Wednesday, May 24, 2006


An excerpt of Blues for Allah has been published in this issue's Colloquy.
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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Half a Life

In his debut as an author, Azizul Jalil, a former World Bank official, tries to recollect his past and the tempestuous events in our national history that are associated with it.

The question that Jalil's literal endeavour fails to raise--or evades, if one takes the liberty and thinks so-- is the dilemma that every writer in retrospection faces: Where does the individual, an ordinary person, an ordinary mortal, actually stand in the sea of human history? This crisis, which is fundamentally existential in nature, does not bother Jalil much. From Sheikh Mujib to Robert McNamara, he mingles with the movers and shakers of South Asian history; but something, a hard, solid truth perhaps, hits one in the face as one ventures into the book. People, real ordinary individuals are absent in Jalil's vision. Be it in his portrayal of a-decade-old life as a civil servant in East Pakistani hinterland, or in the depiction of a comfy life in the West, Jalil follows traditional bourgeois history, and at times he does it blindly.

At the same time, Jalil's book is important for its depiction of two major events in our national history that the writer witnesses first as a toddler and the other as a grown up. The first one, a riot in downtown Calcutta forced his family to move to Dhaka, a new unknown town that we presume had fascinated his young mind. He writes:

"I have to this day preserved in my mind's eye the large krisnachuras with their flaming flowers, the Ramna Park with its serpentine lake (designed by planners from the Kew Gardeners near London), and the historic Lalbagh Fort in Dhaka."

Jalil's Dhaka University Years (1950-54) is ambidextrous and peppered with cultural activities. In 1951, Jalil along with other members of the new-founded Sanskriti Samsad staged Jabanbandi, a play on the great famine of 1943. Nurul Amin attended the programme as the chief guest. Jalil writes, "Even though quite conservative himself, he advised us to take the play to some district towns." Samsad members paid attention to the advice and took the play to Comilla.

But it is not the riot or University days-- for Jalil's depiction is parsimonious in most of the instances-- but his delineation of Abul Barkat, a martyr in the Language Movement that is the most interesting part of the book. Like Jalil, Barkat hailed from the western side of Bengal; "…his widowed mother had sent him from West Bengal to Dhaka to live with an uncle, study at the Dhaka University and make a career in East Pakistan. Unfortunately that was not in his destiny," Jalil writes.

Jalil was in the emergency room where Barkat, "bleeding profusely", recognised the writer and "called him by name". But at the end of the first paragraph, Jalil's narrative dies down and loses its flare. In fact when it comes to narration and describing events--which Jalil is trying to do in his first book-- Jalil's language fails him. Read: "I shall never forget that scene on a day that has become the most memorable day in Bangladesh's history. Indeed, through being declared the International Mother Language Day, February 21 has also become an internationally significant day." These two lines, pallid and weak structurally as they are, follow the part where the martyr, in his deathbed, was saying his final words.

In spite of a few stumbles like this, Jalil must know that his talents lie in his ability to recollect anecdotes that others would not have thought worth mentioning. But these incidents and antecedents neither tailor history nor affirm our understanding of it. Jalil, a World-Bankman in a meeting with Tajuddin Ahmed, enquired "whether it would be good to have a one-man rule with authoritative powers for some time to put the country back on its rails". Tajuddin, a socialist that he was, replied, "That never turns out nice". That is the Tajuddin we know-- fiercely nationalist, unflinchingly democratic and pro-people.

While reading this particular chapter, one wishes Jalil had shed some light on the World Bank's blusterous relationship with Tajuddin, who saw the Bank as a part of Imperialist conspiracy. But Jalil is even fuzzier here:

"On return to Dhaka from that trip, Tajuddin made public statements at the airport regarding the Bank-Fund policies and his disagreements. Soon after, he was called by Sheikh Mujib and reportedly asked to resign from the cabinet."

When it comes to "the Bank"-- uncannily similar to "the Company" in Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness-- Jalil is as slaphappy as he could be. Take Robert Strange McNamara, the butcher of Vietnam, who, it has been widely believed committed war crimes against the people of Vietnam in his six-year stint as the US Secretary of Defence. Jalil, who was "fortunate to have been a Bank staff during most of that period" describes McNamara, who later became the president of "the Bank", as a "renowned and brilliant man"; "an emotional man, he tearfully bade farewell to leave that position in 1981". Yet Jalil knows about McNamara's grisly past for he writes:

"Newspapers used to call the Vietnam War, McNamara's War and the World Bank soon came to be known as McNamara's Bank. It was not without reason."

Jalil does not tell us the reasons. Later he writes, "Thanks to McNamara's leadership, some of us felt as if we were development missionaries."

Jalil spends a chapter on Sheikh Mujib. The best part is where as a Deputy Secretary in the President's Secretariat, Jalil met Mujib in 1969 in Rawalpindi:

"A few Sindhi and Baluchi leaders had come to see him. Sheikh Mujib assured them that he would not only champion the cause of East Pakistan, but simultaneously the cause of the smaller provinces of Pakistan."

In the line that follows we get a glimpse of Mujib, hearty and cheerful: "He told us jokingly that before leaving Dhaka, Begum Mujib had told him that whatever happened he should not accept that position (Prime Ministership); she did not wish to live in West Pakistan as her heart would dry up in its dry weather."

Jalil recalls how, Monem Khan, who had just been ousted from power in a mass upsurge in 1969, was "literally trembling in nervousness". Jalil's prose here is at its best:

"He recalled with a sigh that the remains of Ayub's (Ayub Khan's) father had been taken out of his grave at Nehala, and dishonoured. Monem Khan feared that people might try to do the same after assassinating him. However, if he had to die he would like to die in nijer desh (own country). We knew what could happen to him once out of power and government protection. There was no consolation to offer--we remained silent. Monem Khan returned to Dhaka and during 1971 (Liberation War) was assassinated in his own Gulshan house."

A vivid portrayal of incidents like this could have made Azizul Jalil's memoir an even more interesting book. Be it as it may, Jalil's book will be interesting for anyone interested in the history of the last five decades, a time Jalil has aptly called as both turbulent and tranquil.