Shahnoor Wahid finds the collection of the personal accounts of the writer worth a second read. The writing style is straight forward and at times piquantly piercing when it comes to calling a spade a spade.
Memoirs can turn out to be drab, often dismal, if the writer fails to offer one entrancing episode after another and thus keep the readers glued to the pages. The readers, in most cases, are perennially hungry for action; scandals; drama and melodrama, and many of them also crave to read about things bordering on the bizarre. One therefore has to be careful while writing memoirs. Hasnat Abdul Hye is one writer who does not need to be told this. His memoir titled 'From The Horse's Mouth' is one book that a reader, having some familiarity with the way things ran in the administration during the Pakistan days, and in a newly independent Bangladesh, would be able to connect with him fast and eventually get immersed in his own bitter-sweet memories. It has action, drama and thrill between the two covers. And one would not find many books in this country written by former civil servants giving authentic accounts of the travails and trivialities of the inner sanctum of the administration. Reading 'From The Horse's Mouth' a reader will develop an insight into how civil administration at the higher echelon operates since it is not possible for a lay man to have a peep at those 'confidential notes' written by the deputy secretary or joint secretary on a file and what finally is done to it by the secretary or the minister in charge.
We have heard a lot about 'Red Tape' or about 'Bureaucratic Bottleneck' but in this book we get some idea of what it's all about. We are told hitherto unknown stories of how politicians and ministers at the helm of various ministries interact with the bureaucrats, and how a file on an important issue is prepared and finally decisions are taken. We come to know how senior bureaucrats deal with their junior colleagues, and what happens when some civil servants become overtly politicised.
Hasnat Abdul Hye's book is basically all about what he saw, heard and did when he was in the thick of things as a bureaucrat himself, as a CSP officer, during the tenure of Ayub Khan, Yahaya Khan, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the later-day rulers until his retirement. The period is from 1965 till 2000. He tells us about the rigors and rituals of training young CSS cadres had to undergo at various training academies across the two wings of Pakistan to qualify to “rule”. His experience in the woods or a near-death horse ride would throw some light on the kind of training they had to endure.
He travelled extensively throughout the two wings of Pakistan as a young civil service officer, has seen enough of good and bad in those eventful years and took mental note of each interesting episode, perhaps for future compilation. In his own words, “Government service gave me the opportunity to visit and live in different places, forestalling monotony. Getting to know people from cross-section of society was a source of great satisfaction. Those experiences helped me as a writer, such as I have been. I have reasons to be grateful to the career to which was devoted the major part of my active life. My greatest achievement has been that I survived in civil service in spite of my idiosyncrasies and 'rugged individualism'. When I look back on my career the remembrance is not without flashes of nostalgia.”
He aptly titles his first chapter, “Fazal Deen, my Jeeves”, to bring to mind of the readers the popular short stories by the title, My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse. In this chapter he narrates his many encounters with Fazal Deen, his valet in the Civil Service academy in Lahore. But, this is to be consumed as appetizer, and the main courses would follow.
On page 130 he writes about the historic 7th March speech of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: “…In the course of his fiery speech he warned Yaha's government not to open fire on Bengalis any more and exhorted the people to be ready for confrontation with the enemy. On the face of it, it was an electrifying speech, directed against the government. It threatened Yahya's government with dire consequences if the demands were not met and told the audience that the current struggle was for freedom and independence.”
On page 140 he narrates the story of the visit of Major General Tikka Khan to Patuakhali in 1971, where the writer was posted at that time. It was a rare occasion for him to see the infamous man face to face. About his meeting Bangabandhu for the first time he wrote on page 160, “As I entered the office of the Prime Minister with the file for the posting of DCs to the districts where officers from the Mujib Nagar Government had not been posted, Bangabandhu looked at me intently for a few seconds. That was his ingrained habit, I learnt later, to make an assessment of a stranger at first sight. It was also his wont to be effusive while meeting a person for the first time without caring for formality.”
There is plenty of thrill in the life of a bureaucrat and this becomes evident from the following narration on page 211, “The telephone rang as I was preparing to go to office in the morning. The secretary to the President was at the other end. He informed me that a helicopter would be coming to Chittagong in about an hour's time to pick me up. Having said this he hung up abruptly. I was taken aback. He didn't say where I would be going nor mentioned the purpose and duration of the trip. The message was cryptic and shrouded in mystery. Not even a slight hint about the destination was given.”
“All about a tender” is one story, page 335, readers would be able to very easily relate to present day happenings in this country concerning all sorts of tenders. There is plenty of entertainment in the story besides revelation of the mechanics that determine the fate of such purchase procedures. It is apparent that things have not improved at all in that sector.
A reader would also be able to get some idea of how civil servants have to handle corrupt politicians who sit on the chair of the minister in various ministries. The book also tells us how corrupt civil servants manipulate their power and position to glean extra benefits for themselves.
Reading from page one to the last would certainly give the reader the feeling that it is indeed 'Straight from the Horse's Mouth.'
The writer is Special Supplements Editor, The Daily Star.