Book review: The Black Coat, a novel by Neamat Imam

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The Black Coat, a novel by Neamat Imam, Periscope Books, Garnett Publishing Limited, Reading, UK, 2015,Paperback, 340 pages, $14.99 Amazon, ISBN-13: ‎978-1859640067.

 

By Arnold Zeitlin     27 March 2023

Author Neamat Imam’s novel, The Black Coat, first published in India in 2013 and in the UK in 2015, is still available via Amazon and new to the Journal reviewing desk. It was unlikely published in Bangladesh but someone out there may know more about that.

The book is an extraordinary piece of work. Imam, Bengali-born and now a Canadian resident, places his story in the first half of the 70s decade after the independence of Bangladesh. It remains contemporarily relevant in view of the efforts of his daughter and Bangladesh prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, to make her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s founding figure, a mythic hero.

The story plays out against the background of corruption, food and other material shortages and the growing disillusionment after independence with the Awami League rule under Mujib.

From the countryside, an uneducated bumpkin named Nur Hussain looking for work in the city comes to a news reporter in Dhaka, Khaleque Biswas. The journalist has just told his editor what he wanted to write about for his newspaper, called The Freedom Fighter.

“My country is suffering,” he explained to his boss. “….Good-for-nothing politicians were playing games with people….Where is Sheikh Mujib? Where is the Awami League?”

Within a week, Biswas was fired. “Financial restraints,” explains his editor. Both he and Nur Hussain are jobless.

Nur Hussain in the meantime, like an idiot savant, has memorized Sheikh Mujjib’s celebrated 7 March 71 speech at Ramna race course, in which he uttered independence but stopped short of declaring it. While Nur Husssain listened, Biswas had repeatedly played a tape of the speech, finding comfort in its soaring idealism to cover his disappointment that no editor would hire him..

Nur Hussain, wandering though Dhaka, stops at the Shaheed Minar memorial for the liberation war dead and suddenly begins to recite the speech.  Loiterers around the memorial shout “Joy Bangla” and throw coins at him. Biswas initially is repulsed that it appears Nus Hussain is begging in the name of Sheikh Mujib. Then he tells Nur Hussain, “I do not know what I am thinking ….but I am thinking something…pull me back if I appear unreasonable and crazy….”

Here begins the tale that has the shade of a Frankenstein story.

Biswas already had noticed a resemblance to Sheikh Mujib in Husssain. He trains his unwitting country boy to recite in a robust Mujiburian voice, takes him the barber for a Mujibur hairstyle, buys him the white punjabi shirt and black vest-like coat of the sort that Mujib usually wore. “I can visualize people clapping, coins coming out of their pockets,” Biswas thinks.

Biswas steers Nur Hussain to various Dhaka locations to recite the speech, coins aplenty. His former newspaper even runs a story about them. An Awami League parliamentarian hires the duo to recite the speech at his political rallies and eventually they are taken to meet Mujib himself. “The most gracious man I ever met,” decides Biswas. “I did not see any suggestion of power games in his manner…He was a human being first and then a leader….His greatness lay in his extraordinary ability to remain simple in spite of being the head of a country of seventy million.”

Biswas and Nur Hussain become part of a propaganda effort to quell the country’s restlessness. The money is good. Biswas finds himself making excuses for Sheikh Mujib. “Love him or hate him,” he thinks, “who do we have without him….he is our Arthur, our Lincoln.” As the money comes in, his attitude has changed from what he thought before Nur Hussain became his meal ticket:

” The development scheme the Sheikh Mujib administration had introduced was miserably inadequate,” Biswas once thought. “…..This was because there were thugs everywhere, in every office….thugs who had been freedom fighters but were now destroying the very concept of freedom….Whatever these thugs were, my anger was directed against Sheikh Mujib….He knew everything. Still he employed them, supported them, gave them power….as if without them he could not exist….”

Biswas also mourned the million lives he believed were lost to famine, more than the 300,000 lives he claimed were lost in the liberation war, Biswas using a figure that contradicts the 3 million lives that Bangladesh authorities now insist were lost during the war.

Nur Hussain also changes. He turns up at Shaheed Minar, not in punjabi and black coat but in rags. He tells the crowd around the memorial: “Today I can tell you the truth: Sheikh Mujib has become a monster, and as I speak of my emptiness here, he is coming for you.”

To Biswas, it is Nur Hussain who has become a monster. Biswas weighs his options, and the one he selects brings this compelling Frankenstein story to a bitter conclusion.