Review of 'The Inheritors' by Nadeem Zaman.
Nisar Chowdhury visits Bangladesh after almost 30 years — his family had moved to the USA when he was in his early teens. “We led a prosperous life in Dhaka, steeped in privilege. We, along with the country, weathered violent coups, two assassinations of heads of state, and a long military dictatorship, at the end of which my father had had enough. The country he’d envisioned after independence had been a heartbreaking let down.”
Nisar has memories of Bangladesh of course, but absolutely none of the nostalgia his parents occasionally wallow in, nor any interest in news of relatives left behind — which, he discovers, puts him at a disadvantage later. His father has been slowly selling chunks of his ancestral property, and now wants liquidate all of it. Forbidden to travel after a heart attack, he sends Nisar to do the deed. Not that Nisar objects — he has been contemplating writing a book about the place of his birth.
Once in Dhaka, Nisar gets a warm welcome from his older cousin Disha (he’d had a childhood crush on her), loyal family retainers, etc, but his father’s long-time lawyer, Mr Ehsan, seems less enthusiastic about his presence. Then there’s his wealthy, generous, and gentle neighbour, Gazi, who bought a bit of the property sold by his father earlier, and now offers to buy all of it.
Nisar wonders why, and wonders some more when he stumbles upon the history between Gazi and his cousin. No one seems to tell the truth in Dhaka, not even his cousin, but gossip rules. As someone warns him, “There’s a lot of talk in this town about what isn’t true, but try telling the truth and you’re blacklisted.”
He spends his days visiting historic spots, writing occasionally, and trying to get in touch with his father’s elusive and decidedly shady lawyer who starts avoiding Nisar’s calls when he wants to see bank statements. Perhaps the gossip he heard about Mr Ehsan is true, after all? His nights are spent socialising with the rich and powerful — their Dhaka is different, filled with parties, art galleries, book launches, fashion shows, weekends in Thailand, etc.
The more Nisar learns about the people he hangs around with, the more he gets embroiled in their messy relationships, and the more confused he becomes. Nisar himself is an interesting character, with a brief, failed marriage behind him, and a laid-back take on life and relationships. Even so, his cousin never ceases to astonish and unsettle him. Could she possibly have something to do with the fact that Gazi wants to buy his property?
The Inheritors is an absolute joy to read. It packs in so much in a tight frame: The past and the present, difficult relationships, life in Bangladesh, which seems startlingly similar to life in India with its completely different laws for the rich, and where journalists are just “mouthpieces for whoever is in charge,” etc. The characters are complex, and the pace is perfect — it never drags, not even for a second.
By Nadeem Zaman
pp. 247, Rs.450