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Zainul Abedin: A man we hardly knew of and cared about

It takes a lot to become a citizen of three states, one at a time. Every birth, of the citizen and of the states, has to be at opportune moments, wending the way to a future fraught with pangs and torments. Zainul Abedin had — having travelled from the British Indian Empire to Bangladesh through the Pakistan days — been through all that and a bit more — a sort of statelessness for a very brief period soon after East Pakistan had become Bangladesh.

Zainul Abedin
Zainul Abedin

I had heard of him much before I came in touch with him. It was in the early 1990s, I was with the Financial Express then, that we had a colleague by the name of, also, Zainul Abedin, who was the Bangladesh correspondent of the Chennai-based Hindu. The Bangla-speaking Bangladeshi Zainul Abedin was known as Indian Zainul and the Urdu-speaking Zainul, although originally from India, as Pakistani Zainul. That was how people at the Press Club would tell one from the other. Much later, when I went to meet him at the Press Club, a man at the lounge gave me the options to choose one from as I enquired with him about Zainul Abedin.

He was also a man of many names. He had always been Zeno to his professional peers as he used to write under this name his reports on the Dhaka film industry. He was Jainul to most of the (uninitiated) Bengalis; and Pakistani or Bihari Zainul to the Press Club people. To his friends in today’s Pakistan, and also to Urdu-speaking community in Bangladesh, he was Zainul Abedin Jangwale (working with the Karachi-based Jang newspaper). Yet, to his long-time friends and old-timers, everywhere, he was Abedin, sometimes with the ‘e’ being almost inaudible, as I heard him say when he narrated events from his past. People’s relation with him had different shades on different planes.

He was born in January 1936 in Allahabad, and spent his early years, until he was in Class Seven, in Mungair, Bihar, before moving, along with the family but his mother who died in Mungair, to Saidpur in East Bengal in 1948, after the partition of India. His father, who was chief mechanical draughtsman working with the railway, took up the job at the Eastern Bengal Railway. After his matriculation — he once said that he had been to three schools there — from Saidpur, he came to Dhaka, in 1950, and did his Intermediate of Commerce from Dhaka College, which was then located at Phulbaria, and his Bachelor of Commerce from Jagannath College.

After a brief period of work on the accounts of a merchant’s office in Chittagong, he came back to Dhaka and did his Master of Arts in Urdu from the University of Dhaka. He earned a first degree. ‘I loved reading. I had already read Urdu classics and I did not need to do much for my studies’, he said on a wintry evening, at the Press Club.

The demand of the Bengalis for their right to mother tongue, which began in March 1948, intensified, with the government trying to make Urdu the only state language of Pakistan and with the Bengalis, who were the majority, pushing for Bangla as one of the state languages. Zainul Abedin, whose first language was Urdu, found the demand of the Bengalis justified and actively took part in the language movement of 1952. Almost all bills and graffiti in Urdu that time was written by Zainul Abedin. ‘I travelled by train from Dhaka to Ruhea in Panchagarh… stayed at each of the stations for a day or so and pasted the bills and did graffiti supporting the demand for Bangla as a state language’, he told me another evening, again at the Press Club. Many of his Bengali contemporaries still bear him out on this ground.

He wrote on the walls slogans such as ‘Zabanbandi nahin chalegi, nahin chalegi’ (Speech cannot be muted) and ‘Zulm to phir zulm hai, badhta hai to mit jata hai, khun phir khun hai, tapkega to jam jayega’ (Repression is still repression | Rising, it must flop | Blood is still blood | Spilling it must clot), drawing from Urdu poets such as Sahir Ludhianvi. He not only became a language movement activist, but also was involved in subsequent movements of the Bengalis of East Pakistan for their autonomy and independence. He wrote almost all posters in Urdu that were used in the movements, including the 1969 mass uprising, that followed.

He stood for what he thought justified in 1952, the right of the Bengalis to their mother tongue, a feat, much trumpeted after his death, that we would now celebrate but could hardly do in his life. The National Press Club honoured, although belatedly, Zainul Abedin and four others in February 2014, for their contribution to the language movement. He learnt to read Bangla in his prime age, initially trying to figure out shop signs by the road. When he worked with New Age in the initial days of the newspaper, he wanted to learn how to read and write Hindi. I tried but after a few months, he stopped coming to office. He went to Karachi after he had fallen sick and then came back to Dhaka after a few months, but not to his job at New Age. He wanted to learn Hindi script again, two years ago, when he was close to 80. I gave him two books but efforts did not roll much.

He was drawn to Marxist ideas as he started writing and, as part of it, started seeing the hard lives of the workers. He began by translating Maupassant and Chekhov from English into Urdu and then moved towards short story writing. His first short story, Ghuroor (Pride), was published in the Lahore-based literary magazine Nusrat in 1953. His second short story, Nai Tokri (New basket) on the life of people who carry basketful of items for shoppers who hire them. He soon became a short story writer to reckon with and, that too, before 1971.

In ‘Images in a broken mirror: the Urdu scene in Bangladesh’ (Annual of Urdu Studies, vol 7, 1990, pp 83–84), Asif Aslam Farrukhi, commenting on many of the Urdu writers migrating to Pakistan after Bangladesh’s war for independence while many important figures such as Zainul Abedin chose to remain behind, notes: ‘Zainul Abedin had already gained a reputation before 1971.’ With people of what is now Bangladesh having a waning interest in Urdu, Zainul Abedin's literary endeavours have, even now, only remained something heard of but never effectively read by the Bengalis.

His noted stories are Sat Bhai Champa (Seven brothers and a sister), Dharti ke Ghao (The scars of the earth), Suraj ka Rang Kala (The sun is black-coloured), etc. With more than 125 short stories written in all these 42 years, he could have several volumes. But he never felt himself to be enough of a writer and never felt the need to collect the stories and have them published in volumes. His stories, published from Bangladesh, Pakistan in Afkar and Funun and India in Delhi and Kolkata, only adorned the literary magazines of high standards.

In his early days of journalism, he worked with the Morning News, first as a proof reader then as a culture reporter. He became a full-time reporter of the Jang newspaper, the largest circulated Urdu daily newspaper published from Karachi, around 1968–69. He had worked there until his death although his filing reports declined in his last days as his health was failing. He became editor in charge of the film weekly Chitrali at one point and his working with Chitrali gained him an access to Dhaka’s cine-star world. After the Morning News had closed down, he worked with the Eastern News Agency and then the Bangladesh Times. After 1964, the newspapers of the erstwhile East Pakistan that he had worked with were the Daily Pasban, literary weekly Jareeda Sab Rang and Watan.

New Age was the last newspaper he worked with in Dhaka. But that was when the newspaper came out in 2003. He left after a few months in 2004. It was his long-time friend Enayetullah Khan, the founder-editor of New Age, who put him on a desk job as he thought he needed to do something for his friend, whom Enayetullah Khan saved from the wrath of the occupation army of Pakistan that was looking for him during Bangladesh’s war for independence. I enquired with him, sometime around 2014, about why he had left New Age. Sitting in his designated chair just outside the Press Club canteen, he stopped for a few minutes, heaved a sigh and said that it was Enayetullah Khan who put him on the job but New Age that time had a crowded desk, in the old Holiday Building at Tejgaon, with 14 editors working on main news pages. He felt neglected and decided to leave. Months after, when Enayetullah had been in BIRDEM hospital before going to Canada for further treatment, Zainul Abedin one day visited the hospital to meet his friend. As he entered the cabin, Enayetullah Khan turned side the other way on the bad. Zainul Abedin enquired about his health, but Enayetullah Khan did not properly respond, ‘most probably because he was upset with me as I did not tell him why I had left New Age.’ He continued, with teary eyes, ‘I sat for a while, silently. And then, I said, “Minto, I take leave”. He did not answer.’

His access to the star world had finally led him to become passionate about films. He wrote dialogues for a number of films, including the 1967 film Chakori, directed by Captain Ehtisham. The films that he wrote dialogues for include Chhote Saheb, Payal and Anari. After Bangladesh’s birth, the dialogues that he wrote for Urdu films were translated into Bangla and many films made in the early days of Bangladesh were based on his stories. He was a founder-member of the Bangladesh Chalachchitra Sangbadik Samti as he was a founder-member of the National Press Club, where he spent his last few years, day in and day out; he was a confirmed bachelor. I asked him why he did not marry. He paused, looked up and a smile all he came up with. I also asked him why he did not leave Bangladesh for Pakistan when his brothers and sister did. He said that his father did not want to get to Pakistan, after leaving all he had in India. And he followed into the footstep of his father.

Film and journalism earned him whatever money needed to live his life the way he could and literature remained his foremost passion all through his life. Apart from writing short stories, he, in his last days, translated two Bangla classics into Urdu — Akhtaruzzaman Elias’s Khwabnamah and Shaukat Osman’s Kritadaser Hansi (Ghulam ki hansi). Unfortunately, none of his translations could be published. He gave his translation of Khwabnamah to a literary publishing house in Karachi, it was printed but the publisher came to be shot dead, for some other reasons, before he could market the book. Kritadaser Hansi is still in manuscript, lying somewhere in his detritus. In 2014, he started translating Nobel laureate Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips in Urdu. Someone gave him the book and took it back a few weeks after; but by the time he could translate five or six chapters. I wanted to buy him a copy and looked for it at every possible book shop in Dhaka but failed to lay my hands on it. I even asked people visiting Kolkata, Hong Kong, England and the United States to buy me a copy. But nothing worked. His translation remains unfinished. I gave him a copy of the Oxford Urdu dictionary, which could come handy in his translation. It hardly came of any use to him.

I asked him why he had not collected his stories for publication in a book form or put in more time into translating and writing. He said that he had other issues to attend to, which did not give him the scope. In an interview, in 1988, with an Urdu magazine published from Karachi, he said almost the same thing: ‘Busyness does not allow me to write more.’ He, obviously, meant what he needed to do to earn his living.

I had not met him for a few months, because of indolence, or busyness, on my part. Then, I found it awkward to meet him at the Press Club as he would need to walk from around the canteen down to the lounge, which was not easy for him because of his failing health. The moment I felt that I needed to call him, it was well into the night. It did not happen. It now never would. I heard that he was admitted to Government Employees’ Hospital at Phulbaria with complaints of respiratory problems. In three days or so, he was moved to BSMMU Hospital, with complaints of liver malfunction. After he had suffered a stroke early February 22, he was taken into the ICU. I managed to get there one evening, but did not enter the room. He was still unconscious then. It was then hope against hope and the last flicker, perhaps… he started keeping slightly well, or so we heard. His brother, Seraj Uddin, flew in from Karachi. Lonely all his life, he at least had one of the family by him in his last days, but when his brother arrived, he lost his speech. He died about 9:00pm on March 9.

The next morning I attended the funeral rites. The body kept for public reviewal at the Press Club had the face uncovered. After the prayers, I stood there twice… a serene, pale face. It was not that only he died but all his torments and pangs that he had pent up within him died in his death. A couple of lines from a poem of Nida Fazli’s were all that I remembered that moment:

Tumhari ankhon ki raushni tak | Hai khel sara | Yeh khel hoga nahin dobara | Yeh khel hoga nahin dobara (It plays on all the while you have glimmer of light in your eyes. | The play will not repeat itself | The play will not repeat itself.)

It was an eternal truth. But the realisation of it was troubling for me that moment. I almost cried.


Akkas, Abu Jar M (2017 May 20) Zainul Abedin: A man we hardly knew of and cared about. New Age 9


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