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An exceptional memoir with rich literary flavour

| Updated: May 07, 2020 21:39:56

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Chariot of Life: Liberation War, Politics and Sojourn in Jail By Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury Bir Bikram Publisher: Penguin Random House 2019/Shrabon Prokashani 2018 Chariot of Life: Liberation War, Politics and Sojourn in Jail By Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury Bir Bikram Publisher: Penguin Random House 2019/Shrabon Prokashani 2018

Dr Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury Bir Bikram was one of the key organisers of the oath-taking ceremony of Bangladesh Government-in-Exile at Boidyanathtala (later renamed Mujibnagar) under the then Meherpur sub-division on  April 17, 1971. Granted the rank of a Captain, he was later decorated with the title 'Bir Bikram' for his gallantry during the war of liberation. He also served the country's successive governments as a member of the elite civil service for over three decades and later joined the present government of Bangladesh in 2009 as Adviser to the Prime Minister on power, energy and mineral resources.

His autobiography chronicling his involvement in the liberation war as a frontline freedom fighter and the period he spent in jail during the rule of last caretaker government in 2008 carries lot of weight with the potential of becoming a part of Bangladesh's history. He has penned down one of the most outstanding and insightful autobiographical pieces in English by any former civil servant of Bangladesh.

What strikes the readers most while reading this book is the deftness with which the author has interwoven the present times with the past in a single stream of variegated consciousness, thereby endowing it with an exhilarating literary flavour! There is also drama and suspense in every bend of the memoir as the author switches from one parallel stream to another, from his incarceration in Dhaka central jail to the liberation war, thereby making it taste more like a fast-paced novel instead of an autobiography. 

The book opens with a prologue that provides an overall glimpse of the author's life since his birth in Sylhet in 1945, up to his retirement from civil service in 2002, and then the idyllic times he was spending during post-retirement phase till 2007. This is followed by the chapter that provides the background for his subsequent imprisonment on cooked up charges during the rule of caretaker government (CTG) in 2008, as he ignored the dictates of the military authorities to falsely testify against Sheikh Hasina. The next chapter 'Fractured existence' lands him in jail in January 2008 after being denied bail by the lower court, and the succeeding one introduces the readership to his life in the cell 'Rupsha' of the Central Jail. The subsequent chapter 'Parallel world' concludes the first part of the book by describing the first day of court-hearing alongside Sheikh Hasina as well as some glimpses of the country's fascinating history from the bygone eras.  

The second part starts with the chapter titled 'Shadows of past and footprints of liberation war' that dwells on Chowdhury's continuation of jail-life based on another cooked-up case despite the appellate division upholding the High Court verdict to grant him bail in the previous case. This is accompanied by his retracing of history including the language martyrs' day on February 21 during conversations with cell-mates. In the next chapter the author recounts the days of the liberation war as well as its background and succeeding period, which is full of valuable insights about the roles played by the then leadership including Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Various inmates of the cell including a cat 'Skitty' -  named and kept as a pet by the writer, are introduced in the last chapter of part-2 titled 'Prison life in limbo'. It also addresses some philosophical concepts like destiny and the language of animals, as well as the historical episode of the Persian beauty Meherunnesa (later Empress Noor Jahan) who briefly stayed in a Dhaka fort (later turned into jail) with her first husband Sher Afghan, but returned to Agra as a widow following the latter's death in a duel.

Comprising four chapters, the third part of the book covers the period March-April of 2008 as well as the parallel events in 1971. The first chapter 'Awakening of a nation' dwells on Chowdhury's ideological upbringing both in the family as well as during his days as a lecturer of economics at Dhaka University in the mid-1960s; justification of Bangabandhu's 6-point demands in line with the Lahore resolution of March 1940; induction of the writer into the elite Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) after topping the list from the eastern province in 1968; training and probationary period in the civil service; posting as the Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) of Meherpur in late 1970; the non-cooperation movement of March 1971 and he turning up as an witness to the 7 March speech of Bangabandhu; the launching of armed attack by the Pakistani military against unarmed civilians on the night of  March 25 followed by Bangabandhu's declaration of independence; and Chowdhury's return to Meherpur to take up the fight against the Pakistanis.

The next chapter titled 'De facto independence unparalleled in history' describes a period of stagnation in jail-life alongside steps taken by the writer as the administrative head of Meherpur sub-division in late March 1971  to mobilise the local population, including paramilitary forces, in revolting against the Pakistanis. In the following chapter titled 'First smell of victory', the writer recounts on 25 March 2008 the episodes of late March 1971 when large swathes of territories in greater Kushtia, Pabna, Faridpur and Jashore came under the control of freedom fighters for some time. This was followed by Pakistani air attacks and an inevitable retreat in early April by the ill-equipped freedom fighters. Meanwhile, Chowdhury had established contacts with the Indian administration and this was helpful when he escorted the war-time Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad to the Indian side of the border in early April.

Titled 'Swearing in of the government', the last chapter of part-3 switches back to the swearing-in ceremony of the Bangladesh Government-in-Exile at a bordering village of Meherpur on April 17, 1971; in parallel, news reaches the writer at the Dhaka court that he has been granted bail by the highest court on April 17, 2008. Chowdhury describes in great detail how he and the police officer Mahboob organised the whole Mujibnagar programme including the presentation of guard of honour and the swearing-in-ceremony of the Bangladesh Government that included the Acting President Syed Nazrul Islam, the Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad and some members of the cabinet in presence of many local and foreign journalists. He fondly recollects the parting words of Tajuddin before he left Mujibnagar, 'You are not a witness, but a part of history, Tawfiq'. But the chapter ends in a disaster for Chowdhury when he steps out of jail following the arrival of his bail papers that leads to his re-arrest the moment he ventures outside jail; he is then put back in the same prison-cell after a day's outing, after the magistrate pronounces his imprisonment again on the fictitious charge of inciting young men against the caretaker government at Dhaka's Farm Gate. 

The fourth and last part of the memoir covers the period from end of April to August, both during 1971 and 2008. The first chapter dwells on the writer's war-time experience as a field-level commander as well as the depositing of truck-load of money brought from Meherpur to Kolkata in April 1971 for use by the Bangladesh Government. In parallel to that, charges are framed against him in the court on May 18, 2008 and a detailed written statement is submitted to the judge by Chowdhury defending himself with substantive arguments against the ludicrous charges brought against him.

The cross examinations in the court of 2008 continues alongside those episodes from the liberation war. The third chapter 'Towards deliverance' touches on the last days of Chowdhury's life in jail as well as the court proceedings, his encounter with the arrested former army chief General Mustafiz in 2008 (who was soon to die), and the GOC of the Indian army's 9 Division Major General Dalvir Singh as well as Bangali sector commander Major Manzur in 1971. The latter episode was followed by his fresh posting near Kushtia for the remainder of the liberation war, while he could finally step out of jail on bail as a free man on August 21, 2008. The epilogue of the book touches on his days since 2008, including his joining the government as an adviser in 2009 and the success stories of his two daughters in the USA.

Overall, the book is a fascinating read that switches from one theme to another in a single stream of consciousness reflecting the indomitable spirit of a freedom fighter-cum-scholar, who has outshone most of his contemporaries in the quest for a fuller life for himself and his nation. Having distinguished himself with a PhD from Harvard University, the writer has made the memoir immensely rich through incorporating historical anecdotes, philosophical insights and socio-economic facts - both in relation to the global and local contexts. The only mentionable demerit, if any, is some rare spelling and punctuation errors that can be easily corrected in the next edition. Besides, simpler and more lucid words could have been used at places instead of difficult ones.

On a personal note, the author was the external examiner of the present scribe during an advanced course on economics at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies back in 1992. But despite blasting the CSPs in the research paper titled 'Bureaucracy as an Agent of Underdevelopment: The Case of Bangladesh', the latter was given first-class marks by the former. That only indicates the author's openness to criticism, tolerance of dissenting views, as well as impartiality and objectivity in the judgement and evaluation of people and circumstances.

The book is undoubtedly a masterpiece both as a memoir having huge bearing for retracing the nation's true history, as well as an exceptional literary work that is quite novel and unique in both its approach and content.  

Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of 'Bangladesh Quarterly'. 

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