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A writer and his libertine

  • Published at 06:01 pm October 2nd, 2016
A writer and his libertine

Audacity is an essential quality in any writer, which means the courage to say something which will shake the foundations of society. As Syed Shamsul Huq passes away, I recall an early winter afternoon chat with him at his residence more than a decade ago.

Working for an English newspaper, I was interviewing him and, obviously, the most notorious of his protagonists, Babar Ali, the inveterate womaniser with a tormented soul, came up.

Babar, for those who are new to Huq’s works, is an anti-hero in what can be termed as Huq’s magnum opus Khelaram Khele Ja, which loosely translates to “player, keep on playing.”

The other day, right after the death of this literary icon, I was having a discussion on the impact of Syed Huq’s works with Faroha Suhrawardy, a fellow communications expert and an avid reader.

What he said, almost rhetorically, triggered some deeper thoughts.

“Writers will always be defined by one or two of his most daring works; for Syed Shamsul Huq, the name that instantly comes to mind is Khelaram.”

I am inclined to agree. Yes, there have been countless other work. Nuruldiner Shara Jibon is also an immortal piece which forever captures the defiant stance of one person galvanising thousands to break the shackles of slavery.

But, for many lovers of contemporary work in Bengali literature, Khelaram will have special relevance because of certain reasons.

The first being the book and the character’s penchant towards challenging an insipid, convention-following, Utopian idealism-delivering role.

Babar Ali is not the middle-class poem-reciting leftist romantic, nurturing the notion of love laced with mushy visions on a rain-drenched afternoon. He is, instead, the aggressive lover, an incorrigible egotist, the fast-driving, whiskey-drinking, business magnate for whom lust is more lasting emotion than love.

In 2016, such a character may not shock, but in 1970, in a society insulated by a thick layer of conservative values, the impact was almost seismic.

At that time the book was panned by many, especially the so-called vociferous crusaders of the moral brigade, although some enlightened few saw this as an honest narrative of an evolving society.

Even four decades later, Khelaram still manages to throw a wrench into our notions of what values a hero should encapsulate. It seems, despite such social transformations, the ingrained belief in us asserts that any central male character in fiction must be a paragon of virtue

Babar Ali was not just the creation of a writer’s imagination gone wild -- he was the reflection of a facet of society which no one wanted to talk about.

Even four decades later, Khelaram still manages to throw a wrench into our notions of what values a hero should encapsulate. It seems, despite such social transformations, the ingrained belief in us asserts that any central male character in fiction must be a paragon of virtue.

Hence, in our books and films, the villains drink and have multiple female partners while the hero is completely vice-free.

Subconsciously, we expect the hero to be faithful, courteous, benevolent, and, well, very mundane. Why Khelaram Khele Ja retains its importance is because this book goes on to ask back: Why cannot a man of many vices and a little virtue be the protagonist?

Many years after Syed Shamsul Huq wrote Khelaram, a similar novel, The Company of Women, depicting the life of a sex addict, was written by Khushwant Singh.

In Singh’s book, the central figure, Mohan Kumar, is not too different from our own Babar Ali. For those who seek cheap thrills, the sex is there, though the lust in both the books is just a salacious layer to hold the reader’s attention.

It is, of course, easy to reject both works as cheap fiction, though a little attention reveals the characters far more closer to real life.

And beyond the sex, there is the murky side of one’s past. Both Babar and Mohan have demons that relentlessly haunt them.

Khelram, in the days prior to the 1971 Liberation War, gave us a man who maintains several sexual relations, with his life appearing to be motivated by the sole desire to win the next woman. He is mean, selfish, understands the power of money and what it can get.

In short, the recurring message is that all inhibitions can disappear once there is the lure of monetary gain and the promise of discretion.

Perhaps, back in that time, such a character sent shockwaves; however, in today’s society, we have countless Babar Alis -- unfortunately, in our effort to maintain that image of the immaculate hero and the façade of strict traditions, such people are no longer featured in fiction as the main character, but as the bad guys.

With the death of the writer, I picked up the book one more time, read it in one go, and marveled at the prose that triggered the debate whether this was obscene or not: “There is only one thing that separates each woman: The unique smell of their naked bodies; some smell of lime, some of yoghurt, others of stagnant green water; some of fresh newspapers, a few of sweet cough syrup, and others of fresh cheese.”


Like I said earlier, this is not just about one man’s quest to conquer a new woman, but a façade of frivolity to hide an inner failing.

In the end, both Babar and Mohan Kumar redeem themselves. Pity, in assessing the books, these parts are hugely neglected, arguments almost always rage on about the fleshy bits.

Syed Shamsul Huq is no more, but his Babar Ali in Khelaram lives on in the book and in real life, whether general society recognises him or not is irrelevant.

Amidst a crowd of so many spotless heroes driven by lofty morals, someone with depravity manages to hold a place. In a make-belief credo of decency, Huq has given us an immortal character -- a debauched hero called Babar Ali.

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

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