I Remember Abbu – Humayun Azad: Book Review by Asha Seth

Author: Humayun Azad | Translator: Arunava Sinha | Genre: Historical Fiction, War, Bangladesh | Pages: 128

Bangladesh, 1971: the war of independence from Pakistan has torn through peaceful villages and turned life upside down. In the midst of war, one young girl holds on as she discovers the world’s unpredictability. During her father’s prolonged absence, she reminisces about the essence of her abbu, an esteemed professor, loving community leader, and now unexpected warrior.

She is moved by his quiet determination to preserve Bengali language and culture in a struggle for autonomy. In his diaries, her abbu describes the painful decisions he must make because of the threat of war, from embracing the brutality of taking up arms to the struggle of moving his family from the embattled city of Dhaka.

Amid the tragedy is the unbroken bond between a father and daughter, which makes this powerful and historically faithful portrait of a family surviving the worst in the fight for independence all the more stirring.

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In ‘I Remember Abbu’, the horrors of the war for the freedom of Bengalis in Pakistan in 1970s, is recounted by the renowned Bengali author of the time – Humayun Azad – through a family’s tale; more particularly through a father-daughter relationship. An unnamed narrator takes the reader through her life from the time she is born to the times of war in the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, that was burning for freedom. It is a simple story of an average middle-class family that loses everything to the war and how life is changed thereafter.

Small chapters that start as personal musings of a girl’s days as she is growing up in the shadows of her parents, named, Ammu and Abbu, in the story. With flavors of joy and hope, the story starts on a positive note but eventually is surrounded by the dark days of war where the city of Dhaka is torn down by the Pakistani army. Quite disturbing visuals have been painted through the anecdotes from Abbu’s diaries capturing the chaos and upheaval that Bengalis had to go through. It was heart-wrenching to read about how students from universities, kids in families, and general folk were killed mercilessly. People had to flee to villages which were also bombed or burned down eventually.

The writing is pretty simple and direct kept so with a view to capture the true story at the time and expose it to readers without the facts being adulterated. While I was rooting for the end to be a rather hopeful one I couldn’t help but notice how the story kept getting darker with Abbu’s increasing absence and the daughter pining for him for nights on end. The tension is obvious first in the world outside and then inside the house where Abbu won’t smile anymore nor call her his ‘genius, fool’ anymore. With a simplistic style and easy flow of words, the terrors that the Pakistani army unleashed upon people have been brought to the fore. The last few chapters establish what the war for freedom cost the narrator with a pretty brutal turn of events. The story of the girl who misses her father breaks your heart as she finds out that her father may never come home perhaps!

I’d like to specifically mention that as you set on with this book, do not expect great twists and turns as you won’t find any. This is a tale of a war-torn nation, of families bloodied and broken by war, and the author has tried to keep alive the history and leave the glamor behind. For most part, there isn’t much of a change in the events except the regular disappearing of people, bombings, fleeing, etc. and that renders the reading a bit insipid but the tale picks up toward the end. You are due to find it heartbreaking as all war stories are. You’ll grieve for the narrator as did I, but if you don’t it’s only because you didn’t read it right.

‘I Remember Abbu’ is a young girl’s attempt at remembering who her father was for her, what he did for her, for her family, who he became when war knocked on their door, and how he devoted himself to leave a peaceful country behind. There’s much to learn from this book about perseverance and patriotism. And also that a lot is broken before something can be mended for good. At 128 pages, this book has a lot to say and show! Go, read it.

Have you read ‘I Remember Abbu’? Do share your thoughts below.