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My Travels with Minister Kamaruzzaman


Published : Saturday, 19 June, 2021 at 12:00 AM  Count : 230
Ziauddin M Choudhury

Late Minister AHM Kamruzzaman

Late Minister AHM Kamruzzaman

The first incident over "paan" happened after we reached the Netherlands.  The Minister had his meeting in the day at Hague where he was driven from Amsterdam.  Late at night in the hotel after I had retired to bed I got a frantic call from the Minister to come over to his suite.  Fearing that perhaps Kamaruzzaman had had a heart attack or something I rushed to his suite.  
As I entered the room, I saw paan leaves strewn over his bed and a visibly upset Kamaruzzaman viewing the leaves like some dying relative about to leave his mortal body.  "Look, what Farid (the Joint Secretary) has done to me", the Minister said forlornly as he saw me pointing toward the bed, which was strewn with mostly brown wilted paan leaves.  

Ahmed Farid, the Joint Secretary, was asked by the minister to take care of his paan, which he did by putting all in a plastic bundle, in the refrigerator in the Minister's suite.  Either due to changes in temperature or because the leaves were packed tightly, most the leaves had browned and quite wilted.  The exercise next was to rescue the still good leaves and keep the leaves somehow back in the frig.  I called for help from Ahmed Farid who gallantly agreed to undo his mistake.  It took us another hour to complete the task, and leave a somewhat satisfied Kamaruzzaman in his suite.

The next incident was at the dinner given by the Danish Minister in a hotel in Copenhagen.  Kamaruzzaman insisted on carrying the silver box wherever he went, but usually he would indulge in his paan after the official meetings, in the car.  The dinner was long, full of speeches.  Kamaruzzaman lost his patience; he was dying to have his dose of "paan".  At the end of one of the after-dinner speeches, he signaled me to approach him.  He whispered to me that I bring to him his betel box from the pocket of his overcoat at the coat rack.  I looked at him incredulously, but he insisted, and I brought his silver box.  
I was waiting for an embarrassing moment when the Minister would gulp down his favorite object in his mouth with his host looking with awe this display.  But Kamaruzzaman knew better.  He put the silver box in front of his Danish host with great flourish, and said "Excellency, I want to show you a typical Bengali, after-dinner, mouth freshener."  As the Danish Minister watched with great curiosity, Kamaruzzaman opened the box and showed him the contents.  

He took out first a green betel-leaf and proceeded to fill it with the other ingredients.  One by one, he described the ingredient, after folding the "paan", he held it up for every one to see, and said "this we call a Green Sandwich", and offered the object to his host.  The amused host looked at the Green Sandwich, and said "Excellency, I will pass this time".  Kamaruzzaman did not lose a moment.  "In that case, I will eat it", and immediately put it in his mouth.  He left the dinner very satisfied.

In Germany (West Germany that time), Kamaruzzaman met with his counterpart in Bonn (Bad Gudesberg), and two days later drove to Frankfurt to meet with German Chamber of Commerce, which hosted a lunch for him. At the official dinner given in his honour by Ambassador Humayun Rashid Choudhury, the minister again relied on his superb skills at extempore speech to impress his German counterpart and other officials.  At Frankfurt he invited German private sector cooperation for building commerce and industry in a country devastated by a nine-month war, and decades of neglect.  

Our next and final destination was the EEC headquarters in Brussels, where we drove from Frankfurt.  This was my first ever experience of a modern highway-the famous German Autobahn.  Our car sped through the night probably doing near 100 miles an hour in an inexplicably smooth surface.  To me having just recently driven in Bangladesh over potholed roads stomaching jerks and bumps all the way, this was an unbelievable relief.  The Minister slept through the entire trip that lasted about six hours, with Ambassador Chowdhury in tow, while I feasted my eyes on the cars and the scenery we passed by.
The Minister planned the Brussels visit to lobby with EEC officials for easier trade relations of Bangladesh with EEC countries (such as granting of most favoured nation privileges as a newly sovereign developing country).  
The highlight of the meeting was a very successful meeting with the EEC Secretary General (whose name I forget, but I do remember that he was a son-in law of Sir Winston Churchill), followed by a formal lunch given by the EEC Chief in the Minister's honour. In his speech at lunch Kamaruzzaman made an impassioned plea for support to Bangladesh, which the EEC chief acknowledged in his reply as one of the most memorable he had heard.  .  
From Brussels we were scheduled to visit Paris, but the visit was cancelled as the French Minister had to travel out of Paris at the last moment.  We sojourned at London for a couple of days, which allowed me some free time to see London sights that I had missed earlier.  We returned to Dhaka after a three-week of exhausting but thrilling visit for me spread over five countries that I had only heard of before.

To be continued

(The author worked as Private Secretary to A H M Kamaruzzaman from 1972-75 and a member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan)

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