Late one afternoon last September I arrived at the two-story building on top of a hill in Khadim Nagar, Sylhet for what was to be my last meeting with Zahin Bhai. He met me upstairs outside his office, looking the same as always: diminutive, with a short, well-trimmed beard and thick spectacles, appearing more like boy than a man.
And yet, I reminded myself, his accomplishments were far from diminutive. He founded the NGO Friends in Village Development Bangladesh in 1981. Among other things, FIVDB specializes in education, focusing on functional literacy for adults. The learning material they researched and developed has been used by over 300 organizations in Bangladesh and abroad and reached 2.4 million learners. FIVDB started 394 schools and handed them back to the communities. For its innovation, FIVDB has received many national and international awards.
In addition to education, FIVDB also focuses on livelihood and food security for rural population by enabling small-scale entrepreneurship. Notably, it is a pioneer in duck farming in Bangladesh.
After greeting me, Zahin Bhai puttered about his office, offering me tea and biscuits. It was a social call and we discussed a wide range of topics. On his computer, he showed me his collection of old photographs of Sylhet, including many eminent people, and asked me for a photograph of my grandfather.
I had been concerned about his eyes – he had complications after eye surgery – and was relieved that he was feeling better.
A little while later, he searched his desk and pulled out a beautiful, small book of translated Persian poetry that a friend had given him. He leafed through its pages like a little boy showing off a proud possession.
As usual, our conversation veered towards birds, in which he took a keen interest. He wanted to see some ground-dwelling birds such as pheasants, quails and francolins. I offered to take him birdwatching. We brainstormed, concluded the tea gardens in cooler months would be a good option, and decided to enlist the help of one or two garden owners who often know the location of such birds in their property. Alas, that trip was not to be.
I had met Zahin Bhai first in the house of our common friend Colonel Salam (Bir Protik) about five years ago. Our families were friends much longer. His father and my grandfather were close, and he knew both my parents well.
Since then I was drawn to Zahin Bhai for many reasons. He took a keen interest in nature, particularly birds, and actively supported and encouraged my work in documenting our natural splendour through photo books. He was a voracious reader of books and listener of music and was the only person I knew who was equally conversant in Western Classical and Indian Classical music.
But beyond this, there was something special about him that attracted me and many others to him. While very much a modern person, to us he represented a different era in Sylhet. It was a vastly different time than ours, gentler and slower, less prone to loud ostentation, when everyone knew each other. His humanism, modest but firm attitude, and above all the ability to love unconditionally touched the hearts of many.
With immense and unfathomable sadness I learned about the passing of Zahin Ahmed on the morning of the 28th October in Dhaka. He devoted his entire life to improving the condition of his people and his country. I pray that he rests in peace.
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