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Historical fiction sans inspection

  • Published at 02:57 am October 8th, 2017
Historical fiction sans inspection


Set in one of the darkest decades of Bangladesh, Moshiul Alam’s Ditwiyo Khuner Kahini (Tale of the Second Assassination) is a story of political realism that recounts the assassination of Ziaur Rahman and the clandestine murder of General Abul Manjur. 

Published from Prothoma Prokashani, one of the leading publishing houses of Bangladesh, the novel starts promisingly. Hours before his assassination in the Chittagong Circuit House, Ziaur Rahman reflects on the selfish aspect of human nature. As he comes to a conclusion – the omniscient narrator tells us – he believes that it is for this “same selfishness that people flock to his party” and ballyhoo his regime. But soon the novel shifts to macro-historical narrative. Macrohistory takes a long view of history, looking for repetitive patterns to reach broad-ranging conclusions about the march of history. Though this approach might appear to have the most interest on a general level, it often loses sight of local and individual differences.

According to the macro-historical view of history, the central conflict that leads to a putsch against Zia is the result of a growing rift between two groups in the army: One who participated in the Independence War and the other who were repatriated from Pakistan after 1973. The first group, participator in the Independence War, carries out Zia’s killing, who then seek the leadership of General Abul Manjur, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Chittagong, and also an avid detractor of Hussain Muhammad Ershad. Manjur, the former friend of Zia, plays an innocent role till the putsch is carried out. When the coup is carried out against Zia, the young country faces a power vacuum. Manjur finds out that he has just been set up by junior officers. But he decides to support the coup and take the leadership of the Revolutionary Council. One of the coup-planners, Lieutenant Colonel Motiur Rahman, even wants to wrest control of the Chittagong division from the rest of the country, demarcating their picket line – Shuvopur Bridge, which would sever land access to the port city. Manjur supports Motiur and other “hot-headed” junior officers. 

The question is why the innocent and unassuming Manjur suddenly turns into a Hobbesian man, unleashing a radical plan to spearhead the country? The transition of his character, from an innocent GOC to an ambitious leader of the coup-planners, is rapid and roughly sketched in the novel. The following morning Manjur even reads out a hastily drafted paper at a press meeting to gain support for the coup d’état, describing the visions of the Revolutionary Council. Other characters describe his vicious plan and motive. These fragmented, third-eye narratives cannot see the ticking of time waltzing with the rhythm of a character’s heart. It would be more interesting to see how “mad” Manjur – who would eventually face the same fate as Zia – thinks of his future that the situation offers him, and thus the journey into history would be more worthwhile. The novel misses such close inspection that engages readers into a literary work more deeply.

The repetitive pattern of macrohistory is dominant in the novel. After the coup against Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the putsch against Zia comes as a surprise to many senior officers, which is led by 16 junior officers of varied mindset, some of whom only pull their weight, not realising the consequences of their action. A passage on page 100 reads, “…the Bangladesh Army has fallen into a bloody labyrinth. In this labyrinth flowed a river of blood in 1975; the sepoys bathed with blood of officers, then thousands of sepoys were hanged, yet in the sky of this labyrinth there has always been a cry: we want officers’ blood.” (My translation from Bangla) The narrative builds up a pattern, telling us that the cycle of military regimes in the first decade of our independence is a history of gruesome repetition, doomed by karma that has led all the coup-makers to their undoing. 

The cyclical pattern is also confirmed by the impression that the confronting groups fight only for bringing a front man, the benefit of which both Zia and Ershad have enjoyed thanks to this repetitive history of coup and counter-coup. In literature, we look for a more intimate version of a character that is not found in the books of history and political science. So, when the omniscient narrator vilifies “corrupted, lewd” Ershad, it doesn’t add any depth to his character. Though this narrative is true, depicting history in such an encyclopaedic style devalues the potential of a literary work, because the literary work then becomes a fact book of history, rather than providing insight into bygone times that may offer striking potentials for the present. History needs to be raided, challenged and recounted in a subversive tone that would create a potential for a wide range of literary discussions. 

The book, however, is a marker which indicates that the political history of Bangladesh offers real potential for independent research. An impressive bibliography at the end of the book confirms this conviction and shows the scholarship of the novelist. It also encourages new writers like me to look back at history in such an independent manner. 

While number of historical fiction on the post-independence period of Bangladesh is scarce, Ditwiyo Khuner Kahini is a commendable effort. The thorough research that the novelist has done will definitely serve as a milestone for younger generations who, too, will be writing in the genre of political fiction.

Mir Arif is a fiction writer. He works with Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.

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