Reviews / December 2014 (Issue 26)

The Birth of a Nation: Nemat Imam’s The Black Coat

by Glen Hamilton


Neamat Imam, The Black Coat, Hamish Hamilton, 2013. 251 pgs.


Bangladeshi-Canadian writer Neamat Imam's controversial first English-language novel is set in the immediate aftermath of Bangladesh's hard won independence from Pakistan in the early 1970s. The title, The Black Coat, refers to the iconic Mujib coat of Bangladesh's greatest hero and "father of the nation," Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. With his compelling and vigorous speechmaking, Mujib is said to have been responsible for galvanising millions of Bengalis to strive for their own nation. Indeed, it is for this reason that he is often given the honorary title of Bangabandhu—Friend of Bengal.

The Black Coat has been seen by many commentators as a spring tide of the rising seas of South Asian writing. While it has been lauded for its literary style, it has been criticised in some quarters as a thinly disguised political tract that from its beginning sets out to "slay Sheikh Mujib." Indeed, its waters meet the dark shores of newly independent Bangladesh and give an inky reflection of the Neptunian myth-making cults of authenticity, personality and nationalism that drench the peoples of modern nations.

Bangladesh in The Black Coat is sodden. It is soaked through with blood and suffering—the steamy humidity of penury, famine and a poverty of ideas. Prime Minister Sheikh Mujib is a sacerdotal figure indistinguishable from the nation he has delivered from oppression and never far from the reader's thoughts as the novel progresses. Through Imam's heavy rain, though, the liberator begins to look like a despot.

The plot revolves around two characters. Khaleque Biswas is a former minstrel of Mujib's. After spending the war conscientiously whipping up the nationalistic fervour necessary to expel Pakistan from Bengal, Biswas finds himself fired from his job with the Freedom Fighter newspaper. With the war over, he wants to see fast and real progress for the Bangladeshi people and is disillusioned when he doesn't see it materialising. Indeed, it seems that his employers are more interested in a period of self-satisfied consolidation than in truly getting to grips with righting the rampant inequalities of Bangladeshi society.

Biswas by turns exploits and celebrates the ideas of his new nation, his new nation's hero and his new nation's people—especially the poor. He is kind, vicious and capricious. Early in the novel, Biswas is disabused of his notion that the nationalism and great, patriotic ideas he has been pedaling in his newspaper have been a driving factor in the war for independence. He realises, assessing the ashes of the war, that the freedom fighters had not always struggled for any particular idea of Bangladesh—that they had instead often fought and died solely for Mujib.

Nur Hussain is Biswas's post-war ward and has a gift for reciting Mujib's classic liberation speech of 1971 that so resonates with the Bangladeshi people. Biswas dresses Hussain in a Mujib, and has him perform for coins in front of crowds of the poor. The pair are soon noticed by the new Bangladeshi establishment, however, and events spiral out of control as they find themselves mixed up in the great game to define Bangladesh and the men that acted to set her free.

Hussain, quietly symbolising the common people of Bangladesh, is like clean blotting paper dipped into the aforementioned inkiness—a sum total of confluences. Biswas says of him, "It was useless to consult him … about anything, important or unimportant. He would choose silence over words, as if he never spoke. He would look into my face, as if I would not have asked the question if I had not had it answered already. He did not care. He had no feelings." It is the profundity of this observation that leads Imam into increasingly interesting areas of examination.

There can be no doubt that Imam has been very brave in confronting the myth-making of a new nation. Dangerous passions and red raw sentiment are loose. There are many within and without Bangladesh that would rather have their national hero uncomplicated and straightforward, but Imam does not give it to them.

To be sure, The Black Coat drifts very close to becoming a polemic on the subject, but it is this that makes the novel in turns unsettling and rewarding even for a reader unconnected to South Asia. In tugging sharply at the reader's own perspectives and prejudices, it reminds us that even though all nations have woven a fabricated narrative from the domains of myth, legend and (questionable) histories, such narratives are never inconsequential. For example, could Britain make do with a Churchill that was not only the implacable foe of fascism but also the violent, indefatigable oppressor of trade unionists? Could the United States prosper with a George Washington that arranged for the hunting down of escaped slaves as it does with one that could not tell a lie about chopped down cherry trees?

Imam gives us a Bangladesh that is also the newly freed Cuba, Eire and Kosovo. He gives us a Mujib that is also a Gandhi, a Mugabe and a Mandela. In The Black Coat, all our puddled murky myths are brought under the glare of a Bengali sun.

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