In the lengthening hours of a cool, quiet spring night, here in London, far away from my country, I let my thoughts crisscross their way into the alleys, lanes, highways and woodland paths of history, into the story of my nation. And I travel back, as I always do, to thoughts of the Father of the Nation, to the recollections I have of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He was the North Star in our lives. He was the boatman who took us around the bend in the river --- to remind us of heritage, of the destiny we would carve out of heritage. He told us the land was ours, to own and to pass on to the generations to come. He led us to glorious liberty.
The very first time I went into a serious study of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was in early 1969, when demands for the withdrawal of the Agartala Conspiracy Case and his release were being made vociferously in what was then East Pakistan. I had, of course, heard my father and his friends sometimes speak of him, especially when news items relating to the ‘conspiracy’ first began to appear in the media, with deep respect. My father, outraged at what the Ayub Khan government was doing, simply did not believe that Mujib could do what the regime was accusing him of having done. For myself, I had never seen a picture of the man who was one day to lead Bengalis to freedom. I assumed, though, that he was of short stature, like any average Bengali. Or he might quite resemble Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq. It not until Bangabandhu’s photograph (he had a huge moustache and wore dark-rimmed glasses, all of which accentuated the personality in him) appeared in ‘The Pakistan Times’ one day in February 1969 that I got to know him better, in a manner of speaking.
Late in June 1970, having read in the newspaper that Bangabandhu was to make a tour of West Pakistan as part of his election campaign (I was in school in Quetta, Baluchistan), I wondered if it would not be a good idea getting his autograph. Like many other schoolboys at the time, I was in those days chasing all the famous men and women I could, for their signatures in an autograph book I had bought earlier. I had by then collected quite a few signatures, one being Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s. Since I did not want to miss out on Bangabandhu (my parents were sure he was going to be Pakistan’s next leader), I walked down to the Baluchistan Awami League office where, to my amazement, Mir Mohammad Khan Raisani, chief of the party in the province, handed me an invitation to a dinner being arranged for the Bengali leader on 1 July.
I danced all the way home. My parents and my siblings were delirious with joy. On the appointed day, in the morning, I skipped school and went to the railway station to see Mujib arrive. When he appeared at the door of the carriage he was in, all those Pathans and Baluchis cheered. I gaped at the man. I had never known he, a Bengali, could be that tall. But it was dinner that evening which remains an unforgettable event for me. As Bangabandhu walked toward the guests assembled on the lawn (and among those present were Abdus Samad Achakzai and Yahya Bakhtiar), I readied myself to shake hands with him. I was the only teenager in that big crowd of political adults.
As Bangabandhu, shaking hands down the line, approached me, I put out my hand to him. Raisani explained who I was. Bangabandhu did not take my hand. He placed his palms on my cheeks and then pulled them in tenderness. He asked me about my parents, about my school. And then he asked me: “Deshe jaabi na?” I must have looked perplexed. He asked again, this time with a slight addition to his earlier question: “Bangladesh-e jaabi na?” It was magic hearing him use the term ‘Bangladesh’. From that day on, in school and with my friends and my teachers, I discarded ‘East Pakistan’ and spoke of Bangladesh, even when Pakistan’s soldiers went on committing genocide in what by then had become a de facto country.
The day after the dinner, as I came out of school with my friends, Bangabandhu’s entourage passed by. I waved at him; he waved back vigorously. My Pakistani friends were impressed. The next time I saw Bangabandhu was on the day he came home from imprisonment in Pakistan in January 1972. Earlier, on 8 January, I had walked into the offices of Bangladesh Betar for an audition in news reading. Someone rushed in with the news that Bangabandhu had been put on a plane out of Pakistan and no one knew where he had been sent. I decided not to sit for the audition, ran back home and sat down with the radio. It was in the evening that the BBC World Service let us in on the facts. The lead headline on its six o’ clock news broadcast spoke of the ‘East Bengali political leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’ having arrived in London from Rawalpindi. A couple of hours later, it was incredibly beautiful hearing Bangabandhu speak at a press conference at Claridges: “Gentlemen of the world press, I am happy to share the unbounded joy of freedom brought about by my people in an epic liberation struggle.”
On 10 January, I clung to the back of the truck carrying Bangabandhu all the way from Tejgaon airport to the Race Course (today’s Suhrawardy Udyan). It was a moment in eternity. It was eternity itself. We all slept easy that night, for the Liberator was back home amongst us. I met him on an April day, for I was worried that if English medium education was to be done away with, my future was as good as over. He reassured me that everything was in place, that I should go home and prepare for my school leaving examinations. Over the next three years and a half, as post-liberation travails made inroads into our lives, I never lost faith in Bangabandhu. As long as he was around, the future was ours. He was our symbol of freedom, our statement of life before the global community. Nearly every evening, through the heat of summer and the showers of the monsoon, I stood at the gates of the old Ganobhavan, for a glimpse of him going back home at the end of the day.
It became a habit with me to wave at him every time his car came through the gates and headed for Dhanmondi. He waved back. And then came that evening when, even as the rain dripped through the leaves of the trees outside Ganobhavan, Bangabandhu had his car stop and waved me over to him. He asked me why I had to be at that spot everyday. “To see you”, I told him. With a twinkle in his eyes, he retorted, “You don’t have to see me everyday. Don’t you have to study at home?” My response being in the affirmative, he ordered me to go back home. It was then that I said something which left even me surprised: “Once I finish my education I would like to serve in your government.” Bangabandhu looked at me, in a state of disbelief, before telling me, “All right, but first finish your education.”
That was the last time I spoke to him. And the last time I heard him was when he spoke at Suhrawardy Udyan on Independence Day in March 1975. I woke up at dawn on 15 August 1975, meaning to have a quick gulp of tea before heading off to Dhaka University to hear Bangabandhu speak (and that was a month before I would become a student of the university). Meanwhile, I turned the radio on.
The rest is a pain I have never got over. It is a tale that shames us every dawn and leaves us feeling humiliated every time twilight makes way for the night.