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Scenes from Early Life - Book of the Month

by Philip Hensher

SCENES FROM EARLY LIFE is based on stories that the author’s husband, Zaved Mahmood, has told about his childhood in Bangladesh. Philip Hensher has taken them and with insight, imagination and narrative skill, reworked them to create a fascinating chimera of memoir, biography and novel. He plays with the nature of storytelling, repeating passages and retelling anecdotes in different forms and, towards the end of the book, tells us “This is not the full story which could never be told.”

Saadi (as Zaved is called in the book) was born in a time of great danger. Outside the garden gates in Dakha, Pakistani troops were engaged in a campaign of rape and murder on the city streets. As a crying baby would have alerted soldiers to the presence of young women in the house, Saadi was passed constantly from one to the other of his six aunts, his every whim indulged, to keep him quiet. By the time the war was over, nine months later, little Saadi had turned into a massive butterball.

East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was then called, was the part of Bengal handed over at Partition. The ruling Pakistanis spoke Urdu and “wrote in an alphabet that flowed like water under wind.”, whereas the majority of the population were Bengalis who spoke their own language which “chatters like a falling xylophone, and is written in an alphabet that looks like a madman trying to remember a table's shape." Resentment at political exclusion and economic exploitation by West Pakistan led to the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, soon after Saadi was born.

The house, in the select Dhanmondi area of Dakha, is the setting for Saadi’s memoir of his early life. And it is the contrast and resulting tension between the kindness, warmth and affection within the walls and the increasingly anarchic and turbulent city outside that makes the book so utterly compelling.

SCENES FROM EARLY LIFE is a tender and engaging portrait of a family in crisis as well as of the various characters - neighbours, servants, musicians - who impinge on their lives. Saadi’s grandfather, Nana, looms large as the benign patriarch who moved to a house that was large enough to accommodate not only his eight children but their families as well. With his passion for books and music, Nana was part of an intellectual elite that were keeping alive the precious heritage of Bengali poetry and songs in the face of attempted annihilation by the government. In order to safeguard his library, he walled up all his books and music in the cellar, where they stayed until, in a wonderful, evocative scene that involves the entire family, he took a sledgehammer to the wall when peace was finally restored.

SCENES FROM EARLY LIFE is a perfect book group read. There is plenty to discuss: the history of the Indian subcontinent; the politics of religion; the nature of fiction; and family dynamics, amongst other things. It is also a compelling, funny and heart-warming story from one of the most interesting and innovative contemporary novelists.

Clare Chandler

Published by 4th Estate, hardcover, 320pp.

Read our interview with Philip Hensher.

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