Barrister Ziaur Rahman Khan passed away in Dhaka on 25th April. His demise came as a deep shock to me as it did to many of his friends. A memorial was organized by his family on 5th June in which friends and relatives participated virtually, vide Zoom. When his daughter Gina invited me to speak on that occasion, I responded that it would be a privilege. But it was a privilege that I never, ever, would have coveted! cove. However, it did accord me the opportunity to reminiscence about our long friendship. I was able to join his friends and family, not just to mourn his sad passing, but also to celebrate his life and achievements. Participants recounted their recollections of their personal relationship with him, and we all noted how he helped uplift the many lives he touched in a myriad, different ways.
Zia, the shortened version of his name by which he was known to close friends and family, was, for much of his life, a public person. He had served the nation in Parliament, dedicating his life, not just to the welfare of the people he represented, but also to the ideals he cherished and the causes he believed in. What defined him was the strength of his character and the depth of his commitment. He was a person of prodigious parts and colossal talents. To each and all he met he left his indelible imprint on the fabric of their mind and heart. I cherished my long linkages with him, and I believe, he too valued our closeness. It enabled me, in particular, to observe from proximity the splendid mosaic of the larger matrix of his life which was so fulfilling, rich and rewarding. The latter is evident in the outpourings of the immense affection and inconsolable grief displayed by his constituents following his passing.
We were chums, Zia and I, since our time together in Notre Dame college, nearly six decades ago. It was a Catholic institution where discipline was rigid, and levity of any kind, sternly frowned upon. We broadly conformed. But we had our fun times as well. These would sometimes entail going to the movies, or ‘flics’ as we called them in teenage slang, cutting classes. Unsurprisingly, that often would lead to bruising brushes with the Prefect of Discipline, the forbidding Father Burke. Once, much to our shock and dismay he lay in wait for errant students like us at the gates of the Gulistan cinema itself. As we unsuspectingly approached the entrance for the show, he calmly recorded our roll numbers for future disciplinary action!
Our years at the University were marked by a kind of intellectual efflorescence. Our small group of friends encouraged one another to voraciously read up everything we could lay our hands on, be in on politics, literature or the arts. We would often gather after hours for cozy sessions on disparate subjects at his house on Road 7, Dhanmandi. A couple of streets away from my own home at “Surma”, Road 5. Zia was the scion of a much- admired and intensely political family. His father was Mr Ataur Rahman Khan, a former Chief Minister of East Pakistan, later to become a Prime Minister of Bangladesh. We were hence exposed to the heady politics of the nineteen- sixties in an ambience that helped groom us for the careers that followed.
Zia went into law and politics, and I into the Civil Service and diplomacy, both along predictable lines, in consonance with the respective family traditions we were nurtured in. Though, then as now, I lived mostly abroad, our friendship continued across space and time, as our lives unfolded. We met in Geneva and New York, he as Member of Parliament and Chairman Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, and I as Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the at the United Nations. When we met in the evenings in those faraway foreign parts it was as if life was a continuum of our days of yore. In more recent past, despite his growing frailty, he was an enthusiastic participant at the Cosmos Dialogue events that we held in Dhaka. His remarks made on those occasions reflected his sharp mind and keen intellect, as well as his vast reservoir of eclectic knowledge. He was one of those who also knew how to put experience to good use. As towards the end his illness appeared to advance, I was hoping he could come to Singapore, where now live, to try a cure, but alas that was not to be.
I am deeply beholden to him for so generously introducing me to his lovely family, including to his wonderful children, daughter Gina, and son, Juni. He sought to weave us, and succeeded in doing so, into enduring emotional links that have been such a source of joy to all of us. I surely knew that, as we recounted that evening the memories of our times together, he was looking down on our gathering across cities m countries, and continents, from his heavenly abode, approvingly in happiness and contentment.
Yes, as our train of life chugs along, Zia has disembarked at his designated station as we continue our indetermined journey. We shall all miss him sorely. But we can take solace from the words of an author that both Zia and I have immensely admired, Kahlil Gibran, who had taught us that “when you part from your friend, grieve him not, for that which you most love most in him will be as clear to you in his absence as a mountain is clear to the climber from afar”!
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President & Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg