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Tears for Humayun Ahmed: The Shakespeare of Bangladesh

Professor Humayun Ahmed, who earned a PhD in chemistry from North Dakota State University, and who was a scientist, writer, and a filmmaker, died aged 64 in the United States, after a nearly year-long battle against colon cancer. Every Bengali heart has grown heavier and heavier since his death.

Humayun was a custodian of the Bangladeshi literary culture whose contribution single-handedly shifted the capital of Bengali literature from Kolkata to Dhaka without any war or revolution. One of the remarkable things about Humayun’s long and distinguished literary career is his influence. His writing is so influential that people not only get psychological pleasure from reading his books, but usually end up becoming fans of his fictional characters, such as Himu, Misir Ali, and Baker Bhai. His creations generate the smells, sounds, and vibrations of feelings and moods, which are more powerful than all the unused hydrogen bombs in the United States. However, in death, Humayun’s celebrity status seems likely to exceed his popularity, even at the height of his fame. His funeral, which was held in Dhaka, became a Super Bowl-like event: millions of Bengalis from all walks of life flocked to the Central Shaheed Minar to say “Hasta la vista, Humayun Sir.”

Humayun’s death has proven that the tragic and completely unexpected passing of an icon familiar to millions can create an emotionally unifying experience for a nation. Bangladesh does not have oil, coal, or fossil fuel, but it’s still more united than many countries, such as Pakistan, because it had Humayun Ahmed-whose influence was strong enough to unite all Bangladeshis with each other emotionally. What, then, is our assessment of Humayun’s importance in world literature?

Humayun, who was known for his depiction of the tribulations of ordinary middle-class Bangladeshi life, reached the peak of his fame with the publication of Nondito Noroke (In Blissful Hell) in 1972, which remains one of his most famous works, winning admiration from literary critics, including Dr. Ahmed Sarif. He wrote over 200 fiction and non-fiction books-all of which were bestsellers in Bangladesh. This is something unheard of.

Furthermore, Humayun made a huge contribution to the field of fine arts, especially in film. He is hailed as one of the most influential architects of television drama of all time, authoring landmark sitcoms, such as Ei Shob Din Ratri, Bohubrihi, Ayomoy, and Kothao Keu Nei, which featured a fictional character named Baker Bhai, who was wrongly convicted and executed. Baker Bhai became such a popular character that before the last episode was aired, thousands of people across the country urged Humayun to change the script just to save his life, the life of a fictional character. This made Humayun a household name, which allowed him a great deal of autonomy for his future projects, motion pictures. His films have covered many themes and genres-addressing such topics as the Bangladesh Liberation War, the middle class crisis, and socio-economic issues. His first film, Aguner Parashmoni, based on the history of the Bangladesh Liberation War, was a huge success-winning National Film Awards in eight categories, including Best Picture and Best Director. His film, Shyamal Chhaya, was submitted by Bangladesh as an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. As with Satyajit Ray, Zahir Raihan, or Tareque Masud, it is difficult to calculate the full effect Humayun had on Bangla film. But he was indisputably the most talented Bengali filmmaker, more so than his three famous predecessors. In fact, I cannot name any other Bengali filmmaker who better illustrated the history of the country’s independence through film the way Humayun did; he was ahead of his times. Had Humayun done nothing else, the creation of such films alone would have entitled him to be one of the greatest Bengalis of all time.

It is true that Bengali literature would have remained piteously incomplete, and even imperfect, without the works of Humayun. However, it is also quite apparent that without the works of Tagore or Nazrul, Bengali literature would have broken up into mutually unintelligible dialects. Hence, it is fair to place Humayun after Tagore and Nazrul. However, Humayun never compared himself to Shakespeare, and not even to Tagore and Nazrul. He did not regard himself as a great writer.

In fact, I am sure that if anyone conducted a survey to list the five greatest writers of Bengali literature, Humayun would be third, if not first or second. Furthermore, one should consider what other great people have said about Humayun. Several years ago, I asked Muhammad Yunus how he assessed Humayun’s overall impact, and he replied, “Humayun’s works are the most profound and most fruitful that literature has experienced since the time of Tagore and Nazrul.” Al Mahmud, the poet laureate of Bangladesh, told me something similar: “One golden age of Bengali literature ended with Tagore and Nazrul and another began with Humayun.” Fiction writer Imdadul Haq Milon considered him to be the almighty lord of his Bengali literature, controlling all their actions and thoughts. If so, he is a generous lord, who is great because he created immortal characters, such as Misir Ali and Himu, and they, on entering our memory, become more alive than the living. Misir Ali is basically a rational psychologist committed to unraveling the mysteries around him through logic. On the other hand, Himu, who works with anti-logic, appears to possess strong intuitive power, though he dismisses his intuitions that come true as mere coincidence. Misir Ali forces us to realize that logic is above emotion, and Himu forces us to understand within ourselves that the better side of our nature should always struggle for dominance with our subtle dark side.

Although Humayun created literary fever through his works, which spread all around Bangladesh, unfortunately he still remained one of the great unsung heroes of human progress to those who live outside of the Indian subcontinent. With that said, literature, of course, is not all about recognition. Still, the fact that Stockholm did not ultimately embrace Humayun Ahmed-a Nobel Prize, why not?-is unfortunate, as it probably would have meant a lot to him. In a time when hardly any of the roles (including Hasina, who is playing the role of Prime Minister) are being played correctly in Bangladesh, Humayun played the role that was assigned to him well: writer and filmmaker. As a result, his name has become synonymous with the greatness of Bengali literature. Hence, to a Bangladeshi, his loss is manifold. He made young people-especially students who had been bred to political passion-understand that there was something that is more important than politics: reading books, and appreciating the fine arts.

Rashidul Bari, a biographer of Muhammad Yunus, most recently authored the Grameen Social Business Model: A Manifesto for Proletariat Revolution.

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