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How Humayun Ahmed became the Shakespeare of Bangladesh

  • Hasan Al-Mahmud
  • 13 November, 2020 12:00 AM
  • Print news
How Humayun Ahmed became the Shakespeare of Bangladesh

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Have you ever searched in Google for ‘the most popular writer of Bangladesh’? You’ll undoubtedly find the name that I’m thinking about right now. Yes, it’s Humayun Ahmed (13 November 1948 – 19 July 2012). This genius writer was able to influence a generation, through which the capital of Bengali literature shifted from Kolkata to Dhaka.

This is probably why his contemporary Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay believed that Humayun Ahmed was the most popular Bengali writer of Bangladesh. He even exaggerated: “Humayun Ahmed was more popular than Kolkata’s Sarat Chattopadhyay.” This popularity, along with his unique work styles, excellent narrative techniques, and attractive plot constructions---made him considered the Shakespeare of Bangladesh, and there are many reasons to think so.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616), known as the ‘National Poet’ and ‘Bird of Avon’ in England, became one of the greatest English language poets and playwrights through his 36 plays and 154 sonnets--focusing his themes on social wit, wisdom, comedy, and tragedy. On the other hand, Humayun Ahmed wrote more than two hundred storybooks and novels. One of his work’s main features is ‘story-richness’ through which he effortlessly and convincingly portrays surreal events that can be considered a kind of magical realism.

Humayun Ahmed never compared him with the greatest Bengali writers and poets: Nazrul and Rabindranath, let alone William Shakespeare. However, considering his works, achievements, writing purposes, critic reviews, most notably for popularity and acceptance, Humayun Ahmed can be compared with Shakespeare from a Bangladeshi perspective. 

Shakespeare went through a lot of criticism in his life that his writing was not insightful and in genuine. Even, he was remarked ‘intolerably dull and nauseating’ by Darwin, most popularly, he got analysed as nothing but a drama seller.

In Bangladesh, Humayun Ahmed faced the same situation in his lifetime. People who think that readers should buy books to learn new thoughts and ideas to understand all the wonderful parts of history and philosophical literature---they blamed Humayun Ahmed as a writer who ran after the money; publishing books became important business literature became property for him.

Humayun Ahmed was also criticised as a weak storyteller. He heard many times that his writings lacked depth compared to Shawkat Ali, Hasan Azizul Haque, Akhteruzzaman Elius, and others. Humayun Ahmed once asked a professor of Bengali literature to read a story draft and asked for his opinion. Reading that draft, the professor commented, “not bad, but depth is less.” Humayun Ahmed took the draft back and replied that the story was written by Manik Bondopaddhoy, who is considered one of the greatest Bengali writers. He added, “After changing only the characters if there is a lack of depth in his writing, I have no regrets if my writing is shallow.”

The cynical readers and critics cannot understand Humayun Ahmed if they consider him to bring his personal life into the literary career. Instead, it is essential to point out how brilliantly and differently he worked for Bengali literature. Without going into depth, narrating in simple language, besides Humayun Ahmed, only Imdadul Haque Milon was very much successful at that time and he also believed that Humayun Ahmed was the best in the era.

Between the late ’70s and his death in 2012, he was an unrivalled craftsman of Bengali fiction—the popularity of his stories and novels during this period was incomparable. Humayun Ahmed created his fictional characters ‘Himu,’ ‘Misir Ali,’ and ‘Shuvro’—it influenced a broad audience, especially the youth, and made them wear yellow ‘panjabis’ as a trend. They used to run after him so that it often became a matter of law and order for the bookfair authorities. The vendors in the nearby stalls complained that they could not sell other books. Shamsuzzaman Khan, the Director-General of Bangla Academy, confirmed that only in 2011, Humayun Ahmed’s books worth around 150 million were sold.

Although the subcontinent has witnessed various literary works or fictional characters, the audience’s strong reaction to the death sentence of the character ‘Baker Bhai,’ created by Humayun Ahmed in the drama ‘Kothao Keu Nei,’ is still considered as the most surprising event in the field. People protested this death sentence coming to the streets and even filing a general diary to the police station to change the drama sequence. Actor Asaduzzaman Noor, who played the ‘Baker Bhai’ role, remembered that on the day of airing the last episode of the series and said, “Dhaka’s appearance was like a curfew.”

This is how Humayun Ahmed became the Shakespeare of Bangladesh. Another famous Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukherjee called him “one of the best writers of the subcontinent.” “He started a new era in Bengali literature,” said Syed Manjurul Islam, a Bangladeshi writer, and English professor at Dhaka University. Pakistan's newspaper ‘Dawn’ called him a “cultural legend of Bangladesh.” Poet Al Mahmud believed that Bengali literature’s golden age came to an end through Tagore and Nazrul; another began through Humayun Ahmed.

Carrying eloquence and simplicity in his writing, he was simultaneously a novelist, short story writer, playwright, and lyricist. He is said to be the pioneer of modern Bengali science fiction literature. He was also admired as a successful drama and film director. Books written by him have been translated into many languages—many are included in the curriculum of schools, colleges, and universities. In the same way, Shakespeare is also read in Bangladesh, as well as around the globe. Therefore, it won’t be wrong if we consider Humayun Ahmed as the Shakespeare of Bangladesh. Let’s remember him on this special day and wish him a blessing happy birthday.

(The writer was a chaperone for the International Writing Program (BTL2020) at the University of Iowa, USA. He writes on contemporary issues, education, and literature.)