There are instances when fiction and history go in synchrony and historical accuracies demand an artistic touch. The play titled Shotoborshi Shonmilon (The Centennial Conference) written by Abdus Selim and Jayed Ul Ehsan, published by the Bangladesh Theatre Archives, could well be on that list. Drawing inspiration from the two memoirs written by Bangabandhu, the authors focus on the personality and charisma behind one of the most revered world leaders.
The premise takes the audience to the ascension of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to an elite club of past world leaders. It starts in the New York Public Library amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. As the library closes in a hurry with books unattended, we are led to the other world with Bangabandhu, Indira Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Anwar Sadat, Martin Luther King Jr. and Fidel Castro, while in the background, on television, President Donald Trump is declaring an emergency.
Upon Bangabandhu's request, the ceremony at the New York Public Library is shifted to the Bangladesh Liberation War Museum. The leaders begin talking about world politics, literature, class struggle and human emancipation. Fidel Castro is initially refused access due to age restrictions, but Bangabandhu requests the others to give Castro special access to the conversation that follows. Most of the talks centre on Bangabandhu's work, his feelings towards his people, and his life in prison.
"Those who never went into a prison would never be able to perceive it! People think that prisons are enclosed with walls, with prisoners crammed together—they aren't. People in prison aren't humans, they become machines. Inside a prison, there are many small prisons. Many small prisons…" (translated)
Shotoborshi Shonmilon reveals Bangabandhu beyond his political identity; we see him as a person who is sensible, compassionate, and a Bengali man from whom love emanates towards his family, his fellow inmates, plants, animals, and chiefly towards the people of Bengal. His famous quote, "I can't deceive my people," reflects his ironclad will and the positivity that he clutched on to until the end of his life.
The playwrights deserve accolades for their portrayal of Bangabandhu's prison life, during which he dealt with loneliness and was saddened by the suffering of his fellow inmates. He cooked and distributed food for them, planted seeds in the gardens, took care of an ill rooster and even took lessons from the crows, all while being vehemently attacked by mosquitoes.
A surprise guest appears in honour of Bangabandhu as the play is about to end where it started, at the New York Public Library. The aura of the luminaries remains, offering hope that the world can heal itself from the raging pandemic and ignorance.
Historical drama is not a new premise for these authors. Abdus Selim is the Bangla Academy Prize-winning veteran translator, academic, playwright, and a celebrated face in theatre. Jayed Ul Ehsan is an academic with a deep understanding of performance arts from both the artistic and theoretical perspective. This play displays their individual contributions and their strengths of showmanship in harmony, through a bold attempt to display the inner workings of Bangabandhu, who has mostly been explored through his political life. The subtle contrasts between past and present leaders is a major strength of the script. A play of this length has to be seen performed on stage.
Asif Nawaz teaches English Literature at Central Women's University.