He was my maternal grandfather, the grand old man of Feni - 'Jalal Sir'. All through my life, he had been my idol, my guru. Tall, slim and upright, and sporting a white pajama-panjabi and cap, I still remember watching him in my childhood moving gracefully through a crowd of hartal picketers on the road leading to Feni Pilot High School. The picketers, mostly belonging to Feni College, suddenly hushed up; whispers could be heard, "Sir is coming, make way for him." Suddenly, as if by magic, a mob of angry hartalites got transformed into a band of law-abiding pupils respectfully making way for the revered headmaster.
Born in 1909 in a middle-class family at village Fazilerghat of Dagonbhuiyan thana in the then Feni subdivision, he lost his mother during early childhood. Despite the neglect and deprivations that followed, he remained undaunted and went on to graduate from the Dhaka University in early 1930s. After a string of teaching assignments in different places, his first notable achievement was the establishment of Ata-Turk High School at Dagonbhuiyan. Named after the founder of modern Turkey, the school earned much name and fame even during the British period. Even today, it is one of the best high schools in the locality that received patronisation of the Turkish government as well. Its graceful white buildings and the surrounding green fields still stand as a silent tribute to the vision of its founder, headmaster Late Jalal Uddin Ahmed.
His accomplishments are legendary in the area. It is said that after a hectic day of schooling, he used to move from door to door of his pupils inquiring about their whereabouts and helping them in their studies. Being himself a victim of neglect during childhood, he was always on the lookout for poor and meritorious students, helping them financially and otherwise. He used to keep some of these pupils in his own home, providing them with free boarding, tuition and food.
Some of these pupils later went on to become great sons of the soil, which was indeed a fitting tribute to their kind-hearted headmaster hailing from a sleepy hamlet. Not only education, he actively encouraged extra-curricular activities like games and sports, scouting, excursion and cultural pursuits. He himself was an accomplished footballer, an outstanding swimmer and table tennis player (DU runners-up in table tennis, pairing with M U Ahmed, the famed psychologist). His footballing pupils included many luminaries such as the great Nabi Chowdhury (now expired) - star of the all Pakistan football team.
But just when he was creating history at Ata-Turk School, a group of jealous conspirators brought false allegations against him. Later, they were proved all wrong, but by then Jalal Saheb had moved to Feni Pilot High School - to reenact another piece of history.
He brought to Feni Pilot all the virtues of his Ata-Turk days. He was firm but fair, often ruthless in rectifying or correcting his students' mistakes. Myth has it that erring students often risked being thrown from the veranda into the playing field, but his pupils accepted these treatments with perfect humility. They knew that somebody who loved and cared could also punish. They knew that one who worked with all sincerity for the wellbeing of his disciples could not err in his judgment. His carrot and stick policy was a great success.
Today, the galaxy of outstanding personalities hailing from his pupildom demonstrates how correct his methods and treatment were. To name only a few, they include former Adviser to the caretaker government Kazi Fazlur Rahman, former Vice Chancellors of Dhaka University Professor Anwarullah Chowdhury, Professor Shahiduddin Ahmed and Professor A K Azad Chowdhury, ex-Secretaries to the Government of Bangladesh Jafar Ahmed Chowdhury and Badiur Rahman, leading businessmen of the country Late Habibullah, Abdus Sattar, Mohammad Zakaria and Abdul Auwal Mintoo, banker Late Shahjahan Kabir, ex-Whip of JS Late Mahbubul Alam Tara, journalists Late Gias Kamal Chowdhury, Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury and Moazzem Hossain, and his sons and daughters: Giasuddin Ahmed (US-based engineer), Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed (Rhodes scholar living in New Jersey, USA), Dr. M A Ahad (physician based in Australia), Rokeya Begum (educationist), Tahmina Begum (linguist), Raisuddin Ahmed (lawyer), Dr. Shaheda Iftekhar (US-based physician), Dr. Zinat Ashfaque (US-based physician) and Rasheda Ahmed (New York-based computer programmer). Even today, many of these luminaries emotionally recall how the beatings and commands they received from 'Jalal Sir' transformed their entire life. He was rewarded for his good work at the Feni Pilot High School. In 1967, he was awarded the President's Gold Medal as the best headmaster of the country.
He followed some unique ideals, which, to this day, remain the guiding principles for many of his disciples. He led a clean, simple, disciplined, unpretentious and pious life. He worked from morning till night at school, and his attention was all-pervasive. He was vigilant even about intrusion of stray livestock into the school playground. The playground was a famous one, and it was maintained so well that it looked like a green carpet. Even pedestrians were not allowed to enter the field. When I look back, I can see that the basic rule that he followed was to put everything to its appropriate use. Thus the playing fields were meant only for sports, the gardens for gardening and the classrooms for study.
He was a perfectionist and a believer in the division of labour. He used to concentrate on what he was good at and left other things to the care of relevant professionals. He led a disciplined and active life, both within and outside the school. He was President of Feni District Sports Association for a long time, was the founder-President of Feni Lions Club, a leading Red Cross activist and an outstanding Scouts organiser.
I remember him waking up early in the morning before the Muazzin's Azan, offering Fazar prayers, reading from the Quran; then going outside to have a stroll and do a bit of gardening. As the sun appeared on the horizon, he used to come inside, take his bath, change his dress, take a simple breakfast and then go out on his way to the school. After a daylong cruise into school and non-school activities, he used to return home at night just before dinner. Back home, he did not display any dearth of stamina or energy. He was quite humorous and witty.
All my life, I had seen him inquiring about others' wellbeing rather than complaining about his own troubles. In this context, I remember my last encounter with him, three months before his death. That was in September 1992. He had then turned a frail and sick man. But when I should have made queries about his health, he gave me very little chance; instead, he enquired in detail about my professional and academic standings. He was very concerned about my career and asked me minutely about my future plans. When I was bidding him adieu, he was full of affection for my family members.
There was one prophetic element in this last encounter. When I told him that his age was not all that advanced and there was still life in him as many of his contemporaries were still leading active lives, he replied that he did not want to live any longer. He insisted that he had seen enough of life and was now craving to undertake his last journey and be reunited with the near and dear ones whom he had lost.
It was December 20, 1992. I was on a visit to my sister's residence in the evening when I heard about his sudden demise. He was not feeling very well. He had offered his Asr prayer, then had asked my Mami (wife of maternal uncle) to give him a glass of water. He drank the water very calmly, and then as the pain in his chest overpowered him, he closed his eyes and slipped into eternal sleep.
I consider myself lucky to have been able to accompany the dead body in its last journey to the burial ground in faraway Fazilerghat of Dagonbhuiyan thana. On the way, Namaz-e-Janazas were held both at Feni Pilot High School ground and the ground at Ata-Turk High School. I found the Pilot High School ground and its surroundings in complete disarray. That magic touch seemed to be missing, that touch of sincerity and affection. Cows and goats were loitering in a dishevelled and unkempt field. Only the Krishnachura tree, which my Nana had planted beside the field in the early 1960s, stood firm spreading its branches in solemn silence.
At Dagonbhuiyan and at his village home in Fazilerghat, there were emotional outbursts from people who had loved him dearly. Finally, by the side of the mosque that he himself founded, he was buried beside my Nani's (maternal grandmother) grave. Today, two descendants of Adam and Eve, eternally faithful to each other in life and death, remain buried in that graveyard. May they rest in eternal peace.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former
Editor 1of Bangladesh Quarterly.