WE HAVE, in New Age office, a staircase winding down to the ground floor from the first. In the afternoon on November 10, 2005, the present New Age editor, Nurul Kabir, executive editor then, was climbing down, to address a condolence meeting in the news room on the New Age editor, Enayetullah Khan, or Mintu bhai to his colleagues, who we heard in the morning died in Canada where he had been treated for a few months since the last days of March that year.
I was following Kabir bhai. Colleagues had just gathered, standing around the staircase and in the aisles between cubicles. As Kabir bhai was about to set his foot on the last stair, I called him from behind, asking him to step back a couple of stairs up. I told him, ‘It will be nice if you stand on the stairs and speak so that everyone can see you. You are, after all, not as tall as Mintu bhai.’ Kabir bhai said, ‘Yes, in neither of the senses, in height and in stature.’ Kabir bhai began his speech with this anecdote.
I came to know of him when I was working in the Financial Express, back in 1995. He sent in a retort, written in English that he had been known for, for publication as an advert. I hardly had the idea that one day I would be working with him. I also knew of a cartoon of Enayetullah Khan, with the head forming the shape of a dictionary open above and writing pages after pages sitting on a table, caricaturing his extraordinary English diction, which was published in, most probably, a magazine.
About a fortnight after I had left the Associated Press of Bangladesh in early August 1998, which were the only unemployed days I have so far been through, I got a job of an assistant editor with the weekly Holiday, coming out since Enayetullah Khan founded it in 1965, in its declining days. Apart from the production people, we were only five — including Enayetullah Khan, referred to as EK, as he signed his articles almost always in paper, sheets of newsprint pads filled with capital letters from end to end, and rarely in print — who at the same time did all the writing, reporting and editing. EK, who first seemed redoubtable with his royal gait, at times humming or whistling a number of two from Tagore’s, later opened up. I probably had the advantage of being one of the two youngest people at the Holiday.
Days rolled on, in admonition and appreciation, and at the turn of the year 1999, I left for a better job, came back again, in July 2001, this time as staff correspondent, in a revamped indoor arrangement, with a few more people working on the staff. Days rolled on again, in camaraderie, and came the time for EK to found New Age. We were appointed at New Age as 2003 began and after countless session of planning, oversight and execution, the daily newspaper hit the stand on June 7, 2003. In less than two years, EK fell ill. He went to Canada for treatment — cancer was diagnosed in the pancreas. He came back and just before his departure in the evening of March 22, 2005 for his fully-fledged treatment in Canada, news and editorial managers went to his house, in the afternoon. He was shivering with high temperature and could hardly speak with the ease he always had.
As he spoke about other issues, he was complaining about misspelt words, or typos, and later said that it could be the last time we were meeting him. His fears came true — we met him last then. Came the news of his death on November 10… the last rites and the burial… on November 14 — the end of four decades of journalism, marked by courage and insight, as has been set out in the compilation of his editorial pieces from 1965 to 1975, A Testament of Time, published by Holiday Publication in April 1999. Work on the second volume, of the pieces that he had written for the next decade and a half, was in progress, but his death, somehow, slowed the process, which stopped at one point, confining all his writings to the issues of the Holiday and New Age kept with the New Age library.
I had been at the Holiday all the while the volume was produced. EK would come to office, edited the selected pieces, read them further for correction needed until, finally, the book came out in print. Much after the book had come out, a mistake in the selection of pieces was brought to the notice of EK. The January 28, 1969 piece, To the barricades!, which appeared in the volume was not written by EK. When he was told about this, much later, by the writer, who worked with the Holiday back in 1969, EK smiled, apologetically, and said, ‘I thought that I have written the piece.’ It was to be taken out if the book would run into the second edition. But chances are slim for the book to run into a further edition.
After New Age had been planned, a group of news and editorial managers sat with Enayetullah Khan, in late 2002 to decide what could make New Age different from other newspapers. Being the youngest among them, I was given the chance to speak first and my suggestion was that we could misspell at least a quarter of a pageful of words to become visibly discernible. EK seemed to be failing to such a suggestion coming, even as a joke, but it raised a laugh, obviously. We do make mistakes as they are difficult to be spotted and killed. We, therefore, had a second, even a third reading, of the copies at Holiday as a means to stop them coming in print.
He had a passion for words, well-sounding, well-meaning, and he loved to play with words, even going beyond linguistic customs. And he could be indistinct when he needed to. But he always thought that writing should result from exercised efforts, as could be seen when he used to crumble pages one after another and threw them into waste paper baskets, especially in the afternoon of the Holiday production days. He often said that something written should be right when it did not grate on the ears when read and I, jokingly, reminded him that the ears first needed to be well-exercised and fully attuned. In one of his pieces, on classical music, he coined the phrase jugal-ed bandi, a duet of two solo performers, where jugalbandi was customary. None of the editors approved of the coinage, yet all let it in print.
When I compiled and edited the Stylebook of New Age, a manual for in-house consumption on how to write and edit, published in October 2004, in the piece that he wrote for the back cover, he said, ‘If you ask me what is what in a grammar book, I will draw a blank. Grammar is in your head, absorbed when young and before the brain has become hard-wired….’ He had it right and he had it well.
He was not tech-savvy at all, yet he could learn the basics of creating and opening files, and saving and closing them on Microsoft Word. The mouse being new to him, he would struggle to manage it with his big palm. In New Age days, he would often get down to the newsroom, and while leaving the office, would say, ‘I have edited five copies.’ Asked in which directory he had saved them, as news managers could not find them on the server directory, he would just say, ‘In Microsoft Word.’ Investigations would reveal that he had saved them on the individual Windows desktop. Yet, he could realise what technology could afford us. During the late 1980s, he imported two IBM compatibles, XT, at high prices, for the Holiday one of which I used in the late 1990s, only the CPU had to be slapped a few times for the hard disk to start spinning. He bought a phototypesetter, for the Holiday, much before as the print came out neatly and nicely in the machine, which was probably sold by weight when New Age occupied almost all the spaces of Holiday Building.
Gone are the days! Gone are the days working with him, a towering figure in Bangladesh journalism, creating a void less likely to be filled in soon.
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.
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