Rashid Suhrawardy was a friend—not an uncle—but I called him Uncle Rashid anyway, and in spite of the spelling, he insisted on being called Rashed. And the prefix would be politeness that every Bangali reader will be familiar with; sobriety is our birthright. Our conversations, though, were never restricted to polite standards. He enjoyed being irreverent, good-humored and witty, and one never felt the need to be prudish around him. Uncle Rashid was a thespian in the truest sense of the word.
After a fun evening at his North London club last December, we had arranged to meet again earlier this year; it was in the third week of January, cold and dark. I invited him to check out Teatulia, the first Bangladeshi single-origin tea bar in London. He was curious to learn about the teas, since they came from a garden in Bangladesh; and it’s location being in the heart of Covent Garden, his old stomping ground, made him excited.
Down the road from the tea bar stands the multi-award winning Donmar Warehouse, a powerhouse of a theatre with excellent curation throughout the year. Stepping into Teatulia, Uncle Rashid reminisced his last performance at the Donmar with the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was Macbeth, and he was acting with names like Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. He recalled the latter coming to congratulate him on his performance. “A very memorable evening, as we went bar hopping,” he said looking wistful, before trying tea cocktails. He was curious about the tea company’s connection to literature and its patronage of Dhaka Lit Fest, which he was extremely proud of. “I was surprised to see Naipaul went to your festival,” he said, and chuckled as I responded: “We surprised ourselves by managing that.”
In my two decades in Britain I’ve rarely come across an NRB (Non-Resident Bangladeshi) who isn’t either worried sick about Bangladesh or full of pessimism for the nation’s future. It’s their way, I suppose, of justifying the immigrant life: trading monsoon for toothless rain, mangoes for strawberries, khichuri for kedgeree, and snooker on television because cricket is exclusive to subscribers of the Murdoch enterprise.
Uncle Rashid was the most optimistic fan of Bangladesh I met; he took great delight in stating our record growth under the current government, and how we beat both India and Pakistan in all the economic indicators. Yes, he was an ardent Awami League supporter, and needless to say it came from the fact that his father was one of the founding figures of the party. Added to that, he had many fond memories with his “Mujib bhai” and his connection with Bangabandhu’s family went back to the 1950s. And let’s remember he was an Englishman in every way—from his looks to his mannerism, from his Charterhouse education to his RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) training via Oxford, and yet, in his company one felt he was the ideal NRB.
Talking about sour citizens, I’ve met many in the arts world who turned bitter in their grey years; it’s complex but it’s usually to do with not receiving the desired recognition. Uncle Rashid, in spite of his RADA/RSC background and all the early promise, did not really hit the “big time” in the world of acting. His roles were mainly in playing extras or his agent would “overburden” him for voiceover work, thanks to his wonderful vocal erudition. Did he have any regrets? “I played Nehru in Jinnah and Borad in Dr Who, and I had a pretty good time—why should I have any regrets?” He knew his Shakespeare and would test me with an occasional line to see if I could name the character or the play.
He was into sports too, and hugely into cricket, football and squash. He would tease me about Manchester United—the glory hunter’s club, I hear—but he didn’t mind me dishing it back when his beloved Spurs would lose a North London derby. It formed the basis of our friendship and whilst he enjoyed our occasional dinners, he would always gently rebuke me for choosing fancy restaurants. At times, I suppose he morphed into a real uncle, which was all the more sweet for someone with no family in this country.
When I got the news of his death, I was reminded once again that life’s unpredictability could easily dispose the best of plans. I never got the chance to interview him, which he had reluctantly agreed to, or to get the books and the DVDs he had saved for me; nor did I get a chance to arrange a meeting with my friend Tariq Ali, who had apparently been upset at Uncle Rashid for wasting Channel 4’s project in making a film on Bangabandhu. Once I got to the bottom of the story, I had it firmly in my mind to arrange a meeting between the two, as it was a case of miscommunication, and something Tariq would understand. Sadly, they hadn’t been in touch since the late 1990s. And in the jigsaw pieces of memory that fluttered through my head, I was also reminded of my very first meeting with him. It was at a London party, going back to 1998, where he was the best-dressed man in the room:
“How can I get in touch you, Mr Suhrawardy? Perhaps you have an email address?”
“I don’t have methods of electronic communication, young man, but if you wish to write a proper letter, please do so.”
“Let me grab a piece of paper for the address!”
“That won’t be necessary. You just need to remember the following:
Rashid Suhrawardy, Palace of Princess Sarvath, Kingdom of Jordan.”
Uncle Rashid was an idealist when it came to Bangladesh. But it was admirable to see someone go through life with such conviction and loyalty for a nation that really was thousands of miles away from him, and most of all, he did not expect anything in return, turning down offers of Ambassadorship several times. In his inimitable way, he would smile and say, “What do I know about foreign policy?”
The loss of Rashid Suhrawardy is an immense loss for Bangladesh. This much I know.
Ahsan Akbar is Director of Dhaka Lit Fest. [email protected]