Monday, May 26, 2014
Ahsan Akbar talks to K. Anis Ahmed about his new collection of short stories, Good Night, Mr. Kissinger
AA: Gary J. Bass's new book, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide confirms many allegations against not only Jamaat but the failure and complacency of Western leaders amidst genocide. Did portrayals of the real Henry Kissinger influence your fictional version of him?
KAA: The Blood Telegram came out after my book, so there is no reflection of that book as such in my writing. But what The Blood Telegram does for us is provide serious testimony - and third party verification. No one can now dismiss the claims of genocide in '71 as AL propaganda or Bangladeshi exaggerations. It is sad that we have suffered some serious revisionism since '75, but sound academic works like The Blood Telegram will help set the record straight for the long term.
AA: In one of your stories, James is a Bangladeshi waiter at a prestigious New York City restaurant who gets to know one of the regulars, Henry Kissinger. How does the relationship between the waiter and Kissinger reflect feelings in Dhaka today, as it is tense and obviously informed by a major imbalance of power?
KAA: You know all my life I have heard a class of apologists say things like, "Why wallow in history," "We need to look forward," "It's too late now," or worse, "There were mistakes on all sides," and "The country has changed." These apologists had also pinned their hopes that having variously dodged and delayed trials, they would now only have to wait for the eye-witness generation to die out. As it happened, in February 2013, in response to suspected compromises of the trials [of Jamaat-e-Islami], a spontaneous movement erupted that was led by the youth and drew thousands of people for weeks, peaking to well over hundred thousand repeatedly on weekends. This is proof positive that the Spirit of the Liberation or Spirit of '71 as we call it is neither the sentiment of a particular generation nor a partisan confabulation. It is the essence of who are as a people and a nation. As such, I imagine most Bangladeshis today would be sympathetic to the unresolved grief and rage that gives James' darkest thoughts its impetus.
AA: Each story in Good Night, Mr. Kissinger takes place during a different era of Dhaka's history. How do the stories describe Dhaka's changes through the decades? How has the city transformed?
The Dhaka of the 80s was a charming place, certainly for the middle class. But in some respects even people of lesser means enjoyed traffic free roads, easier access to water and electricity, more parks and playgrounds and a sense of security. Even young boys could roam around their neighborhoods in bikes.
My collection traces the growth of Dhaka from its dulcet and contained origins to a dysfunctional megacity today. The first half of the stories capture memories of a Dhaka that is now all but gone. The latter half grapples with its brutish present, but also the ongoing efforts of finer instincts to survive amidst the quotidian assaults.
AA: What do you see for Dhaka's future?
KAA: To be honest, it is hard to be hopeful. We simply don't seem to have the political will or managerial capability to do what's necessary. To save Dhaka one has to first and foremost decentralize government and build up other cities. For heaven's sake, poor teachers should not have to come to the capital to collect their pensions! Also, the capital should not be the manufacturing hub. Land is far cheaper elsewhere; we should build export corridors and a series of towns along them, with college and polytechnics. But such notions don't even exist in the plans or discussions. Dhaka is the world's most densely populated city and ranks among the five most unlivable. I fear neither status will change in anytime soon.
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