Dhaka-born author Nadeem Zaman’s In the Time of the Others traverses the turmoil-ridden East Pakistan of 1971, in a narrative populated by a host of characters ranging from pro-Independence fighters to a young captain in the Pakistan Army. Owing to the fact that the debut novelist belongs to the “generation immediately following the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971”, Nadeem states that he was “born with a part of this book in me.” Here, the University of Illinois alum chats about the research he undertook for the book, and his own picks for historical fiction.
With the current atmosphere given Bangladesh’s national elections, was it a conscious decision to write a narrative based in the historically significant year, 1971?
The timing is purely coincidental. I’ve wanted to publish this novel for years. Bangladesh always enters a politically-charged atmosphere around general elections.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere turns violent, as it has already is recent weeks. That, mixed with the sensitivity of many Bangladeshis when it comes to the subject of the Liberation War, could be a powder keg of emotions and reactions. I was, however, glad that the novel came out when it did back in October, because I knew the elections were coming up at the end of the year.
What research was undertaken to make the characters and the era sound authentic?
The greatest access I had was to personal stories in the family. Having known and grown up with so many of the people who were alive during the time, I knew how they talked, what references they made, and details of the era that were a part of their lives.
Dhaka is a different city now, from what it was in 1971. Many places that were there are either no longer around or have been turned into apartment buildings or huge shopping centres. Chowdhury Villa in the book is modeled directly after my maternal grandparents’ home, and that house is long gone. It exists only in pictures, and in my memory. One detail was an old German-made radio, one those big floor model ones, a Grundig, that used to be in my grandparents’ house. I put that in the book as there used to be one in the real house, and Kamruzzaman eventually has it moved into a storage room once the war starts, so he can listen to Free Bangla Radio broadcasts without being overheard by soldiers or military patrols. Those details were from actual accounts. The other detail is a blue Toyota Corolla my father’s family owned, which is also in the book.
Given that oral narratives are a rich source of material, did you also take some inspiration from stories you might have heard about the era?
Yes, constantly. For the longest time, throughout at least my undergraduate years, all I had were oral narratives. Books about Bangladesh were difficult to come by. This was before the internet, and having access to materials out of state, or out of the country, was not easy.
The first stories I wrote that took place during the war and in that era, relied entirely on the firsthand accounts I heard from my parents. The treasure trove of stories I heard were so rich and immediate with details, tension, conflict, and even a sense of constant adventure that I could probably set them down verbatim and have a draft.
Since this is your debut novel, can you share some advice to aspiring authors? What are some challenges you personally faced?
Writing is work, and it needs to be treated as work. So, the first order of business is to write, make no excuses, and write at a designated time each day. Every serious writer is disciplined about their work and when they do it, even if it means staring at a blank page for long hours. I was fortunate to be in a position where I worked on the final versions of this novel under the supervision of terrific mentors.
My challenges really came about when I started sending queries to agents. For a writer who wants to be published, that is a necessary cross to bear. The time and energy I spent on query letters and agents would be enough to write at least one more novel.
Which are your top picks for historical fiction?
The March by EL Doctorow is a terrific account of Sherman’s march through the South near the end of the US Civil War. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel are beautifully conceived. Then there is Middle Passage by Charles Johnson. All