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    Volume 6 Issue 6 | February 16, 2007 |

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All my Dead Friends

Syed Badrul Ahsan

There are all the dead men I remember. They were men I walked with. They were individuals who taught me what wisdom was all about. They were older than me, and most of them belonged to my father's generation. There was that something you might call avuncular in them; and yet in them burned a light of friendship that has done me an immense lot of good. In all these years that have gone by since my youth lost itself in middle age, since innocence hardened into experience, I have recalled in the falling light of day these men who told me tales of the world, of the worlds that lie beyond the world we inhabit before it frees us of its hold.

No telling of the story will be convincing if I do not inform you how much I owe Hasan Saeed. He was a handsome man, a foreigner who chose to become one of us by remaining in Bangladesh after 1971. There was a constant smile playing on his lips. It was the smile I spotted on the day I first met him at the New Nation, where he was executive editor. He was one of the very first wonderful men who believed I could do well in journalism; and when I did make a tiptoeing entry into the media world, a very large share of the responsibility for that change was patently his. I told him so, then and years after that. And then he died, suddenly, when I was away from the country. It was at the AP office where I had my last meeting with him. Every time I shuffle back to a retelling of the tale of the road I have travelled, it is Hasan Saeed's face, its luminosity and the intelligence behind it, that bursts upon the mind. There was a gem of a heart beating in him.

And then there was Waheedul Haque. If ever there was a guru in my life, if ever there came a moment when I willingly turned into a disciple, it was in the years I spent learning about journalism, about the entire spectrum that is life, from Waheed Bhai. He spoke of quantum physics; and he gave me fresh insights into space science. There were all the walks we took through the parks, he relating the history of trees and I discovering the increasingly deeper roots I shared with the world of nature. He spoke of Subinoy Roy and Debabrata Biswas, and new windows opened somewhere in the region of my sensibilities. He talked of the war of liberation, of the travails the freedom fighters went through in those excruciating nine months. But he was careful not to stray into talking about himself. On slow, declining afternoons, he taught me all there was to teach about writing good editorials. As the hours dwindled into rainy evenings, we ventured out into the glistening streets. It was a beautiful country we shared. And loved.

These were all men I bumped into rather late in the day. And yet the brevity that I spent with them in terms of time has passed into the intangible. I still hear Shawkat Osman rousing me from sleep very early in the morning, almost at dawn, to tell me he was missing my company. "Bhrato", said he, "why has cruelty made an entry into your life?" He was speaking of the gap in communication. The sense of guilt would quickly arise in me and at some point in the afternoon I would be there at his home listening to him talk and watching the drizzle that fell, caressing the foliage outside his window. There are all the books he gave me, with that typical flourish of his pen leaving purposeful verses on the pages. On the day he died, I was watching the leaves on the tree outside my office window dance tentatively in the breeze. It was foreign land, it was lonely, it was near desolate. And I missed home. And then someone rushed in to give me the news. Shawkat Osman the writer and moral crusader was dead. It was suddenly a shrunken world I saw outside my window. The leaves danced on, listlessly.

A good number of the men whose intellect I drew from and whose humility neutralised, through a rapid infusion of its doses, my callow arrogance, passed on into the great beyond when I was away from home. Syed Najmuddin Hashim's life came to an end on a July day, barely a year after Shawkat Osman's. When he fell silent, it was the world of Bengali scholarship that was left hugely impoverished. He had a breadth of vision that few have been able to match, a sense of humour which rose from deep within. On a hot summer's day in Delhi, we shared ice cream in the manner of children; and in Kathmandu we trekked all over town in search of forbidden food and would not stop until we found it and downed it with forbidden drinks. He wrote enchanting Bangla prose; and his English reminded me of the Old Masters in centuries past. There lurked not a bit of hypocrisy in him, for he was ready to answer the untrue and the hubristic with a sharp, right on target retort. It was something I saw when he spoke to the Pakistani foreign minister in Delhi. It was guffawing laughter I heard when he and his Indian friends deliberated on the urine therapy once made famous by Morarji Desai.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave. But Thomas Gray did not tell you that it is the grave which turns remembrance into an intensity of feeling. Three of my dead friends are now dust. The dead Waheedul Haque, somewhere in a laboratory, goes on teaching people what self-abnegation is all about.


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