We were once working at the desk of Bangladesh Today magazine, probably in 1982, when someone came at the door and asked for him.
He went off to meet the person, and it was half an hour later that we noticed that he hadn’t returned to the desk.
He never did that day.
The next day he explained that the visitor had asked him to accompany him somewhere else, and he left from the door. No goodbyes ever mattered to him. He had just walked away. This anecdote describes him best, the perpetual, almost chronic, traveller who was always on the way to somewhere else.
I see his death as another journey and no more.
Kolkata days and a forced Bohemian
Stories about him are many, particularly his Kolkata phase where he ended up in the mid 60s. He travelled there on a Japanese scientific boat studying fish movements. He had gone to Mongla and met a family friend who was a crew of the ship.
They asked him to step in, after a few days to stay on and he did. And so with just the clothes on his back, he travelled away on a journey so central to his life.
His India tales are many, and many will retell them now after his death but Belal bhai never talked about himself and his Kolkata days.
He melted into the poet-bohemian crowd quite easily. He had no money, a foreigner in politically enemy India but culturally familiar territory. He had no option but to become a Bohemian. Or was not really a matter of lifestyle choice but a survival strategy.
How long can anyone look proper only wearing borrowed trousers?
I suppose everyone knows about his nights in a tomb where he lived for days -- he had no other place to stay -- much to the puzzlement of the police who were tracking a “possible Pakistani spy.” But ISI is not that smart, I guess that they would hire him.
Komol Kumar Majumdar and boxing
Because he had lived amongst the literary greats, he didn’t look through starry eyes at them. I think it applied to himself as well. A raconteur, he could spin endless tales, memories, and, occasionally, secrets about them.
Most converged around him, but he was not very impressed by all the show. On one occasion, when he was involved with a literary magazine in Dhaka, he took a fat manuscript for the Eid issue and tore the middle out and published it. Later, the writer praised him in howling colour for his “brilliant editing.”
He only had unreserved respect for legendary fiction writer Komol Kumar Majumdar. His favourite tale was the one where he was given the duty of escorting the author home from a binge-drinking session.
On the way home, both full or half drunk, he got into trouble with the bus conductors. At some point of the argument, it did involve some physical activities, and so the police duly arrived.
So the writer and the protege were marched off to the police station where the higher authorities were alerted. Whereupon half of Kolkata senior police officers, all admirers of Majumdar arrived at the station and amidst profuse apologies, tea adda sessions began. Belal bhai proudly said: “Komolda would say, ‘Belal boxing janey,’” (Belal knows boxing).
He could go anywhere, sleep anywhere, enter any space in life and literature and walk away as easily as he had arrived. It’s the sign of the eternal traveller
The sangsari Belal bhai
It was this scrapping, fighting character that served him well as he entered sangsar life finally. What brought him home was his ailing mother, who passed away leaving him with the shocking realization that the umbilical cord is never really severed.
He married, had children, and looked after them as best as he could. The children are fine human beings and even as a widower he remained a steadfast parent.
People describe him as a poet, bohemian, artist, bon vivant, etc -- but I have always seen him as the sangsari, the householder who without much ado would always take care of his family and friends.
Belal bhai passed away having kissed 80 years. That’s no mean achievement. Belal bhai would be irritated by many people and matters, but not engulfed by the pettiness of the world that overcome so many.
He had seen so much, left behind so much, walked away from so much, that he didn’t need a passport to depart. He never needed one, and though it’s ironic that he spent much of his middle life helping people get Indian visas, he never really believed in one.
He could go anywhere, sleep anywhere, enter any space in life and literature and walk away as easily as he had arrived. It’s the sign of the eternal traveller.
Dear Belal bhai, till we meet again.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist, researcher, and political commentator.