The sky was unusually blue for an early morning in late November, the day Aly Zaker passed away. Everything else that happened after feels like a sort of blur, except I distinctly remember thinking that he would have appreciated the beauty of that cold, clear morning in Dhaka. That was exactly one month ago today.
To the world, Aly Zaker is perhaps best known as a legendary thespian—a man who changed the face of theatre in Bangladesh with his creative force, who thrilled people on stage with his booming voice and towering persona, and who made audiences roar with laughter in Humayun Ahmed's TV dramas. He is also known as a freedom fighter and Shobdo Shoinik, who played a crucial role in Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra in 1971—in response to Pakistani propaganda regarding the liberation struggle, Aly Zaker led the radio's English language programme that became the voice of the resistance to the rest of the world. Many others will know him as a businessman and industry leader; yet others will remember him as a keen photographer and lover of literature and nature. To me, he has always been my Chhotlu Chacha—my father's best friend, business partner and a member of our family.
When I think of Chhotlu Chacha, the first words that come to my mind are allhad or ador. He loved children, and whenever we met, I was always greeted with a bear hug and the usual "Ki re, Maa?". That will always be one of the most endearing and enduring memories of my childhood—the comfort that came from being enveloped in those giant arms, the sense of security his presence inspired. Even as I felt the force of his hugs get weaker in the last years of his battle with cancer, his warmth and compassion remained.
In the dua/memorial that was held for him, two weeks after he left us, almost every single person who spoke about him, remembered this about him most—how he made them feel; that despite being such a towering personality, in physical as well as celebrity stature, he effortlessly made everyone around him feel acknowledged, seen and cared for.
They say that the worth of a man lies not in how he treats his equals, but his "inferiors" (for want of a better word). There are two instances that always come to mind when I think of this in relation to Aly Zaker. One is the image of him in the 90s, the chairman of Asiatic, playing carrom with the cleaners and peons in the office verandah, his laughter reverberating across the corridor. Another memory is an office picnic, also in the late 90s. When it came time to give the "Employee of the Year" Award, Chhotlu Chacha strode up to the elderly (and longest employed) office assistant Sultan Miah, and handed him the prize. I still remember the tears in Sultan Miah's eyes when he gave his acceptance speech. His children eventually became employees at Asiatic too, with one of them working at an executive level. His youngest son, despite retiring after being diagnosed with Parkinson's, still came to Chhotlu Chacha's burial and followed him all the way to the end, trembling, with tears in his eyes. A true testament to the love that Chhotlu Chacha was able to inspire in people, from all walks of life.
But to me, the most astonishing thing is that he never engaged in personal PR of any kind. Aly Zaker, despite being something of a living legend (I can almost see him laughing at my use of this term), never felt the need to boast about himself or put on airs. Yet his beliefs, the ideals he held so dear, and the deep and all-encompassing love he felt for this country, expressed themselves in everything he did, and not just in key moments like during the Liberation War, or the mass uprising against Ershad.
His beloved stage productions are salient examples of this. Many theatre activists have spoken about the role he played in taking Bangladesh's theatre scene to new heights, creating the culture of putting on shows on a regular basis for a paying audience. But for him, theatre was not just art, but the expression of ideals that would eventually guide a liberated and progressive society.
During Ershad's regime, he insisted that Nagorik Natya Shampradaya put on his adaptation of The Captain of Kopenick, a satirical and hugely anti-military play by the German dramatist Carl Zuckmayer, which was initially shut down by the then-authoritarian regime in Bangladesh because of its anti-establishment themes. His role as the revolutionary Nuruldin in Syed Shamsul Haque's Nuruldiner Sharajibon is the stuff of legend, and even the comedy Dewan Gazir Kissa, based on Bertol Brecht's Mr Puntila and his Man Matti, speaks on social divides and the often hollow attempts at philanthropy rather than genuine equality by the upper classes. Of course, his calibre as a performer is undisputed—how else does one carry a role like Macbeth so effortlessly? And I feel that his choice of Galileo as his theatrical swan song—a play with an overarching theme of the pursuit of truth in the face of religious dogmatism and abuse of power—is truly representative of the man Aly Zaker was.
Chhotlu Chacha's ideals, his unyielding patriotism, his love for the arts and for all things good and beautiful in life (including food), his great, big heart—everything he stood for was never taught to us in a lecturish way but seeped into our lives in the simplest manners. Just little things keep coming back to me every once in a while—how he loved escaping Dhaka and often took us for picnics in what was still quite a rural area in Savar back then, patiently answering my questions about the names of different trees and impressing upon me that our real roots will always go back to this land; how when I visited him as a teenager when he was admitted in a hospital for a while and asked him if he was bored, he replied with words from a poem by Keats, thus influencing me to buy my first book of English poetry; how when I first read Julius Caesar in school, he made me look at the play with different eyes when he told me that he always preferred Brutus' speech over Marc Antony's one, especially when he says, "not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more."
That was also just like him, preferring Shakespeare's gullible patriot over the seasoned diplomat. Chhotlu Chacha's love for his country was unparalleled and reflected in a passion for nature, and he spent some of his happiest times in his homestead in Ratanpur, where he could be close to nature. A common point of conversation between us was the shapla (water lily) flowers that he had planted in the pond opposite the original Asiatic building (an area where I incidentally ended up spending most of my life). The very last time I met him was three weeks before he left us. Even in the last stages of his illness, he did his best to hide any pain that he was experiencing from his family and friends. I was sitting in front of his bed, chatting away, but I was also watching him closely, and at one point, I saw an expression of pain flit across his face. But he caught me watching him, and his face immediately relaxed into a smile. To distract from any question about his health (I'm sure), he asked me, one last time, "Amar phool gulo dekhte parish akhono?" (Can you still see my flowers?")
Chhotlu Chacha, the flowers you planted, in that pond, in our lives—they will bloom and stay with us for as long as we are alive.
Shuprova Tasneem is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @shuprovatasneem.