The father I never knewn

Tanvir Haider Chaudhury

Rowing up, I used to dread this time of the year. December coming around invariably meant some journalist would go for the low-hanging fruit of doing a story on how the families of the martyrs especially the martyred intellectuals of '71 were doing; or even worse come up with the done-to-death idea of dragging a few of the young children of the said individuals in front of a TV camera to try to wring some tear-jerking anecdotes out of them. Even as a child, I vividly remember feeling that the entire ritual was hollow and the self-serving acts of opportunists harsh views to be sure, but then, it is the prerogative of the young to be passionate and self-righteous.

Well, I'm in my very late thirties now, and it's getting on to thirty-five years since my father was abducted by the Al-Badr; thirty-five years since the independence of this beleaguered country. I no longer have the righteous indignation of my younger days, but worry that along with the naïveté, I may have lost some of the idealism, the faith in the essential goodness of human beings and in better days to come. My father was brutally tortured and murdered thirty-five years ago because he was a patriot and a conscientious human being, and the side of the murderers seems to be winning. The vision that he and so many more of his peers had of the kind of country this was supposed to be looks to have been lost, seemingly irretrievably.

Mofazzal Haider Chaudhury was my father. There was a time when most people I would talk to would recognise the name, but I increasingly get the sense that that's not the case anymore; with the passage of time, my father and his peers are slipping out of our collective memory. It falls upon me therefore to introduce him to the younger people out there: my father was one of the country's foremost educationists and a brilliant scholar. He was an Associate Professor of the Bangla department of Dhaka University and an acknowledged expert specially on the works of Rabindranath Tagore. He wrote extensively on Bangla language and literature; for a time, his articles were included in school text books, but I don't think they've survived the censoring efforts of successive right-wing governments. Do you know the walls in front of the central Shaheed Minar where the sayings of luminaries on our language and culture are inscribed each year the night before 21st February? For as long as I can remember, one of my proudest moments each year was when I would make my way there and take my first glimpse of one of my father's quotes on that wall a quite famous one where he compares our language to mother's milk but I notice that for the last 3-4 years, that quote never appears on that wall anymore. Coincidence? Perhaps.

As a man, everyone I've ever spoken to tells me that he was kind, helpful, courteous, generous the very embodiment of the cultured Bengali gentleman. Quite a few people have told me stories about being picked up off the streets in his red Triumph Herald car, this was in the mid sixties when there weren't that many cars around on Dhaka streets, and being dropped at their destinations even when it would take my father out of his way. Everyone tells me that they never saw him lose composure or raise his voice. They tell me he never made an enemy in his life. And yet this gentle soul was doomed to die at the age of 45 not that much older than I am right now just when he was starting to experience some contentment along with his wife and children after a lifetime of unhappiness and strife.

Babbi, that's what my brother and I used to call him, was the eldest of four brothers and sisters. He was born in a small village in Noakhali. He lost his father when very young and was hounded out of his paternal residence by uncles who had designs on the property. While still in school, Babbi used to teach students and use his tuition and scholarship money to pay for the educational expenses of himself and his three siblings. I remember hearing these stories as a child and marvelling at the strength of character of my father as a young man, who wouldn't have been much older at that stage in his life than I was back then.

But the young man endured, and he blossomed. He stood fourth in the matriculation exams, came first at the intermediate level after giving up maths (a subject he had a supposed weakness in), and made history by becoming the first Muslim to stand first class first in the BA (honours) examination from the Bangla department of Calcutta University, that too with record marks and a gold medal. He then enrolled himself in the master's programme of the Bishwabharati University in Shantiniketan, where he spent perhaps the most treasured few years of his life. Everyone from Annadashonkor Roy to Konika Bondopodhdhay to Rathindranath Tagore (the Poet's son) adored him; he became known as 'Mukhojjol' (loosely translates as 'the one who makes us proud').

Babbi had always been inspired by the art and philosophy of Rabindranath; in Shantiniketan, he suffused himself in the other-worldly tranquillity of the one place in the world where he felt at home. He topped his class in the master's examination there as well, and then made his way back from that idyllic place to try his fortunes in Dhaka (Dacca as it was then known). He had stints as a scriptwriter for Radio Pakistan and a lecturer at Jagannath College before becoming a teacher at the Bangla department of Dacca University having actually to sit for another master's exam because DU wouldn't accept his Bishwabharati degree and again coming first in his class. He joined DU in 1955.

Babbi married my mother, Syeda Tahmina Nurunnahar née Tahmina Monowara Chaudhury Ammi - on May 20, 1956. In 1957, the two of them went off to England where my father was to do research on linguistics at the London University's School of Oriental and African Studies. They stayed there until '59, but my father never completed his PhD thesis from what I hear, he had a falling out with his supervisor. The fact that he was willing to forsake the labour of two years of his life because of a matter of principle I am told he did not like his supervisor's condescending attitude indicates that there was a glint of steel beneath the gentlemanly exterior. He was to demonstrate this attribute amply over the next years of his life particularly in the fearless advocacy of Bengali culture and heritage in his writings, at a time when this was a decidedly dangerous approach to take.

The bravado displayed in some of his writings is quite startling. In the '50s, when the 'Tomuddon' movement was at its peak and a part of the intelligentsia was proposing the creation of an East Pakistani literature that was to contain no works of any Hindu authors and indeed, no works that were created before the partition of India in 1947, Babbi countered by pointing out that this was self-defeating. If we left out everything that came before partition, he wrote, some of the major works of poet Kazi Nazrul Islam would be left out, as well as the works of other 'Tomuddoni' favourites like Golam Mustafa and Forrukh Ahmed. He also pointed out the irony of celebrating Nazrul as Pakistan's national poet and playing him up as a Muslim icon, when in fact the great man had celebrated both the religions - Hinduism and Islam equally. Here is one of the few times he used sarcasm in his writing: 'How will we separate Nazrul's 'Islamic' works from his 'Hindu' ones? By tearing out certain pages of his books? You can't even do that, because 'Islamic' and 'Hindu' poems are written on different sides of the same page!' He also took on the people who were conspiring to leave out Rabindranath from the University syllabus, 'Some find an un-Islamic flavour in Rabindranath's songs such as 'Ekti Nomoshkare' or 'Amar Matha Noto Kore Dao', when in fact these songs are expressing heartfelt devotion to merciful and compassionate God, exactly as we do when we pray. The only difference is that the word being used is 'Nomoshkar' and not 'Sizda'.' The unfortunate thing is, these still count as brave sentiments in the sovereign state of Bangladesh, thirty-five years after our independence.

This persevering, disciplined man was finally starting to feel some fulfilment with his young family and growing professional accomplishments. He wrote in many of his letters to various people that he missed having the time for reflection, for studies and creativity. After a lifetime of anxiety and hard work, maybe that time was finally due; he had certainly earned it. He had many plans: starting an ideal educational institution named 'Bani Bitan' or 'Anando Kanon' styled after Shantiniketan on a piece of land he owned in Pubail, cultivating flowers there and setting up flower shops in Dhaka.

In the meantime, neo-fundamentalism has reared its ugly head: in the last government, we have had members of parliament and ministers from a party that was explicitly opposed to the idea of the sovereign state of Bangladesh and was instrumental in drawing up a list of some of our most illustrious countrymen one of them being Babbi - and having them murdered by their hatchet-men the Al-Badr and the Razakars on December 14, 1971. Incredibly, they have become an established political party in the very country in whose sovereignty they have no faith.

But I refuse to believe all is lost. Apathy and despair is the path of least resistance, too easy an option to take. I am listening the music of Ornob, a phenomenally gifted musician at least a decade younger than me, as I write this. The energy, creativity and vision I see in Ornob and other young men and women of his generation give me faith that they will make a difference. My contemporaries and I were too bruised, too wounded by our losses; making an honest living and trying not to be tainted by the cynicism and malaise around us was the extent of our ambition. The young people who follow us have a global perspective, they have aspirations that have not been scaled down by self-doubt and they have an entrepreneurial drive that is backed up by skill and single-mindedness. You can't keep them from their destiny by distortion of history and intimidation. They will find out what this country was meant to stand for, and once they do, I don't believe anything will stand in the way of their fulfilling those ideals.

But the rest of us, the privileged, well-meaning but silent masses, we all have to do our part now. We have to start setting some examples, start doing rather than pontificating. We have to do our part by not blocking the paths of these enormously talented and inspired young people, and helping out when we can. And maybe, just maybe, the souls of my father and his peers, those valiant women and men who so tragically lost their lives at their very prime and the soul of this land, this land that was conceived in such glory and at such cost, will finally know some peace.