Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't me
I first wrote a poem about Bangabandhu in 1967, back when he was known as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman only. That was probably the first poem written about him. So it would not have been unusual for me to also write the first poem about him after his death, because my poetry has featured him from long before. The truth is, he was one of the main characters of my poetry. With his faults and his qualities, he was the hero of my poems. After the cruel murder of Bangabandhu, I was meant to write the first poem about him – it seemed almost pre-determined.
But no, there are other histories that are more touching, more pitiful. It is the history of the painful ending of a long and exceptional friendship. I am but a side character of that history.
After the death of Bangabandhu, the first poem about him was written by someone who was very close to him – someone none of us knew as a poet. We were not supposed to – he had not written many poems in his life or made a name as a poet. Perhaps he never thought he would write poetry. But destiny used his hand to write an unforgettable poem.
This poet was Bangabandhu's childhood friend – Moulabi Sheikh Abdul Hamid. He was an Arabic teacher who taught in a school in Tungipara.
Sometimes, I am amazed to think of how the first poem written about Bangabandhu after his death was discovered through me. This discovery was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was an experience that held both great joy and great grief.
It was the year 1990. Ershad had only just been deposed. Bongobir Kader Siddiqui, who had organised an armed resistance against the killers of Bangabandhu, had returned to Bangladesh. After spending 15 long years in India for avenging this death, his first act after coming back to his own land was to visit Bangabandhu's grave. He did not ask me to go with him – but I expressed my wish to go, and he gladly took me along with his motorcade. Bangabandhu is laid to eternal rest next to his parents in a quiet, shadowy corner of his remote village – the same man who freed Bengalis from rusticity, who made it possible to sit next to gentlemen in global meetings in New York and listen to Bangla through your earphones.
On that day, a lot of people had congregated at Bangabandhu's house to look at Bongobir Kader Siddiqui, and one of the people who came was Moulabi Sheikh Abdul Hamid. He sat next to Kader Siddiqui and spoke of the day when the body of the Father of the Nation was taken to Tungipara, so that they could haphazardly throw earth on him and hurry back to Dhaka.
By this time, everyone knew that his body was taken to Tungipara not out of respect for his wishes. The killers wanted to keep him as far away as possible – not just from history, but geographically as well.
The soldiers who took Bangabandhu's body to Tungipara by helicopter wanted to quickly lower the coffin into a grave, which had already been dug through telephone instructions, and return to Dhaka while local police guarded the location.
However, Moulabi Sheikh Abdul Hamid put a stop to this plan. He risked his life and said, “I need to see with my own eyes that this is indeed the body of Sheikh Mujib, and then we can talk about the burial.” The soldier present there asked, “you don't believe me?”
He replied, “this is not about belief, this is the rule of religion.” The soldier understood that there was no point in trying to scare this man. It was best to come to an arrangement with a man who could stand in front of Mujib's body and have the courage to argue. So, the coffin was opened and he saw that Bangabandhu was laid to rest there. His eyes filled with tears, but with great effort, he held them back.
The soldier said, “finish the prayers and bury him quickly. You have ten minutes.”
“According to Islam, the body has to be washed before burial.”
”There is no need for that,” came the reply.
But Sheikh Abdul Hamid stood his ground. “There is. However, if you put down in writing the fact that Mujib has been martyred, I will bury the body without washing.”
The soldier finally gave in to the Moulabi’s irrefutable logic and fearlessness. He received permission to take some more time and bring in more people to help with the burial.
The frozen body of Sheikh Mujib was then taken from the coffin and put on the soil of his birthplace for bathing. A 570 soap was bought for this. A white cloth made of thick cotton was brought from Red Cross’s storage to use as kafon.
When bathing him, they found it very difficult to take the panjabi off Bangabandhu’s swollen body. It had to be cut off with a knife. A bullet could be seen peeking out from his lower stomach. It was obvious there were many more bullets all over his body. His black-framed, now broken glasses were found in the breast pocket of his panjabi. In his left pocket was a used tin of tobacco, and in his right pocket was his famous pipe.
The elderly Moulabi Sheikh Abdul Hamid said, “I think Mujib did not die from the bullets, because none of them pierced his head or chest. Maybe that is why they cut a nerve on his foot, to check if he was really dead.”
He told us that after the zanaza ended, and when Bangabandhu’s body was being taken to his grave in front of the tear-filled eyes of the waiting locals, an elderly lady, almost mad with grief, pushed past the soldiers and rushed to his body. She was Bangabandhu’s chachi (aunt). The old lady begged to see the face of the man who was like a son to her. She cried out, “I raised him in my own arms. Let me see him one last time.”
The soldier gave in. The kafon cloth was loosened and she was allowed to approach the body. She leant forward and looked at him for as long as she could take. After that, there were no obstacles. At the command of the soldiers, the earth of Bengal took back its greatest child.
Now let me come to the poem. I was sitting next to Kader Siddiqui and listening to Moulabi Sheikh Abdul Hamid speak. After Kader Siddiqui got up with tears in his eyes, he asked me who I was. I replied, “I am no one, only a poet. Kader Siddiqui loves me because I have written poems about Bangabandhu. I have never been here before, so I came to pay my respects.”
He was about to leave but once he heard I wrote poetry, he sat down again. He smiled a little; the first instance where I saw a smile on his face. I had assumed he was a rather solemn person, so why this mysterious smile? Was being a poet funny? Or had he finally met someone he could relate to, hence this happiness?
He dispelled the mystery on his own. He looked me in the eyes and said, “I am also a poet.”
It was like an electric shock had passed through my veins - I was incredibly surprised. He added, “like you, I have also written a poem on Mujib.”
An obvious sense of relief was expressed through his words. Almost as if he had waited the last 15 years to meet a poet he could share this with.
“After burying Bangabandhu, I went home and wrote a poem.” Saying this, he closed his eyes and seemed to reflect. Looking at this wise, elderly poet gave me joy beyond words. I could see many things in him. It was like Bangabandhu had returned in the meeting of these two poets.
“I want that poem of yours, I will print it in the papers”, I said.
I was imagining an emotional, old-school Bangla poem, but he surprised me by saying “I studied in Arabic, so I wrote the poem in Arabic too. I tend to write in Arabic.”
This meant that he regularly wrote poems. He was a poet.
I quickly found some paper. “Please write it down for me, I will get someone to translate.”
He said, “I am old, my hand shakes. I cannot write.”
There is a Hindu gentleman who looks after Bangabandhu’s house. His name is Boikuntho. I met him in Dhaka, and he was standing close, listening to our conversation. He gave me a piece of paper.
The amazing thing was, we also found someone nearby who could write Arabic. His name was Habibur Rahman Biswas. He sat down next to us with the paper, and wrote down the words that poet Sheikh Abdul Halim recited from memory. It was a small poem so it ended quickly. The poet signed his name underneath it. Then, I requested the poet to translate every word to Bangla, and he did so. I wrote down the Bangla translation.
However, he know longer had the original copy he wrote. “I put up that poem next to Bangabandhu’s grave for a long time. But it was eventually ruined by storms and rain, but it lived on in my memory.”
When I praised his powers of retention, he said, “how can I not remember my own poetry?” This is the difference between modern poets and natural poets. I can never remember my own poems. Maulana Sheikh Abdul Hamid seemed to me like a natural poet of a high order.
I have written down the poem here for readers.
O great one - whose flesh, blood and bones are interred in this grave
Whose light lit up all of Hindustan, and especially Bangladesh
I am dedicating myself to your grave, to you who is lying in this grave
I have seen in you a concentration of three qualities: forgiveness, kindness and benevolence
You must have been born to this earth as the champion of the world’s oppressed and downtrodden
That is why the oppressors murdered you so cruelly
I/we pray to the president of Bangladesh for their punishment, those who killed you without trial
We pray to Almighty Allah that you reside in blessedness in the next life. Goodbye! Goodbye! Goodbye! O great Father of the Nation.
I wrote the final Bangla version in December 1990, after coming back from Tungipara. On August 1993, I went to Tungipara for the second time. I found out then that poet Sheikh Abdul Halim was no more. He passed away in 1992, so not long after we first met. When I heard of his death I felt that maybe, he was holding on to life just so he could pass on this poem that was so dear to him.
The author is a renowned, Bangladeshi poet and recipient of the Ekushey Padak and Independence Day Award.