It has been three years since our dearly beloved author Humayun Ahmed passed away (19 July 2012). I do not know if it is worth calling a death premature that occurs in one's early sixties. But Humayun Ahmed's death always seems way far premature and unexpected to his millions of fans in and around the country. He was the one who had been entertaining us throughout the year with his stories, novels, films, plays and whatnot. He was a man of a creative bent. Whatever he had done was enriched with creativity and originality, which never failed to fascinate. Therefore, quite naturally, Humayun Ahmed is being greatly missed by his countless admirers. In the February book fairs or the television drama serials, his absence is felt, and makes the heart grow fonder.
However, there is the other side of the coin. Humayun Ahmed is perhaps the only writer in Bangladesh who has the highest number of admirers and detractors. You will hardly find any literate Bangladeshi today who has not read his books, and, at the same time, you will not find any literary critic who has not knocked his writing. An awful lot of people praise his books to the skies while a whole lot see in them the literary standards going down the drain. But one thing is common in these groups at loggerheads -both read his books. It is an interesting feature of Humayun Ahmed's books that, people love reading them regardless of whether they like the author or not. I have seen many critics, who have the gall to blast his writing in public, picking his latest arrival from the bookcase, and reading on the sly. And caught in the act, they, much to their embarrassment, give the pretext that they were in fact weighing up how bad it was as a work of art.
Humayun Ahmed is, now, easily the most popular writer in Bangladesh-a superstar author with a prolific following of fans. Most of the younger generations are Humayun-mad. They are passionate devotees of his writing. Not only do they read it voraciously, they also are strongly influenced by it, and tend to act accordingly. Perhaps no other writers in Bangladesh could have exerted such a powerful influence on their readers, as Humayun did. We have seen many youngsters leave home with empty pockets wearing yellow panjabi, and walk the streets at dead of night in bare feet following in the footsteps of one of his characters called Himu.
If popularity is the yardstick of a writer's quality, Humayun Ahmed could be the greatest writer in Bangladesh, and one of the greatest writers of Bengali literature. But the connoisseurs of literature won't sure see eye to eye with it. They are used to taking popularity mostly in negative connotations. They do not want to see Humayun Ahmed on an equal footing with Shawkat Ali, Akhteruzzaman Elius, Hasan Azizul Haque, Selina Hossain and the like. So, however popular Humayun Ahmed may grow, he will not be able to lay claim to real literary merit. At the very most, our critics would like to include him in the chronology of the Bengali novelists.
Does Humayun Ahmed's writing really have no literary value? How to evaluate this? Is there any particular standard for judging the merit of literature and art, which can be taken for granted? Is there any fixed criterion for assessing the ability of a writer? If there is any, who then, would set it and apply to others? Who is the right authority to judge the quality of art? Writers like Shakespeare could not escape critical censure. Darwin found him ' intolerably dull and nauseating'. Did it diminish the importance of Shakespeare in the slightest?
As a matter of fact, there are no hard and fast rules about literature and literary judgment. Art is the oldest expression of human creativity, and gives birth to the written form of literature after the invention of letters. Literature is precisely nothing but the art of writing. It has come a long way and assimilated numerous changes into it. The modernists and the postmodernists have come up with a baffling variety of themes and contents, and this variety has been the spice of literature. Tagore's personal letters have taken on high literary status, and his proofread matters have been accorded great artistic quality. If literature is thus unlimited in circumference, it will not be that easy to exclude Humayun Ahmed from the pure literary circle. Besides being popular is not always a bar to becoming a genuine writer.
The man who could enter the Bengali literary arena with the 'blazing inferno' as a metaphor for life on earth, and connote it quite contrarily as 'admirable' at the tender age of 24 is not one to be sneezed at. Nondito Noroke (1972), Humayun Ahmed's debut novel must have carried the seeds of a master literary craftsman. There may be no question about it. But whether the seeds have been properly sowed, and the seedlings have properly grown and produced flowers may well come into question. It is true that Humayun became so exceedingly prolific that most of his later writing had been a pale imitation of the former ones. He was revolving around the same old and clichéd circle of writing, and dealing with the hackneyed human behaviours and eccentricities, which were grimacing at the author himself. It is not preposterous to smell a rat in his obsession with Mammon that allegedly prompted him to mass-produce reading materials.
But there is the other side of the story. Humayun Ahmed, as a writer, has done many things to his credit. It is true that like a master craftsman, he could not exploit the literary devices in diverse ways. However, he has his own sweet way to tell stories, which is, too, fascinating. The most important thing in him is that he can obviously strike a chord with his readers. He is a man of luxuriant imagination and profound compassion. His imaginative empathy with his subject is so intense that it tugs at the reader's heartstrings. This is where lies the secret of his popularity, and the grounds for his success as an author. To this has been added his use of language, which is easy, simple, and direct and accessible to a wider reading public. His novels Nondito Noroke, Shankhonil Karagar, Jothsna O Jononir Galpo are valuable contribution to Bengali literature. His characters like Himu and Mishir Ali are not less important than Satyajit Roy's Feluda or Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay's Byomkesk Bakshi.
Like a born artist, Humayun had many strings to his bow. He was a playwright of high order. He did much to popularize the trends of soap opera in Bangladesh. One of his TV serials in the nineties (Kothao Keu Nei) was so appealing that people took to the streets with an impassioned plea for saving the life of its hero ( Baker Bhai) who was sentenced to death by the court. In addition, Humayun was an accomplished film maker. His Aaguner Parashmoni is an invaluable addition to Bangla films on our Liberation War. During his dying days, he had added another fresh feather to his cap by establishing himself as an artist, which testifies to his versatility as an artistic mind.
These are few manifestations of a creative mind named Humayun Ahmed who seems to be more sinned against than sinning to his critics. He is misunderstood both by his supporters and detractors. What his fans do is nothing other than claptrap, and what his critics do is unnecessarily patronizing. There is no need to make a song and dance about him, nor is there any reason to frown upon his writing. A fair gauge of his achievements can place him in the right position.
Humayun Ahmed is inseparable from the present day Bangla literature. He defied all the odds and survived as the most popular of the contemporary writers. He won at almost everything in his life except for a terminal disease. But he did not give up easily. He fought an uphill battle with killer cancer and finally lost. However, his contribution to Bengali life and literature will live in our memory for ages.
Dr Rashid Askari writes fiction and column, and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University. Email: [email protected]