The Bangladesh-born US resident author Rahad Abir’s debut novel Bengal Hound is impressive in the sense that it draws the readers inside the once-alive East Pakistan that became Bangladesh in 1971. The novel makes a statement when it recreates the now defunct place — East Pakistan — by focusing on the many lived experiences of its inhabitants during the tumultuous 1960s when the region was coming apart at the seams. A place teeming with possibilities, the milieu hosted an explosive Bengali nationalism movement that promised freedom. Created as Pakistan’s easternmost wing through the Partition of 1947, its Bengali majority people masterminded a secessionist movement, giving birth to Bangladesh in 1971. Perhaps too many histories jostle within the 13 chapters of the novel, and rightfully so because East Pakistan cannot be understood from one angle.
I would argue that the novel’s fixation on East Pakistan is compensation for the absence of Western milieus familiar to the inquisitive readers of the global English novel. The unique blending of the natural setting of Bengal’s easternmost regions and the manifold political crises influence the characters’ inner worlds in the traumatic aftermath of Partition. Hindu characters struggle because they find themselves cornered in their everyday interaction with the bureaucratic state. The novel’s reliance on the sights and sounds of the place it is trying to give a literary life to brings to the fore the peregrinations of Shelley, a Hindu minority of East Pakistan. Until Rahad Abir’s novel, Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines has been the most well-known Anglophone novel capturing East Pakistan very prominently.
With events unfolding from the perspective of Shelley, who becomes Muslim after eloping with Roxana, we are given a glimpse of the repressive state apparatuses such as the police. Sent to jail by his rageful father-in-law, Shelley’s marriage falls apart within five days as the lovers are forced to accept estrangement. Thereafter, Roxana dies, but her memory leaves a long shadow on Shelley’s daily existence. As the novel progresses, her grip on his sanity becomes invasive.
In terms of the political tumults, the growing dissatisfaction against the military dictator recurs in the novel. Indication of a change that is going to come soon is palpable in the narrative as Abir draws from history, such as the Agartala Conspiracy Case, Six Points Movement, etc. Shelley also gets embroiled in this politics when he brutally murders KK, an NSF goon tormenting Bengali students at the University of Dhaka. Madhur Canteen, the historic cafeteria teeming with political activists, is also depicted. Perhaps the novel’s character, Maulana Aabdar Khan, is the more enigmatic portrayal of a politician sharing an uncanny resemblance with the historical figure Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani.
However much the novel tries to recreate the political agitations of the 1960s, otherwise artistically captured in Akhteruzzaman Elias’ Bengali novel Chilekothar Sepai (The Sepoy in the Attic), it remains clumsy because the writer’s recreation of the past is made limited by his calculation of the prospective readers who may be less well-versed with the East Pakistan problem. An oddly bizarre addition to the novel’s plot is Shelley’s twisted desire for Roxana. His outlandish decision to persuade the idol-maker Ajay Pal to make an idol that can be passed off as Roxana yields to frustrated outbursts of sexual fulfilment.
Despite some shortcomings, the novel is a daring initiative because it portrays the crisis-ridden years of East Pakistan before the 1971 war. It captures Dhaka city and its outskirts with intensity. Thus, spaces like Ramna Park, Azimpur Graveyard, Palashi Bazaar, and Fuller Road come alive through florid descriptions. These iconic places are recognisable for those who have lived away from Bangladesh for some time now.
Not only are the everyday tensions between East Pakistan and West Pakistan increasing, but the Partition in 1947 also remains relevant to the lives of characters, particularly those impacted by displacement and loss. In Abir’s novel, the East Pakistan crisis emerges as a problem mired in the unresolved questions of the Partition. Maya’s father decides to bring the family to East Pakistan so his daughter can forget Rashid, who disappeared during a riot in West Bengal. Similarly, a few members of Shelley’s family migrated to India because they were unsafe in Muslim-majority East Pakistan.
Bengal Hound, thus, will draw in readers interested in Bangladesh’s previous incarnation, East Pakistan. Readers unfamiliar with the history Abir recreates will learn about East Pakistan because the novel gives a raw glimpse of what it felt like living there after the creation of Pakistan. Those reading the novel are bound to empathise with Shelley, who is not only struggling with the political fractures within the society but also with conflicting desires that make him a tormented soul etching out an ignominious life. Bangladeshi Anglophone writers have invested in delineating the 1971 war, but few novels, apart from Dilruba Z. Ara’s Blame, portray in some detail the crisis of the Hindu minority. Abir does excellent work focusing on this less explored topic in Bangladesh’s English literature.
Bengal Hound by Rahad Abir, Publisher : Gaudy Boy, LLC (October 1, 2023) Language: English, Paperback: 228 pages, ISBN-10: 1958652024, ISBN-13:978-1958652022