A mighty man’s humble birthday

"I have never observed my birthday -- at most my wife would present me a little gift on this day. I would try and stay at home on these days.

"I found in the newspaper that the Dhaka City Awami League is observing my birthday. Must be, because I am in jail! That I am someone whose birthday is even worth observing and is a news feature made me smile."

This was how Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the then newly elected Awami League president, described his 47th birthday, which he spent in Dhaka Central Jail in 1967.

Mujib, later known as Bangabandhu -- the father of the nation -- described how the highlight of his birthday would be getting to meet his wife and children.

In jail, he used to note down his daily life in his diary. The diary, which was later turned into a book called "Karagarer Rojnamcha (Prison Diaries)", contains his memories of imprisonment during the Pakistan regime, especially between 1966 and 1968, and also between 1958 and 1960.

"My heart was telling me: it would be nice if Renu [Sheikh Fazilatunnesa Mujib] would show up on this day with the children again. On the 14th, Renu had come with the children to meet me. Will they allow them to meet me again so soon then? On the 15th, Renu had come to the jail gate to meet with Moni," Bangabandhu wrote.

"By the time I finished reading the newspapers it was 4 o'clock. I kept thinking -- perhaps there will be a visit after all …"

And then half an hour later, he wrote, "It was 4:30pm by this time and I realised that Renu and the children had not gotten permission to meet me today. Soon it was 5. But just then the head constable said, 'Come -- your wife and children are here!' I put on my clothes quickly and went towards the jail gate.

"My youngest daughter [Sheikh Rehana] and Russell were standing there with a garland of flowers in their hands. I put the garland around Russell's neck instead. He wouldn't wear it though -- he would rather that I wore it …," the incarcerated Mujib further wrote.

"I took him along with me to the room. I kissed my children. I found out that the City Awami League had sent a huge cake for me. I had Russell cut it although I put a hand in the cutting too.

"Some of the cake was distributed among the people present at the jail gate. I gave instructions so that some pieces of the cake would be sent to my nephew Moni. I was never allowed to meet him, although we are imprisoned in the same jail!"

He kept writing that day.

"It was 6:00pm, and Renu and the children had to take their leave in a hurry. Russell understands the situation better now and doesn't want to take me back with him any longer. My youngest daughter feels very sad every time they have to leave me behind. I can tell as much by looking at her. I feel sad too but there is no way out! Renu is very tight-lipped and will never show her emotions," Mujib wrote, describing the pain of having to watch his family leave him behind in prison.

"I returned to my den. I went inside and they locked me in. They'll open the door again in the morning."

Sheikh Mujib also noted with gratitude how small gestures by the other inmates -- flowers picked from the garden, and morning greetings -- made his day.

He wrote, "In the morning, I woke up to see Nur-e-Alam. He is someone who is interned in Cell-20, which is close by. He had brought some flowers along with him. He said to me, 'My gift to you on your birthday!' I accepted his gift with thanks.

"Then it was Babu Chittaranjan Sutar's turn to give me a red rose and Babu Shudhangshu Bimal Datta's to offer me a white rose; the DPR prisoner Mr Emadullah also presented me with a red dahlia."

Memories of Sheikh Mujib's 52nd birthday in 1971 also showed how simple a man can be, even after he had become the unparalleled leader of the freedom-loving people.

March 17, 1971, was when the non-cooperation movement of Bangalees had stepped into its 16th day.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman met the then Pakistan president Yahya Khan at the latter's residence for the second consecutive day to resolve the ongoing crisis, and the meeting went on for about an hour.

According to a writing by veteran AL leader and the then political secretary of Bangabandhu, Tofail Ahmed, Sheikh Mujib returned to his home at Dhanmondi 32 afterwards to meet with foreign journalists.

One of them asked him about his expectations for his 52nd birthday.

"Total freedom of the people," Bangabandhu replied.

He added, "I don't observe my birthday. I am not in the habit of cutting cakes or lighting candles.

"People of the country have no security at all. You are well aware of the situation they are in. They can die anytime at the will of others. I am one of these people; what difference does my birthday or my death make? My birthday and my death are all for the people, as I have dedicated my life to their betterment."

According to Tofail Ahmed, Bangabandhu always recited a line from Rabindranath Tagore's poem "Porichoy" whenever people greeted him on his birthday -- "Let my name be known as this, that I am one of you."

On March 17, 1920, Bangabandhu, the architect of an independent Bangladesh, was born in Tungipara.

At the age of 14 in 1934, he was afflicted with the beriberi disease, and two years later, he developed glaucoma, for which he needed two eye surgeries.

Since then, he began to wear his signature black-rimmed glasses.

After a year-long break due to the illnesses, he resumed his education at Gopalganj Mission School in 1937.

In his autobiography "The Unfinished Memoirs", Sheikh Mujib wrote he was older than most of the boys in his class due to the year-long gap.

Describing himself as a rowdy boy, he wrote about his schoolyard gang, who would get into fights with other boys. He also wrote about how he loved to play and sing.

That very boy went on to lead this nation to liberation.

Beginning his political career in 1939, Bangabandhu either led or played a central role in every single watershed moment for the country -- the Language Movement from 1948 to 1952, the abolition of Zamindari system from 1950 to 1954, the movement for demanding autonomy of East Bengal from 1954 to 1956, the anti-Ayub movement in 1964, the six-point demand movement in 1966, leading Awami League into a landslide victory in 1970, and finally the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.

He spent 13 of his 55 years in prison, sacrificing nearly a fourth of his life for the cause of liberating this country. He dedicated every ounce of his energy, and the entirety of his thoughts and emotions to one single dream -- the freedom of his people.

His struggle for the poor and the downtrodden made him not only an iconic leader but a legend that lives on undaunted.

All his struggle and dedication bore fruit when the nation achieved victory on December 16, 1971.

But before he could turn his dream of a "Sonar Bangla" into a reality, he along with most of his family members was brutally killed in the early hours of August 15, 1975, less than four years into independence.

Bangabandhu might not be here anymore but the legacy he created is.


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