My very first interaction with Abul Maal Abdul Muhith was at the very end of the 1970s when I taught English literature and language to the students of SFX Greenherald School in Dhaka. He was a smiling, rather garrulous presence on parent-teacher days, occasions when guardians would get reports about the academic progress or otherwise of their children at the tests and examinations conducted by the school. His son was a student at the school. For me, it was a particular pleasure meeting Muhith because of the reading I had done about him. Additionally, that he was an alumnus of the English department of Dhaka University gave me the feeling that he and I shared an important part of the universe between us. We were both students of English literature.
Following that early linking up with the future finance minister, it was my career in journalism which opened another window to my connections with him. On a September day some years ago, as I was busy browsing in a bookshop on London's Charing Cross Road, a call came from the ministry of finance in Dhaka. The official at the other end would have me know that the finance minister wished to speak to me. I was certainly curious as to why such an influential figure in the government was so interested in speaking to me as to track me down in foreign land.
When he came on the line, he was his usual gregarious self. He had been told by the official that I was on Charing Cross Road and so he surmised that I was into buying books. 'Ki ki boi kinchho okhan theke (what books are you buying from there)?" I told him, 'A good many on politics and history'. He then wanted to know when I would be back in Bangladesh and when I told him it would be sometime in mid-November, he sounded very happy. He then went on to tell me that he would be leading a high-powered delegation to Seoul at the end of November and would like to have me join the team. Rather surprised at this direct offer from the minister, I nevertheless asked him if my presence would be as a journalist covering the visit or as a member of the delegation. He was emphatic in his response: 'You will be in the delegation sitting with me and the others in our negotiations with the South Korean government."
I assured AMA Muhith that I would be happy to be with him on that forthcoming visit. In the event, though, I did not or could not join him on the trip to Seoul. The reasons had to do with the kind of bureaucratic behavior which often dampens enthusiasm regarding interaction with the political chiefs of state institutions and organisations. A few months later, Muhith accosted me at an event in Dhaka and demanded to know why I had backed out of the delegation. I told him. He wished to know which bureaucrat had been responsible for my backing out of the visit. I was able to calm him down, saying it did not matter anymore.
Over the years, I have had reasons to observe the Muhith personality in a couple of ways. In the first place, his role as finance minister, first in the Ershad regime and then in the Sheikh Hasina government always kept me riveted to his pronouncements. He was articulate, albeit rather prone to expressing irritation when his decisions came under criticism. But that outspoken part of his character, one where he dwelt on policies and programmes without falling into the danger of conveying anything remotely partisan (he had by then joined the Awami League and been elected to parliament) was an attitude I respected.
In the second place, it was the intellectual, indeed the historian in Muhith I have always been drawn to. His works on the Language Movement of 1952, in which he had a direct role to play, and on the rise of Bangladesh as a sovereign nation-state have left indelible imprints on our collective national understanding of history. It was especially gratifying knowing that he wrote in English, which was important since it was through the employment of that language that Bangladesh's history could broaden itself out and touch people abroad. His books hold pride of place in my home library in Dhaka.
AMA Muhith brooked no nonsense when it came to people writing on different subjects. Whenever he was invited to book launch programmes, to inaugurate them, he first made it a point to go through the text before making his appearance at the launch session. I know of at least one particular instance when at such a session he berated the author over the weaknesses in his work, with nary a thought to the fact that the writer was getting terribly embarrassed. But that was Muhith, upbraiding people in public over their lapses because that was his way of bringing humbugs down a notch or two.
It was this trait in him which concerned me when Niyogi Books (Delhi) and Pathak Shamabesh (Dhaka) jointly organized a session in this city for the Bangladesh launch of my work on Bangabandhu (From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman). Despite my acquaintance with him, I was in something of a state of trepidation since I knew Muhith was a careful reader.
Naturally, he had been given a copy of my work. When the launch day came, he shared the stage with Professor Anisuzzaman and Asaduzzaman Noor, among others. As the author, I addressed the audience first, regaling it with anecdotes from the world of journalism and biography writing. I needed to stop at a point, which led Muhith to say that I should have gone on, for he was enjoying all those stories all the way.
And then he rose, my book in hand, to inform the audience that it had been splendid work on my part. I was relieved. With Muhith --- eminent former bureaucrat, freedom fighter, author and Bangladesh's economic czar --- appreciating my work and recommending that others read it, what more could
I ask for?
There were the annual reunions of former students of the Department of English of Dhaka University where Muhith was the life of the party. His wisdom, his easy flow of humour and his humility were what we always came away with from these reunions. It was the intellectual in Muhith we loved interacting with. His views on the state of the nation, on politics around the globe came in the depth of sober analyses. And all the while an infectious smile bathed his handsome face. His laughter sprang from deep within.
It is this scholar-politician, this purveyor of economics cheerfully disseminating to the world the goals of a developing Bangladesh we will miss as he goes forth to meet his Maker. There will not be another of his kind.