ON a monsoon evening twenty years ago, Syed Ali Kabir and Muhammad Habibur Rahman reflected on politics, on literature and on the Bengali way of life as it had come down through the generations. The dying sounds of an afternoon rain, in the form of a drizzle, lent their conversation a poignancy that the third individual present there, he being yours truly, did not fail to miss. It was an evening when the intellect was at work, in Ali the banker and Rahman the interpreter of the law.
Syed Ali Kabir has been dead a good many years. Muhammad Habibur Rahman passed into the ages a few evenings ago, at a time when his moral presence was a paramount need for this country. Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman's life had consistently been based on the principle that there was forever a purpose to living. Like so many of his profession, indeed so many elsewhere, he could have retired into the sunset and waited patiently for the end to come. He did not, even when his study, interpretation and application of the law as a judge, as indeed the chief justice of the Supreme Court, drew to a close. In the revolution of the turns history often takes, a new calling came to him. For three months, it became his moral and judicial responsibility to reassure the nation that he was there to get politics moving again. He was chief advisor of the caretaker government, a job that claimed every fibre of energy in him, every bit of his wisdom if he meant to leave a legacy behind. He succeeded brilliantly. That was in June 1996.
In his final eighteen years, as also in the times prior to that, Justice Rahman did not let go of the roots that clutch. He was a Bengali, a truth he never dissociated himself from. And to that end, he pursued literature, the study of it, in all the earnestness of scholarly endeavour. He delved deep into Tagore, into the poetry and the songs and everything else about the poet, to emerge with newer interpretations of Bengal's pre-eminent bard. Culture, he appeared to be informing himself, was what sustained society. And in that process of sustenance, he knew he had a role to play. It was, in a certain way, a reminder of another judge, another interpreter of the law, who once went out on a limb to remind Bengalis that culture was all. Justice Syed Mahbub Murshed, in all his refinement of wisdom and courage, sent out the loud message in 1961 that Tagore was Bengal's essence. There was no turning back after that.
That is the legacy Habibur Rahman took charge of in his times. And then he saw beyond Tagore. He went into detailed analyses and interpretations of the Quran, without any prejudice to himself or to others. A truly secular being, Rahman seemed to be suggesting, is one who understands history, who knows the ways of the world, who lives his faith without undermining the beliefs of others. His readings of the Quran apart, there were his studies of religions not his own that gave his personality a roundness one associates with the world of literary undertakings. And then there was more. He went into careful studies of poetry in languages beyond his own, indeed beyond those characteristic of the subcontinent, and went to huge lengths to transcribe and translate them for his fellow Bengalis.
Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman's was a spirit of renaissance. Scholars do not go on leave or settle back in self-satisfaction. For Rahman, it was not merely life that defined him. It was he who decided, in the infinity of his wisdom, what path to knowledge and its many dimensions his life would take. He travelled back in time, to return with a rich chronology of generational times as it defined the progression of Bengali society and politics. His research in the field of the evolution of the Bengali language was a demonstration of the expansive mind working in him. In Ekushey, he perceived the colours of the rainbow.
Muhammad Habibur Rahman was given to bursts of natural humour, just as the late Justice M.R. Kayani was. If Kayani could keep his audience glued to the pearls of wisdom shooting forth from him, Rahman could hold his listeners wrapped in the intellectual wit that informed his being.
Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman's secular credentials lent dignity to us all. His courage -- like the courage of Justice Syed Mohammad Hussain, Justice K.M. Subhan, Justice Abdur Rahman Chowdhury -- was a spark to living, ours.
The renaissance man has gone silent. And so has the world he injected so much energy into in his lifetime.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.