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Thursday, May 24, 2018

The humility of Shawkat Osman

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There have been illustrious men I chanced to meet at twilight. You could say it was the twilight in their lives, or in mine. And yet those meetings and all that acquaintance were to inject rich substance into the way I have thought of the world, of the poetry it contains, of the mysticism it thrives on.

My friendship with Shawkat Osman was all too brief, a mere four years. It was this great and yet unassuming man of letters who took it upon himself sometime in late 1994 to call me early in the morning, to let me know how much he relished reading my articles.

 On the banks of the Irrawady. That was the write-up he mentioned, a piece which had appeared in the Morning Sun, the newspaper I was then working for. He told me he had been keen to get in touch with me for a long time and it was not until Syed Najmuddin Hashim gave him my phone number that he was able to locate me.

That was the beginning. The humble and yet warm way he addressed me as 'bhrato' every time he called me is what I hear even today, all these years after his passing. He would call early in the morning, proof that he was an early riser. And then would come an invitation to see him at his home in Rajarbagh.

Many were the evenings I sat and listened to him discourse on poetry, indeed on the arts. And then, of course, there was the inevitable veering off into a discussion of politics. He had absolutely no room for liberalism when it came to talking about those who had opposed the War of Liberation.

In his poetry, there was in the final years of his life a definitive preoccupation with politics. Those who had assisted the Pakistan occupation army in 1971 must not be tolerated, indeed must be made to face justice. It was a principle with which you could not but agree.

Shawkat Osman's life was embedded in absolute humility. You would not for a moment imagine, as you spoke to him or heard him speak of life, that you were in the august company of the man who had given the world such works of intensity as Janani and Kritodasher Hashi. Ideas spun off his mind with a speed one does not usually come by in writers. And Osman gave those ideas to you straight.

For him, it did not matter whether you agreed with him or chose to take a different approach to the issue he had raised. He simply knew he had to put his views across to you. And he did. He was happy when Sheikh Hasina took over as prime minister in June 1996.

And for Bangabandhu and Tajuddin Ahmad he had an abundance of respect that only those who have remembered the modern history of Bengalis will know. He made it a point to tell me, more than once, of how much he appreciated my dedication to the ideals of the War of Liberation, an assertion which only made me feel even more humble than I was in his company.

Every time I visited Shawkat Osman, he insisted that I have tea with him. Tea is one aspect of life I have never been able to do without, but to have tea offered by this great man was a trifle disturbing --- because he would make it himself. He had an elderly manservant around, toward whom he was profoundly respectful and extremely solicitous. I recall a time when the manservant was somewhat ill but insisted that he prepare tea for the writer and me.

Shawkat Osman would have none of it and in his ever gentle way told the man to go rest. It is behavior you hardly come by in people around you. There are all the humbugs around; and humbugs were people Osman was endlessly exposing through his writings and in his everyday conversation.

 A remarkable quality in writers like Shawkat Osman is that they do not flinch from taking the lid off lies and hypocrisy. In works like Rajshakkhi, Osman cheerfully launched himself into the business of unmasking men whose words did not suit their actions.

Shawkat Osman, in the few years that I was fortunate enough to know him, always made it a point to give me copies of his published works. No, he did not give them to me all at once but one at a time.

There was always a poem, a chhorha or rhyme, he composed for me on the initial, blank pages of a work before passing the book to me. I have kept all the copies of all the works Shawkat Osman gave me in a safe, special niche of the little personal library I have tried creating in my room at home.

It was on a spring day in May 1998, in London, that news came to me of the death of Shawkat Osman. I stood at the window in my office, looking out at the leaves on the trees swaying in the breeze and at the people walking by the imposing structure of Imperial College, and missed my friend the writer.

A year and a half earlier he had roused me from sleep, to let me know for the very first time that I was going to London as media spokesperson at the Bangladesh High Commission. Sensing that I was somewhat being unable to take him at his word, he read out from the newspaper which carried the story of my appointment. I sat up in bed, a feeling of delight coursing through me.

At that window, on that spring day, I remembered that earlier day in January 1997. The breeze kept playing among and around and through the trees.

(Shawkat Osman --- novelist, poet, teacher, columnist --- was born on 2 January 1917 and died on 14 May 1998)


The writer is Editor-in-Charge,
The Asian Age

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