The Black Coat is Neamat Imam’s hard hitting debut novel set in post-1971 Bangladesh, a country that was born amidst violence and despair. The war cry of Joy Bangla turned into a symbol of hope. But the author shows us just how easily hope can turn into crushing despair, liberation can turn into a self-imposed prison and the lust for freedom can morph into greed for power.
Told in the first person, the protagonist is a journalist (Khalique Biswas) who like millions of Bangladeshis yearned for liberation of his country from the clutches of Pakistan and was swept away by the fiery speeches and cries of Joy Bangla of the charismatic leader Sheikh Mujib. But inevitably the seeds of disenchantment are sowed once the leader flounders at the task of nation building. The new nation is in the clutches of a devastating famine and freeloaders run rampant. As the poor become more and more disempowered and Sheikh Mujib’s policies bring little succour, Biswas soon becomes disillusioned. Biswas too feels the direct impact of the tumultous societal changes–he loses his job as a journalist. His passionate ideas about nation building slowly begin to undergo a transformation as survival becomes key.
The arrival of an illiterate young villager, Nur Hussain, at his doorstep in search of employment, becomes the turning point in his life. Biswas realises that Nur Hussain has a unique gift – he can deliver Sheikh Mujib’s stirring speeches with as much passion as the leader of the country. His ability to draw crowds turns into an opportunity for them both and they encash on this by engaging with a local leader of the political party. The relationship between Biswas and Nur Hussain is the highlight of the story. And the conflict between the two characters is used by the author to highlight the conflict within Bangladeshi society. The author skillfully builds in broader conflicts such as democracy vs dictatorship, freedom vs slavery, political vs personal corruption, through the conflict between these two characters.
The story’s dark, chilling tone is sometimes a bit too overwhelming and intense. But despite that, Neamat Imam tells a compelling story. Even though the story leads to a chilling climax, and the author paints a scenario devoid of all hope, he does give the protagonist a shot at redemption.
A powerful debut novel and I look forward to reading more from Neamat Imam.