Vol. 5 Num 541 Sun. December 04, 2005  

Shahadat Chowdhury: A Tribute
Godspeed, my hero, but no goodbyes

Editor, writer, artist, organiser, activist, freedom fighter, visionary, kingmaker, cultural trendsetter -- Shahadat Chowdhury could be described as each of those things, and many, many more. He was a maverick, a true Renaissance Man. He was a dreamer -- one of those very few dreamers who had the knack of translating their dreams, almost all of them, to reality. He was a bohemian, but he was also the mainstay of so many more bohemian souls flourishing around the institutions he built. There was that odd dichotomy about his character, you couldn't quite pin him down. Perhaps that is exactly why he was so many things to so many people.

To me he was Shahadat Chacha -- my mentor, my inspiration, my hero. He is why I am a journalist, and this is my ode to him.

My fondest memory of Shahadat Chacha will always be that photograph of him standing on the railway tracks near Shalda Station in late 1971. The freedom fighters of Sector Two had just won the legendary battle of Shalda River. The young guerrilla in the picture, a sten-gun casually slung over one shoulder, will forever remain in my mind as the embodiment of the muktijoddha. I figure that is just as well, because of all the identities that Shahadat Chacha had taken on throughout his life, the one that he was most proud of, and the one that I dare say shaped him, his ideologies, and his philosophy of life most, was that of being a muktijoddha.

I was lucky to have grown up among heroes -- my parents and their friends belonging to the generation that fought the War of Independence. I had grown up listening to tales from the frontlines, from the trenches that surrounded battlefields, from the hideouts that the guerrillas called home. I had seen that glint in the eyes of my bedtime storytellers as they relived the moments that they narrated, those dreamy eyes that fought for a better nation, a better future.

Of all those heroes I could pick from, I chose Shahadat Chacha to be my life's hero, my idol. Because in Shahadat Chacha's eye (he had lost one early in life), more than anyone else, I saw that glint remain even after the stories had long been told. Long after the war was over, long after many of his comrades had become disillusioned -- some involuntarily succumbing to the drudgery and mundanity that is life, some plunging more spectacularly into the depths of mediocrity -- Shahadat Chacha kept on dreaming, of a better future, of a better Bangladesh.

The pages of Bichitra, the pioneering weekly magazine that he spearheaded for over two decades, represented the dreams that he dreamt for the generation after, and soon enough the pages of Bichitra came to represent and mould the aspirations of that new generation. Bichitra gave us hope, Bichitra gave us comfort, and even at the most cynical of times, Bichitra stirred our inner instinct to keep on fighting.

The lives Shahadat Chacha touched, I thought, were limitless. And all he wanted to imbue in them was the integrity of life's struggle. For millions of us, he made the impossible seem possible -- not through miracles, just with a bit of inspiration.

Yes, indeed, Shahadat Chowdhury was my hero. He is my hero.

I was a student of class eight when all of a sudden one day Shahadat Chacha decided to treat me like a man. I had claimed once that I was an "accidental journalist'" -- stumbling onto the profession by mere chance and then being forever taken in by its intoxication. But to be perfectly honest, it wasn't an accident, it was by choice. But not mine, Shahadat Chacha's! I didn't know it then, but I do now, that on that July day that he looked me in the eye and almost ordered me to his Bichitra office, he had made the decision, that I would be a protege. And that was that.

For that moment of inspiration (on his part), I can never be grateful enough. For Shahadat Chacha showed me the world -- through the books he made me read; through the conversations we had over a zillion cups of tea at the Bichitra office; through the people he introduced me to, all of them so brilliant; through the stories he planned and the assignments he gave that at first seemed so outlandish, but only went on to prove to us, his wards, how boundless the possibilities of journalism were.

And I was mesmerised, as I am even today when I think back to the "classroom" that was Bichitra and later Shaptahik 2000. Shahadat Chacha opened the doors to the world for me, and made me a dreamer too. So much of who I am, and certainly what I do professionally and how I go about doing it, was moulded by Shahadat Chowdhury's famous "laboratory." To shatter the boundaries set by those who came before, he said, was the ultimate challenge. He egged me on, like he had many others, to take that baton and run, and run, and run. And never look back.

To attempt to count how many people like myself Shahadat Chacha had inspired to build the future he dreamt of would be an exercise in futility. There are scores of us, and not just journalists -- doctors, lawyers, academics, vagabonds, actors, musicians, executives, and on and on.

That, more than anything, will be his greatest legacy, the gift he had to arouse something special inside so many otherwise ordinary people.

Shahadat Chacha would often tell us a story about his sector commander during the war, Khaled Mosharraf. The army major would tell his boys: "A liberated country does not welcome former guerrillas; it only wants to embrace storied martyrs."

I always felt that saying didn't apply to Shahadat Chacha. For he never gave up the fight, and hence could never be called a 'former guerrilla'. And now that he has left this world, I somehow feel Shahadat Chacha will never be a martyr either. Early Tuesday at the Birdem Hospital , one of his "bellbottom" comrades from the war was saying into his phone: "Shahadat Bhai is no more." But I couldn't believe that, I wouldn't believe that.

Shahadat Chowdhury could never be dead. He lives on through the dreams he has shown the world. He lives on through us, whom he leaves behind to carry on the fight.

Zayd Almer Khan is Deputy Editor of New Age.