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     Volume 10 |Issue 21 | June 03, 2011 |


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"Michael Meets....... "

Mahjabeen Khan

Sometime around early February this year I was exhausted from selling and moving house. I would wake up from nightmares of being surrounded by packers, cardboard boxes, tapes and piles and piles of books, china, clothes and furniture. I would wake up screaming to be taken away from all this mayhem. Quietly I would promise myself a long, relaxing vacation, 'wherever you want to go Moni..' I even tried to make plans to go to Spain to visit an artist friend.

Just then, out of the blue, I got an email from Michael. Yes, Michael Palin, asking me if there was any chance of my passing through London around early May. He wanted to invite me to be a guest speaker at the Royal Geographical Society in London of which he is the current President. I wasn't quite sure of what exactly I was committing myself to but my spontaneous answer was a 'yes'!

The writer (right) with Michael Palin.

The Royal Geographical Society of London was founded in 1830 as an institution to promote the advancement of geographical science and under the patronage of King William the IV it became known as the Royal Geographical Society. In 1911 Lord Curzon, the former Viceroy of India was elected as its President. The Society has been a key associate and supporter of many notable explorers and expeditions, including those of Darwin, Livingstone, Stanley, Scott, Hillary and many others. Besides establishing Geography as a teaching and research discipline in British universities it funded the first Geography positions in the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford. Together with the IBG (Institute of British Geographers) the RGS is the largest geographical society in Europe and one of the largest in the world. Her Majesty the Queen is the Society's Patron, the Duke of Kent the Honorary President and Michael Palin the President.

I had first met Michael in 2004 whilst he was in Bangladesh filming his 'Himalay' series for the BBC. I was invited to join him and his team on a cruise on the Rocket, 'Ostrich'. They were going deep into the Sundarbans to film the mangrove forests and the Bay of Bengal.

Michael and I exchange emails sporadically. In March after I heard from him I tried to get as much information as possible regarding the event via emails. He assured me that it was going to be something very informal and relaxed, that we would be talking about our trip on the Ostrich, about my life, Bangladesh in general and so forth. The event was to be held on May 10 at the headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington.

I arrived in London on May 3 and stayed with my sister Parveen and her husband Kazi. Nasreen joined us on her way back from the States. We were having a ball until I met Michael on May 9 for lunch and a bit of orientation. When he took me to the auditorium the first thing I noticed were just two red chairs in the middle of the stage with a gigantic map of Bangladesh as the backdrop. Michael is an actor/writer/film-maker, a celebrity! He had no clue that I could hardly breathe. My throat was dry and I even asked for a glass of water. I don't think he noticed that either. Or if he did he didn't show any sign. All I could say was, 'Am I the only speaker?' He looked at me and said, 'Yes. Oh dear didn't I make myself clear?' We had lunch at the magnificent Athenaeum Club and discussed some more over gourmet seafood.

The programme was to start at 7 o'clock pm. I got to meet all the friends I had made during the filming of 'Himalay' in Bangladesh. After all the guests were seated Michael and I entered the auditorium. It was full! I needed another drink ! He went on to the stage and talked about the programme, 'Michael Meets...' He explained how he invites speakers from anywhere in the world as long as he or she is not a British citizen. He then introduced me as his fourth speaker in the series. As I settled down in the red chair, fidgeting with my sari to behave Michael opened the talk by cracking a joke about how I had sung for him on the boat in Bangladesh ! He pretended to sound so romantic that I burst out laughing. And that's how the talk began. I didn't worry about not being able to reach for my notes on the table in front of us. It's amazing how easy he made it for me.

Starting with my childhood to missionary school and college, the Irish nuns, he moved from one subject to the next. When he wanted to know about my parents the Partition crept in and why my father opted for Pakistan. For more than one hour the talk revolved around the history of Bangladesh, causes that led to its creation. Talking about our culture the Language Movement came up and of course Ekushey February. Tagore, our national anthem, Nazrul the national poet... religion, the success stories like Prof. Yunus' Grameen Bank, the migrant workers, the RMG sector I think we talked about almost everything in one hour ! At the end of the programme I had to take questions, some easy some tricky but I came out in one piece!

The audience was (more than 350 I was told later) was very receptive and seemed happy to see the positive side of Bangladesh for a change. It was a great honour for me to have been invited to represent Bangladesh at the prestigious Royal Geographical Society.


The writer is a contributor of The Daily Star.


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