“I write in order to entertain,” he used to say. “If people want to learn or educate themselves, maybe they should read textbooks.”
Humayun Ahmed was a storyteller who never pretended to be anything else. Brimming with dry wit and sporting a refreshingly eccentric streak, he almost singlehandedly broke the stranglehold writers from West Bengal had on the Bangladesh market and hooked an entire generation of Bangladeshis into reading story books.
Ironically, Humayun Ahmed, born in 1948, might never have become a writer. He studied chemistry and became a professor of chemistry at Dhaka University. Although he published his first novel Nondito Noroke in 1972 as a student, the breakthrough came when he published his second book Shonkhonil Karagar a few years later. Soon he would give up his academic career to concentrate on storytelling.
His literary talents were evident even during his early days in the university as a student. Nandito Noroke and Shonkhonil Karagar were products of that time. But it was television that made him a household name in the eighties. His TV dramas such as Ei Shab Din Ratri, Bahubrihi and Ekdin Hotath told the tale of middle class suburbia and kept millions glued to the TV screen.
His characters became larger than life. Baker Bhai, the idealistic goon from Kothao Keu Nei, ably played by Asaduzzaman Nur, moved so many people that fans brought out processions when the writer killed him off. From Professor Misir Ali, the paranormal researcher, to Himu, the rebellious but philosophical young man, Humayun’s characters became part of Bangladesh’s popular consciousness.
He was the biggest attraction at the Boi Mela in the Bangla Academy for decades and although he had no use for the trappings of intelligentsia, he was a force to be reckoned with in the literary arena. His work mesmerized readers. He touched the sentiments of the middle class by dealing with their sorrow, happiness, dreams and despair.
As professor Prabitra Sarkar, former VC of the Rabindra Bharati University of Paschimbanga puts it, “Humayun accomplished his mission with splendid ability and never used sex or obscenity as a tool for attaining popularity like many others.” He took “writing” as a stable, dignified and economically solvent whole-time profession and never regretted quitting his university job. Indeed, it was a measure of his confidence that he negotiated his literary career with aplomb even though it was strewn with obstacles.
He was not free of controversies. He divorced his wife of thirty years, Gultekin, in 2003 and married Meher Afroze Shaon, an actress who had played roles in his TV dramas. There was a public outcry over a middle-aged man marrying a woman his daughter’s age. But Humayun had never been one to be intimidated and his popularity endured.
Humayun wrote over 200 fiction and non-fiction books, almost all of them bestsellers in Bangladesh, often tackling the life struggles of the middle class in lucid and easily understandable Bangla, peppered with humour.
Many have since been translated into English, Japanese and Russian among other foreign languages, including “Gouripur Junction”, a work of fiction centred around the small town in northern Bangaldesh where Humayun was born.
He won every top award for writing in Bangladesh in a career that also saw him make half a dozen hit films, such as “Aguner Poroshmoni” (The Touchstone of Fire) and “Srabon Megher Din” (Monsoon Days).
Although he claimed he was not out to teach moral lessons through his work, Humayun’s stories championed a simple human dignity that inspired people. His characters never ceased to surprise, and the reader usually came away with the feeling that human beings were complex organisms capable of both virtue and evil.
This writer met Humayun Ahmed in 1996 while at university. The celebrated author had accepted an invitation to launch a magazine edited by the former. “Who says you have to study literature at Shanti Niketan to be a writer?” asked Humayun with characteristic irreverence. “Students of science make excellent writers. Just look at me.”
As fans queued for miles to pay their last respects, flowers in hand and eyes brimming with tears, Bangladesh’s political leaders came together in a rare show of unity. In a country polarized by politics, no one had any issues paying tribute to Humayun Ahmed.
Sunil Gangopadhyay, the West Bengal novelist and poet, simply said: “He knew how to tell stories. Everything he touched turned into gold.”
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