in the Age of Therapy
Power of the Sun
INTERVIEW WITH ADIB KHAN
(published as Strength on Parallel Roads in The Canberra Times on 28 April
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
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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