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Adib Khan


(published as Strength on Parallel Roads in The Canberra Times on 28 April 2007)

Adib Khan’s latest book, ‘Spiral Road’, is his fifth novel, but he still looks on writing as ‘a passionate hobby”, Carol Middleton writes.

Punctual and polite, this schoolteacher turned award-winning novelist, reveals a defining moment in his literary life. It was in the early 1960s, when Adib Khan was a student at an elite private school in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), run by Jesuits. He was given a punishment: to go away and read the first twenty pages of the Iliad. He surprised his teacher, and himself, by reading the whole book. Khan refers to it as “a positive punitive measure”, a phrase that clearly belongs to his other life as a teacher of English and history.

Khan’s latest book ‘Spiral Road’ is his fifth novel, but he still looks on his writing as “a passionate hobby”, an attitude that he makes him very relaxed about his work. He came to writing in his forties, at a time when his life had become predictable to the point of boredom. He sat down after teaching one night and wrote about his reaction as a migrant to life in Australia. He had never written a story in his life, but he continued writing this memoir and later turned it into the novel ‘Seasonal Adjustments’ (1994). With no idea of how to approach a publisher, he sent the whole manuscript to the first publisher on his alphabetical list, Allen & Unwin. Stephanie Dowrick, who was fiction publisher there at the time, was handed it one lunch-time. ‘Seasonal Adjustments’ went on to win the Commonwealth Writers Prize first book award, after winning several other awards.

It is significant that Khan’s first foray into writing was about the experience of adjusting to a new culture. In all his work since that first attempt in 1992, his preoccupation has been with identity, particularly the identity of the migrant, and the search for self. He explores the issue again in ‘Spiral Road’ through the shifting and fractured identity of the protagonist Masud Alam, a 53-year-old librarian, living in Melbourne, but born in Bangladesh. Khan uses his own experience of cultural fragmentation to tease out the betrayals and inconsistencies, the idealism and the bigotry that infest nationalism, as well as illustrate the lack of a secure identity for those who are alienated from their country of birth.

Khan came to Australia from Bangladesh in 1973. He refers to the 14-day war in 1971 and its aftermath as “savage and brutalizing”. He was not political but, like all students, was hunted by the army. The gap between the soldier and the civilian widened, a psychological reality that he explores in his novels. The universities had been closed for over a year and Khan wanted to continue his studies. He chose Australia over the more popular options of America, Canada and Britain and embarked on a Masters degree at Monash University. He had arrived in Australia during the Whitlam era, when education and jobs were freely available. His wife joined him from Bangladesh and the couple settled in Ballarat where he became a schoolteacher. He still teaches a little history there, as well as teaching creative writing at Ballarat University.

Khan has been back to Bangladesh several times, most recently in 1999. He can no longer find his way around his home town of Dhaka. “The familiar landmarks have disappeared.” It has grown from a population of three million to thirteen million, as people from the rural areas are forced into the city through poverty. For Khan, the alienation from his native land is now complete, but in ‘Spiral Road’ he creates a character, Alam, who still has ties that bind him to Dhaka. Alam returns to Bangladesh after an absence of thirty years to find that the allegiances and loyalties of his family members have changed and his own are challenged. As a ‘lapsed Muslim’, Alam becomes a target of extremists and is thrust into a world remote from the comfort and compromise of his existence as a librarian in Melbourne.

There are parallels between Khan and his character Alam, in age, ethnicity and background, but Khan was brought up by Christians more than Muslims and has rejected both religions. He has no family left to visit in Bangladesh, as everyone dispersed around the world after the horror of the 1971 war and the guerilla warfare that succeeded it. The impetus for the novel was not personal experience, but the reported threat from the US Secretary of State Richard Armitage after 9/11 to the Pakistani Prime Minister: “We’ll bomb you back into the stone age, if you do not support the US-led war on terror.” This produced a despair in Khan that galvanised him into writing ‘Spiral Road’, a novel that illustrates the Bangladeshis’ patience and their loyalty to their own. Khan sees Bangladesh as the most tolerant of countries, influenced as it has been by its Hindu neighbour, the Indian state of West Bengal. For him, this influence is a strength, rather than a religious impurity.

The first draft of the novel, which is set in about 2003, focused on the theme of terrorism, but a second remark, this time by a friend of Khan’s, triggered the idea for a more comprehensive plot. The remark was: “How well do we really know each other?” Khan developed a second draft that embedded the terrorist plot into a story of family secrets that impact on each family member and test the traditional overriding value of familial loyalty. With the decline of the family fortunes, nothing is certain any more and even the past is unraveling, as Alam’s father reveals more than is proper in the honesty induced by Alzheimer’s.

Written in the present tense with a striking amount of dialogue, ‘Spiral Road’ has an immediacy that heightens the impact of the controversial subject matter. For Khan, who still thinks at times in Bengali and Urdu, the dialogue does not have the strength of his native tongue, but is suited to his readership, which is primarily Australian. Khan’s novels are set alternately in Australia and the sub-continent and he is now working on two more, one of which is to be part of his doctorate at Monash University, for which he has been given a scholarship.

Khan’s search for self has overtaken his search for identity. His perspective has been shaped by direct exposure to the aggressive nature of nationalism and he is wary of the exclusive sense of identity that is often put forward as an ideal in Australia. He is aware of the diverse nature of the influences that have shaped him, from his Jesuit English-speaking postcolonial education, his early readings of both the Christian and Muslim texts and the literature of India, Europe and Britain. Australia has added to the rich mixture.

Khan feels liberated by this plural identity that has given him the ability to reach across boundaries to look at other territories and points of view and re-imagine them into fictions that highlight human nature and the conflicts between them and in the individual mind. Living in a war zone was one reality. Life in a settled environment in country Victoria was another. Now he has found another reality by looking inward and discovering the “buzz” of writing. For him, writing has become his home.

Yet, Khan’s final remark is surprising. “I would like to end up in Bangladesh. Complete the circle.” For a moment the facet in his character that is Bangladeshi gleams more brightly in his eyes.


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