Remembering Dr Rabbee, his legacy and the nation we built
Dr Nusrat Rabbee wrote ‘The Spirit of 1971: A memoir of Dr Mohammad Fazle Rabbee and Dr Jahan Ara Rabbee’ about life before and after the brutal killing of her esteemed father
When it came to attire, Dr Fazle Rabbee dressed very simply every day - shirts were blue, light green and cream coloured, with khaki or dark green pants. His wife Dr Jahan Ara Rabbee would buy the same-coloured shirts, trousers and shoes every year. They were cleaned and pressed for him every day; it was like he wore a uniform to work.
'Abba believed in the principle of simple living and high thinking,' Dr Nusrat Rabbee, their daughter, wrote in her book 'The Spirit of 1971: A memoir of Dr Mohammad Fazle Rabbee and Dr Jahan Ara Rabbee'.
Nusrat Rabbee is an American statistician working in biomedical research in the US. Last week, at a book reading seminar organised by the ULAB Literary Club, this author arrived to discuss her book where she shared stories of her father. Dr Fazle Rabbee was the best-known doctor in Bangladesh in 1971, and an intellectual who was brutally murdered by the Pakistani military on 15 December of 1971, just 11 hours before the country got independence.
At the event, the author gave an explanation behind the name of the book, "I feel one of the basic differences between Afghanistan and Bangladesh is that here in Bangladesh, the intellectuals like my father didn't leave their country. My parents, Dr Fazle Rabbee - the brightest cardiologist of his time - and my mother Dr Jahan Ara Rabbee, also very successful in her field of population control and family planning, could easily have settled in the UK and USA. But they decided to stay back. That is the spirit I remember of them."
"A lot of the times I have been asked - which is almost embarrassing to say - when my father was taken, how he was abducted, and what was done to him etc etc. I feel after 50 years of independence, these questions are still news, which proves our lack of awareness as a nation. And that's why I feel like the spirit of 71 is lost", Dr Nusrat said.
She mentioned that when she was a child, her father explained to her how the Pakistani rulers did not consider us as equals. Pakistan is an acronym - P for Punjab, A for Afghan Province, K for Kashmir, and ISTAN from Baluchistan; there is no B for Bangladesh in it.
"I still remember when at events we were offered Roti and meat and my father asked for rice and fish. So it was not just how we were culturally different, it was also about how we were culturally subjugated. And my father was not ready to accept this subjugation." These small stories shaped her as a person as well as the country that we call Bangladesh today.
'Dr Fazle Rabbee wanted the best of everything for his country'
According to Dr Nusrat Rabbee, it was destined from his very childhood that her father Dr Fazle Rabbee would become a passionate doctor. In the book reading ceremony, Nusrat mentioned a story that her father told them.
"My grandfather Mr Afsaruddin Ahmed was a govt official and had a small side business of an ayurvedic medicine shop, near his home in Pabna. One day a doctor visited my father's village. When he was leaving, he couldn't find his stethoscope. Everyone was looking for it. Finally, the stetho was found with my father. When my father told us the story he said, 'I knew I was going to be a doctor'."
Dr Rabbee passed his MRCP exam in record time in 1961 and the second exam in 1962 in the UK. He was appointed the senior registrar at the Hammersmith Hospital.
Dr Nusrat shares an interesting story here. "White people didn't want to be diagnosed by doctors of colour. But because of my father's uncanny ability to diagnose diseases, his mentors would allow and encourage him to physically examine patients. And to the patients, they would introduce Dr Rabbee as a Jew, as his name was similar to Rabbi, a Jewish religious leader."
He could have settled there, but he was determined to get back to Dacca (Dhaka). He returned in January 1963 and was appointed associate professor of medicine at Dhaka Medical College. And there his name became synonymous with cardiology in East Pakistan.
Dr Rabbee was not a child specialist. But because he was so good at communicating with patients and their caregivers, many mothers came to Dr Rabbee for suggestions. On the day of the book reading, one such woman was sitting in the audience and spoke. She said, "I was born in 1971. When I was little, my mother took me to Dr Rabbee as I used to cry a lot. My mother said that Dr talked to my mother and held me. He prescribed a couple of medicines and I was completely fine in a month."
With time, Dr Rabbee realised that poverty was the root cause behind people not being able to get better treatment. He talked about health insurance, and he saw that the nation needed substantial health investments in East Pakistan.
In 1969, Dr Rabbee made his vision for Gonomukhi Chikitsha (Socialised Public Medicine) at the national level.
"He wanted the best technology, the latest ECG machine for the hospital. He wanted the best to be available in Bangladesh", the author said.
'He married a lioness, who was equal to him'
"My mother was a strong woman, a perfect match for my father", the author said proudly. She had been married off as a high school student, but at one point decided to divorce her first husband, even though she had a daughter with him. In the 1950s, this was unthinkable.
In fact, a petition was filed for this, so that a woman can file for divorce. The author writes, "My mother's successful divorce would later be used as a precedent for divorces initiated by Muslim women in East Pakistan".
After that, Dr Jahan Ara Rabbee took science courses and topped the secondary school certificate exam, and then stood second in the higher secondary exam. Her parents supported her in her studies and also to raise the daughter, Nasreen Sultana.
Dr Jahanara took admission to DMC as her mother wanted her to pursue medicine and that's where she met the love of her life, Dr Fazle Rabbee.
After a courtship of one and a half years, the couple married in 1957. The author Dr Nusrat Rabbee is their second child together, after her elder brother Omar Rabbee (Tinku).
After March 26 in 1971, the power couple joined the freedom fight with full gusto. The author writes, "My father started to treat the injured on one hand and helped Hindu and Muslim colleagues, activists and intellectuals escape Dhaka on the other."
The day Dr Fazle Rabbee was taken
It was December 15, 1971, Wednesday - just a day before Bangladesh got independence. Early in the morning, Mrs Rabbee awoke from a nightmare. When Mr Rabbee insisted she tell him what she dreamed of - she said she was in the Kaba Sharif and was going around the tomb with her children, all wearing black.
To this, Dr Fazle Rabbee said, "You have seen my grave".
That day after lunch as the family members were sitting inside their home, their cook Quasim knocked at the door to inform them that the military was waiting at the gate.
The author writes, "Half a dozen officers and soldiers came upstairs, offering the false pretext of there being a critically ill patient in the cantonment and that he had to go with them".
"My father spoke to them in clear Bengali 'Don't touch me. Let's go! ' My mother was not willing to let them take him without any questions."
The author mentions that later her mother told them how Dr Fazle Rabbee ever so slightly turned his neck as if to say goodbye, or perhaps to say not to worry, but thought better of it before heading out.
"Coincidentally'', Dr Nusrat said in the book reading session, "just a few days before this, one day my father suddenly decided that he wanted to record a Tagore song 'Mone ki dwidha rekhe gele chole'. As if he knew this day was coming, he wanted to prepare us for this."
Nusrat Rabbee writes that her mother went around town to find her husband afterwards. After contacting a number of people, on December 18, finally, his body was found and sent to their home.
The author writes, "My mother knelt down beside him and examined his body. Many people wanted to stop her from seeing the injuries, but she wanted to see everything. Later my mother told us that there was a single bullet hole, in his left temple, that showed the bullet went straight through his brain. I saw that bullet wound, I saw that it was a big hole among other bullet holes in his head."
The most amazing factor of this book is that it doesn't end with the death of Dr Fazle Rabbee. Rather it continues with stories of how Dr Jahan Ara Rabbee kept working in the ministry of population control and family planning, and how she reared her three children, even after Dr Rabbee was not there anymore.
She did this with the eyes of a statistician and dealt with numbers. What is really great about this book is there is a personal story of Dr Nusrat Rabbee herself, that relates to her father Dr Fazle Rabbee and her mother Dr Jahan Ara Rabbee, as well as the story of a nation being built, which is very much aware of its cultural roots. The book talks about how we are different from West Pakistan and the subjugation we suffered in their hands. And it also gives us a picture of how the discussion about this discrimination shaped Dr Nusrat as she was growing up.
The book is available on Amazon, eBay, Walmart, and Barnes and Noble