JUNE 5, 2014
IN MANY postcolonial novels, it is the violent, the ferocious, that captivates: the language protests that blossom into riots in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, the horrific parsley scene in Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones, Okonkwo’s suicide in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. While absolutely necessary, these scenes — often representing the pinnacle of resistance to an oppressor — can render a country’s image in the mind of a reader as existing in a permanent state of crisis.
But what happens after the political foment ends, after independence is won and the extraordinary becomes the everyday? In his debut collection, Good Night, Mr. Kissinger, K. Anis Ahmed explores the quotidian in a series of stories that begins during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and moves into modern-day Dhaka, the country’s largest city and current home to more than seven million.
In concise, elegant prose, Ahmed presents the complexity of a Dhaka that is rife with the same modern concerns of any other democratic city yet one that is rich with tradition, especially a literary one. His characters are young and purple-haired; they “hop over to burger joints,” play video games, watch porn, commit suicide, are atheists, read philosophy, operate wine cellars, participate in capitalism, and so on. Interestingly, for a country whose borders were originally marked in part by religious difference, religion is noticeably absent from most of the stories. Instead, it is the wisdom of poets and philosophers that guides the motivations of Ahmed’s characters. In “The Poetry Audition,” brothers Jamshed and Bahram prepare to defend the value of poetry by exploring the works of Tagore, Khayyam, Hafez, Firdausi, and Nazrul; in “All My Enemies,” Shabaz, a successful, but lonely, developer, finds company in the old stories of lost empires. One gets the sense that it is literature, not religion, that is the bewitching force with which to contend.
Like most compelling characters, Ahmed’s evade the easy classification of good or bad. They seem to be universally preoccupied with plumbing the depths of the human spirit to eke out greater truths. In “The Year of Return,” Andalib, an expatriate living in Vancouver, returns to Bangladesh after his father’s death, and after his wife abandons him for “a Cuban musician in Los Angeles.” There, he begins receiving anonymous demands for large sums of money, and enlists the help of Badshah, a former classmate whom he hasn’t seen in years, a seemingly successful man who “married a TV starlet and confined her to the house with serial pregnancies.” Though he is warned not to get too close to Badshah, Andalib persists; he believes Badshah “turned out to be more interesting and useful than anyone might have predicted.” Even when he suffers significant misfortune at the hands of Badshah, Andalib is unfazed and forgiving.
Throughout the collection, the characters have this sort of detached, intelligent gaze upon their circumstances. Not inclined to excessive pathos, Ahmed touches upon but does not delve too deeply into the ontological concerns of a typical postcolonial novel, namely: how do an individual’s public and private lives reflect a nation’s oppression?
Most of the stories early on in the collection feature Bangladesh and Dhaka hovering in the background while other characters, fully cognizant and formed, take center stage, almost fiercely independent of their surroundings.
But if Ahmed takes a more sympathetic, ruminating, metaphysical approach to the characters in the other stories, he does not do so in the collection’s title story.
“Good Night, Mr. Kissinger” features an “uncharacteristically large-framed” Bangladeshi man with the “unlikely name” of James D’Costa, working in New York as a waiter at a renowned restaurant, where he finds himself repeatedly waiting on the very man who ardently opposed Bangladeshi independence in 1971: former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Here, James is not so forgiving as the community in “Ramkamal’s Gift”; which continues to view Ramkamal’s novel to be The Manual for life, despite the fact that he’s likely skipped town with the money they’d all given him to make it. No, in “Good Night, Mr. Kissinger,” Ahmed unequivocally reminds us of America’s hand in the fate of the Bengali people, and unequivocally lets us know where James stands. It was Kissinger, along with President Nixon in 1970, who supported the Pakistani regime and watched as hundreds of thousands (the Bangladesh government says three million) of Bengalis died.
James’s own anger and past history of rage against a former student (he was a teacher in Bangladesh) is tempered by his uncertain status as an immigrant in a new land. Glimpses of his former life echo another postcolonial ontological exploration, how a person is a result of their nation’s flux: “Violence has become so common in Dhaka that everyone knows a two-bit goon and feels free to lean on that assumed advantage.” This former anger, bubbling under the scrim of displaced identity, is juxtaposed against the cruel atrocity of America’s reticence, represented in Kissinger’s smug disposition when he says, “I hope your country isn’t still a basket-case for the sake of those who are stuck there.” (Kissinger reportedly actually called Bangladesh a “basket case.”) A counterpoint to the more philosophical tone of the rest of the collection, the emotion here is stark and unmitigated. For instance, James thinks,
The dessert knife, still on the table, flashed before my eyes. Kissinger’s neck was soft and crumply enough that I could have pierced it with a blunt instrument.
How often do the oppressed get to confront those who have had a hand in their oppression? This seems to be the underlying question that guides the story, and in a spirit that feels threaded into the majority of Ahmed’s characters — giving his characters a fierce, assured agency. Even James does not allow oppression to define him, and Kissinger’s significance in the story seems to fade in a surprisingly satisfying way.
Though it’s tempting to choose the title story as a favorite, I am inexplicably most drawn to “Ramkamal’s Gift.” First, it’s hard not to like a character like Ramkamal, an almost mythical figure who shows up to a funeral and says, “He was a really bad writer. I came to be sure that they buried him.”
Second, through this lens of an unnamed narrator, we discover how Dhaka’s faith in this shadowy writer, promiser of a great Manual for life that will be written collectively by many of the city’s citizens, can be employed to gain tangible results from which everyone benefits. In “Ramkamal’s Gift,” the denizens of Dhaka work together to fulfill the vision of this elusive, mysterious writer, against the advice of others. It’s a vision that works as a foil for all the talents and gifts the citizens themselves have to offer, as they each contribute in some way to the great Manual. As the narrator states,
We would write the great book of all time, the kind that had never been written before about Dhaka. It would ennoble this sweltering sewer of a city and in the process, rescue us all. Rescue us from historical and literary anonymity.
Perhaps what makes this premise so palatable is the idea that any good work of art, regardless of its named creator, is a product of community. And there’s the idea that, as in the rest of Good Night, Mr. Kissinger, really, individuals, like cities or nations, all have a place in global discourse. At the end of “Ramkamal’s Gift,” the narrator states,
I was pretty sure that he’d be quite happy […] that the Manual was alive. Not just in the form of texts but as a living guide, indeed, a pulsating document inside each of us, of how to be vital in a world without letters.
For a country making headlines simultaneously for its burgeoning economy and the resultant human rights abuses in the garment industry, it could be said that Bangladesh is experiencing the paradox of success. What will the future hold for its inhabitants? How is the West implicated? There are so many questions to answer. As the Bangladeshi literary community continues to document and examine, we’ll be sure to hear more of K. Anis Ahmed’s distinctly important and intelligent voice, piecing together moments of the chaos, one emboldened character at a time.