Ahsan Akbar talks to K. Anis Ahmed about his new collection of short stories, Good Night, Mr. Kissinger

Ahsan Akbar: Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh's largest Islamist group, is currently being put on trial for committing war crimes during Bangladesh's partition from Pakistan. Jamaat-e-Islami fought against Bangladesh's independence and orchestrated mass murders of Hindus and Bengali nationalists. The stories in Good Night, Mr. Kissinger begin with Bangladesh's war for liberation, how did the experience of the war inform your stories?
GNMKcoverK. Anis Ahmed: I wrote most of the stories in Good Night, Mr. Kissinger before the war crimes trials got underway. The tribunal was started in 2009 once the Awami League government came back to power. But there was an earlier movement to demand these trials in the early 90s and my family, through its media outlets at the time – Ajker Kagoj – was a strong supporter of that demand. Members of my family also took part in the Liberation War. One uncle was killed, a few others were captured and tortured by the Pakistani army. My own family were held as prisoners of war in Pakistan, and I was separated from my families – a strange story of logistics and mistiming – and was raised the first few years by my grandparents. So, like many families in Bangladesh, I grew up with a strong family lore about the war itself and its meaning and its sacrifices and also got to be a part with renewal of that spirit in the post-democratic era. All of that informs stories like “Chameli” or “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.

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Ahsan Akbar

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?

Kaa

Kazi Anis Ahmed

KAA: Dhaka was a city of one million in 1971, and estimated to be home to fifteen million today. I doubt there are many places on earth that has seen such an agglomeration in such a short time. This has meant radical change to the city – physically and emotionally.
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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Ahsan Akbar grew up in Dhaka and studied at Exeter. His debut book of poems, The Devil's Thumbprint, came out in November 2013. He is a board member of Bengal Lights, and co-organizer of Hay Festival Dhaka. Currently he lives in London and is at work on a novel.
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