Mir Abdur Razzaq died in London thirteen years ago at the age of eighty. Two years before he passed on, on a fairly cold October day, a good group of Bengalis resident in London, most of them British citizens, came together to observe the fiftieth anniversary of Razzaq’s arrival in London. He deserved all the tributes, all the poetry that was showered on him that evening. I listened, impressed, to every word of praise that was being showered on him. He listened too, somewhat embarrassed, for he had never consciously made an effort to be in the public eye in all the years he had spent in Britain. In this he was unlike so many other others, who always appeared unable or unwilling to resist the temptation to be in the limelight. Razzaq was made of different stuff.
And the difference was one of both style and substance. Mir Abdur Razzaq had experienced a lifetime of events and personalities and was not afraid of talking about them openly. As he aged, he began to develop all those ailments that come with the approaching winter of one’s life. He coughed repeatedly. It came in the way of his conversations with others. But it did not work as a damper for him. He loved a good, informal conversation. All too often, the conversation turned into a process of learning for his visitor. In a lungi and shirt, if the weather was not too cold, or a sweater added on if there was a chill in the air, Razzaq sat in the drawing room of his Leytonstone home and received visitors all day long, every day of the week.
That was his style. He worked as an interpreter for the police department. That was how he kept his family going. Through the banalities of life, for that was the way he appeared to see things, his quiet Thai wife helped him in a considerable way. An unmistakable quality in Razzaq was that he did not allow his work to come in the way of his social dealings. I noted, more than once, how he declined a sudden offer from the police for some new interpretation work because he wanted to carry on a conversation with a fellow Bengali. He lost money in that way, but that did not bother him.
The substantive about Mir Abdur Razzaq came in the wealth of information, truly encyclopaedic in nature, that he had stored in his memory. He was always enthused about my return to London, for he had things to tell me. For me, it was an unending joy listening to him relate the little and big incidents he had encountered early on in his career. He was once on the staff of Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English language daily, and in that position he was able to observe the ways in which Altaf Husain, the Bengali editor of the newspaper, worked. Razzaq was not impressed with Husain.
At one point, I told him that even though I was in school at the time, I was pretty disturbed about the editor of a newspaper joining a government as a minister, something that Altaf Husain did in 1965 when he entered the Ayub Khan government as minister for industries and natural resources. Razzaq’s response was quite telling. Altaf Hussain, he told me, had been trying to be a minister for a long time. It was therefore no surprise for him and others who had known Husain for long when the editor cheerfully accepted ministerial office under Pakistan’s first military ruler.
From Mir Abdur Razzaq I learned more about such reputed personalities in our history as Fakir Shahabuddin, Bangladesh’s first attorney general. Razzaq was also a friend and classmate of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The last time he saw the Father of the Nation, and that was in Dhaka in 1974, Bangabandhu wanted to know of Razzaq’s assessment of his leadership of the country. Razzaq told him and even suggested what needed to be done, where necessary, to get things back on track.
There was this absence of ambiguity in Razzaq. He was forever polite, but that did little to prevent him from expressing himself bluntly when the need arose. There were the number of times when individuals, Bengalis in London or flying down from Dhaka, cared little about Razzaq’s discomfiture as they turned up at his home and would not leave for days. For his part, Razzaq gave precious few signs that he was not liking it at all, though he was spending a lot on those pesky people.
His fifty two years in Britain did not make Mir Abdur Razzaq impervious to the changing nature of politics and society in Bangladesh. He had his finger on every reality back in the country that had once been his, and would be for all time. Sometimes, exasperated by an article from an expatriate Bengali in a London Bangla tabloid, he would get the writer on the phone and ask him to curb his emotions. Anger does not go well with writing. That is what he consistently believed in. He was a good writer himself. And his conversations were regularly a seminar in the use of urbane English. He read my articles with relish and deeply appreciated it when I handed him a copy of my first book the last time I saw him. A few hours later, he called to say that he had gone through the preface and appreciated my style.
I have walked down to Mir Abdur Razzaq’s home in the gathering cold wind, amid the falling autumn leaves. I was there with him on the day David Cameron was elected leader of Britain’s Conservative Party. The approaching darkness, the call of supper, drew me away from him, though we both knew the conversation could have gone on a little longer. Now, with Razzaq dead, all conversations with him have come to a stop. Whenever I have been in London since he went to his grave, I have often walked, sadly, past his place, imagining myself in that familiar chair beside his, the memories flooding in.
The laughter that once lighted up the eyes of the raconteur is what I hear, and will hear again. The winters have been different since he fell silent.