In My View
Never-ending cries of a legend for his country
February is a significant month of the year. This is the Black History Month commemorating prominent people and important events in the history of African diaspora and on the 21st day of this historic month, the UN-recognized International Mother Language Day is observed promoting linguistic and cultural diversity across the world.
Originated in the United States, Black History Month is observed each year in the US and Canada. Recently, this month has also been observed in the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Netherlands. And on the 21st day of February, the whole world observes International Mother Language Day, first announced by UNESCO in 1999 and later formally recognized by the United Nations General Assembly.
The idea to observe the International Mother Language Day on February 21 originally came from Bangladesh where the celebration begins just one minute past midnight of February 20 each year with laying wreaths at the Central Shaheed Minar, a national monument standing in the heart of the nation's capital commemorating the supreme sacrifices of those heroes who laid down their lives for recognition of Bangla, our native language back in 1952.
Ever since then, Bengali-speaking people have been observing 21st February every year with a fitting tribute to those brave sons of the country remembering their love for the language and spirit of patriotism. Right through the liberation of Bangladesh as a free country with its own language, people maintained this annual observance with a renewed pledge to continue their movement in what was then East Pakistan defying obstacles put up by Pakistani forces.
Aside from inspiring political struggles for recognition of language, establishment of people's fundamental rights and gaining the ultimate freedom, observance of this historic day also became a cultural ritual for Bengalis of all ages which would never be complete without the timeless patriotic song dedicated to the martyrs of the 1952 Language Movement -"Can I forget my brothers' blood-spattered 21st February?"-which turned out to be virtually the second national anthem of Bangladesh.
Written by legendary journalist, columnist and poet Abdul Gaffar Choudhury and composed by music legend Altaf Mahmud, the small song with some 30 lyrics had big influence on the entire Bengali nation. It became a song of the heart for every Bengali. Starting from the wee hours of February 21 through the rest of the day, unending streams of slow-moving barefoot marchers from all walks of life keep coming to the Shaheed Minar from all directions holding flowers in their hands and slowly singing the most famous chorus of Bengalis to pay their respect to the language martyrs.
As for myself, on every February 21, I used to go to the Shaheed Minar twice-once as the celebration began shortly after midnight and once again at some point of the day-during all my years from 1976 to 1988 as a journalist in Dhaka. I was there along with my other journalist friends-sometimes on assignments and sometimes off. Besides performing my duty as a reporter to cover the story on "Shaheed Dibash" or "Martyrs' Day," I was there each year to pay my personal tribute to those valiant sons of our country who sacrificed their lives for language.
But the two great men, who gifted us the most unforgettable song of 21st February, remained mostly forgotten to most people. I had the opportunity to meet with the legendary journalist, columnist and poet Abdul Gaffar Choudhury who wrote the lyrics of the most famous song of the Bengali nation on three occasions-twice in America and once in Bangladesh. In the US, I met him in mid-1990s first at a seminar in Boston and then while interviewing him for my own newly launched newsmagazine called South Asia Times at a friend's residence in the same city.
In Bangladesh, I met him when I briefly worked at the Independent newspaper in 2012-13. That was a special assignment directly from the editor of the paper, Mahbubul Alam, to interview him while he visited the office of the editor. Both interviews-first for my own publication in America and then for the Independent newspaper in Bangladesh-provided me rare opportunities to sit down with the legend and look at Bangladesh's history, culture, society, politics and also future through the lens of an exceptionally talented journalist and columnist of our region.
When I interviewed Abdul Gaffar Choudhury in both Boston and Dhaka, I felt like I was sitting inside a library with a history book of our nation wide-open right in front of my eyes. Spending more than half of his lifetime in England, Abdul Gaffar Choudhury never waited for a second to answer any of my questions on Bangladesh. He was like a living encyclopedia about everything of our country. Couldn't this great journalist with such a thorough knowledge and understanding of the entire subcontinent serve our nation better if he hadn't settled abroad?
Gaffar Choudhury had to face this question right in the beginning of my first interview with him in Boston. Here's how he responded: "I left the country towards the end of 1973 after my wife fell seriously ill. First I took her to Calcutta for treatment. But her condition deteriorated there; she got fully paralyzed. Then I took my wife to London where her prolonged treatment began in October 1974. I did not return to Bangladesh because of widespread arrests and oppressions following the killing of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975."
He went on: "A few years later when I applied for renewal of my passport, the government of President Ziaur Rahman denied it as well as those for other members of my family. Then I lived the life of a stateless citizen for eight years. During this time the British government permitted me to live in Britain and finally I accepted British citizenship. The subsequent government of General Ershad issued passports for me and my family and I went to Bangladesh for a visit in January 1993. If I would live in Bangladesh, probably I could write in a much better way being fully aware of the country's economic, social and political conditions. However, there was a possibility of being biased if I would be in Bangladesh. I can write with an independent point of view from England."
Beginning to write for a hometown small magazine in Barisal while he was in only sixth grade of his school, Gaffar Choudhury rose to the status of a celebrity earning an extraordinary fame as a distinguished newspaper columnist of Bangladesh. Before he left his country, he used to write one of the most popular newspaper columns in Dainik Purbadesh, a Bengali daily under the title, The Third View (Tritiya Mot). "I am a political columnist. I am also a writer because I write both prose and poetry from time to time. First I dreamed of becoming a writer. But I took to the profession of journalism in response to the need for a living and ended up being a political columnist," he told me during his first interview for my newsmagazine in Boston.
Despite his claim that he can write from a neutral perspective from London, the readers of his articles may not have always found neutrality in his writing. Abdul Gaffar Choudhury too has his critics--and probably quite a few. But what's wrong with that? Every big columnist in the world has his or her critics regardless of their fame or stature. No newspaper article-even if it is a masterpiece-can please every reader.
Abdul Gaffar Choudhury is probably the longest-serving newspaper columnist of Bangladesh. Even though he has been living in a faraway foreign land for last 47 years, nothing could ever stop him from regularly writing on the nation of his origin. This is called love for the homeland. Regardless of what his critics say, Gaffar Choudhury is already a legend and he will surely go down in history as one of the greatest sons of his country.
The writer is a Toronto-based journalist who also writes for the Toronto Sun and Canada's Postmedia Network