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Scenes from Early Life

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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      Scenes from Early Life
Philip Hensher

Winner of the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, this is the new novel from the author of ‘King of the Badgers’ and the Man Booker-shortlisted ‘The Northern Clemency’.“I was a baby during the war. We stayed inside for months. All my aunts took turns in feeding me. I couldn't be heard to cry. You see, there were soldiers in the streets. They would have known what a crying baby meant. So I had to be kept silent. No, not everyone came out of the war alive.”One family’s life, and a nation – Bangladesh – are uniquely created through conversation, sacrifice, songs, bonds, blood, bravery and jokes. Narrated by a young boy born into a savage civil war, ‘Scenes from Early Life’ is a heartbreaking, funny and gripping novel by one of our finest writers.

Scenes from

Early Life

A novel

Philip Hensher


For Richard Heaton


Cover (#u733760bc-cef8-5024-9018-84c0962f4779)

Title Page (#u259ed8d4-5337-5258-97c3-601513b1a3b0)


Author’s Note

Chapter 1 - At Nana’s House

Chapter 2 - The Game of Roots

Chapter 3 - Altaf and Amit

Chapter 4 - A Journey in the Dry Season

Chapter 5 - A Party at Sufiya’s

Chapter 6 - How Big-uncle Left Home

Chapter 7 - Nana’s Faith in Rustum

Chapter 8 - How Amit Went to Calcutta

Chapter 9 - How I Was Allowed to Eat As Much As I Liked

Chapter 10 - The Song the Flower Sang

Chapter 11 - Structural Repairs

Chapter 12 - Nadira’s Wedding

Chapter 13 - What Happened to Them All?


About the Author

Also by Philip Hensher



About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

Author’s Note

This is a novel of the formation of Bangladesh. Until 1971, it formed an eastern province of Pakistan, divided from the western part by geography, language, and culture. It broke from the western side in a savagely violent war of independence. In December 1971, after the deaths of uncounted innocent victims in the civil war, a new country was declared: Bangla Desh, the Home of the Bengalis.

Scenes from Early Life is the story of one upper-middle-class Bengali family, a novel which is told in the form of a memoir. The narrator speaks in the voice of Zaved Mahmood, the author’s husband, who was born in late 1970 shortly before the outbreak of the war of independence.

Chapter 1

At Nana’s House


Even the shit of a dog smells good to you, if it’s English.

(Ingrazi kuttar gu-o tomar khache bhalo.)

My grandmother used to say this to my grandfather. He was very pro-Empire. That was my mother’s father, who used to call me Churchill when I cried. At first I did not know who Churchill was, but my grandfather would explain to me, and after a while I knew who he meant when he said Churchill. He meant me, and often he would ask to have me sit next to him at the lunch table. ‘I want Churchill here,’ he said, and I would be led up by my ayah, not crying at all. I felt very proud. The theory was that when Churchill was a little boy, he used to cry very much. All the time. He was a great reader of biographies, my grandfather.

When he went out to a friend’s house, we would drive there in a big red car – a Vauxhall, I think. He was an income-tax lawyer, the president of the East Pakistan Income Tax Lawyers’ association. Later, the Bangla Desh Income Tax Lawyers’ Association. There, at one old man’s house or another, I would be allowed to stay in company for a while. He liked to show me off, and would call me Churchill in front of his friends. I don’t believe that, as he said, he thought I would be the Churchill of Bangla Desh when I grew up. I think he mainly called me that because I cried.

My grandfather’s great friend was called, by us, Mr Khandekar-nana. He had been a friend of my grandfather’s from college, all the way back in the British time. They used to share a room when they were at college, a long time ago in the 1930s, and ever afterwards, they were friends with each other. They had gone on being friends when they moved to Calcutta to be lawyers. (That was where they were in 1947.) And afterwards they had both moved to Dacca. My grandfather was Nana to us and his friend was Mr Khandekar-nana.

They both lived in the Dhanmondi area, very close to each other. It was the best place in Dacca to live. Nana’s house was in road number six; Mr Khandekar-nana’s was in road number forty. Both of them were two-storey houses with glass walls to the porch and flat roofs, both intricate and complex in their ground plan. It was only a ten-minute walk from Nana’s house to Mr Khandekar-nana’s, and it was a pleasant walk. The roads of Dhanmondi were quiet, and lined with trees, all painted white to four feet high, to discourage the ants. ‘Ants can’t walk on white,’ my mother used to say. ‘They are frightened of being seen. So that’s why they paint the tree trunks white.’ I still don’t know how true that is. On the walk from Nana’s house to Khandekar-nana’s house, you would see only the occasional ayah, or mother, walking with her children, only the occasional houseboy loafing outside against the high, whitewashed walls of the houses, in those days. But my grandfather had a big red car, a Vauxhall, I think, and we drove the short distance to Mr Khandekar-nana’s house.

Among the keen interests they shared were plants and flowers, and they kept their gardeners up to the mark. In front of their houses were roses, jasmine, dahlias, even sunflowers – English flowers, often. The two of them took pleasure in choosing flowers together, and their gardens were only different in small details. They were planted neatly, in rows, against the neat white Bauhaus style of their houses, and the mosaic in ash and white and green on the ground. The flowerbeds were in the sunniest part of the garden, away from the tamarind tree at the front of my grandfather’s house, the mango tree at the front of Mr Khandekar-nana’s.

The visits to Mr Khandekar-nana’s followed the same sequence. My grandfather and Mr Khandekar-nana would go up to the balcony, shaded by the mango tree, and I would be allowed to go up with them. The tea would arrive and a plate of biscuits. My grandfather and Mr Khandekar-nana would take one biscuit each – one, one, judiciously, carefully, as lawyers do. Then I would be allowed to eat the rest. My grandfather would boast about how many books I had read, and as Khandekar-nana’s wife arrived, to greet us and bring my grandfather up to date with her grandchildren, he would mention that he thought in the end I would be the Churchill of Bangla Desh.

A great friend of mine was the daughter of another friend of my grandfather, a child specialist who lived quite opposite Nana’s house. She was ten years older than I was. When we visited them, she would take me to her living room and feed me biscuits from her own tin. It had English pictures on top of it, of a house with hair for a roof and a pony eating from a lawn. She had a lot of books and a phonogram; still, it is the biscuits that I remember. I wonder now whether I was notorious in the neighbourhood. But I will explain why I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted when I come to it.


He had a driver, my grandfather, which always very much impressed me. The driver’s name was Rustum. Rustum stayed in the family for fifteen years, living with his family just next to the garage, outside the courtyard of the house. He was always very friendly to us children. I got to know him not because of our Sunday trips to my grandfather’s friends, but because of what happened during the week. My grandmother would often ask Rustum to go to market for her. Rustum, too, liked me, and he would ask me and sometimes my sister to go with him. We always went because he slipped us a lozenge or a jujube at the end of the trip.

It was important that we would slip off with Rustum without mentioning it to anyone – the trip, like the secret jujube, was no fun if the grown-ups knew about it. But when I and my sister Sunchita were missed, my mother would start to shout and panic. My second aunty, Mary-aunty, would start to shout and panic. I know this because when we returned home, they would go on shouting and panicking at us, and at Rustum. ‘Why couldn’t you tell anyone that you were taking the children?’

We were kept under close surveillance, Sunchita and I, because we could never stay still. We were always chasing the chickens, climbing the mango tree in the garden, sneaking off to the market with Rustum, who conspired with us against the grown-ups. In the end, Rustum was sacked by my grandfather and died of tuberculosis.


My grandfather and my grandmother fought a war of attrition over the balcony on the first floor. My grandfather thought it his possession, the place he could retreat to from the noise and crowd elsewhere. He had an image of his balcony as being like Mr Khandekar-nana’s balcony and, I believe, thought of himself sitting on the cool open space, a cup of tea and biscuits to one side while the grandchildren and children, cousins and nephews and visitors from his village on business rampaged through the rest of the house.

There was a wooden armchair on the balcony, an orange-brown plantation chair with extendable limbs on which you could rest your legs. But it was generally pushed to one side, because my grandmother had her own ideas for the balcony. She encouraged the cook to see it as a useful space where things could be stored or placed to dry. Almost always, jolpai and mango were laid out there for drying, covered with dry spice on banana leaves; against the wall, rows of bottled pickles in mustard oil. It drove my grandfather mad with irritation that the balcony was being used in this way. ‘This house is like a pickle factory,’ he would mutter as, once again, he retreated from his balcony and went back downstairs to his library.

My challenge was to get on to the balcony while my grandmother was busy with other things. The tamarind tree was old, and thick-leaved; its boughs thrust beneath the roof and into the balcony’s space. If nobody was about, I climbed the tree and dropped softly on to the balcony. Or sometimes my sister Sunchita and I would conceal ourselves behind a curtain, or underneath a table, waiting for the servants to go by, and then we would run up to my grandfather’s room, and afterwards on to the balcony.

There, we hid. I liked to taste the pickles that had been laid out; I liked the pucker they made on my tongue.


We did not live at my grandfather’s house, but we went there for the weekend, almost every weekend. We especially went there if there was a good movie on television. We knew that there was a movie on television every Sunday afternoon and Saturday evening. It was often a Calcutta movie, an old Satyajit Ray film or something of that sort. Still, my father refused to buy a television for us, and so we went eagerly to Nana’s house.

The television was placed in the dining room, at the end of the polished mahogany table, which could seat, and often did seat, twelve people. Only Grandfather and Grandmother, Nana and Nani, had their own allotted places.

As well as having no television, my parents had, at that time, no car. We would arrive on a rickshaw at lunchtime on Friday – a cycle-rickshaw, with room for four. There was always a fight between me and the younger of my two sisters, Sunchita, over who would get to sit on my mother’s lap. My elder sister was above such things, and my big brother, Zahid, too. He was aloof, and came when he chose.
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