I have no illusions about my place in the world. But why am I saying it now, when my life has already begun to move into its last lap around the huge sports field of life? Ah, there are reasons, of course. And they all congregate around the matter of how much you have achieved in life, if indeed there has been any achievement. As you age, you tend to go back to thoughts of your childhood, of all the dreams that you built around your future.
And here’s what I thought about my future when I was seven. My great ambition in life was to be a bus driver. There was a reason. I saw all those men taking control of the wheels of this enormous vehicle and having it run through all the streets of the city. My parents of course had other intentions. They sent me to school, where bigger boys made fun of my roly-poly physique and big, loud girls always made it a point to pull and pinch my cheeks at tiffin break. They thought I loved it. I didn’t. And had I been as big and tall as they, I would have pinched them right back. But that was not to be. Years later, it was Bangabandhu who would pinch my cheeks on a summer evening. I loved it.
Life would turn out to be a different proposition altogether from what I thought it would be. On a cold March day ages ago, Field Marshal Ayub Khan lovingly ruffled my hair (I had a head full of the glorious thing then) and asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I drew myself up to my full height, which was no more than a little above the president’s knee, and told him confidently that I wished to be president of Pakistan. History was made at that moment, if you know what I mean. And for the next one week, I was treated deferentially at school — as Pakistan’s future president. Don’t ask me why I didn’t end up as Pakistan’s president. I have a simple answer. Pakistan simply went away from all of us, for reasons we need not go all over again.
There is always something rather peculiar, if not exactly bizarre, about the way ambition shapes up in us as we grow. A time came when I thought I would be a lawyer, would win every case that came to hand, and live an affluent life with a wife who would not be a Bengali and with whom I would have a whole tribe of children. That didn’t happen, of course, but in my forties I went looking once more for the long-haired girl I had fancied in high school. She wasn’t around, which perhaps wasn’t bad. See, at forty you shouldn’t imagine you are fourteen. The police will quite likely have you as their guest for a few days.
Let’s move on. Even as I kept changing my ambitions, my father thought he knew better. And he did. He decided that I would someday join the civil service of Pakistan, be a CSP officer and do my family proud. But, again, Pakistan simply ran away. When it did, my father insisted that I appear at the Bangladesh civil service examinations. That was also something my future spouse, newly arrived from Calcutta, insisted on. Weary and not too happy about things, I trudged day after day to the examination hall, wrote some fantastic answers, went for the viva, qualified for BCS. In the end, I did not take the job. Years later, it pleased me enormously to know that Subhash Chandra Bose too had refused to be part of the British Indian civil service. If he could do it, I could do it as well. But then, he became Netaji. As for myself, I always found myself on the kerb watching all those netas go by in all the glory and glamour of power. And I dreamed of being prime minister. I was in my prime. No ministering angel was in sight.
At some point in my boyhood, I decided that I would be an actor, a leading man, in Urdu movies. Ah, it was a glorious moment when I imagined that some day I would be serenading Zeba and Neelo and Zamarrud in the movies as the ‘hero’. It didn’t matter at all that those actresses were older than me. They were pretty, weren’t they? When the movie Darshan was released, it was the beautiful Shabnam I dreamed of for weeks together. If Rahman could act beside her, I could do just as well! That was sheer nonsense, but in teenage it’s the rest of the world, not you, that is nonsensical. And so I went on dreaming, at one point turning up at the local radio station for a song audition. Well, here’s what I thought: if I couldn’t be an actor, I might as well be a playback singer. The man at the audition liked the way I sang, asked me to see him again over the following couple of days. Cheered, I told my father. He immediately clamped martial law on me.
And thus were my acting and singing ambitions nipped in the bud, for no good reason. But the emergence of Bangladesh then came as a most fortunate happenstance. On a rainy evening, just outside the gates of the old Ganobhavan beside Ramna Park, I told Bangabandhu I would join his government someday. He gave me a quizzical, paternal look before proffering the advice that I ought to go home first, finish my education and then see him about a job. He was killed a few days before I joined university as a student. Years later, his daughter had me put on a plane, fly to London and strut around the place like a vain peacock. I was a diplomat, you see, for a few years. I remembered Krishna Menon and John Kenneth Galbraith.
The rest is history you wouldn’t be keen on knowing about, unless of course you are a bit of a romantic. And what do romantics do? In youth they write poetry for chocolate cream women, sing songs for damsels with smiles that can kill and memorise the numbers of the vehicles that carry stunningly beautiful women home in the sensual luminosity of the day.
In middle age, romantics do not have much of a clue about what they once wanted to be and what they have turned out to be. Some of them end up being perfect fools. Some others turn into unadulterated villains. In which group do I fall?
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.