Bad girls and middle-class morality
Rubaiyat Hossain shines a spot-light on the disturbing constructions of Bangladeshi womanhood to be found in the novels of Humayun Ahmed
We do not grow up in a vacuum. We learn from media, literature, culture, religion, and family what we are and what we should aspire to be. We learn what is love, what is relationship, what is romance, what is sexual, and what is not from the world around us. Some people may have innate strong personality to resist it, but for someone like myself, literature and media played a huge role in shaping my feminine identity.
It is probably the vice of reading way too many novels and having an imaginative mind that you simply leave the world you reside in and take off on a flight into the world of novels.
I remember many instances when I acted like particular Humayun Ahmed novel characters for days together. This was also the time when I was smuggling books into the bathroom and hiding them in my fat SSC test paper. Thus, my idea of love, romance, and sexuality was largely shaped by Bengali novels, especially those of Humayun Ahmed.
Later, I regretted this. Later I said: “Thank God for Taslima.” It took me years as a student of women’s studies to realize how much I had been damaged by the feeble and unrealistic construction of femininity and romance in Humayun Ahmed novels. I cursed him for ruining my psyche. I cursed him again when he left his long loved family. I finally convinced myself that this man was a hypocrite. I had no reason to read his books anymore.
But then it was Spring. It was <>boi-mela<> time. And I was back in Dhaka for the season after a very long time. My excitement was limitless. I went back almost every week. I bought all the new Humayun Ahmed books. The next day I woke up with a muscle ache and a huge pile of books on my night post. I started reading them. Staying up late, I read them all.
And then I cursed him at the dinner table for writing too much repetitive junk and my parents joined me in cursing him as well. But when my father looked at what I was reading — it was a new Humayun Ahmed novel! He exclaimed: “You curse him so much and then you read his books, too!”
My own hypocrisy hit home at that moment. I decided that I needed to go deep into it. Why did I love and hate this man so intensely all at the same time? After all, isn’t this exactly what he preached in his novels, which became so detrimental for my romantic relations later, loving and hating at the same time, savouring pain as pleasure, saying no, but meaning yes? Why the hell was I so obscure as a woman even today? If I hated him so much then why could I not stop reading him?
The answer was because I loved his books way too much. I loved how his language flowed easily and he defied the classical style of densely woven Bengali prose. He wrote funnily. He made me laugh, he made me cry, and he made me feel wonders.
He also damaged my self-esteem as a woman because I constantly failed to measure up to his female characters. Even when I had managed to act like one of them my life seemed to have been falling apart.
Humayun Ahmed made me weak. Like every other male writer, he constructed his female characters through the lens of his own romantic and sexual fantasies: overly emotional, enigmatic, brainy, and a little bit of a nut case. His female characters will do things for reasons they themselves are unaware of.
There is always a sense that these women do not have any control over their own emotions, they are not driven by reason, they do not think about their career or education, all they aspire for is romantic love. Of course, love is the most beautiful thing and all human beings aspire for that, but to give a message in literature that women’s primary job is to fall in love, get married and have babies is rather limiting and extremely damaging to a girl’s imagination.
Nevertheless, when I started re-reading Humayun Ahmed I found immense joy in his verses. This man knew how to dream and he surely could spread it for others to share his dreams. I still remember reading Amar Ache Jol when I was fifteen. I sat up on the roof and when I finished reading it my heart was flooded with tons of emotions I did not even recognize.
I was overwhelmed. I looked up and saw birds flying home. It was dusk and I could hear the prayer calls from the nearby mosques. My heart ached and bled. I felt light-headed. I had been transformed into Dilu. For the next few weeks I acted like Dilu and then I became Opala from Megher Pore Megh and Aulic from Ondhokarer Gaan, Nilu from Tomakey, and many more characters. After sitting down to write about him, I realized, dissecting Humayun Ahmed’s construction of femininity would be dissecting my own self!
The job is not easy. To begin with, this man has written way too many novels for me to be fully comprehensive in this particular piece of writing. His female characters also range from a pretty strong individual like Muna from Kothao Keu Nei to Rumali who falls in love with a film director who is at least twenty years older than she is.
Humayun Ahmed has long captured the minds of the Bangladeshi middle-class. He has written maybe not always with enormous quality, but in enormous quantity. In each of his books we find the dreams, struggles, and aspirations of the middle-class. Since the birth of this new country, Humayun Ahmed has been at the forefront of popular literature in defining who we were as a people, what was unique about us as a nation. His literature defines us and sets us apart from the literary tradition of West Bengal.
In many ways, Humayun Ahmed rebels against any classical or even modern pattern of Bengali prose language. He just breaks it all to incorporate the colloquial Bangla we speak, which has brought the people of Bangladesh even more close to his literature. Of course, we have had phenomenal writers like Akhtaruzzaman Ilias shaping our literary tradition, but no one has managed to become as popular and been read so widely by the mass population as Humayun Ahmed.
This is precisely why this man is worth analyzing. He sets the popular idiom for the Bangladeshi middle-class. His construction of femininity, romance, and sexuality, thus, on one hand, represents the Bengali middle-class construct, and shapes and creates it on the other. This man is also worth studying as a literary phenomenon because it really takes a lot more than just popular jargon to make millions laugh and cry. To be quite frank, I think this man is a genius and his genius lies in being able to communicate dreams, wonders, and emotions to such a huge audience relentlessly over the past decades.
In his recent book, Kichu Shoishob, he wrote: “In every woman there is a man, and in every man there is a woman.” Now that is quite a profound comprehension of human essence and a very big step towards realizing a universal humanity. However, this realization seems sporadic and almost very sudden. It appears just in one line and then disappears.
In the majority of his writing, however, the gender binary is rendered totally unproblematic, universal, and romantic. Take, for example, his famous Misir Ali debut Debi. The main protagonist of the novel is a girl named Ranu whose psychological trauma is diagnosed by Misir Ali to be rooted in an experience of childhood sexual abuse. Ranu believes that the deity in the temple, where she was taken by the molester, had saved her. She believes that the deity now lives inside her, which causes her to see, smell, hear, and sense strange things. She also possesses telepathic abilities to communicate with others, an ability she would later use to save a friend.
Even though Misir Ali attempts to solve the problem, it somehow remains unresolved in the novel. Ranu dies at the end trying to save her friend. The book does not take a critical approach to the issue of child abuse, rather romanticizes and mystifies it by setting it in the context where the deity had transferred its power into the little girl, after which the girl became immensely beautiful.
In the novel Ranu is only 16, whereas her husband is a man in his mid-forties. A feminist critic of Debi would certainly pinpoint that the actual reason behind Ranu’s neurosis was probably the uneven match that she was stuck in, where she must have been forced to face sexual intercourse. Being married to a man with such a big age difference must have also reminded Ranu of her early experiences of sexual abuse. Neither Humayun Ahmed nor Misir Ali, however, seem to mind Ranu being set in an arranged marriage with a man old enough to be her father.
It seems Humayun Ahmed has a fixation on young girls. In this writing he also comes across as very puritanical when it comes to issues of sexuality. It is a most common theme in all his novels to find very young girls falling in love with men at least ten, sometimes even twenty, years older than themselves. The purity and emotional overtones of the young girl is where Humayun Ahmed locates the idea of prem. This Humayun Ahmed brand of prem depends on the girl’s inconceivable emotional rush for her lover. Sexuality is not pronounced, but hinted in a way that suits the moral taste of the Bengali middle-class. The overwhelming emotion of the girl in turn purifies any trace of sexuality.
I would like to draw some examples from one of Humayun Ahmed’s Himu novels, Tomader Ei Nogore, to elaborate on his construction female sexuality. The novel depicts a young teen-age girl deliriously falling in love with Himu. This teen-age girl Asha comes from America and she hires Himu as her guide to discover the true charms of Dhaka city. After Asha falls in love, Himu disappears for a few days. Asha totally loses her mind. When Himu finally goes to see Asha the following conversation takes place in Asha’s bedroom:
Asha: I knew you would come today.
Asha: Around 7 pm I felt that you were going to come. I told khala Himu shahib is coming and he will have dinner. Please cook his favourite meal. Your khala said, who told you that he was coming? I answered, no one. I just knew.
Himu: Do you still hear those strange words in your head?
Asha: Yes. I hear them when I am not talking. See, now I am talking and it is not in my head. This is why I am talking too much. I am sure that I am boring you, but I cannot help it. When the bell rang, I knew it was you. But do you know why I took so long to open the door?
Himu: I don’t know.
Himu: I can’t guess.
Asha: It was very hot and that’s why I was lying in bed completely naked. I have this habit. If I have any clothes on my body while going to sleep, I feel suffocated. Maybe you are thinking of me as a very kharap meye. I can’t do anything about that. I am what I am. After I heard the bell I put on my clothes, combed my hair, and put on my lipstick. Now, do you think I am a kharap meye?
Himu: No, I don’t think so.
Asha: I am sure the one I will eventually marry will look at me in a very kharap way once he finds out about my habit. That’s why I decided I would tell the person I would marry about my habit in advance.
Himu: That’s good.
Asha: Am I talking too much?
Himu: Just a little. It doesn’t suit your age if you don’t talk a lot.
Asha: I have decided to marry very soon. Do you know why? Because once I get married I can already talk to my husband. Do you know what type of husband I prefer?
Himu: Yes, tell me.
Asha: He would be five feet and seven inches tall, how tall are you?
Himu: I don’t know.
Asha: I think you are five seven. My husband will have beautiful eyes. His eyes must hold dreams, must have maya. Have anyone ever told you that you have beautiful eyes?
Asha: I have never seen a man with such beautiful eyes. Do you think I have fallen in love with you?
Asha: I also thought so. Today I became certain that I am madly in love with you. Do you know how I became certain? After seeing you I feel like crying. A strange sort of crying. I feel the tears spread all over my body. It felt like pain.
It is very common for Humayun Ahmed’s female characters to say that they feel like kharap meye (bad girl) because they have had urges to get naked, to have physical relations with their lovers, or even to hold hands with their lovers.
In his science fiction Kuhok, Ahmed he describes a scene of sexual encounter between a married couple in the following way: “He starts to caress his wife. This was that special caressing of the man that Deepa likes and dislikes at the same time.” This married woman who is a mother of three is still depicted as confused about whether or not she enjoys sexual intimacy with her husband!
Similarly, the girl Asha is depicted to feel guilty because she lay in bed naked. Her way of letting Himu know about her love is set in the highest dramatic tone, fulfilling both Humayun Ahmed’s own and the mass middle-class Bengali male readers’ sexual fantasies. Here is a beautiful girl, born and raised in the United States, falling in love with a vagabond pauper, and waiting for him in her bedroom completely naked.
However, Humayun Ahmed has to conceal this sexual fantasy beneath a facade of socially acceptable sexual morality by making the woman confess that she indeed felt guilty for lying naked in bed. The expression of love immediately turns into a talk of marriage, which adds some morality to the sexual undertones of the conversation. This girl was actually coming out and professing her love and wish to marry Himu. This element of marriage makes it OK for her to tell him that she has a habit of lying naked in bed.
First of all, whether or not a girl likes to lie naked in her bed is her business, but Humayun Ahmed makes her apologize for her nudity to her future husband. The ultimate ownership of the female body is vested in the man and any expression of the woman’s sexuality is confessed by herself as something that had made her into a kharap meye. The greatness of the educated middle-class Bengali man then lies in forgiving the sins of the kharap meye and showering her with love.
In almost every Humayun Ahmed novel, the girls and women weep because of their guilt for experiencing some remote sexual desire like touching the man’s face, holding his hand in the dark, coming into a room with him and turning the lights off, etc. This act causes them to feel pain and they label themselves as kharap meye.
The line that is drawn here is one of acceptable societal norms, which I believe also plays a big role in making Humayun Ahmed novels appeal to a larger audience. Sexuality in his books are expressed in a diction of male fantasy, which is then sugar-coated with Bengali middle-class morality, that even parents do not hesitate to buy Humayun Ahmed books for their children.
Humayun Ahmed’s trick is to hint towards sexuality, but then immediately cover it up under the hypocrisy of Bengali moral codes. This hypocrisy lies in the social morality around us which forces us to pretend like no one in Bangladesh actually has sex. Sex is made invisible from the public sphere and repressed to a degree that it can only peep out in novels.
I remember in the year 2001, Humayun Azad spoke at a book fair in New York where he complained: “Parents let their children read Humayun Ahmed because in his books the characters only go as far as holding hands with each other.” Humayun Azad, a man who has written extensively on sexuality never managed to become as popular as Humayun Ahmed simply because Azad did not comply with the Bengali moral hypocrisy when it came to writing about matters of sexuality.
The average Humayun Ahmed female character is between the age of fifteen and twenty-five. Most of them are fair-skinned beauties. They are all very talented, but this talent is only channeled towards getting married to the man of their choice. This is how far the limits of Humayun Ahmed’s female characters’ agency stretch out to: managing to getting married!
It must be mentioned that a large number of Humayun Ahmed females come from very affluent families, and most of them somehow or the other fall in love with a man from a low-income social group. I am sure marrying a young, fair, timid Bengali girl with a lot of money is the fantasy a lot of struggling house tutors might have. When this fantasy is topped with the woman’s secret habit of lying in bed naked or dancing in the rain naked (reference of Omega Point), sure it becomes a very delicious recipe for the sexually repressed Bengali middle-class man struggling to make it big in the material world of money and success.
Another one of his famous novels Rumali depicts a similar situation where a very rich man’s daughter marries a pauper and then provides him with all the money he needs for his film-making endeavour. These women are never depicted as means to themselves, but they are means to ends for others. These women help the male characters get to where they need to go to. These women just want to be a part of the journey. The men are great.
Himu, after all, is a mohapurush and he does not fall in love with Asha. The sacrificing wife in Rumali continues to pity her husband. Fifteen year old Dilu from Amar Ache Jol drowns herself in the pond because she had been refused by a thirty-five year-old Jamil bhai. Nitu from Kobi revolves as the moon around the earth around her brother’s poet friend Aatahar. Women never become the grand narrative. Women only shower blessings, love, and sexual fantasies from the sidelines.
Despite the fact that it is indeed a pleasure to read Humayun Ahmed novels, I have realized recently that it is like eating too many jelly beans. You have to be critical about how much you eat and how you eat them so you do not end up with a tummy ache. The trick is to read Humayun Ahmed, feel his wonders, laugh until your stomach aches, share his dreams and deeper realization about life, appreciate his love for his people and his land, finally comprehend the love this man holds for humanity — and just simply bypass his female characters.
Rubaiyat Hossain is an independent film maker and Lecturer at BRAC University