The enduring image of the Father of the Nation
I have stood in monsoon rain, under that ancient tree outside the old Ganobhaban, for a glimpse of the Liberator. In the heat of summer and in the soft breeze of winter, I have waved at him as he drove home late in the evening. He always waved back, that smile bathing his face, that good cheer that instilled confidence in millions.
I have run to him when he had his vehicle stop and motion for me to step up to him. Why do you stand here every day? That was his question. To see you, said I. Don’t you have your studies to do? I said I did. Go home and study. There was affection in his voice. On that rainy evening, I blurted out: “I would like to be in your government when my studies are over.” He stared, his eyes in a twinkle. Do that, he said, but now go home.
This is the Father of the Nation whose image I have carried in my soul. It is an enduring image, implanted in my consciousness since the day my father took me aside to let me know of the great man who was our leader. He is Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, said my father. But how is it that we do not see him or hear of him?
Because, my father enlightened me, Ayub Khan has kept him imprisoned. I tried imagining him, his features, his physical being. A couple of years later, as the newspapers brimmed over with news of an imminent roundtable conference, his photo appeared on the front page of a leading daily. Large, thick spectacles, dark moustache, with eyes that exuded confidence, that was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
A schoolboy among a crowd
I have met him on a rose-tinted evening in Quetta, a schoolboy among a crowd of prominent political adults. I needed his autograph. The chief of the Baluchistan unit of his party handed me an invitation card to a dinner for Bangabandhu, who would be arriving a couple of days later. I was there at the railway station on the day, to see Sheikh Mujibur Rahman alight from Bolan Mail that had just pulled into Quetta after a long journey from Karachi.
The platform resonated with slogans. Pathans and Balochis whooped for joy when Bangabandhu emerged. The young man in whose care my father had placed me got carried away, pushed through the crowd to grasp Bangabandhu’s hand. He came away thrilled to no end.
I watched Bangabandhu as he emerged from his quarters in the evening and moved toward the garden, where everyone waited for him. He shook hands with the guests as he moved down the line and was soon before me. I, a schoolboy, held out my hand. Towering over me, he was intrigued, looked in unspoken query at the local party chief, who explained to him how I happened to be there.
The man who would soon be the Father of the Nation did not take my outstretched hand. He placed his huge hands on my cheeks and pulled them in affection that I have not forgotten. He asked about my school, about my father. And then came a surprising question: “Deshe jaabi na?” Seeing my confusion, he rephrased his question: “Bangladeshe jaabi na?” It was magic hearing him pronounce the name of the country that would soon be.
After school the next day, as my friends and I walked on the pavement on our way home, we heard sirens blaring. It was Bangabandhu’s motorcade approaching. Still energized by being in his company the previous evening, I waved at him vigorously. A look of recognition was in his eyes as he waved back. Every passerby looked at me, impressed. Do you know him? Some among them asked. Everybody knows him, I said. He is our leader.
A miracle in politics
I have triumphantly carried a huge poster of Bangabandhu home when he led his party to victory at the election in December 1970. It was a bicycle I rode home, proudly holding the poster, open, in one hand, the aim to let everyone -- Pathans, Balochis, Punjabis, Sindhis, and Urdu-speaking people -- in that garrison town have a glimpse of the man who had wrought a miracle in politics. Many were the times when I was stopped by men my father’s age, for they wished to see Bangabandhu’s image up close. My bicycle ride turned out to be akin to a train stopping at various stations. But I was happy -- and proud.
At home I sketched Bangabandhu’s image in pencil, put it in my blazer pocket, and carried it all the way from Karachi to Dhaka in July 1971. The security men at Karachi airport checked me every time I wandered off and came back. They did not know that the sketch was in my pocket. The ramifications of what might have been were they to discover it can only be imagined.
My parents, once we had reached a deserted, monsoon-drenched, melancholy Dhaka, offered prayers to the Almighty, relieved that my perfidy had not been spotted in Karachi.
On the day Bangabandhu came home in January 1972, I was there at Tejgaon airport from dawn. The aircraft carrying him landed in the early afternoon and I found myself -- I still cannot explain how I did that -- inside the airport, on the tarmac, right before the truck on which Bangabandhu stood. I stared at him; and he looked at that immense crowd, often brushing back his hair with his right hand. He appeared tired.
I made my way to the back of the truck, to climb on to it. It was too crowded already. I did the next best thing. I placed my left foot on a rod between the two tyres at the rear end of the truck and let the right foot graze the road, all the way to the Race Course. I had no intention of missing this chance in the making of history. I was witness to history.
He remembered the schoolboy
On an April day in 1972, as I waited with so many others for Bangabandhu to respond to our individual petitions at the Ganobhaban reception room, he emerged from his office and, as he came closer, I noticed he had my little note in his hand.
I was petrified, for I had written that my education was doomed if English medium education was to be discarded. “Eta ke likhechhe?” That was his question, in his thunder voice. I almost whispered: “Aami.” What he then did left me and everyone else surprised. “Tui bneche acchish? Tor maa baba beche acchen? Quetta theke kobe eli?”
He remembered, nearly two years on. He remembered the schoolboy to whom he had given his autograph. “Go home,” he said, “and study. Don’t worry.” I ran and skipped all the way home. A week later, I was back at the gates of Ganobhaban with my little brother Sadrul, to have a glimpse of Bangabandhu again.
My brother quietly broke off from the crowd and went up straight to the main building, opened the door and entered the room. Horrified, moments later I saw Bangabandhu emerge from inside with my brother, and together the two of them walk toward the reception where all of us were. It was a beautiful sight, my little brother in white shirt and pyjama walking with nothing of self-consciousness beside the man of history.
Early on August 15, I tried gulping down a steaming cup of tea. I would be making my way to Dhaka University, where Bangabandhu would be coming. Minutes later, everything went dark for the nation. The conspirators had done their foul deed. Mischief was afoot in the land.
Twenty-one years later, in August 1996, I prayed at the grave of the Father of the Nation in Tungipara. I washed the makeshift coffin in which his remains had been carried to his village, covered it in plastic. I sat in the light of the moon, beneath the summer stars, by his grave. The breeze played with the green grass on it. I came back home the next day.
In 1997 in London, I went up to Edward Heath at a reception, to let him know I was from Bangladesh. His eyes twinkled. He broke into a benign smile. “Ah, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s country,” he said.
It gladdened the soul in me.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.