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Scenes from Early Life
By Philip Hensher
Faber & Faber, 320 pages, $30
This remarkable novel originates from a clever conceit. British author Philip Hensher has appropriated the personality, voice and personal history of his real-life gay partner, native Bengali Zaved Mahmood, as its narrator.
So it includes huge dollops of memoir of Mahmood's upper-middle-class family life, mixed with both fictive elements and actual historical events from the 1971 brutal civil war that saw the then East Pakistan split from West Pakistan and bloodily emerge as the new nation of Bangladesh.
Hensher is a London critic and columnist and the author of seven previous novels, including the Booker Prize-shortlisted The Northern Clemency (2008).
Most of the acutely drawn story is set in late 1960s and early 1970s Dacca, East Pakistan, then the regional capital city, and later capital of the nation of Bangladesh.
The backstory to the civil war that saw millions die in the fighting or due to starvation, and which ended only on India's decisive intervention in the conflict on the Bengali side, includes a finely rendered portrait of the workaday lives of Mahmood's family and extended family in the halcyon years prior to his birth on the very eve of war.
The narrative shifts back and forth in time. It starts in 1970s post-independence Bangladesh, with young Saadi, as his family calls him, going to school during the week but spending all and every weekend at his lawyer grandfather's spacious home.
He and local neighbourhood kids play television-inspired games in the streets of Dacca, re-enacting the plots of American TV programs — Starsky and Hutch, Knight Rider, Kojak, Dallas, but always, and especially, Roots. (Disputes ensue when almost everyone wants to be Kunta Kinte.)
But obliquely, and strategically, the recent civil war and its betrayals intrude on their play.
"I was not sure I was really allowed to include him in the game," Saadi muses about one of his playmates. "His uncle and father had taken money from the Pakistanis, and had told them where they could find intellectuals — musicians, poets, scholars, professors, schoolteachers — to kill."
Eventually the story reverts to an earlier period in the family's life, and becomes, in part, a mise-en-scéne for depiction of the rise of Bengali nationalism.
That nationalism is at first only glimpsed in the daily lives of as-yet-unborn Mahmood's grandfather, grandmother and a flock of future aunts and uncles, all living under the same roof in a large house in a well-to-do Dacca neighbourhood.
Their offbeat relationships, familial politics and sundry comings-and-goings of unmarried daughters in a large, upscale urban retreat are related in engaging, almost Jane-Austenish, domestic detail. But as their lives evolve in tandem with political currents, and heightened Pakistani secret-police and military repression of Bengalis, the novel takes on a darker tone.
Ultimately the newborn Saadi and his family survive the Pakistani army's occupation of Dacca and the brutalization of its population, and family life seems to resume its pre-war niceties and observations.
But by story's end portraiture has long since taken a back seat to meditations on how only families — and likewise societies — that embrace civilized values care about the legacy they leave.
In Hensher's adroit and damning telling, in the late 1960s and early 1970s the Bengalis cared quite a lot; the Pakistanis, not so much.
Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.