Scenes From Early Life is a rather dull title for a deeply interesting book. It is a novel; this is stated on the jacket, as if anticipating the possibility that readers may question that definition. Set in Dacca (now Dhaka), it is about the emergence of Bangladesh as a state independent of Pakistan after the savage civil war of 1971. Philip Hensher has drawn on memory and history — family history and ‘real’ history. Historical characters, notably Sheik Mujib, the courageous and civilised Bangladeshi leader, mingle with semi- and wholly fictional ones. The joins are seamless. Finishing the book, I was startled to realise that Hensher, an Englishman, had written a novel without a single English character in it, and that I, at least, had been wholly convinced.
The narrator is Hensher’s husband, Zaved Mahmood, now a human rights lawyer for the UN, once a chubby, charming Bengali child, the youngest in the family and the object of adoration for his multitudinous aunts. His Anglophile grandfather calls him ‘Churchill’ because he cries a lot — apparently a characteristic of the infant Winston. This little Churchill, more generally known as Saadi, is making up for lost crying time, because during his babyhood he, with the entire extended family, hid in the grandfather’s house, sheltering from the Pakistani soldiers who had permission to loot, rape and kill on the slightest pretext in the interests of Urdu supremacy.
During this time, baby Saadi could not be allowed to cry; the barred and bolted house had to appear uninhabited. So he was passed from aunt to aunt, cosseted, played with and above all constantly fed. A neighbour’s baby was killed with a kitchen knife — the soldiers, who had already murdered the rest of the family, didn’t want to waste a bullet. But baby Saadi ‘slept contentedly in an atmosphere of love, from the March curfew until the day in December that Bangladesh was liberated, and I did not cry’.
To celebrate liberation, the family gather to witness the retrieval of the family library, walled up in the cellar for the duration of the persecution of Bengali culture. The solemn moment is broken by a wail — the first wail for many months from Saadi, entrusted to his big sister to hold. She has dropped him. ‘ “I just couldn’t help it”, she said. ‘He’s just — he’s just so fat.” ’
In the late 1970s, Saadi plays safely on the street with his gang of friends, their games taken from American TV shows — Starsky and Hutch, Kojak, Roots. The stylised violence of these games reflects the tensions that underlie the newly established nation, but Hensher is too subtle a writer to insist upon a parallel. He shows a similar delicacy in his delineation of a family feud. Wastrel Uncle Laddu and his Urdu-speaking wife are ostracised by Saadi’s sober, hardworking lawyer father, and the split is on one level a microcosm of the civil war, but it is foremost a personal story.
Most admirable of all is Hensher’s handling of a sub-narrative involving two poor musicians, Altaf and Amit, one Muslim, one Hindu, who share a quasi-marital life. Amit, a liberal teacher who foresees the coming cultural persecution, flees to India, leaving his precious tabla behind as a pledge to Altaf that he will one day return. Amit disappears for five years. When, at last, it is safe to go back to Dacca, he finds Altaf in a state of quiet dereliction. The careful rebuilding of their relationship sounds an understated note of political optimism.
Though the unifying consciousness is Saadi’s, the narrative travels back many years before his birth, and loops round the lives of people he can have known little about. There is much repetition, of both phrases and incident, so that at first one wonders whether the editor has been caught napping. But what Hensher is doing is imitating the processes of memory; the way the memories of the individual annex bits of public memory; the way family stories grow and change in the retelling; the way truth melts into makebelieve to form the version that best suits the narrator. The book dances along the margins of fact and fiction. It is inventive, clever and loving; a Booker candidate, I would have thought.