The autobiography of an unknown Bangladeshi

by?Afsan Chowdhury

July 15, 2012

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This is an amazing book because although it is the tale of the most successful Bengali politician of all times, it is one of the simplest stories told. The lack of pretension and straightforwardness of the narrative is humbling.?It is not the ?great leader? who is speaking in this book but the ?ordinary person? who is offering his version of history, both personal and political. One is thankful that he wrote it long before history itself crowded him so overwhelmingly after independence. In that narrow space that he occupied after 1971 this book couldn?t have been written. At so many levels the book introduces the man as never done before, turning the public persona into a real human being. This Mujib is an unknown Bangladeshi who through this book becomes someone we would know very well.
Sheikh Muib begins his narrative talking about his family and its origins which contextualizes his socio-economic position. He writes how this family of mid-level aristocracy once flourished but over time lost its wealth due to many reasons including rivalries and competition. It is quite interesting to hear about the clan leaders and their fights with the British which he recalls with great pride. In fact his description of family ties is fascinating; quite simply because of its spread and entwinement. Clearly, Sheikh Mujib saw himself as a product of his clan and given his background this obviously influenced his world view as well. That?s how Bengali Muslim families were constructed at that time. It is a very different world in which Sheikh Hasina says she has only seven family members. He had many many more.
His marriage was a typical product of such a culture. Renu was a close relative as well and when he was 13 he was married off to secure the property which Renu?s grandfather was bequeathing her. She was only three years old then. He writes, ??I had to marry her because of my father?s command. The marriage ceremony was confined to an official registration. All I could gather from the event was that I had been married off. I was not able to comprehend the implications of the act.? It was also a family affair and Renu was raised in the Sheikh family along with his siblings after her grandfather?s death when she was only seven years old.
This part of the book is fascinating because it mentions traditional family life and structures very elaborately and such descriptions are not easily found. It also helps people understand the impulses and emotions that made the man and the society from which Mujib emerged.
A bout of illnesses held his education back when in school and soon he was four years behind in his studies. A young boy/man of energy and enthusiasm, he spent much time in the field and as he writes frankly, built a gang of his own. ?I was a very obstinate boy. I had my own gang of boys. I would mercilessly punish anyone who offended me. I would fight a lot. If any member of my band was ever insulted we would pounce on the offender.?
He is not apologetic about this part of the past though his father saw this poorly. It also shows that he considered loyalty to his ?gang? without question. This trait of course can be detected in his later life and in our dominating political culture, unquestioning loyalty has run deep. But if he was a gang leader, it was not just about taking it out on the other boys, it was a part of his own cultural construction in defending his people and community.
Much of the early narrative is occupied by the conflict he experienced with the Hindu community and this book shows how deep this was, away from the pious sentimentality of historians pushing the case of an imagined communal harmony in Bengal. This was a reality that influenced Bengal politics and Sheikh Mujib both. Being a ?muscleman? ? mastaan(?) ? meant he also could go and rescue a young Muslim boy from a Hindu home where he was being held forcibly. This animosity element is weaved deep into the narrative stretching to the last days of the British Raj. It is a vivid example of the mindset that produced the Bengal Muslim League and led it to power in undivided Bengal.
Critical to his political life is Sheikh Mujib?s association with Suhrawardy, the leader of Bengal both before and after the partition of Bengal. Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was the man who had the greatest claim to be his mentor and leader. When Suhrawardy came to Gopalganj he was introduced to the young activist. Mujib said that there was no Muslim League in the area. ?A few days later I got a letter from him thanking me and asking me to meet him if I ever went to Calcutta.? The historic connection was made.
* * *
The narrative after 1947 becomes more complex, complicated and perhaps depressing as page after page describe the many conspiracies that besieged Pakistan politics. He had little affection for Jinnah but thought Jinnah loved Suhrawardy. But there is no evidence that this was the case but the many political shenanigans that find place in this book are a fact of life of that period. Mujib goes into great details on them saying how the political conspiracies and changes were taking place.
At a personal level, soon after 1947, the man who ran a restaurant in Calcutta Park Street had become the representative of the newspaper ?Ittehad? earning 300 rupees per month but this arrangement didn?t last long. But Mujib was also politically involved in a new country which he thought was being run very badly. ?How had the Muslim League, a party that had been so enthusiastically supported by people in 1947, tasted defeat so swiftly? It could be put down to coterie politics, rule of tyranny, inefficient administration and absence of sound economic planning.? By 1949 the Awami Lague was formed and soon after his release from jail ? full of very interesting anecdotes about jail life ? he began to organize the new party.
Mujib never comes across as an anti-Pakistani. If anything he is an ardent patriot and there is not a single thought that could be called politically blasphemous. He seems a bit naive though unable to realize the size of the stake that was in the taking which was pushing the conspiracies. If the authorities impose section 144 on a mosque to prevent a meeting he thinks it is unfair and not part of the despotic nature of the state which was emerging. When on a trip to Pakistan, he is roughed up by a bunch of thugs, he is shocked that the ML government would behave this way and not that it had become the hallmark of a non-democratic state.
Mujib also describes the complications in East Pakistan politics including the bargaining over the spoils of the 1954 elections showing how they too had many weaknesses. If Pakistan ML was wiped out in the 1954 elections, Bengali-Bihari riots also broke out in the Adamjee Jute Mills which were masterminded by the Pakistani spook agencies indicating the subsequent turmoil masterminded by Karachi. As one reads from then on, a sense of foreboding emerges because soon it would be 1958 when martial law would be imposed and after the martial law of Ayub Khan, politics would change fundamentally and Bengali nationalism would be profoundly radicalized.
Yet the book is also about the splendid nuggets of his personal life. Taking about the days of that period Sheikh Mujib says, ?When I reached home I found out that Renu had come to Dhaka the previous day with the children. She wanted to stay in Dhaka from now on, since she believed that the children needed to study in the city. I was happy because I had been leading a very unsettled life. She would now put things in order in my house. Since she knew how hard up I was, she had also brought some money with her.? Few words have humanized Sheikh Mujib, the legend as this note. It makes him the everyday common man and the politician.
The book must be read by all who can because it gives insight into the spirit of the man and describes in the simplest language the life of a person who would emerge as the political leader of an entire nation. And a splendid show by all who brought the book to us.
The Unfinished Memoirs: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
The University Press limited
Afsan Chowdhury?is the Executive Editor,

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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