I have often been tongue-tied in the presence of Latifur Rahman. Was it his impassive face and intense eyes that would look right through you, his relentless demand for accurate, precise answers? Was it because he was one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the country who had managed to turn every single company he founded into profitable, sustainable businesses? Was it because he wore so many impressive hats—founder chairman and CEO of Transcom Group, seven times president of MCCI, president of Bangladesh Employers' Federation, chairman of the Bangladesh government's Trade Body Reforms Committee, and member of innumerable prestigious entities, among others? Was it his incredible insight into things you wouldn't imagine he would bother about, like what kind of career path a clueless college graduate should pursue? Between intimidation and awe, the result was the same—me completely losing my voice or mumbling something unintelligible.
That was how it has been since I was an awkward third-grader who became best friends with his eldest daughter. And throughout my childhood and teenage-hood when I became almost a permanent fixture at his house and family gatherings, my emotions oscillated between paralysing fear and reverential awe, with the latter emotion remaining well into adulthood and after.
When as a child I saw him first with his wife, I thought they looked a bit too young to be parents. He was this dashing young man in a perfectly tailored suit, reserved and reticent, and she was this beautiful, stylish young woman. They had met each other in Shillong, Meghalaya when they went to their respective boarding schools—St Edmund's (for boys) and Pine Mount (for girls)—thus exuded the sophistication typical of graduates of such institutions. But those were just the first impressions. Once you met them, you would be engulfed in an ocean of warmth and generosity. If you ask anyone who knew this couple—popularly known as Joyu and Shamim (with Aunty, Uncle, Bhabi, Bhai or some other term next to those names)—they would tell you how incredibly at home they would make you feel every time you stepped into their home. They would tell you of the countless kindnesses this couple have bestowed on them and the innumerable crises they have solved for others.
You may wonder why I am referring to the two of them when it should be a tribute for Latifur Rahman. The truth is, it is almost impossible to talk about him without talking about the extraordinary woman behind the man, the one who stood by him steadfast as he started from scratch to build an empire that now consists of 16 operational entities ranging from medicine, foods, lighting, electronics to media and is the local business partner of international brands Pizza Hut, KFC, PepsiCo and Philips, employing 17,000 people. She has also been the one to hold his hand as it first trembled when his dear little Shazneen, their youngest daughter, was taken from them in a macabre murder inside the home. And again when his beloved grandson Faraaz was taken in a meaningless terrorist attack on July 1 four years ago, the same date he has left this world. Even after such immeasurable grief, he held his head high and carried on, an incredible stoicism that he passed on to his family. Instead of cowering down despite his broken heart that eventually broke his health, he mustered up the courage to talk to people about Faraaz's act of courage in not abandoning his friends and giving up his life in the process. Even as his breathing became heavy with grief, he talked about the possibilities of the young people of today and how they would take the nation forward.
And all the while, his life partner and soulmate kept him going along with his children: Reaz his son, Simeen his eldest daughter and Faraaz's mother, and Shazreh, his second daughter, and his daughters' children, his delightful grandsons, all of them bright, caring, enterprising young men who adored their grandparents. The loss of Faraaz was thus the last blow he could not really recover from.
Being a grandfather was perhaps his most favourite avatar and he never ceased to derive immense joy and pride from his four young grandsons, whether it was a football match victory or a perfect score on a school report card. He had always been a workaholic, maintaining impossible office hours. But that never stopped him from being a family man, getting everyone together for dinners and lunches and of course family holidays whenever possible.
While his softer, playful side came out at home, he was very serious when it came to teaching values to his children and grandchildren. For one thing, he taught them where they belonged—Bangladesh—and that it was their moral duty to do something for their country. This is why Latifur Rahman never once thought of acquiring anything other than a Bangladeshi passport for himself or his family. He educated all his children abroad but insisted they come back, and they did. His daughter Simeen, MD and CEO, Transcom Distribution Co. Ltd (TDCL) and Eskayef Pharmaceuticals Ltd, has been involved in the business for over two decades and has internalised his work ethic, ideals and astute business sense.
One of the most important ideals that he has established is doing ethical business. His track record of honesty and integrity is well-known throughout the business circles, virtues that have evoked respect and admiration. He received the Oslo Business for Peace Award 2012. In a culture where tax evasion is a given, he has been recognised as one of the highest corporate and VAT taxpayers of the country.
To say that he was a successful businessman would be a gross understatement. He was so much more—a visionary who valued independent journalism and its role in keeping democracy alive, resulting in his investing, along with other enterprising individuals, in The Daily Star and Prothom Alo. He had foresight and believed that taking care of those who worked for him was a prerequisite to doing business. He was a leader and a mentor, a loyal friend, brother to many who were not related by blood. He was articulate, assertive and knowledgeable and insightful about what people were capable of even before they knew it themselves.
There are so many things about this exceptional personality that should be mentioned—this space can never be enough. For the family of Latifur Rahman, his loss will be excruciatingly obvious at every moment of their lives. For us and the world, it will be the loss of yet another precious guardian who gave us continuous hope in the possibilities of the future.
I will no longer have to be tong-tied and awestruck by the presence of the man who literally pushed me into journalism in his usual, matter-of-fact manner. But how I wish I could get back those precious moments. I would have so much to say.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Senior Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.