Bangladeshi author Anis Ahmed talks about politically-engaged writing and new voices from his country

A few years ago, he turned heads with Goodbye, Mr. Kissinger. The book attracted global attention and was featured at the Hay Festival in Dhaka. Now, there are ripples surrounding the book’s American edition.  Meanwhile, the unassuming K. Anis Ahmed is not resting on his laurels. He has just penned The World in My Hands. Tahmima Anam, herself riding a crest, describes Ahmed as “a strong new voice from Bangladesh”, while closer home, Shashi Tharoor says, “Ahmed’s pen will hold the reader’s attention till the last page.”

Born a little before the Bangladesh War of 1971, today Ahmed’s is among the most significant voices in Bangladesh as the country goes through a new stirring. Ahmed, who publishes the daily Dhaka Tribune, feels confident about his fellow authors from the country, believing that, by and by, more voices will find international audience. Excerpts from an interview:

Authors from Bangladesh are beginning to be heard and read on the international stage. A few years ago, Monica Ali made headlines. More recently Tahmima Anam and you have caught the eye of the discerning. Is it sunshine time for Bangladeshi authors or authors of Bangladeshi origin?

Monica Ali and Tahmima Anam have brought an attention on writings from or about Bangladesh that didn't exist before. And there is definitely some more good writing on the verge of coming out: Maria Chaudhuri's splendid memoir of growing up in Dhaka, Khademul Islam's equally sharp memoir of 1971 and a novel from New York-based Tanwi Nandini — all due out next year. There are yet other talents who will very likely also be picked up by international publishers before long: Mahmudur Rahman, Sharbari Ahmed, Saad Hossain and more.

Whether it’s ‘sunshine’ time yet, however, remains to be seen. It will depend on all these writers and others producing consistently good work in the years to come. Also, there is a renewed effort at translations now. I am a co-founder of the Dhaka Translation Center, which will bring the best of world writing into Bangla, and make the best of Bangla available in English. This, too, should allow a crucial access to one of the world’s most populous cultures.

Bangladeshi society and polity is undergoing a new churning — in many ways diametrically opposite to the Arab spring. Is the literature ably depicting the tumult, the turmoil and the winds of change?

Who knows which way the Arab Spring or its fallout is now headed? Our struggle for democracy was won in 1991, over two decades before our Arab peers’. But it has been an often-imperiled democracy. Lack of assured democratic transitions has repeatedly led to serious conflicts. An impasse like this led to a military-backed Emergency last time in 2007. The crisis this time is compounded by the Jamaat’s attempts to derail the war crimes trials through violence. The current opposition has allied with them, giving them moral and political succour, which is no help to progressive aspirations.

Our writing has not tackled these ongoing political challenges head-on at all. A great deal of our writing looks back on the Liberation War of 1971, which is also important. Others have delved into social issues, gender issues or small personal stories. And that’s all fine by me, as long it’s done well. I don’t think it’s literature’s duty to sort out present politics. 

You talk insightfully about military-backed Emergency in the novel. Yet there is a poignant track of friendship too. How did you manage to strike a balance between the specific and the general; the uneasy choice before an individual and the larger issues of the State?

There is a great deal of writing in South Asia that reflects the state’s often brutal effect on citizens. Rushdie and Mistry, decades apart, have both depicted the forced vasectomies of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Examples of this kind of deleterious effects of the State are abundant. What we don’t have much in South Asian writing, however, is any depiction of individuals getting embroiled in machinations of the State. If people in positions of such power are ever depicted, it is only as passing or minor characters, and rarely as rounded characters. I wanted to take on that generally despised category of people — those who run affairs of the State — not as an abstraction, but as real-life people with both political ambition and ability, and affecting personal hopes and disappointments. To find a way to treat such characters as valid and sympathetic characters within the context of South Asian fiction or its biases was the tricky part. Once I got into the groove of knowing the personal complexities of these characters, the rest of it fell into place quite naturally.

There is a strong undercurrent of emotion in what is essentially a suspense-filled saga. You develop your characters with patient details yet you don’t brood over them. How challenging was it to arrive at the gripping mix?

This too was a particular ambition for me, and frankly not a very highbrow one. I think there’s too much writing — perhaps since Joyce — that seeks to be worthy or important to itself, and not to entertain. I wanted to write something that would have a strong narrative propulsion. This meant a story that would be well-structured and fast paced, but at the same time with deep and complex characters. These twin — and apparently contradictory — ambitions led to a narrative that presents the characters in the fullness of their contradictions, but without, as you say, the brooding.

As a reader, one is at times playing catch up with the way the drama unfolds…

If that’s how it reads, I’m delighted. I wanted it to read almost like a thriller!

In many ways, is The World in My Hands part of the brave new voice from Bangladesh where authors are beginning to express the anguish of the past and pushing the government to correct the wrongs of the State’s creation and the early years afterwards?

I don’t see a lot of writing that’s taking on the political challenges of our generation, let alone the errors of the State. Nor do I personally think that that is literature’s role. Or even that great or important writing cannot occur if it doesn't do that. So, while I’d personally love to see more politically-engaged writing alongside many other types, I won’t say our writing is taking that on as a primary goal. For me too, the politics was ultimately a foil to allow the exploration of human angst in moments of great temptation and threat, and how one tries to square one’s longing for power or recognition with one’s sense of love or loyalty. It’s such individual-level issues that are ultimately the main focus of this novel. The test of staying true to one’s self — and the price of not being able to do that.