• Wednesday, May 27, 2020
  • Last Update : 03:41 pm

Among the faces I remember

  • Published at 07:57 pm March 5th, 2020
candle and book
Photo: BIGSTOCK

Bernard Llewellyn would have certainly joined in the Mujib Borsho celebrations

A few days ago at a get together with some close Bangladeshi friends, I came under sustained attack for not having published any book at the Boi Mela in this Mujib Borsho.

“We are embarrassed that you, our friend, are a complete failure!” They went on to berate me for not writing down my memories of the last 50 years or more, and asked me to record all the changes I have seen in Bangladesh and India and to detail the meetings I have had with famous people over the years and who are no longer with us. 

From India, among many, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Jayaprakash Narayan, Vinoba Bhave, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Karan Singh, Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, Kuldip Nayar. And from Bangladesh, Tajuddin Ahmed, AKM Kamruzzaman (in Kolkata and Dhaka) and, most memorably, in Dhaka in January 1972, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Severely admonished, I retreated and immersed myself in my archives and, while remembering 1971, I remembered a former Oxfam colleague who was a prolific writer of fascinating travel books, the late Bernard Llewellyn. 

Very soon after the launch of “Operation Searchlight” in erstwhile East Pakistan on March 25, 1971, Bernard, in his capacity of Oxfam’s “Overseas Aid Appraiser,” was visiting a Gandhian ashram at Simultala in Bihar, and sitting at night under the stars, watched one after the other goods trains of military equipment trundling slowly towards Kolkata. 

Bernard, while chatting with me, remarked: “Amazing planning by Mrs Gandhi.” Bernard went to talk about his experiences of being in Dhaka in 1954 for a few months. That year, he spent about nine months in India West and East Pakistan, and wrote about his time in a book titled From the Back Streets of Bengal. Although only seven years since the Partition of India and Pakistan, the severity of the situation was clear to Bernard. 

After all, it was only two years after Shaheed Dibosh or Ekushey. He wrote, at the time of leaving Dhaka: “Doubtless, born on this sub-continent, most of my friends would have been destined for poverty whatever the politicians had tried to do; but Partition had made that poverty and wretchedness more likely, for you cannot divide one people on religious grounds into two separate nations and expect any economic advantage from it. And yet, given the circumstances, Partition in 1947 was inevitable.”

Bernard went on to write as follows: “Before I had gone to Pakistan I was apt to think of that nation as consisting of West Pakistan plus an appendage on the other side of the sub-continent where Bengal had been divided into two. 

“And this, I discovered from my Bengali friends, was precisely the same mistake that the West Pakistanis were making themselves. They too thought of Bengal as an appendage or acted as if they did; they forgot that the much smaller geographical area of East Bengal contained more than half the total population of Pakistan, and from its jute mills -- supplying 85% of the world’s raw jute -- contributed the greater part of the national income. The Bengalis accused the distant government in Karachi of riding roughshod over local interests.”

In his book, while writing about religion, Bernard wrote the following: “These Bengalis say their prayers in Arabic, the language of the Qur’an, though they do not understand the words. They cannot afford a Bengali translation of the Qur’an, and even if they possessed a copy most of them would be unable to read it. 

“I have been in village houses where a Qur’an with Arabic text which no one can read stands in a place of honour and is treated as a sacred object. Most of the imams, I gathered, are as ignorant as the ordinary people. The Medieval Church may have mystified the common people with its Latin Bible, but at least the parson was scholar enough to be able to explain it.”

It is not surprising that Bernard’s political and religious opinions and criticisms were unacceptable as far as the government of Pakistan was concerned and, after publication, his book was banned in the country and he was banned from any further visits to Pakistan. 

Bernard Llewellyn was, however, quietly pleased that the Bengali people of Pakistan eventually achieved a country of their own and he would have certainly joined with me in celebrating Mujib Borsho. 

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971, and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.

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