A fast-paced, richly detailed novel about politics and corruption in Bangladesh, it falters while giving life to the women characters
K. Anis Ahmed’s debut novel The World In My Hands is a fast-paced fictional account about the treacherous terrain of political turmoil and corruption in Bangladesh. As Ahmed moves back-and-forth between emotion and reason and reason and emotion, his intellectual formations about his country’s partisanship is deeply reflected in the lucidity of his prose and the clarity of his narrative. Simply put, Ahmed refrains from oversimplifying the nature of political conflict in general, and in specific, the polarized and nationalistic experiences of contemporary Bangladeshis within the context of globalization.
Ahmed’s sharply written novel with detailed and thoughtful language includes multiple voices – often in opposition through Hissam and Kaisar – to reconstruct the military-backed Emergency in Bangladesh. Hissam is a newspaper editor on the verge of a long-awaited promotion and Kaiser, his old college friend, is now a wealthy property developer. Hissam and Kaisar find themselves on either end of the political violence, rupturing their personal loyalties to each other. As a sociologist, I deeply appreciate the ways in which Ahmed deploys the personal story of Hissam and Kaisar’s diverging paths and breaking friendship to reflect the larger or meta-narrative of a country torn by politics and violence. Hissam and Kaisar’s shifting personal ties and loyalties are mirrored in the change that sweeps the political landscape and Panduan land. Ahmed writes, “It was hard to know [whether] one should stay put on one’s presumed-to-be-safe perch, or take one’s chances and float like a dinghy on the swelling waters” (42). Here, the multitude of movements of voices and experiences of a singular political event helps to create a fast-paced environment for readers. It is no wonder that Bapsi Sidhwa argues that Ahmed’s novel is “palpabale” and Tabish Khair, “gripping.” Shashi Tharoor’s words – “…Ahmed’s pen will hold the reader’s attention [until] the last page” – are also apt. Simultaneously, Ahmed was able to insightfully create moments of softness during the military-backed Emergency. He does so by introducing Natasha, who is married to Kaiser and is Hissam’s friend since adolescence and his lost love. Natasha’s role is to mediate Hissam and Kaisar’s disparate ideological stances.
Herein lies the weakness of The World In My Hands. As a feminist South Asian diasporic scholar, I find that Ahmed’s female protagonists – Natasha and Duniya, the American woman Hissam falls in love with – are redundant and monolithic stereotypes of South Asian and South Asian-American women. Ahmed simply ignores the gendered nature of culture within the South Asian Diaspora. Drawing on a restructured version of Chandra T. Mohanty’s notion of the “Third World Woman,” I argue that Natasha represents the “good” South Asian woman who is a wife, a mother, a good friend, and a philanthropist bound by familial ideologies. Hissam can share things with Natasha that he is not able to share with any other woman, even Duniya, the woman he is in love with, sexually involved with, and is engaged to. Yet, Natasha’ and Hissam’s intimate friendship never crosses the boundaries of her marriage to Kaisar. In Hissam’s imagination, he is in love with Natasha but he never sexually fantasizes about her admist his pornographic collection. And this in turn is precisely what feeds his love for her. Natasha is the respectable South Asian woman who cannot be touched in any way – socially, politically, and sexually. Natasha, then, is a non-sexual entity with no desires but to protect her family. A reality that is not realistic of the lives that most women lead in South Asia. In juxtaposition to Natasha, the reader is introduced to Duniya, a highly sexual American woman – available for male sexual consumption – with a toned, muscular body who symbolically represents the white, savior model and possesses the national mobility to move between Bangladesh and the United States freely. Her name is perhaps indicative of her magnanimous and phantasmatic positionality as an American. What does the division between South Asian women and South Asian-American women imply here? The relationship (or, rather, lack there of) between Natasha and Duniya is based on spatial and cultural differences rather than forging areas of commonalities between the two women. First, in constructing Duniya as the American woman, Ahmed, much like Jhumpa Lahiri in her novel The Namesake, simply ignores the long and problematic process of South Asian immigration and that the second-generation have found the promises of unmarked citizenship elusive at best. In this context, it is difficult to understand the ease with which Ahmed claims that she is an “American.” The second area of contestation includes Jasbir Puar’s Masala-itis rebel imagery clichés about “westernized” second-generation South Asian-American women, that the “second-generation” are overly and overtly sexual and rebel against their own cultural heritage. Here, Ahmed quickly dismisses Hissam and Duniya’s engagement as a significant life event for Duniya and Duniya quickly fades away from Hissam’s narrative. Ahmed simply does not allow Duniya to showcase the emergence of her own complex identities and cultural practices. Neither Natasha nor Duniya are able articulate their identities at the intersections of a constellation of loyalties that are multiple, contradictory, constantly shifting, and overlapping. Ahmed does not even give us a brief glimpse at the lives of real South Asian and South Asian-American women in the context of race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, culture, and religion. Natasha and Duniya simply fall short. Perhaps this was a liberty he thought he could afford by constructing male characters at the center of the novel.
Nevertheless, the strength of The World In My Hands lies in the ways in which Ahmed is detailed oriented. They ways in which he allows his readers to experience Hissam is cavernous. We are privy to Hissam’s procrastination, writer’s block, boredom, loneliness, and his collection of pornography. By intricately developing Hissam as a struggling journalist, Ahmed is able to introduce us to larger ideas: the social constructions of history, power, and morality. As a journalist, Hissam has the power to architect how the world will receive and understand the unfolding of the Emergency. Hissam shapes “truths” from myths, and in this way, he carries the ability to plant the seeds of what is right or wrong, that is, morality. He constructs “patriots” versus “enemies of the state.” The readers see this abstractly as Hissam tangles with possible newspaper headlines. The binary construction between patriots versus enemies is concretized when Hissam’s desire to be the editor-in-chief paves the way for a shattering moment that implicates Kaiser into choosing between life or death. In this way, readers learn the notion of mythical history, that history can be molded in a variety of ways where some narratives are pushed to the top, becoming hegemonic national stories while others are forced to the bottom as the counter-narratives. My point here is that novelists often tightly focus on the development of their characters, leaving little room for readers to understand the larger lessons that can be learned from the story or stories being told. Ahmed artfully bridges this gap. Finally, as post-colonial scholar, I could not help but smile at the moments in which Ahmed satirically jabs at the imperialist “west.” Hissam’s collection self-help and –improvement books like The Power of Yes and How to Get to the Top and Stay There is a case-in-point. Despite his problematic treatment of South Asian-American women, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ahmed is wonderfully unapologetic to “western” readers.
Ahmed’s tone is forthright about a topic that provokes anguish for those who experience political instability, hartals, power struggles, and corruption intimately in their daily lives. Hissam represents this frankness. And, through Natasha, Ahmed’s tone is also compassionate about political conflict. While I have pointed out significant shortfalls of Ahmed’s work, it, nevertheless, represents a first of many works critically assessing Bangladesh’s forty-three years after its momentous birth. Indeed, The World in My Hands is a refreshing addition to the inadequate partisan discourse on political strife in contemporary Bangladesh.