Scenes from Early Life
Philip Hensher
(Fourth Estate)
The boy Saadi lives in the Dhanmondi area of Dacca, Bangla Desh. He was born in 1965 or thereabouts. His family called him Churchill, because Winston --- when a small boy, it is said --- "used to cry very much." But Saadi is a very good little boy, although he does have his moments. His father is a lawyer, as is his grandfather.

Grandfather is named (by his family) Nana; the grandmother, Nani. Their house is large, and it contains many rooms, and many cousins, sisters, brothers, uncles and aunts (and ants). ("'Ants can't walk on white,' my mother used to say. 'They are frightened of being seen. So that's why they paint the tree trunks white.'")

Saadi's mother met his father while they were in jail together. Like many Bengalis from what was then called East Pakistan, they wanted freedom from West Pakistan. "As it happened, my mother and father were great friends, and went together to a demonstration against the suppression of the Bengali language by the government. They were thrown into a prison cell together, with dozens of other protesters, and spent the night singing Bengali songs and shouting slogans."

    Being thrown into jail was the most enjoyable night of my father's young life. In the morning, when he and my mother had been released, he went home with her, still singing Bengali songs about national rivers being dammed by the Pakistani yoke. He took a bath and put on a clean white shirt. He oiled and combed his hair. Then he went downstairs and asked my grandfather if he could marry my mother when he had graduated and found a job in the government service.

"My grandfather [Nana] approved in general terms of a respectable young man who worked hard and could think of his life five years in the future, even of one who had spent the previous night in a prison cell."

This style, the gentle range of it, "singing songs ... the most enjoyable night ... my grandfather approved ... even of one who had spent the previous night in a prison cell..." this pleasant and garrulous narrative style is what sets Scenes from Early Life apart, draws one into the delicate web of it: Saadi and his mother and father and sisters and all the family, always the family, always so many of them coming and going ... and the cool nights, the music, one sister on the harmonium, another on the tabla, the voice of Nadira, singing the Bengali songs of Nazrul and Tagore,

    The flower says,
    "I was born from the dust,
    Kindly, kindly,
    Let me forget it,
    Let me forget it,
    Let me forget it.
    There is nothing of dust inside me
    There is no dust inside me,"
    So says the flower.

The family, the music, the food, "the Bengali cakes the cooks have made: pati shaptha, pancake roll stuffed with coconut halway, the fudge-like gofi, puli pitha, the dumplings,

    Parathas, dry masala chicken, veretable bhaji, aloo, papaya, potol, the Bengali pod-like vegetable that looks, when raw and piled, like a heap of big green eyes.

Even if the words are unfamiliar, the names resonate, and we are in a house filled with so many different foods, the sweet aromas ... the table loaded for the meals with the many relatives, those that come to visit Nana and Nani, come to stay, in a few cases, stay for years, for who can say no to one's relatives.

We are here in the midst of a family that loves and feuds --- what family doesn't? --- with its in-family jokes and games: remembering the one time that Nana shouted at the children; remembering Saadi's mother off with Mahmood, his father, for a year in the country village of Jhenaidah; remembering the game that he and his cousins play called "slave:" they have seen a series of programs on Nana's little television set, a program called "Roots," so they play at being slaves.

Well over half the book takes the reader and the family on this kindly journey ... and then suddenly in March of 1971 there is the war, the war for Bengali independence. There are tanks in the streets, a family close by is murdered by the Pakistani soldiers, the shops close down; there is rape and violence and killing --- a war that, until India intervened, lasted for nine brutal months, ending, finally, with the independence of Bangla Desh.

"The course of that war has been told by other people, many times, and so has the story of the hundreds of thousands of people who were killed," Hensher writes. He has set the scene for our own involvement in that short but terrible war, for it is now our family involved --- Nana and Nani and Saadi's father and mother and sisters and cousins. It's a time when the children must be hidden at the back of the house, away from the street, being told to make no sound at all, because it might attract the attention of the Pakistani soldiers, the windows closed, the curtains drawn, the gate shut. It is during these months, Saadi tells us, that he grows very fat, for no sooner, "day or night, had my face begun to move inwards and my brow to furrow than an aunt moved in and embarked on a well-established routine of Saadi-distracting,"

    involving the pulling of funny faces, jogging up and down, a favorite knitted rabbit, tickling on the tummy (mine) and the regular administration of half-teaspoons of mishti doi (it being made in the kitchen rather than brought in from confectioners) ...

He grew popular with his aunts "because a baby cared for at every minute, whose every need is anticipated and fulfilled before he has even begun to express it, is a placid and cheerful baby, as well as a very fat one."

    The house in Dhanmondi was as quiet as a tomb, and no soldier was drawn by his curiosity in a baby crying to force the gates and enter.

§   §    §

The war is there, and they are a part of it. A neighbor's son is to die out in the country in August, during the monsoon, "the elder son of Mrs Khandekar" from down the street. He dies because he didn't know that the house in the far countryside has been commandeered. He sits down in the courtyard to dry off, to rest, and there is a soldier nearby who "had not seen the approach of the Bengali guerrilla in the heavy rain. Some sound of metal on brick must have penetrated, and he was the guerrilla in the gazebo laying his rifle on the ground ... The soldier against the wall knew exactly what he had to do. He raised the rifle and shot, once, and then again."

    Mrs Khandekar did not know for years how her son had met his end. When she discovered, it came as a great relief to her. Her great terror was that he had been tortured to death over the course of weeks and months.

The war and the separation of great states is the background against which Scenes takes place. The partition of Bangladesh comes to be a mirror of the partition of India in 1947 ... the one that cost so many lives (neighbors remembered crossing the border amazed that they had survived). And within Nana's family, as peace comes slowly to the country after its fight for independence, there is another war drawing to a close: brother against brother-in-law ... a battle that goes on for several years, a war fought with silence and separation, a mini-war at the time of the greater national battle ... until, at the end, it too is ended (the women, the wives, cousins, aunts, slowly bringing the the warring factions together).

It becomes impossible to stay aloof, not speak, to be apart. When this second, smaller war ends, Saadi says that his father was "not an embracing man ... but he knew when an embrace was called for."

    And then I knew that everyone in the room had been watching, because the near silence that had fallen was now broken, and everyone started talking again.

War, and family. That's what Scenes from Early Life is all about. And it is laid down, the entire story, so gently and wisely that we cannot help but be moved. The family frailties, the loves, the pride, the hurts, the jokes. When Sharmin is married to Saadi's uncle Laddu, she finds herself pregnant. Her sister-in-law Nadira says, "Sometimes a baby is born with two heads." Silence.

"That must be useful," Dahlia said.

"Useful, how?" Sharmin said ... How can it be useful to have two heads?"

"You could use one to look forward, and the other to look back," Nadia said. "Or you could talk with one head and read with the other one. Or, on the train, you could look out of the window and read the map at the same time. It would be wonderful to have two heads." Sharmin says that she is sure that her baby is not going to be born with two heads. But it is a baby full of energy, "I can feel him kicking me all the time."

"Doesn't that feel strange?" Dahlia said. "A little stranger kicking you from the inside."

"We can kick you from the outside, if you want to know what it feels like," Nadira said. "There is no problem whatsoever about that."

--- Leslie Winters
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH