Review by Steve Shahbazian
I first heard of Neamat Imam’s The Black Coat in a newsletter from The Literary Consultancy. “Since the day I mailed my manuscript to TLC, they would not stop until I was accepted by a top literary agent,” it said. Hmm, I thought. Maybe worth checking out. Having read the story, I can see why The Literary Consultancy was so enthusiastic.
Set in a newly independent Bangladesh in the early 1970s, The Black Coat is the story of Khaleque Biswas, a journalist for the pro-independence newspaper “Freedom Fighter,” whose job it is to follow the war with Pakistan and inflame people with a passion for nationalism. Not above inventing stories about his enemies or hurling abuse at them (they become “cockroaches” who should be “hanged twice”), he is a man of righteous causes but few scruples, and he quickly establishes himself as a splendidly unsympathetic – and unreliable – narrator.
The story starts out with Biswas investigating the story of war hero Mostafa Kamal in the village of Gangasagar, where he meets local villager Raihan Talukder and is presented as “very close to Sheikh Mujib” – the revered leader of the newly independent Bangladesh.
Following the war, things don’t quite turn out as planned for Biswas. Nur Hussein, a young lad from the village of Gangasagar arrives on his doorstep with a letter of introduction from Raihan Talukder, imploring Biswas to help find him employment. This quickly proves difficult and, embarrassed to report that he had failed to find him employment, Biswas takes Hussein on as a caretaker. However, Biswas’s narrative hints that he is being economical with the truth:
I did not need a caretaker; in fact, I hated the concept of enslaving someone to secure my own comfort. That was obvious exploitation. But he needed me. If enslaving him protected his existence, I should happily go for it.
Things, however, do not go well for Biswas. When he tells his editor, Lutfuzzaman Babul, that he wants to set out on a different direction – one critical of Sheikh Mujib and his party the Awami League, one that seeks to ensure there is food for everyone, he is summarily dismissed.
Fortunately, he discovers that Nur Hussein does possess one talent: an ability to mimic leader Sheikh Mujib. Realising he has a precious asset, he trains Hussein to be able to deliver Sheikh Mujib’s most famous speech in front of beggars, taking him to the barber and purchasing for him the black coat worn by Mujib. Biswas realises this is ignoble, but also that it promises easy money. The lure of easy money wins.
It also brings him to the attention of Mujib coat wearing Awami League MP and organiser of Sheikh Mujib’s private militia, Moina Mia, who realises he can use them to drum up faltering popular support. At first, Biswas is reluctant to don the Mujib Coat of the Awami League and is physically sick. Weighed against this, however, is the promise of even more money. After meeting Sheikh Mujib, Biswas forgets his previous radicalism and becomes Sheikh Mujib’s adoring acolyte. Worshiping power, he becomes blind to what is happening around him: he doesn’t see the disquieting events surrounding Moina Mia, grows indifferent to the starvation around him, and becomes ever more aggressive in his personal behaviour.
Nur Hussein is not so blinded. Horrified by the famine and the politicians’ indifference, he publicly speaks out against Sheikh Mujib. When word gets back to Moina Mia, Biswas realises the predicament he is in, and the story ends with a powerful finale.
I’ve spent longer than normal summarising the plot of The Black Coat, because the story is so good. The characters are all believable and Khaleque Biswas’s narrative gives us the right mix of insight and delusion, as we follow his ever more contorted justifications for his power worship. The depiction of a newly independent Bangladesh set between its devastating war with Pakistan in 1971 and its possibly even more devastating famine of 1974 is extremely well done.
Opinionated, unpleasant and frequently violent, Biswas may not be every reader’s taste as protagonist. However, his obnoxious character is absolutely necessary to highlight the his callous disregard for the suffering of the ordinary people. It also highlights the way that he deceives himself over his own desire for status, and this is neatly symbolised by the way his self-justifications change when he puts on the black coat. Most of all, his exploitation of Hussein symbolises the sophisticated politician's exploitation of the powerless villager. His very odiousness is central to the story.
The writing is clear and subtle: we see through Biswas’s self-justifications to see the worthlessness of his deeds, we see the shock that he never does, without the author ever ramming home his point. The result is both well-written and hard-hitting.
My only (very minor) quibble was the last two chapters didn’t quite work for me: somehow, the change of tone felt too abrupt. That aside, this is an outstanding work of literary fiction from an author I shall certainly be looking out for. A must-read book.