AS LEGEND has it, in the 1920’s they were three young men who did not know each other till they left home in search of fortune and met in Singapore; and became friends for life. They were Obaidur Rahman Nizam (1903–1970) from Chittagong, Altaf Ahmed Choudhury (1902–1974) and Abdul Hannan Choudhury (1901–1977), the latter two from Sylhet. They lived with the migrant community, worked for a living, and in their spare time studied hard (which some had neglected at home) to earn diplomas in the field of accounting through correspondence courses from UK. To cut the story short, they had a good life in Singapore, with ORN later living with his family in Sibu, a district town in Sarawak, now part of East Malaysia. After World War II they returned home and took up high positions in their professions and in public life.
Sylheti people generally have a good sense of humour and are also in the habit of giving nicknames, usually cynical ones. This trio came to be known, in admiration, as ‘Singapori ICS.’ (Indian Civil Service). With little formal higher education and without taking the usual government competitive examinations, Ahmed Choudhury became a Class I Income Tax Officer, and later head of a private foreign firm, Gladstone Willie/Carew & Co in Chittagong. Nizam became a successful businessman, elected Vice-Chairman of Chittagong Municipality for fifteen years, and founding chairman of Eastern Mercantile Bank (now Pubali Bank). Hannan Choudhury became director, Karnaphuly Paper Mills; chief accountant, State Bank of Pakistan; and member of Pakistan Tariff Commission. The two from Sylhet were related to me, and Ahmed Choudhury later became my father-in-law.
In 1958–59, while I was a masters student in Karachi, I came to know that Hannan Choudhury was in town and staying at the Metropole Hotel. I went to meet him. I found him sharing a room with Nizam, to whom I was introduced for the first time. He said, ‘My son has also done BA, but he will not accept a job for less than Rs1,000 a month.’ His tone indicated that he thought his son was day dreaming! Incidentally, following the martial law of Ayub Khan in 1958, the price level in the country had come down and one could lead a decent life even with less than Rs 1000. Traders were trying to get rid of smuggled foreign goods. This was when I bought my first suit piece from Elphinstone Street.
In end of 1961, I took up employment with Shell Oil in Chittagong. Dr Ismail Ellias (a Memon from Calcutta) was one of our panel doctors — a very friendly, pious, and amiable person with a fixed routine of playing snooker at the Chittagong Club every evening. He was also president of the Rotary Club. Once he invited me to their weekly lunch meeting at the Club. He probably intended to make me a member of Rotary. At the meeting, I met the sprightly Rasul Nizam (1935-2006), eldest son of Nizam, who was the Rotary secretary. Nizam had nine children: Rasul (deceased), Rashed, Farida, Rafique, Rashid (Krukru), Halida, Reza, Raihan and Fahmida, in that order.
Coming back to the Singapore story, in 1966-67, I worked for sometime in Burnei and in Miri in Sarawak. In Miri, I met one Ranjit Bhattacharjee who was the public relations officer of the Shell Company. His parents had migrated from Boroma village in Patiya to Sarawak and they had lived together with the Nizam family in Sibu. During WWII, Sarawak was occupied by the Japanese. Nizam was working for a British firm and as such the Japanese put him in a concentration camp. Bhattacharjee remembered, as the eldest male child in the two families, carrying food for Nizam to the camp. Rasul had re-established contact with Bhattacharjee and had met him in Kuala Lumpur, where he then lived, writing in journals, till his demise. Rasul had also visited Sibu in 1998, after exactly 50 years, where he was well received and his visit was covered in the local press.
In 1966, my wife and I traced an elderly Muslim community leader in Singapore who had migrated from Sylhet and had known our three gentlemen. I have forgotten the name of this leader. Singapore gained independence from the British in 1963 along with Malaysia, but separated from Malaysia in 1965. This person told me that since the British had taken over Singapore from the then Sultan, they should have handed it back to the descendants of the Sultan (the Malays) and not to the Chinese, who are not bhumiputras. He requested me to look for a good lawyer who could fight the legal battle for him. Holidaying with my newly-married wife, the independence of Singapore was, obviously, not one of my priorities. However, on another visit in 2010, I come to know of a son of this once-upon-a-time leader, who was currently a committee member of a mosque in Serangon Road near Mustafa’s. I could not meet him.
I never became a Rotarian, but my close friendship with Rasul lasted for over the three decades that I spent in Chittagong. We had common interests and were involved with various activities, such as the Chittagong Club, the Bhatiary Golf & Country Club, and the Boat Club, the Alliance Francaise, never-ending parties and picnics on Kaptai Lake. He was the honorary consul of France and I was the president of Alliance Francaise. In our almost daily interactions we must have had disagreements, but in our relationship there was never, never, ever a moment of displeasure. This is a cherished memory that brings tears to my eyes. Rasul had many great enviable qualities — his ever smiling face, his diplomatic utterances which could never hurt anyone, the professional relationship that he maintained with the milliards of people in the tea trade from a humble coolie in the plantation to the chairman of a tea company in Glasgow. He was a popular man. So, it came to me as a surprise when a neighbour of mine, a senior member of the Chittagong gentry (now deceased) told me that in his opinion Rasul could not live up to the high standard of his father, so far as popularity with the masses was concerned. As I did not know either the masses or Nizam too well, I could not make any comment. However, it did indicate in how great an esteem Nizam was held by his people.
Nizam owned a two-storey house with one flat on each floor on Road 2 of Nasirabad Housing Society. It was named Trima Kaseh, meaning ‘thank you’ in Malay. It was rented out to Shell and furnished by the company, where two senior staff families would stay. Shell had about 40 such flats, in fact, almost all the available ones in NHS. As employee relations officer, housing was one of my responsibilities. There was no WASA water supply in NHS in the 1960s. Each house had its own deep tube well and a pump to take the water to the roof-top tank. One day the pump at Trima Kaseh broke down and needed to be replaced. My boss, Trevan Hingston, an Englishman, and I made an appointment and went to meet Nizam at his Turner Grahams office on Strand Road. We were warmly received and offered tea. When we explained the pump situation, he said, ‘The house is yours and you do whatever you want to it’. We exchanged some pleasantries and took leave without mentioning the pump a second time. Returning to the office, we asked the big, fat Mr Shad (may his soul rest in peace) the Pakistani ‘engineer’ in charge of Housing, to buy a pump and install it. It was done, without making any charge on the landlord. This meeting was to become a lifelong lesson for me. In course of time, I myself became a landlord of two houses, one in Dhaka and one in Chittagong. Both were let out for many years exclusively to expatriates. Whenever any discussion/negotiation took place with the tenant regarding rent, facilities, etc. my opening statement would be ‘The house is yours …’ This would put the other side at ease and half my battle was won. I cannot help but imagine that it was this kind of gentle behaviour that won Nizam the hearts of his voters and the people.
Juned A Choudhury is an eco-travel consultant.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion