The symphony of our times

Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley | Published: 00:05, Sep 17,2018


Dildar the good angel

AFTER a chance meeting in the Islamabad Club in early September, I told Dildar of my predicament. Here I was with everything ready for my PhD study in London University, but without the means of getting out of Pakistan. I was no more technically in the service of the government of Pakistan. I did not even have an international passport. The question of obtaining permission to leave the land did not arise as in ordinary circumstances Bengali officers who had opted for Bangladesh would not be allowed to leave Pakistan the normal way. Dildar heard me with composure. He said, ‘Don’t worry. We will find a way out.’ And he did. Even to this day, I do not know how he did it. He undoubtedly had good friends at high places. Within days, he obtained for me and my family international passports and even some 20 sterling pounds in foreign exchange.
The rest was easy. On Sunday, October 22, 1972, friend Wahidullah Wein drove Sufia and me and our little sons Nipu and Topu in my Volkswagen car to the Chaklala airport in Pindi. I left my refrigerator in the residence on so that nosy neighbours would not know that we were gone. With Wein came, another friend Imtiaz, manager of a Standard Bank branch in Rawalpindi, to bid us goodbye. The plane took off for Amsterdam via Istanbul in the mellow sunlight of a late October morning. The whole thing felt like a daydream.

Flight to another continent
THE Pakistan International Airlines flight to Amsterdam in Europe began in the morning. On its first leg, the aircraft was bound for Istanbul in Turkey. It had an hour’s halt there. Thrill mixed with a feeling of indefinable fear of the uncertain future marked my first journey to another continent. Here I was with wife and two very young sons on the way to a distant city where I had never been. We did not know if any of my few friends in London I had sent cables to had received them. If none of them turned up at the airport to receive us, we would be at a loss. We would not know what to do or where to go in the strange cosmopolis.
Nevertheless, I tried to relax within the spacious interior of the aircraft and engaged in light talks with Sufia and the children. When after a few hours’ flight, the plane reached the fabled city of Istanbul located at the point where Europe met Asia, I felt elated to be in the historic city earlier called Constantinople. I stepped out into the transit lounge and had a cup of coffee. It was a symbolic gesture of setting my feet in the ancient city existing since the Roman times. It was not until June 1997, however, that I got a chance to be in Istanbul for a conference of the American Overseas Research Centre.
On October 22, 1972 as the plane took off from Istanbul, I had a feeling of sad parting as I left behind the ancient continent of Asia. Another four hours’ flight and we were in Amsterdam in the Netherlands as the PIA flight was scheduled to go to Manchester.

Transit at Schiphol
SINCE we were bound for London, we had to deplane in Schiphol International Airport, Amsterdam. There was a transit for two hours after which a small British Airways craft would fly us to London in an hour-long flight. The transit lounge of this giant international airport was vast and well-appointed. It was cold outside but the central heating within made us feel warm and comfortable. It has been more than four decades and a half since that day but the extraordinary afternoon is fresh in memory. Our sons Nipu and Topu were joyfully excited by the moving horizontal escalators. I had a hard time in trying to stop the kids from hurting themselves.
At one point, I saw a number of Indians huddled in a corner with various musical instruments ranging from the sitar and the tabla to the flute. In the midst of the group sat a guru-like figure in white shirt and dhoti and a lock of grey hair on his head. As I went near the group, one of the members said ‘hullo’ to me. ‘Are you from India?’ he said. When I said that I was from the sub-continent but a Bangladeshi, he said, ‘We are a team of Indian musicians going to London for a show and our leader is the Guru Arobindiya, the great sitar player.’ I shook hands with him and had a friendly chat about the state of classical music in India and elsewhere in the world. While we were talking Nipu and Topu in childish joy kept on shouting ‘Arobindiya’. I felt embarrassed but the guru smilingly said, ‘Don’t worry, kids will be kids.’
The two hours of transit passed quickly. In the short British Airways flight to London, we were treated to tea and sandwiches. As the evening melted into dark night, the craft made a smooth landing. We were bused into a terminal as chilly wind of late October embraced us with challenging cold. The immigration officers were extraordinarily polite and cordial when they learnt that we were Bengalis flying from Rawalpindi, Pakistan. People of Bangladesh born in a blood-soaked glorious liberation war were welcome to the democracies of the developed World. Customs too were an easy sail. We waited inside the customs area for sometime hoping that Aizaz Rasul Tajwar, a former teacher of political science in Dhaka University in 1972, an officer of the PIA at Heathrow Airport London to whom I sent a telegram would be there to receive us. After some long 15 minutes, neither he nor any of the friends I had informed came to receive us.
Hence, we ventured out into the Concourse. No one looking like a South Asian was there to welcome us. The night felt forlorn and forbidding. Something more than the cold of late October in London made me shiver. Here I was in the ancient city that renewed itself with every age with nobody I knew to receive me and my family. Suddenly from one corner, an Englishman shouted, ‘Shelley, Shelley here, I am!’ Dazed at that moment I thought I was dreaming. Here was Dr Peter Lyon, my PhD supervisor to be. He had travelled all the way from his hometown Guildford, Surrey, some hours drive from London. I was pleasantly surprised to find him at the airport to receive me and my family.
In fact, he had some minor injury in the right wrist and was unable to drive himself. Hence, he got his neighbour, a schoolteacher, drive him to Heathrow Airport for receiving us. I was profoundly impressed by this kind gesture on part of my would-be teacher and his friendly neighbour. When I asked Dr Peter Lyon as to how he had come to learn about my reaching to London on that night, he said that the information was given to him over telephone by Mrs Dilara Choudhury, wife of Professor Dr GW Choudhury, then resident in London. Her kind and thoughtful telephone call to Dr. Peter saved me from being stranded with my family at Heathrow Airport on that Sunday evening.

A sosy caravanserai
DR PETER Lyon and his friend drove us to central London’s Russell Square. On one side of the square was the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (later known as Institute of Commonwealth and Australian Studies) at 27 Russell Square. This was Peter’s work place at the University of London. It would also become my institute in London University as I was registered with it for my MPhil leading to PhD studies for the next three years.
In the corner opposite the institute were a number of hotels including the Hotel Russell, the Imperial Hotel and its sister institution the President Hotel. It was to this last one where Peter took us and showed us to our room. He said that the restaurant downstairs would be open for another hour and we could have our dinner there. He handed me over 30 British Pound sterling for immediate expenses. He also told me to walk across the Park to the Institute of Commonwealth Studies next morning to meet him and complete the formalities of my admittance into the University of London.
As Peter and his friend left, bidding us good-bye, we felt immensely thankful to them and to our fate. The hotel room nice and warm felt like a cosy caravanserai found in the annals of the fabulous Arabian Nights. We could at least relax in soothing environments after our weary journey. One felt tempted to extrapolate a sentence from the book ‘Gone with the Wind’ and say, ‘Tomorrow is another day.’
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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