FATHER’S letter of late May 1972 to me, poignant with the shattering news of mother’s sudden accidental death, virtually stunned me. For a moment, I thought it was just a dreadful nightmare. But then I realised that it was the height of an overheated midsummer day. Indeed, it turned July into the cruellest month for me.
I recollected the scene of the last farewell in Dhaka in May 1971. She stood with father under the eucalyptus tree, aflame with flowers, bidding me, my wife Sufia and our little sons Nipu and Topu good-bye. Teardrops in her eyes reflected silvery sun light mellowed by wayward clouds. Even as I remembered the sad parting, I could not recollect her last words. It must have been a prayer for our safety and wellbeing.
Father, however, in his profoundly touching letter recounted the last words mother said to him. During 1971 and early 1972, father then passed 60, retired from government service, was busy with the task of setting up a private college in the rural area near our village. Entitled the Bikrampur KB (Kunjo Bihari) College, it is located in the union headquarters of Icchapur of the Sirajdi Khan. Father BM Rahman was its founder and principal and became its rector from 1980.
In course of time, the college became a degree college with arts, science and commerce faculties in its own impressive buildings. In August 2018, the college became a government degree college. In 1971–1972, however, it was in its early infancy housed in a tin-shed. Father was busy mobilising help from the adjacent community as well as society at large and government agencies for building up the institution on a sound footing. He spent most of his time, almost six days a week, in the village working under the tin-shed. Mother often pleaded with him to give a break in his hard work for society’s education. But her plea fell on deaf ears. Father recounted in his letter the last words she had said to him on the eve of his departure for Icchapur despite her request not to proceed.
She said, ‘You would not heed my request but you would have great grief when on return to Dhaka you find me dead.’ Father lamented in his tear-soaked letter to me. Father added, ‘I could not imagine even in my wildest nightmare that the goddess of our happiness would depart with such tragic suddenness.’
As I read the letter, I not only had a tremendous urge to disbelieve it all but also felt an unparalleled pang of pain in my heart. From our childhood, we have been told, ‘Men do not cry.’ I could not, at that moment of intolerable grief, control my tears which came in silent surges and were instantly dried by the intense heat of a heartless summer.
When my wife Sufia found me sitting all alone and shattered, she asked me, ‘What is the matter?’ When I told her, she also burst into tearful sobs. Our eldest son Nipu, nine that time, heard the sad news of his dear grandma’s tragic death. He paused for a moment in tearless silence and then reacted with a child like question and asked, ‘Why are we sent to this earth and taken away without asking?’
Humanity has been asking the same question from time immemorial. It has not yet found the answer save in holy scriptures.
Condolence and comfort
BENGALI colleagues such as Abul Ahsan, Rezaur Rahman Naku, Md Shofiullah and others heard the sad news and came offering heartfelt sympathy and condolence. Since my near and dear ones were away in a free Bangladesh, from where they could not come to console me, the sympathetic words of the friends served to make me feel a bit of relief.
Among Pakistani friends, Wahed Ullah Wein, Kazmi and Naser all at that point of time section officers of the CSS cadre offered condolence to me with sincere sympathy. I cannot forget a slightly elder person senior section officer of the CSS cadre who came from Uttar Pradesh in India. He was more of an acquaintance than friend. His words were nothing extraordinary but at that time of my overwhelming grief they sounded touching. ‘Mother’, he said, ‘is irreplaceable.’ ‘She does not only signify the inception of our life on this earth but embraces our entire existence as long as she is alive. She embodies our yesteryears and makes alive all the days she shared with us. She personifies so many memories we cannot forget. Now that she is no more, we will grieve. As days past by, the intense sorrow will give way to progressively lesser sorrow but the want we feel for her will never disappear.’
DEATH is final for the one who departs. But life prosaically continues for those who are left behind. They must end their period of grief and lamentation and go on with the business of living. It was no different for us in Islamabad-Rawalpindi from July–August onward. I had my car, a Volkswagen Beetle 1300 of the 1970 model, and money enough to buy fuel for its daily travel. I often put my entire family in the vehicle and went around visiting friends. On certain evenings, we would drive to Rawalpindi to watch a film and have dinner in a nice restaurant. On some days, our friends accompanied us and we had a delightful time.
Preparing for a sea change
IT HAS been said, ‘Revolutions rarely occur suddenly and never by chance.’ This may be true of great socio-political changes and transformation. In the life of an individual, however, change often is the result of a chance happening or series of happenings. The meaning and significance of these events may not be clear at the time of their occurrence but easily fall into place in a neatly unfurling future.
As already described, some adventurous Bengali families found their way out of Pakistan through the mountainous terrain of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier and Afghanistan. Once they reached the Afghan capital Kabul, with the help of the tribals, they could fly to Delhi in India and then on to liberated Bangladesh. Quite senior persons such as professor Abdul Matin Choudhury, defence adviser to the president of Pakistan in 1970–71 and later vice-chancellor of Dhaka University in the independent Bangladesh, escaped through Afghanistan. Along with the majority of my Bengali colleagues, I did not seriously consider the possibility of exiting through mountains of Afghanistan.
Instead, I saw an opportunity in a past happening which promised an easier exit. While considering this, one late August evening, I met SM Rashid, the palmist in his Broadway Bakery in Rawalpindi. He took a fresh close look at my palm and smilingly predicted, ‘You will leave this country for a distant land. In fact, I don’t see you in Islamabad after October 22. It seems as if your ticket has been bought.’ Shaking my hand he said, ‘You don’t have to worry. You will have a chance to get higher education. But what can they teach you in addition to what you already know.’ It did not seem probable or possible in late August 1972. Nevertheless, the recent past, in an incredible manner, came to my assistance. Two letters, one from London and another from New York, came and transformed the entire perspective.
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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