“I’ve overcome the blow, I’ve learned to take it well,
I only wish my words could just convince myself,
that it just wasn’t real. But that’s not the way it feels” — Jim Croce
Music in Background: Do it Again — Steely Dan
Date/Time-Line: From Then, Now to Never
My Dear Tareque,
Something went awfully wrong on Saturday the 13th of August 2011, and they tell me that you will remain incommunicado forever. Fair deal pal…that appreciated if not understood; I hope you will take time out to read this letter. I have deliberately marked it open and unrestricted, so that somewhere down the line somehow, maybe through a gap in the ether, it will be delivered to you unblemished.
You are the savviest of communicators for our generation indeed in the history of Bangladesh. I know for certain that you will continue with your job beyond the 24/07/365 spectral dimension, a rather limited sphere for a genius like you.
It’s this delusion we call life the Baul in both of us recognizes that stops me from mentioning you in the past tense. It would be an insult to the living and illuminated spirit that has broken free from a clay tomb. Death is a celebration as much as life an unending cycle; the entrapped Clay Bird is now free to hover.
As early as 1983 when you were working like an obsessive maniac on Adam Surat featuring living footages of Lal Miah, you charted your road map in life. You chose an iconoclast, a living legend as your subject. A subject who on the quiet had gone International, and his paintings hung side-by-side with masters like Matisse and Dali, was yet, little known to his own people then, as even today.
Quite characteristically you explained with unending patience, about technological advancements and why your 16 mm celluloid print of Adam Surat can’t be sent to a festival as the mandatory requirement was U-Matic, NTSC BVU format etc. Very few people in Bangladesh understood what the heck you and I were talking about.
Worse was to follow. Despite my reluctance you bull headedly went ahead and talked to the illiterate proprietor of the Travel Agency I was working – for sponsorship. You were shown the door and the same month I quit. In retrospect, not many doors were open to us anyway friend. We had a notorious reputation for speaking our minds and there wasn’t a huge appetite for our brutal to a fault honesty.
Communications between us were never regular or irregular, but I find it comforting to think that whenever there was a crisis we always met and spent quality time. In winter of 1987 after a Whiskey wasted night when we talked only about financial solvency I had no way of knowing what was really doing overtime in your mind.
So it was more of an embarrassment than a shock that the same morning after waving me goodbye, you tried a hop-skip-and-jump in front of a public bus? Man that was weird. If your ambition was to bag an athletic gold for Bangladesh in the Olympics, you chose a real lousy turf for a practice run……phew!
Your personal turbulences were officially over in 1988 when you walked in to my office arm-in-arm with Catherine Shapiere. Before long fate conspired and she was being hounded by people in absolute power who were not quite able to understand the economics or politics of a visiting American student with a perpetually broke Bangladeshi boyfriend! Love perhaps was an obsolete word back then.
Our last ditch plea to get the US Embassy to help was met by a stern official on the phone. To our horror we learnt that he will ensure Catherine’s passport is returned, but could do nothing about the deportation order. The three of us hugged and cried but our gloom was short lived.
I remember Catherine promising she would return which she did much earlier than expected. And that poem on her adopted motherland written at the Departure lounge of Dhaka Airport after a humiliating interrogation by Immigration Police was bitterly poignant. The two of you were destined to serve the Nation, and do so with the greatest honor and highest of admiration. No power on earth could dare stop that.
I came to know about your nuptials courtesy the grapevine. Months later you enjoyed my quip when I pointed to the framed portrait of the two of you in a wall. Prem er porey frame — aha!
Then most annoyingly you vanished without a trace not to return until the early nineties. When you did, you excitedly summoned me to talk about a treasure trove that you had discovered in New York and NO, you assured me you haven’t robbed a Bank! Nevertheless I rushed to see you and Catherine with a hope that…ahem…I may end up being an important side-kick for a soon to be billionaire in Bangladesh!
An hour into the meeting at your Kalabagan hangout with all that hush-hush secrecy, I realized what you have in hand was indeed priceless, but fraught with risk higher than a Bank vault. It was a people’s statement that no political party would be able to stomach. Never spoken but never denied — our lives were at stake.
Reading between the lines, I am sure had it not been on Catherine’s insistence, you wouldn’t have budged to call up Lear Levin. This was based on an emotive flashback by a much inebriated Tareq Ali in New York. And sure enough Lear Levin was on the phone directory. And sure enough so was the cache, preserved in mint condition in his temperature controlled basement. Hours of raw celluloid footage of the Liberation War, not blood or gore but front line cultural activists in action, entertaining guerrillas and common people.
And there was Tareq Bhai, Benu Da, Naila and Shahin Apa, Shopon Da and so many more. From reel, real to surreal, it was as if 1971 had returned, courtesy you – to tell its own tale in 1995.
The two of us have tormented for years whenever the Liberation War came up for discussions. Here we were faced with a new generation and our reminiscences as teenagers growing up in 1971 were rubbished. “Were we dreaming back then, or are we lying today?” You finally had the answer to my question. We NOW HAVE THE PROOF Dosto! The next challenge was how to get this across to the people of Bangladesh, the ultimate beneficiary of the treasure.
Muktir Gaan was then an unfolding history of a history in changed times, when we had all but given up on the bloodiest phase in our history. From handling the Censor Board without editing out a single frame, to organizing screening and alternative out-of-the box distribution without sponsors or patron you masterminded the movie reaching furthest corners of Bangladesh without dithering on your resolve.
Ironically while you received a lot of pats on your back, when it came to real help, you had next to none. Try as you may to hide this my friend, I know for a fact that with all of that happening around you, there were days you went without food. The prohibitive cost of the movie burnt a huge hole in your pocket which was never very deep in the first place.
It was my sheer fortune and destiny to be a tiny piece in a gigantic jig-saw puzzle that was to be the Muktir Gaan project. I am honored together with other volunteers and friends, to be a roadie and lift and lug the very expensive projector equipments and precious celluloid prints during the initial screenings at Public Library Auditorium.
I am equally honored that you ordered our friend Shampa Reza and me to be the MC’s for the first screening of Muktir Gaan to diplomats, bureaucrats and others at the Dhaka Museum Auditorium. The shows at Manikganj, Faridpur and Bhanga where I accompanied you and Catherine in those tumultuous days will forever be etched in my memory.
But then, we had our differences sometimes very heated. While you agreed with me most times, you never accepted my pathological rejection of the status quo or contempt for Culture Vultures and Media Mafia who were hanging around our motley crew for all the wrong reasons.
To quote Bob Marley, I was merely “Oba, ob-serving the hypocrites, as they would mingle with the good people we meet”, so all I could do was watch dejectedly from the periphery and take another toke of Sinsemilia! You are the superior being. You could hear history calling, you could hear the peoples cry when defeat after defeat, our senses had gone numb.
And then it was Matir Moyna (Clay Bird) and Cannes in 2002. You firmly placed Bangladesh in the International Cinema map. Everything was to change, except you my dear friend. Your dynamism was infectious as usual, but you remained the forever approachable Tareque Masud.
I thank God for that. Your head didn’t outgrow your shoulders. You had no pretensions to be a Ray or Kiarostami or stoop to the perverted commercial decadence of a Farooki…who?
Last if not the least Dosto…Runway was awesome and I don’t know if I thanked you enough for the peek preview at your house last year.
Catch up with you soon.
Salutes — my comrade in thoughts.
PS. I have not been able to go see Catherine and Nishad. I don’t know what to tell them about your disappearance when enough has already been said.
Friday, 26th August 2011