Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury’s Chariot of Life is a chronicle of reminiscences culled from a deep involvement and actually living through the rarest moments of our recent history. The book is sub-titled Liberation War, Politics and Sojourn in Jail which sets the parameters of the narrative that gradually unfolds through the sweep of about 400 odd pages that takes us back to the realities of the Liberation War through the windows of memories often as flash-backs highlighting the time of a just Liberation War against odds and obstacles that almost seemed unsurmountable to a young civil servant turned a soldier by circumstances beyond his control. But not quite. At one point of his career and our country’s history he had to make a choice, precisely on Mar 7, 1971 at the Race Course Maidan when the peoples’ verdict found its voice in the unique utterances of Bangabandhu, ‘this struggle is towards our liberation, this struggle is towards our freedom’. In Part III of the book in the chapter titled ‘Awakening of a Nation’ this moment of transformation is spelled out, ‘that day, at the Race Course, Bangabandhu, the pied piper, leads me to cross the Rubicon. Like million others I am drawn into the vortex of revolution. The freedom fighter in me is born and so also in hundreds of thousands more’. It is a narrative in the first person clearly putting forth the trials and travails as well as high points and low of a guerrilla war oddly shouldered by a mélange of soldiers and civilians, professionals and nonprofessionals, young and old – all brought together by the flow of events against the engagement of a lopsided war-machine engineered by a warped mind-set of a military junta verging on bestiality.
As the author affirms in the beginning, that the narratives are based on facts experienced first-hand as well as heard and the notes that were maintained by him related to the period narrated, we go through a conglomeration of memories that forms an enjoyable collage with a racy personal style which immediately strikes the reader as utterly sincere, and at times, deeply poignant. The author belongs to a generation having the benefit of a large wealth of experience of events and witnessing a time of significant changes in social economic and political frontiers particularly in this part of the world. One fine morning in 2002 the author, after putting in more than three decades of public service in high offices of the civil bureaucracy, bade farewell to it all and started the life of an ordinary citizen, occasionally doing consultancy work of UN programmes, and began to discover as he says, ‘ordinary things in a new light as I delved intently into my surroundings of people and nature—the beauty that I missed and the music that escaped my ear, the loving embrace and marvels of nature that I had not noticed’.
The chronicle also depicts the metamorphosis of a personality ever alive to new experiences and thoughts and a mind that never stops to enrich its inner being and sensibility. To quote from the Prologue, ‘Behind the apparent monotonous repetition of days which made many, including Virginia Woolf bored with life, I found striking variations, each one singularly different from the other to absorb my imagination-an unending flow of delightful new experiences filled my days. Gems on the side walks of life were filling my treasure chest’. The author was thus, it seems, according to his own admission ‘immeasurably happy to be born again alive and well’. But then came the Autumn of 2007 and the tropical storm Sidor struck the coastline of Bangladesh wringing death and disaster and not even sparing the capital city of a few gusts. The prologue ends with a touching human story of a Pantha Buri, an old woman, her thatched hut just behind the author’s residence, which was ‘blown away into pieces at the first gusts of wind, the belongings kicked around shredded and scattered like debris after an apocalyptic invasion, beyond recognition’. But drenched in rains she stood undeterred trying to shield her cows against the outpour with torn polythene sheets while this strong wind almost snapped them away. However, ‘at the end, Sidor died and she won’. This indication of indomitable human spirit runs from the beginning to the end of Tawfiq’s narrative. The human aspects of Buri’s story is dealt with a deft hand, ‘But there was more to her story. Over three decades back, when this part of Dhaka was still a suburban outreach, sparsely populated under lush foliage, when jackals and rabbits still found their niches in the bushes around, Buri had moved from the village with her husband their cows that could graze freely around. Years later, one morning her husband had gone looking for a cow that quite so often strayed away. He did not return till Buri found him dead nearby – run over by a train. She was determined not to leave these surroundings till she found her own final resting place here.
Buri was the last outpost against the aggressions of men and nature, an unwelcome surreal existence.
‘The rest was not history’
This, at the outset, sets the stage of the eternal drama—struggle of man against the odds of nature but the human spirit does not give up under any circumstance.
However, as the storm forebode ominous tidings were in the offing. An unwelcome surreal stretch of time was actually waiting to cross paths with the author and this is related in some details in Part I of the book running through the sections titled ‘One Dark Cloud on a Sunny Afternoon’, ‘Fractured Existence’ ‘Journey Unknown’ and ‘Parallel World’. This part states facts with analysis of the socio-political scenario that started with the overthrow of military rule in Bangladesh in 1990 through a popular uprising spearheaded by the two major political parties the Awami League and the BNP eventually leading to a military-backed caretaker government that quickly reduced itself to a money making torture machine that left the country bleeding with all kinds of kangaroo courts that perpetrated a long drawn out travesty of justice. The author was also caught unwittingly in the web. As the events in the chronicle are set out in narratives felt and experienced by a sensitive mind, the younger generations particularly those who are not prolific in their own language Bangla (some possibly living abroad) but familiar with standard English will get good ‘glimpses of the country its legacy, ethos and history’ in their proper perspective, as the author indicates in the foreword and in doing so he also occasionally refers to our long history of a millennium. The analysis of the events between the years 1990 and 2007-2008 eminently lays bare the aberrant socio-political manoeuvres that blatantly ignore and even dispense with the interests of the country and the people and is solely driven by the avarice and ambition of persons, groups and coterie. Also in this part we find a mind at once spiritual and rational that puts his confidence and faith in God’s dispensation occasionally recalling the verses from the Holy Quran and drawing strength from such verses as: “Verily I shall put you on test with fear, hunger, loss of wealth and life … and blessed are those who are patient ….” Equipped with such conviction one may say that, ‘each day is thus a gift of God, a day of freedom to be reckoned, lived, enjoyed and remembered and then tucked away in the treasure chest—threatened though as the night gathers its hours, when a knock at the front door can terminate it all. This life on the edge gives a temporal spin to all the long held relations taken for granted’. In solitary confinement thoughts come and the author starts visualising the time in prison-as if ‘organising life in the absence of the endearing things that nourished my existence—a kind of preview of life after death, from the world of the dead? In a strange way I find this an interesting and unique opportunity to be able to watch the world in my absence and what would come about to fill it’. Even in this philosophy an indomitable fighter makes its flashing appearance.
The entire part one relates, with flash-backs and sequential appearances of reality, a great saga of a country going through the ups and down of fortune as if of a person. As the country goes through the experiences so are the main players of the drama that destiny directs keeping her intentions a secret to mortals playing their roles in spite of themselves. This pendulum technique is kept on to the last and effectively brings about the realities of the liberation war writ large with heroic efforts of the known and unknown players playing their parts as destiny directs. On the one hand the characters of the prison inmates come alive and even a faltoo is not dispensed with. And on the other he relates the anecdote of Makku Shah who, long ago, was an inmate serving life term in the prison whose tomb is now accessible from Nazimuddin Road side for the devotees to visit. While in prison Tawfiq mentions and sometimes relates in details the dubious ways by which mockery of justice is staged by the so called special courts which were constituted with chosen people as judges with prospects of elevation to the bench once the job was done and thus evidences were fabricated by intimidating and coercing witnesses. He also relates the trials and tribulations that Sheikh Hasina had gone through during her political journey of epic proportions, who once more during the time had a tryst with destiny. In such convoluted times everything gets churned up. At the end of Part I the author succinctly enumerates, ‘When diverse goals take hold, gelling of the power centres must come apart. On the other hand, to assume silence as acquiescence of the people of Bangladesh is a sure recipe for disaster. It is only a matter of time that all this will unravel and come to an end’. History, as we all know, moves inexorably to level with the ups and down of time.
All through the Part II of the book which is divided into three chapters: ‘Shadows of Past & Footprints of Liberation War’, ‘History Revisited-War and its Aftermath’, and ‘Prison Life in Limbo’, the realities of incarceration comes fully alive detailing the daily chores filled with the ignominy and deprivation of even the legal rights of an individual so much so that the word ‘individuality’ loses its meaning. But even in that confinement the narrator’s joie de vivre and an appreciation of God’s gift of life keeps him going and even going into the depths of our daily existence giving a meaning to it all. In that dystopian world the reflection of world outside comes and goes and a kaleidoscopic story is told as Spring makes its appearance in the foliage and blooms of the trees planted within the prison walls long ago. Thus life eternal moves unmitigated and the prisoner reflects: ‘but then, eternal youth is insipid compared with the cycle of existence where life reasserts itself rhapsodically with all its warmth and beauty without ever lamenting the death it has overcome’. These thoughts bring out the poet and the philosopher in Tawfiq on the one hand, and on the other, when harsh reality harks him back he delves into it with an unusual gusto going into the political, social and economic history elucidating the details to his young inmates Nikhil, the Engineer and young Zafar the politician or Zulqarnain, a middle aged business man, much like a dialogue of the old masters of Greece reminding the objective analytical method of Socrates, Aristotle and Plato. In the process the author throws in interesting statistics such as: ‘another economic historian, estimated that when the British came, India contributed about a quarter of the world’s income—by the time they left after 200 years, the share had dropped to only 3%. Bengal was the richest in India—our legendary muslin was a sought-after privilege of the royals. It was all but gone, textile flourished in England, our sighs pumped their hearts’. The author goes on to relate the doings of the British imperialists in China forcing cultivation of opium in India and then exporting it to China to keep the Chinese drugged and all that criminal enterprise was ‘endorsed by the Crown’. Robbing us of our wealth, stripping us of our culture and heritage “they then undertook to ‘civilise’ us as the ‘white man’s burden!”
Thus through the dialogues the author spans the modern history and uncovering the snags, deceits and hypocrisies of the western imperialism starting from ‘Westphalian Principles’ down to ‘Washington Consensus’, and commenting to a query of Nikhil the young Engineer, he explains: ‘These reforms look good on paper. Even generically, I do not have a lot to disagree with but, mind you, countries have different histories, ethos, challenges and pathways to well being—even destination need not be the same. How can one set of solutions hold good for all? They have been prescribing reforms in countries like Bangladesh with their clout and resources—often twisting arms’. He also explains to young inmates the meaning of ‘hard power’ and ‘soft power’ and how the ideas are fitted into the so called Nagorik Shakti etc. His hard talks are interspersed with lighter veins occasionally bringing in a relief like a waft of Spring breeze and somewhat Autumn sunshine. His occasional glimpses of the nature around and his understanding of the continuum of life keeps him going in those harsh circumstances. Describing the diurnal journey of the sun he ends with the pithy remark, ‘the rest of the journey towards the eventual end, melting into endearing sunset and submission to the overpowering darkness of the night. Every journey has its end’, and, then ‘I stand today a lonely prisoner looking up at the Sun on a spring morning with the same awe and wonder, except that I know that ours is a planet, though not even a speck in the infinite expanse of the universe, on a journey in space destined to end violently in total destruction into a black hole a singularity, back to our beginning!’ In the backdrop of this philosophical utterings when coming back to reality and explaining the real world applications of the methodology of the ‘Bretton Woods’ brand he shows how a brazen cover-up with public bonds is euphemistically termed as recapitalisation, the favoured recipe of the then caretaker government which was in fact a ‘compliant government with the façade of a civilian face, while military infrastructure provided the backbone–a new version of quasi-military rule’ At the end of the Part II the prison life was in a limbo and due relief was delayed indefinitely.
Part III of the book goes directly into those turbulent days preceding Mar 7, 1971 and the socio-political developments leading to that rarest moment in history that the nation witnessed on that day at the Race Course. In the first chapter ‘Awakening of a Nation’ the author relates the gaining of the momentum for the 6-point demand which was a force that awakened and galvanised everyone energising and inspiriting them all. The people of the then East Pakistan became a solid mass under the leadership of Sheikh Mujib, their undisputed leader, whose life was at risk but not the one to be cowed down. In the authors language, ‘this was truly a test of strength between a well articulated political programme embraced by a population and a brute force that wanted its way’. The author was then a CSP officer and back in 1969 it was eminently clear to him along with others of his time that the so called two wings were actually two separate entities. Protests continued unabated. In late 1970 he was posted as SDO Meherpur, the smallest subdivision in the then East Pakistan. This place a small truncated left over from Krishnanagar District in India was destined to witness the beginnings of an organised armed resistance that metamorphosed into a full-fledged guerrilla war for independence.
On Mar 8, 1971 the author left Dhaka for Meherpur in his official Toyota Land Cruiser and on the way visits Pundranagar on the bank of Karotoa and goes through the ups and downs of Maurya and Gupta periods of our history and even harks us back to emperor Ashoka’s time relating the incident that transformed the emperor form a ruthless warrior to a humane person abandoning the path of violence. In the long history Tawfiq places us the Bengalis in line saying that ‘twenty two hundred years later, I was heading back to Meherpur with the same nonviolent edict, in a reverse order, hoping it would make the enemy abandon the path of violence’.
The next chapter ‘De Facto Independence Unparalleled in History’ starts with the usual description of his cell called Rupsa and its surroundings, the crudity with which detention was being dealt with intimidating witnesses, a kind of Frankenstein let loose in the legal system and clearly spelling out that ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. Then following his usual routine he starts writing down his memories of Meherpur and bringing to life that time with detailed narration of some of the events. This was March 1971 and East Pakistan was already christened as Bangladesh and ‘Meherpur was not going to be a mere witness to that epochal story ‘it was a fact of reality that Pakistan was an absurd political construct of stitching together a country whose two disparate parts …. were not only a thousand miles apart but linguistically, culturally, and ethnically even further removed’ also. Thus 7th March was the tipping point that the author was fully brought into the fight for our existence as well as liberation. He was immediately in touch with the elected representatives of the area and whipped out a plan for resistance invoking Bangabandhu’s directives: ‘make each of your houses a fortress’, ‘we shall starve them and drown them in our waters’ ‘face the enemy with whatever means you have’. With the two peoples’ representatives the author pointed out the first two would be their responsibility and the last would be his. With that they started organising the meagre paramilitary auxiliary forces such as Ansars and others at hand and also the police force.
Even during the beginnings of armed struggle it was clear that Bangladesh was going to be a reality as an independent state to discerning eyes. The author quotes an analysis given at that time by his very well-read Mejo Bhai (Qudrat Bhai, also a CSP officer): ‘unprecedented events are taking place in East Pakistan. A land shut down by non-violent, non-cooperation movement, a nation mobilised under the leadership of one person, rallied behind him like the pied piper of Hamelin, ready to make any sacrifice that he may ask. History will one day discover in full measure the greatness of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. There are no parallel of what we are going through’. Again he said, ‘where in history have you seen a civilian leader taking control of a land of seventy million people otherwise occupied by a large professional army hell bent on stopping him in doing so? Could Gandhi? Martin Luther King? A new country has been de facto born. The day is not far off when its de jure recognition will follow’.
The next chapter of the Part III is titled ‘The First Smell of Victory’. Tawfiq is still relating his memories of the war, his deep involvement by taking up arms along with two more of his friends that destiny brought together in the area—one was Mahboob then SDPO of Jhenaidah and the other was Major Hafiz who was then stationed at Jessore cantonment defecting from there and joining hands with the liberation forces. After organising resistance at Meherpur Tawfiq looked further to strengthen the efforts. Mahboob was stationed forty miles away from Jessore. They met on the Mar 23 at a roadside rest house in Jehaidah, a nondescript rendezvous for consultation. In the rest house he also met SDO Magura Waliul Islam, SDO Goualando Shah Mohammad Farid and SDO Norail Kamaluddin Siddique friends and contemporaries all brought together into the fight. On Mar 25 a carnage was let loose in Dhaka and Tawfiq heard the news first hand at the police wireless room of Meherpur. A hardly audible voice was saying ‘it is all over here they have come with tank and guns blasting all the way to Rajarbag Police Headquarters’. Then there was the sound of a burst of gunfire and the rest was silence. News got around and the town was roused, Volunteers, Students, Ansars and Mujahids and Police all got together with full throated slogan of Joy Bangla. On a makeshift dais, a table, Tawfiq made an ingenious call to all to start the fight. The crowd was ready. A Mukti Bahini was born. He goes on to narrate the assessment of the time and his efforts to involve the Indian side for help. On the Indian side he met the District Magistrate and the BSF commander. Mr. Bhattacharya the DM of Krishnagar addressed him as the first ambassador of Bangladesh while receiving him. Prior to this meeting Tawfiq managed to send short cheats asking for help from Indian Government which was printed in the front page of all Calcutta Dailies and the above officials were, in the meanwhile, directed to get in touch with Bangladesh counterparts. Defence arrangements were made to ward off any attack from Jessore Cantonment which was controlled by the Pak Army. In the meanwhile Major Osman and Capt Azam joined and started organising fighting force including EPR personnel who defected from Pakistan Side. With the peoples’ participation the resistance was taking a proper shape-several control rooms were established by AL leaders, mega kitchens were set to supply hot meals for those in the front and a field hospital with volunteer doctors was made operational for care of the wounded. All this is history and Tawfiq was playing a part in it. It is now known what atrocities were perpetrated in Dhaka on the 25th by ‘mowing down university students asleep in their dorms, slums were razed and put to the torch fire amidst the wails of children, women and men, Hindu living quarters are targeted with a vengeance, re-enacting scenes of Nazi persecution of the Jews’. In such a situation whenever the curfew was lifted people were going out of Dhaka in hundred and thousands looking for safety outside. In that scenario Pakistan Army columns chased the unarmed people and indiscriminately gunned them down in thousands ‘their bodies littered on the rice fields, marshes, and floating in the rivers’. When this was happening in Dhaka and all over the country on the one hand, on the other in the north-western frontier at Meherpur and few other areas, a fledgling peoples war was taking shape. As the author describes: ‘A determined nation, mobilised by Bangabandhu to reclaim its identity, dignity and inalienable rights, was facing down on a professional army waging a proxy war—guns against voices, tyranny against dreams—fuelled by the greed of a military oligarchy’.
The assault companies were ‘joined by men of all backgrounds—political activists, government officials, students, labourers, farmers, ordinary folks all voluntary, shaking off the differences that ordinarily defined their status or places in society, fired up by an existential awakening that fused them into one soul, to achieve one mission at any costs—liberating the country from the stranglehold of the enemy. This was history’. Giving details of the first resistance with initial victories in Chuadanga which eventually melted away showing that there was no immediate shortcut to victory.
The next chapter titled ‘Swearing in of the Government’ begins with the life of confinement, appearance in the court room and the deliberation of the historic case in a defining time of our history and also of the judiciary while seating next to Sheikh Hasina. The experiences of an unfair court room is related and the details of activities there recede into background as he thinks about a number of issues and even in that dilemma finds fortitude, strength, and sangfroid as incarnate in the person of the former Prime Minister and the then accused seating next to him. When he flashes back to April 1971 it was the time of the beginning of the war under the directives of a legitimate government which had to be announced to the world. A place was identified at Baidyanathtola some ten miles away from Meherpur suitable for swearing-in-ceremony of Government of Independent Bangladesh. The mango grove was later christened as Mujib Nagar. It is all history now and the author witnessed it first hand and was a player in its destiny. The provisional government was the first government of the Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh and from then on the fight was under the directive of a legitimate government and not a government in exile. In the end of Part III the reader finds that after the drama of setting the author free he was again taken back to his old cellmates of Rupsha in the old Jail at Lalbag.
Part IV starts with the chapter titled ‘Twist of Fate: Prison and War’. Taking the thread of the narrative from the previous chapter his coming back to the same prison cell after the gesture of setting him free was a sham only to bring him back where he was. During the court attendance the author had glimpses of the unique personality of the former prime minister, at that time a co-accused. During such conversations the author was amazed at the depth of understanding of her country like the back of her hand saying that, ‘her understanding of Bangladesh and its people was innate –possibly passed on as family silver from her father, whose life represented the yearnings of Bangladesh’s people in all their wholesomeness. In discussing issues she blended a vision with practical solution—no amount of formal analysis with numbers and application of sophisticated tools could reach the depth she plumbed with ease’. From the prison cell and court room the author then flips back to end of April 1971 giving details of the wondering fighting life in a foreign land and the occasional high lights of meeting people like Col Megh Singh an unusual army personnel not necessarily always going by the book but a man warm hearted and passionate for freedom. During the time the Indian boarder was thickly interspersed with refugee camps near Bongaon. The Indian government was trying its best to accommodate the traumatised people direly in need of essentials to survive. As it so happened that the then Prime Minister of India came to visit the camps. In the authors description of the event: ‘there appeared Indira Gandhi, dressed in an ordinary white sari, as if to show oneness with this lost humanity, standing in an open jeep with joined hands raised’, personification of a Greek goddess, ‘consoling the hapless with all the compassion that could be mastered—a scene indelibly etched out in my memory’. There were occasions when the Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad and Col Osmani visited Petrapole to study the situation on the ground. The author also relates the tenacious journey of three truckloads of cash amounting to rupees 44 million and gold weighing 20.41 kgs collected earlier from Banks in an around Meherpur area and depositing them fifty miles away from the war-torn territory to 8 Theatre Road in Calcutta where our government was housed.
Flipping back in time to the sham trial in a Kangaroo Court he describes how the former prime minister made her own statement for defence elaborating the principles and institutions of democratic governance as well as the achievements of her last tenure (1996-2001) including a growth of about 6% per annum and reduction of poverty among others. By juxtaposition, the author qualifies the 1/11 government as becoming predatory because by the end of 2006 ‘all the institutions of the States–parliament, police, civil administration—had all been infiltrated by the predators with support from the State and manipulating them to their personal ends. Along this perverse transformative process, we have lost the rationale for having these institutions that define a state. Disempowered, we were stripped of our dignity and honour and fell prey to the predators’. Focusing on 1971 events he relates how he risked his career and life taking arms as a freedom fighter becoming a subsector commander of sector-8 and also how he declined to remain in the USA with a Doctorate degree from Harvard and came back to serve his country. In the next chapter ‘Quo Vadis: Prison and War’ the trial continues while political scene was getting murky and the institutions were being destroyed. Going in a flash-back the author relates how the war was entering a new phase with strings of youth camps being set up along the border for thousands of young volunteers eager to join the liberation war and how the eager youth were being inducted into the liberation war. By that time the front was organised and divided into sectors and three regular brigades were being raised. All those young men from the youth camps along the border were being dispatched for training and returned to be inducted inside Bangladesh as guerrilla units to operate independently as well to establish networks with the nearest cells. During the period Senator Edward Kennedy came to have a first-hand knowledge of the war, who was taken around in an M38 captured jeep and the tour conducted by Capt Huda and the author who drove back the senator safety. During the period many other players in the drama make their appearances and some unknown angles of their character are also touched upon in the racy narrative. Eventually the author was made a sub-sector commander of sector-8 and given charge of F company at Petrapole and the saga of a maverick becoming a valiant fighter, never giving in to despair while always keeping his human feelings and compassion alive comes full circle. We are told how he dealt with the BBC TV team to whom he gave a fake identity as a school teacher to protect his family whose fate was uncertain back within the country.
We who lived through that momentous time of history will have a fresh look at the incidents and the ambience of the war-torn country would come alive along the narrative. On the one hand, during the final hours of the war, there was the mindless atrocities of the Pak army and their visibly diminishing grip on the land and also their morale; on the other gradual gaining grounds of the Mukti Bahini and liberating more and more areas along the borders, giving fresh impetus to forces on the ground and strengthening the determination to liberate the mother land. Generations born after 1971 will find the book not only a good reading but also treasure of facts related to their own country and get a perspective of what the nation had gone through and at what price we had to pay to attain our freedom, something to be dearly valued, preserved ‘embalmed and treasured up for a purpose to a life beyond life’.
On the other end of the pendulum, in confinement, the author relates, ‘I had almost redefined life. My heart floated across the wall at will, the mind free of chains the cells looked like another station on my journey of life—the intimidation, hardships and the stress of confinement all melting away’. It was almost an Orwellian episode being played out around him and the experience had a surreal tinge. But even in that kind of existence a ‘life force’ is at work which the author feels as he pens down ‘we have an innate ability to redefine our existence within the walls of prison and find life worth living’, ‘I was at the same time dead, alive and kicking’. In the last Chapter titled ‘Towards Deliverance’ the incidents related to the release of Sheikh Hasina is narrated while release of the author is still waiting in limbo. His life in confinement goes on as he relates the fate of some of his friends including the ailing General Mustafizur Rahman and his passing away on Aug 3, 2008. Flipping back to the final period of the Liberation War a number of operations that he took part in is related and his unique way of dealing with situations come alive. That was liberation war, possibly the best of times in our history and, in a way, worst of time as well. We also get glimpse of Major Monzur and Major Zia in the narrative. At the end of the chapter finally his deliverance comes on Aug 21, 2008 after seven months of imprisonment on false charges. The book ends with an Epilogue that begins with the statement: ‘The bad dreams were over—if winter comes, can spring be far behind? Soon after my release from jail, national election was held in December 2008 and the Awami League with a coalition of minor partners won with a thumping majority and returned to power’. The rest is all a recent history.
Chariot of Life is an engaging and gripping auto biographical memoir of a person of extraordinary caliber, a civil bureaucrat caught in the vortex of the movement for Bangladesh early in his career and then consumed fully in the war of liberation taking part as a valiant soldier and decorated for his gallantry as Bir Bikram. But this is not just a personal memoir, nor is it an autobiographical account of his life. It is a history, an eye witness account of the breathtaking momentous events following Apr 7, 1971 till the liberation on Dec 16 the same year. The book skilfully juxtaposes the author’s seven months of confinement with all its Orwellian dramaturgy against nine months of liberation war and presents the realities of prison with penetrating personal thoughts and observations on the one hand, and on the other, harks back the reader to the days of actual fighting and goes into first hand details of liberation war on the front. The technique applied is that of a narrator who oscillates between the present and the past and weaves a gripping story of a personal predicament as reflected on his past experiences on the front that brings alive the realities of war on the ground and the background that merges the whole saga with the destiny of the country.
This is an absorbing narrative that hovers between personal and impersonal, between real and surreal, between the mundane and the lofty, between anguish and elation—a narrative that goes occasionally beyond recent history and touches the ancient in order to bring out the essence of our being as a nation. At times this is done through the methodology if dialogues somewhat like the classical masters, and at times, by personal narratives deeply delving into human psyche. While chronicling our socio-political and historical factuality the author operates as a catalyst reflecting on the eternal human values that gives a special significance to the narrative. While going through the ordeal of lopsided system perpetrated by a mindless junta the author remains resolute in his belief in justice and an abiding faith in God’s dispensation: ‘The soul can never be chained and I have redefined my existence in a spiritual tenor’.
This faith and spirituality is the invisible thread that creates, silently behind the scene, this embroidered quilt of a narrative bringing into play the author’s in-depth and wide field of interests in humanities putting the reader in the right perspective. This is a memoir of a deeply thoughtful mind that lifts it above the realm of that genre and, in the process, endows it with the significance of an epic.