Now that you are gone I can safely say publicly that I respected you as an achiever more than all others. I said that to you in private over a decade back and you didn’t bat an eyelid. You didn’t think it was important or didn’t take me seriously. . Few have achieved so much so completely in this land and have left a legacy as large as any in Bangladesh. Like all truly successful people, your achievements mattered not what people thought of you. It has been like that almost all your life.
The aristocrat NRB
Your aristocratic Sylhet ancestry and academic ambitions made your transition to London inevitable and that’s where you grew up in your adult years in the 60s. Social commitment came to you through activism and you even had a fling with the Communist party of Great Britain. You worked with them in a few elections even but were under impressed. “They talk a lot but do very little”.
Perhaps that was one reason why you were part of the Expat Crowd of East Pakistanis but never seriously inducted into the NRB culture. It’s an interesting one, this culture, living in safety of the West and their social security and lifestyle but always looking at “home “with concerned or disappointed eyes. You always wanted to come home. And you did and you know what personal choices and sacrifices you had to make to make it happen. They all mattered to you but “home “always mattered more.
Cyclone of 1970 and 1971
What probably pushed you over the brink to greater involvement was the 1970 cyclone relief work. You were running relief operations for the poor in distant sea costal islands including Manpura. Your friends joined in including Western expats and you obviously felt more connected to your own poor people than ever before. Few would know that like the Liberation war of Bangladesh, the final straw on the camel’s back was the cyclone of 1970. Soon came the elections and the crackdown.
You were in Chittagong when Dhaka was burned but Chittagong had become the symbolic city of resistance and you were part of it. You later ended up transferred in Dhaka and even were posted in the Dhaka Cantonment before you managed to escape through Afghanistan to England. There you set up outfits to help the cause of Bangladesh. You mortgaged your own home to raise funds and raised enough to hire mercenaries to blow up the Karachi port. But Tajuddin Ahmed, then PM of Mujibnagar government felt the money raised was better spent in paying Mujibnagar staff and you returned to do more of the same.
The Sullah epiphany
Like many after the war social service called you but you were also heading the Bangladesh office of Shell oil. It was a mix of both of sorts when you visited Sullah in Sylhet and saw with your eyes the returning refugees from India. “Many of them were better off peasants but a single night or day had changed their life. They had lost everything. Human possessions were so transient. What did wealth, honour and such materials things matter. I decided to spend some time to help these people. I took leave from Shell Oil. That leave never ended.”
It’s this moment that can be called “epiphanic”. The realization that what is one’s mission and life’s work hit you in a moment that became the ignition of one of life greatest adventures which touched so many others and created an institution that is the most successful in Bangladesh.
A commitment to “Inclusion” and Diversity
The world you would use the most in some of our conversations was “inclusion”. Anything that excluded was something that needed change. That was the idea behind all your work particularly financial empowerment. That was what pushed you to support micro-credit though you were aware that it was not a solution to poverty. That was why you considered the Ultra-poor alleviation programme as the best work BRAC had done. BKASH made you feel good because you considered it freedom from the banking bureaucracy. For an elite, your life’s goal was to include all others in the circle of benefits that many elite took for granted.
The last project that I was part of in which you played a major role was the “Diversity” in BRAC initiative. You had felt that BRAC wasn’t doing its best in the international world because some staff members were not socially-culturally open particularly in Africa. So started the work which included training, surveys and mentoring to promote Diversity.
I am not sure if it’s running in BRAC (NGO) still but it’s a course in BRAC University now. Every semester, students come to study this course that sits a bit odd among academic ones and they learn about topics from child rights stereotyping, from sexual abuse to Extremism and all that is related to diversity, for and against. And the course contents grow every semester. And we begin every inaugural class by remembering you if it interests you to know. Long before others did in other Universities BRAC U did it, almost 5 years ago.
So there. Without intending to I have become part of your legacy. And the journey goes on. The spirit lives on. The desire to make a difference is alive in thousands today. That moment in Sullah which changed your life continues to change many others and will.
Till we meet again. Best wishes