The symphony of our times

Published: 00:05, Oct 16,2017 | Updated: 22:45, Oct 15,2017


Bengali army officers in Ramna
FROM 1969–1970 some of our seniors who were commissioned in the army also came to the Ramna Restaurant at regular intervals. Among them were young officers such as Nurul Islam (Shishu), Sadeque Ahmed Choudhury, M Nuruzzaman, all of whom later became major generals in the army of the liberated Bangladesh. They came in civilian dress and mixed with the varied gathering there. They often took one or the other member aside to whisper into the eager ears, ‘Don’t tell anyone, I am here on assignment from the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) of the Pakistan Armed Forces.’ Against the backdrop of the heated political scenario, the demand of maximum provincial autonomy for East Bengal became increasingly strident. In this context, such posting was natural as the West Pakistani ruling coterie wanted to feel the pulse of the resurgent Bengalis. However, the effectiveness of posting of young Bengali army officers to the eastern wing for intelligence gathering was questionable as far as the Pakistani establishment was concerned. Everyone in the Ramna Restaurant seemed to know of their assignment. That meant that it was in the knowledge of the entire East Bengali literati. Nevertheless, it is important to note that almost all of these Bengali lieutenants and captains then in East Bengal played a significant role as freedom fighters in the Bangladesh war of liberation 1971.

Pricey snacks
THE group that sat under the Banyan tree was fairly large, often 20–30 strong. No wonder then the young members of limited means often desisted from placing orders for food and drinks. It could prove too costly. As the agile and witty Khaled Rob often warned, ‘Shelley Bhai, do not hasten to order even a Coco Cola as you may have to order 30 and that would make you poorer by 15 rupees!’ Nevertheless, some of the moneyed ones such as launch owner Foyez Munshi from Eliotganj, Comilla did not cower as he ordered expensive dishes for all. These included delicious chicken cutlets, mutton chops, brain masala, parathas and vegetables. Everyone enjoyed the free feast.
There were also lots of fun and humour. Whenever we assembled in the Ramna Restaurant, we used to collect information about good friends who were away from Dhaka on duty. Thus, once, perhaps in mid-1969, I asked Jahangir Jasim as to where mutual friend Aga Kohinoor Alam was. During that period he was a young and bright officer of the rising and aggressive private-sector United Bank Ltd. He served in various branches of the bank in the countryside. Replying to my question Jahangir said, ‘Aga is in Charkhai.’ As Jahangir nonchalantly smoked one of my cigarettes, I asked him, ‘Where on earth is Charkhai?’ Jahangir replied composedly, ‘Charkhai is in India on the north-western boarder of East Pakistan.’ Amazed, I observed, ‘How could that be?’ How can a Pakistani bank open a branch in the Indian territory? Unperturbed, Jahangir replied, ‘Don’t you know that the United Bank is intensely aggressive and does not care where it opens a branch as long as it yields profit? Capitalist Pakistanis or Indians do not care for the international frontier.’ In reality, Charkhai was within the north-west boarder of the erstwhile East Pakistan.

Civil-military clash
Friend Jahangir Jasim fondly recalled the evening in late 1969 when he successfully negotiated compromise and peace between clashing elements of the Pakistani army and the young educated Bengali civilians gathered in the restaurant. A West Pakistani major who came to have dinner with his friends misperceived an innocent move by spirited Khaled Yusuf Bhachchu as rude and pounced upon him. Taken by surprise, Bachchu first suffered blows from the non-Bengali major and his companions. But he soon fought back with ferocity of a wounded tiger. His friends forcefully supported him. The major and his friends withdrew from the restaurant only to come back with a lorry-load of troops. The two sides stood in dangerous confrontation. It was at this moment when the blaze of combative conflagration was about to be ignited, cool-headed Jahangir Jasim and his friends intervened. They started a dialogue with the enraged non-Bengali officers and made them realise the wisdom of the path of peace. It was only natural for them in the near fiery political situation of the then East Pakistan to relent. They retreated and peace was restored to the Ramna Restaurant. Jahangir told me that there was, indeed, pressure from Bengali political leaders such as Yusuf Ali Choudhury Mohan Mia of Faridpur who happened to be the father of Khaled Yousuf Bachchu.

Jump into lake and feast
A HILARIOUS incident marked the near dangerous happening. As the two sides appeared on the verge of violent clash, peace-loving and quiet Foyez Munshi wanted to get out of trouble fast. In his hasty bid to escape, he ran to the wooden veranda overlooking the lake and tumbled in the dark waters. As the uproar subsided, a reinvigorated but all wet Foyez Munshi reappeared on the scene. Finding that his side had won, he became his own jovial and generous self. Amidst joyful laughter of the assembled group, he liberally ordered tasty and costly dishes for all. Everyone enjoyed the feast and Ramna regained its virile ambience.

Autumn 1969: the wind of change
THE autumn of 1969 proved to be a harbinger of a significant change for me. My days as assistant commissioner under training in the Dhaka district would come to an end very soon. Come September, it would be one year of attachment in the deputy commissioner’s office. That would mean the end of our on-the-job training. It would also mean that we, assistant commissioners, would be posted out to outlying sub-divisions as sub-divisional officers. Before 1969 and later, I found autumn bringing significant changes in my life and career. In 1964, the change came in the form of my appointment as a teacher of political Science in Dhaka University. That event signified the inception of a lively and joyful period of my life. The most pleasant experience of those vibrant years had already been described earlier in this chronicle. Again, October 1967 brought forth a transformation in my career. Under compelling circumstances caused by adverse intelligence reports I had to leave teaching in the university and joined the civil service. The latest change came in autumn 1968 when on completion of training at the Civil Service Academy, Lahore, I was posted to Dhaka as assistant commissioner of the district.
To be continued.

Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley, founder chairman of the Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh and editor of the quarterly Asian Affairs, is a former teacher of political science at Dhaka University (1964-1967), former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (1967-1980) and former non-partisan technocrat cabinet minister of Bangladesh (1990).

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