Book Review: The Black Coat
by Neamat Imam
Periscope Books, 2015
The establishment of the state of Bangladesh in 1971 and the years of chaos and famine that immediately followed form the setting for Neamat Imam’s hugely accomplished debut novel The Black Coat, which successfully manages to walk a tightrope between being a wry dark comedy and a wail of despair.
Its main character is a hack journalist named Khaleque Biswas, a staff writer for the weekly broadsheet The Freedom Fighter in Dhaka. The Bangladeshi insurgence leader, revered Sheikh Mujib, is languishing in a West Pakistan jail on treason charges, cities and towns and roads in all directions are overrun with refugees, and Khaleque is doing his part for the struggle by writing articles excoriating all things Pakistani. It’s not much of a living, but he feels it’s a worthy cause, writing in defense of Bangladeshi freedom and in the name of an imprisoned leader who’s “more popular with Bangladeshis than the Prophet Mohammed.”
The precarious nature of Khaleque’s day-to-day life is upset even further by the appearance of a young man named Nur Hussain, who’s been fobbed off on Khaleque by a distant acquaintance to whom he owed a small favor. The acquaintance has sent Nur Hussain along with a request that Khaleque look after him and get him set up with some kind of gainful employment in Dhaka – a task that proves singularly difficult when it become apparent that Nur Hussain is something of a surly innocent, a Bengali Bartleby with no marketable skills, no drive, and no interest in the striving city life. Khaleque is driven to despair, especially after he gets himself fired from The Freedom Fighter and begins using up his savings. By chance he discovers that Nur Hussain, in addition to somewhat resembling lost leader Sheikh Mujib, also has a knack for imitating his speaking cadences in the delivery of his most famous speech. With nationalist forces eager for a rallying figure and with downtrodden poor folk desperate for inspiration, Khaleque senses an opportunity, furnishes Nur Hussain with Sheikh Mujib’s signature black coat, and takes him on the road, micro-managing every detail:
Soon the time came when I selected his food and checked the size of the potatoes; he ate only after I approved them. It appeared to be simple fastidiousness on my part. I was controlling his life, he might say. I was standing between him and self-determination. But I believed it was my duty to make sure he realized how precious his voice was for us, and how quickly we might turn into nothing if we did not proceed carefully. Destruction was never very far from us. We saw it every day when we went out to speak, when we spoke, when we returned home after speaking. We had to be extra-cautious. He understood me; that was why he never disputed my decisions.
That this indentured servitude-cum-national imposture soon proves financially successful is the heart of the bitter satire in Neamat Imam’s brilliantly-realized book, and that the simplest and most ardent audience members are the ones most taken in bothers Khaleque less and less as the money starts coming in (“I also noticed, regretfully,” he observes at one point, “that only the poor heard the speech from beginning to end attentively and applauded Nur Hussain after it ended, while the educated stood at some distance, listened to a sentence or two and then went on their way”). The duo’s nationalist backers might find them useful and the Mujib-worshipping populace might find them comforting, but sardonic tradition of subversion literature, Khaleque I only interested in money:
This is business. I do not care even about the people who sit before us. They are nationalists and will accept the Devil as a prophet if Sheikh Mujib recommends it. Becoming a nationalist is not a matter of decision; it means one has locked one’s mind forever. No reason or practical advice or evidence is strong enough to unlock it. These people are in a trance – the indolent, seductive trance of Bengali nationalism. We are creating a trance within that trance so that they reach into their pockets.
And Nur Hussain? Well, he sees the misery and privation at every gathering where he speaks his one speech, and the sight gradually works a change in his stolid heart that Neamat Imam shapes into something both pathetic and heartbreaking as the novel builds to its climax. The Black Coat is an utterly dazzling debut, out in an attractively understated paperback from Periscope Books. Here’s hoping it marks the start of a long career.