Have you ever wondered what goes on behind closed doors of the wealthy in the most prosperous parts of this city? What kind of lifestyle do the showrunners of Dhaka lead and what skeletons do they have in their closet?
Author Nadeem Zaman in The Inheritors sheds some light on what the answers to these questions could be, through the perspective of the protagonist Nisar Chowdhury, an outsider from Chicago on a family business trip trying to navigate Dhaka's high life fraught with deception, deep-seated envy, and the darkest open-secrets.
Filled with references to the Great Gatsby, Dhaka's jaded history, a turbulent and fatal love triangle, and social commentary about city living, the book has a lot to offer to readers who have a love-hate relationship with the rapidly changing urban jungle.
In the beginning, the readers are introduced to the middle-aged main character who returns to his old house near Kemal Ataturk Avenue to sell off the remainder of his family's properties in Dhaka, while working on his book about the city. However, things take a turn for the unexpected for Nisar when his mysterious hedonistic tycoon and neighbour, Junaid Gazi, offers to buy it all, way above market price. His suspicions grow about his lawyer syphoning off his family's wealth in a sports-betting scandal and he finds himself immersed in Dhaka's social scene, which hides the misery, depravity and history of its most affluent inhabitants (including his own family) under the veneer of civility. And like everyone else, Nisar also finds himself becoming immune to and developing his own aforementioned veneer.
"Besides, don't be fooled by the congeniality you see here. Everyone here puts up with each other because they have to. Professionally, and through that, personally.' 'Sounds god-awful,' I said. 'It is,' Disha said, 'and it's the price to pay for a way of life that some people can't get around."
Zaman weaves a tapestry of distinctive and often deeply-flawed characters with whom Nisar repeatedly comes in contact, learning about their tales of tragedy, heartbreak, and envy in the process, which makes the narrative very dramatic. Nisar, himself, is portrayed as someone aloof, unfaithful, and in denial throughout the book. He constantly wrestles with the possibility of staying back in Dhaka as he feels a connection to the city in spite of all its corruption and horror. This is arguably one of the main themes explored in the book.
"Despite my perception of being an outsider, I felt a peculiar sense of belonging. Or maybe I wanted to feel it so badly that I convinced myself it was true. I'd been around them a very short time, but they'd been more intense than many friendships I'd had for years. "
The other major themes explored in the book include the comparison between modern Dhaka and how the narrator remembered it in his childhood during the 1980s, the stark differences in the lives of the rich and poor in the ever-expanding city, and the relentless and helpless longing to be with the person you are in love with. The picture of the lives of Dhaka's elite painted by Zaman is that of familiarity and of simultaneously being divorced from the reality of the average Dhakaite, albeit equally cyclical.
The strength of the storytelling in The Inheritors lies in the degree to which the menagerie of characters introduced is developed, the way the author intertwines the familiar locations of Dhaka and its history into the central narrative, and his nuanced writing style. For example, while in any other city, the act of the cast of the main character running into each other repeatedly at parties, exhibitions, and fashion shows may feel coincidental or even forced, in Dhaka, it is quite natural, which Zaman does not forget to incorporate.
Moreover, Zaman does not shy away from describing the political economy of the city and the depraved nature of some of the families that helped make Dhaka what it is, which makes the story very authentic.
On the other hand, I felt that the reader's introduction to the character of Junaid Gazi could have been more fleshed out much earlier in the story, given how essential he is to drive the plot. And, the book's shocking ending could have been further expounded upon, as I was left with many questions.
However, despite that, the story told by the author is one of tragic endearment for Dhaka that I will never forget, as it leaves quite an impression on me both as an outsider and as someone raised in this city. Whether you are curious about Dhaka's seedy underbelly or cannot help but call this place home, this book is worth checking out.
The Inheritors. By Nadeem Zaman. Hatchette India, 2023, 304 pages.