicked did not last long because in today’s world, the masses expect their film stars to be a lot more down to Earth. Transgressors still survive but they are more ridiculed than revered.

Right, to get to our man of the moment – Humayun Ahmed, the noted writer, passed away a year ago, and while a large section of readers have yet to come to accept the suddenness of his death, the literary world is feeling somewhat lost. After all, he managed to create a very middle-class world of literature, where idealism ruled supreme, with human follies never managing to overshadow human caprices.

Looking at most of his words one ideology always stands out – the rigid determination of a simple person or persons against the tide of superficial consumerism.

Shall we say, Ahmed’s world of fiction is actually utopian because the characters are to a large extent bordering on perfection? The protagonist is often the struggling man in an urban/semi-urban setting, clasping doggedly to puritan values. Consequently, one does not get a womaniser, gambler or a drinker as the main characters.

Similarly, the women are reflective beings, almost never giving in to materialist allure. Sex has been cleverly relegated by the union of minds, which is presented as the dominant force. The writer took all these almost chaste items and then added the so-called moral strictness of the middle class.

We loved them, and will continue to love the books, but the truth is Humayun Ahmed’s world of fiction is somewhat dissonant with reality.

This writer will dare say, it’s completely detached from Ahmed’s own life, in which he did some very risky and risqué experiments. At a certain point, the writer polarised society because of particular actions, which defied the core values of the ideals his novels propagated.

Interestingly, no one ever asked him if he wanted his novels and the people in them to be romantic escapism of sorts, not be to mistaken as real.

On one hand, the books and their plots appeared very down to earth and humdrum, but look beyond the simplicity and you will find large doses of righteousness.

Let’s get one thing clear – this is not to criticise Humayun, but to try and understand a man, who, like many others before him failed to epitomise in actual life what they preached through their works.

It’s of course not essential that a writer has to be like the characters of his books, but after a certain time readers cannot accept a writer to be too different.

This is exactly why Ian Fleming is deemed a shadow of James Bond and Hemingway is but the heavy-drinking, feminine-company-loving, morose soul, vacillating between flamboyance and solitude – just like many of his characters.

Anyway, we will never know if the radical personal life decisions ever haunted Humayun Ahmed, because he never spoke of them or tried to explain himself to others. Yet, if the writer must ultimately be judged against what he writes, he stands out as a tainted man.

But a year after his death, we will not assess him by his mistakes though they will always carry on nagging the Humayun aficionado. There is indeed a void in Bangla literature because no writer has managed to wrap simple life with fairy tale morals.

After all, despite real life being so harsh, the naïve spirit in us wants to believe in happy endings, purity of monsoon rain and the magical aura of the full moon.

A raconteur is that person who can give us a dream and make it seem real. Humayun Ahmed did just that.

Perhaps in his own life he failed to live his own fantasy – but as we remember him, let’s forgive the writers’ follies and revel in his middle class fantasies that did not have wizards, witches, crystal balls and castles, but near perfect men, women and immaculate moon-lit nights.

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Towheed Feroze

Towheed Feroze is a journalist currently working in the development sector.