Published by Fourth Estate
Publication date: April 12th 2012
The first year of Saadi’s life was spent being held almost constantly by aunts, his mother, grandmother and his sisters. If he even looked about to cry he was fed tiny amounts of a local, sweet delicacy, making him one of the fattest and most content of babies by his first birthday. All of this caution was necessary because Saadi and his family live in Dacca, the capital of Eastern Pakistan in 1970 and they are Bengali. Every effort must be made to go unnoticed as Bengali nationalism and Pakistani rule are leading the young country into the civil war that ultimately restores Dacca as the capital of what is now Bangladesh. By 1971 the war culminates in the military attack on civilians and ends later the following year with the dissolution of East Pakistan and creation of a new government for Bangladesh.
Scenes From Early Life is a unique blend of fiction and true story, based as it is on the life of author Philip Hensher’s husband, Zaved Mahmood. The book feels almost like a scrapbook with each chapter named and black and white photos scattered throughout. Saadi’s family is led, not by his father, but by his maternal grandfather who decides, as tensions escalate in Dacca, that the entire extended family should live under one roof. This is a difficult command for his father whose journey from a small village to government lawyer means he has his own issues of pride and authority. Unable to ignore his father-in-law’s imperative he takes solace in later years when returning to the village of his youth.
He was making an effort not to look too overcome with joy; his expression was even a little irritable. But he loved being greeted and surrounded. For once, it corresponded with the valuation he held of himself in the world.
Through the voices of other family members, Hensher shares the recollections of those days.
What is most engaging about Scenes from Early Life is the sleight of hand Hensher uses to take a time of cruelty, chaos and confusion and turn it into a story of childhood and family. Even after the war there are tensions and ongoing issues. One reads of annoying sisters, the excitement of a family wedding and childhood games based on the television series Roots intermingled with famine, informant neighbors who are now shunned and a new government striving to find its footing. Saadi remembers and recounts the history but from a child’s perspective which is unusual and intriguing and puts an aspect of light across what an adult might not have seen. Scenes From Early Life beautifully illustrates the stability of family even in unstable times.