• Wednesday, Apr 24, 2019
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The curtain falls for Rashid Suhrawardy

  • Published at 12:02 am February 11th, 2019
Rashed Suhrawardy
A great man COURTESY

The son of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy carried on his father’s legacy until his death

Rashid Suhrawardy was his father’s son, in that very literal sense of the term. Anyone listening to him talk would, for a long phase, be momentarily deluded into thinking he was in the presence of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy himself. 

The resemblance was uncanny and absolute. There was the cosmopolitan about Rashid Suhrawardy, that urbanity which he had clearly inherited from his father. He adored his father and, at times, it seemed to me, that the elder Suhrawardy’s legacy was in truth being borne by his son.

My earliest acquaintance with Rashid Suhrawardy was in my early years as an assistant editor at the daily New Nation in Dhaka, the introduction made by Barrister Mainul Hosein. We exchanged greetings before I sat down to hear him and the barrister exchanged thoughts on quite a few subjects. 

It was stimulating listening to the son of a former prime minister of Pakistan, a pivotal figure in pre-partition Bengal and then in post-1947 Pakistan. I was struck by not only Rashid Suhrawardy’s diction -- it was perfectly that of an Englishman -- but also by the self-assurance with which he carried himself. 

And, of course, at that first meeting, in his image, I was essentially looking at his father.

There is something of a sudden crack in the heart knowing that Rashid Suhrawardy is dead. Here in London, in the deepening winter night, I am once more thrown into a bundle of riotous thoughts at the news that Suhrawardy saw his life coming to an end a few days ago in this city. 

Something of a willing suspension of disbelief comes in as I tell myself that, only a few days ago, he and I happened to be present on an occasion at Oxford University. No, we did not speak, for the crowd was too large for me to make my way to him to say hello. 

I planned to talk to him once the program was over. That was not to be, for Rashid Suhrawardy could not be found once everyone began to file out of the room. In that milling crowd, he must have made his way to his car and left for home. 

And yet, it is the memories of my association with Rashid Suhrawardy, however brief, which come alive this evening. Back in late 1998, he called me to say that the movie Jinnah, a story planned and put into concrete shape by Pakistani academic Akbar Ahmed, would be premiering at London’s West End. 

“I would like you to come and see it,” he said. He had a role in the movie. He was Nehru to Christopher Lee’s Jinnah. I was happy. He was waiting for me with a pass, happy that I had turned up. 

In the cast -- and he had been in theatre and cinema since the early 1960s -- he was Robert Ashby. That was his identity in the world of artistes he was comfortable in. He was beaming with happiness when the show drew to an end. 

We stood talking, when he suddenly realized that his cousin, Princess Sarvath al-Hassan of Jordan, was making for the exit after the show. He excused himself and rushed off to say goodbye to her. For readers who might not know, Princess Sarvath al-Hassan was the daughter of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy’s cousin, Begum Shaista Ikramullah, the pioneering Pakistani lawmaker and diplomat, and had married then Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan. 

Sarvath’s elder sister Salma, now deceased, was the spouse of Bangladesh’s reputed economist, scholar, and freedom fighter, Rehman Sobhan.

In the last few years, despite my frequent visits to London, catching up with Rashid Suhrawardy was something that did not happen. But there was a point during our links in the past -- and I speak of a time around five years ago -- when he used to call me over the phone to speak of politics in Bangladesh. 

And, yes, he would often take issue with my write-ups on his father, especially over my assessments of HS Suhrawardy’s role in the Calcutta riots of 1946 and in post-1947 Pakistan. In a very proper British way, he would explain the realities, as he saw them, in the expectation that I would agree with him. 

I heard him out in politeness, before we both agreed, in so many words, to disagree. Our conversations were friendly, from beginning to end.

But what did amaze me was that Rashid Suhrawardy found the time to call me -- and I certainly reciprocated the gesture -- and spend long nocturnal minutes on the phone exchanging thoughts with me. 

He was sad but not bitter that, while people in Bangladesh celebrated their struggle for freedom and revered their leaders, no one recalled his father when March 26 and December 16 came round. It was his view that Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy’s politics had paved the way for Bangladesh’s liberation. 

To flesh out the idea, he went into a long discourse on the Sarat-Suhrawardy proposal for an independent Bengal on the eve of Partition.

It was hard to accept that argument, but there it was. He was doing all he could to defend his father’s legacy.

From the perspective of a meeting, I met Rashid Suhrawardy a good many years ago at the residence of Professor Rehman Sobhan in Dhaka along with a friend. It was an afternoon spent listening to the many anecdotes he related about politics. 

Steeped in the western liberal tradition, Suhrawardy looked forward to a time when Bangladesh would graduate to democracy in the proper -- meaning globally recognized -- sense of the term. He was thrilled when the Awami League, so much a product of his father’s politics, returned to power in 1996 after having been in the wilderness for 21 years. 

Fond of Sheikh Hasina, he was convinced she would bring about a positive change in national politics. It excited him to no end knowing that his and Sheikh Hasina’s fathers had been instrumental in shaping the liberal politics that had aimed at democratizing Pakistan and eventually gave birth to Bangladesh. 

There were many among us, myself included, who looked forward to an official role for Rashid Suhrawardy in the Awami League scheme of things. In 1996, reports emerged, that Suhrawardy would be appointed Bangladesh’s high commissioner in the UK. 

Things did not turn out that way, of course. But if they had, we would be the winners. Rashid Suhrawardy would surely have enriched our diplomacy in the way we have always wanted. 

There was the past which was his glory. Where HS Suhrawardy’s daughter Begum Akhtar Suleiman went out on a limb to support the Yahya Khan regime in its brutality in 1971, Rashid Suhrawardy loudly upheld the Bangladesh cause in London. It was patriotism par excellence.

Rashid Suhrawardy died all alone at his London home. Back in December 1963, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy died all alone in a hotel room in Beirut.

The story ends. The curtain falls. The stage is empty. The hall goes silent. Rashid Suhrawardy has gone to meet his Maker.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor-in-Charge, The Asian Age.