Volume 2 Issue 48 | January 3 , 2009 |


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From Mongla

Father Rigon:
A Life in Bangladesh

Rafi Hossain

Usually it takes about 6 or 7 hours to reach Mongla from Dhaka, in our case it took 15! The inter-district traffic condition was at its worst, and the mist certainly didn't make our journey faster. There was nothing we could do but wait, and the wait was excruciating! Sitting in my bus, I couldn't help but wonder about the state of our country and where it really stood in this day and age where the world is increasingly becoming faster and more efficient. What are the indicators of our techno-orientation? 15 hours of sitting in an uncomfortable seat made me rethink the cost-benefit analysis of my trip! Was it really going to be worth it after this godforesaken ride? How far are we really, from the dream of Digital Bangladesh. I am waiting earnestly to know what that dream really is.

I was on a quest for a true Bangladeshi. A Bangladeshi who is a Christian priest and was born in Italy. In 1953, this noble man came to Bangladesh as a part of a Christian mission as an educationalist. Almost immediately, he fell in love with the natural beauty of Bangladesh. To his eyes, our beloved country was simply breathtaking, and he loved the village environment. And ever since, Father Marino Rigon has remained in Bangladesh. He fell in love with not only with the country, but also with our beloved language. Father Rigon was born on 5th February, 1925. He became so fond of Bangladesh and our rich literature that he started to translate many famous literary works. He is very fond of Rabindranath Tagore, Lalon, Sarat Chandra, Bonkimchandra, Jasimuddin and many other contemporary Bangladeshi writers. He has translated over 40 works of Rabindranath Tagore. He has also translated some works of Lalon, Sarat Chandra and Jasimuddin.

Father Rigon has built up his residence in Shelabunia village in Mongla. For the last 55 years, he has been working for the betterment of the locals of his region. In 1958, he established Saint Paul's High School. In Khulna, he has established Fatema High School, a school only for girls. Under his leadership, 17 academic institutions have been established in northern Bangladesh. Additionally, he has created scope for thousands of students to be educated through sponsorships.

In Jalil Par village in Baniyar Char of Gopalganj district, Father Rigon has made numerous contributions in order to improve its social and economic conditions. The many efforts include: Irri Block (through Cooperative Society), Fisherman Cooperative Society, Farmer Cooperative Society, Power Tiller Society. The village is now a model village which has prospered and become self-sufficient.

Father Rigon is a freedom fighter. His contribution in the liberation war of 1971 is immense. He looks back at the liberation war as the most memorable part of his life. He lived in Bangladesh throughout the war of 1971, and took active part in it by coming to the aid of injured freedom fighters. He used to provide shelter for them. The leader of 'Hemayet Bahini', freedom fighter Hemayet Uddin Bir Bikrom (leader of 5558 freedom fighters) suffered great injuries as a result of being shot in the face. He lost 11 of his teeth and lost a part of his jaw. Without Father Rigon's medical assistance, he would not have survived. Hemayet Uddin says, “During those fateful times, God was in the heavens and Father Rigon was on the ground, I might not have survived without his help. If I died, my large team of freedom fighters would fall apart and suffer from lack of coordination. I believe that Father Rigon is a very important ally of the liberation war of 1971.”

I had the privilege of visiting him in person and having a one-on-one conversation with him.

The priest with Rafi Hossain

Rafi Hossain: Father Rigon, can you please tell me a bit about your childhood?
Father Rigon: I was born on 5th February 1925 in a small Italian village called Villa Verla. I was raised in the middle of the chaos of World War II. My father was a farmer and my mother was a teacher in a primary school. I had 7 brothers, two died at birth, and had 3 sisters. Since both my parents were employed, my siblings and I did not have much lack for anything. We didn't have modern amenities in the village back then, and the winters were extremely bitter. During the winter, my family used to go to stables and live next to the cows. The cows were family too, their body heat used to keep us warm. Even though we were poor, as a family, we were rich in culture. My father loved listening to music and used to travel a lot. One of my brothers happens to be an accomplished painter in Italy now.

RH: When you first came to Bangladesh, what part of its society touched you the most?
FR: I was deeply stirred by the poverty in Bangladesh. There used to be no roads. Medical services were hard to access. When I fell ill, I had to travel to Khulna for treatment. This made me realise the state of poverty in Bangladesh even more.

RH: Did you hear about Rabindranath prior to coming to Bangladesh? How did you fall in love with and translate his works?
FR: I did, from a teacher of mine. My teacher had translated and read out Kripon from Kheya Kabbogrontho. But it was much later when I read it for myself that I could comprehend its true meaning. Before coming to Bangladesh, I had not read any of Rabindranath's works by myself. Once I learned Bangla properly, I started reading. I started reading Gitanjoli as a part of my reading practice. I realised that the only way to truly extract the magnificence of Rabindranath’s writing is to learn Bangla and read his words myself. I translated the works of Tagore straight from Bangla to Italian. The first work of Tagore that I read in Bangla was “Ke bole shob fele jabi, moron hathe dhorbe jobe, jibone ja niyechili, morone shob dite hobe.” Tagore's words are actually simple, which I didn't realise before learning Bangla. Learning Bangla greatly improved my literary maturity in course of time. I didn't understand before, how philosophically meaningful Tagore's simple words can be. This experience made me realise that the only way to master a language is to go through its rich literature.

RH: How did you fall in love with Lalon?
FR: I came to know about Lalon in the 1980s. I came to know about Brother James, a foreigner like me, who was also very fond of Tagore's works and had translated a piece of work. I went to visit him and discuss our love for the language. He told me that I should also read Lalon's works. Brother James gave me the book “Bangla Baul O Bauler Gaan” written by Upendronath Chakraborty.

RH: The general people often misinterpret Lalon's philosophy. Do you think you understood him correctly?
FR: Initially, I found the Baul world kind of strange. I realised that they say and discuss a lot about lust. I thought as a Father, it might seem inappropriate for me to translate their works. After all, what would people say! But eventually I saw that they used lust as a way to express their highly philosophical ideas. Afterwards, I have translated about 350 Baul songs and have written about their philosophy. Alongside many Lalon songs, I have also translated 'Hason Raja' and 'Jhenidaher Pagla Kanay'.

RH: Who inspires you more? Rabindranath or Lalon?
FR: Lalon and Rabindranath are great poets, philosophers and lyricists. Their thoughts are extraordinary. Both are bright and profound. The same talent runs through their blood. They are both philosophically sound, but to me, Lalon's words are sweeter. On one side, we have Rabindranath's Jibondebo and on the other, we have Lalon's Moner Manush. They have both inspired me greatly, but I can't really say that one inspires me more than the other.

RH: So far, how many translations have you completed?
FR: I have translated 45 of Tagore's books to Italian. Amongst which are songs, poetry, articles, 'Noshto Neer' and 'Shanti Niketoner Upodesh Mala'. Additionally, I have translated one of Bonkimchandra's works, Jasim Uddin's 'Nakshi Kanthar Math' and 'Shojon Badhiyar Ghat', Sarat Chandra's 'Pandit Moshoy' and 'Chandranath'. I have translated about 70 poems of Shukanto. I have also translated other contemporary works by Lalon, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Shamsur Rahman, Sufia Kamal, Al Mahmud and a few other writers.

RH: I have heard that there is an avenue named after Rabindranath Tagore in Italy? Is this true?
FR: The street just behind my home in Italy is Rabindranath Street. People of my family love Rabindranath the same way they love me. Since 1991, Italians have been celebrating “Rabindranath Day”.

RH: Is there any similarity between Rabindranath/Lalon's philosophy and your own?
FR: Both of them are great men, and their thoughts and writings act as my sources of inspiration. Sometimes, I do find myself thinking along their lines. But they are giants, great philosophers; I do not compare myself to them.

RH: Jasimuddin was your friend, right?
FR: Yes, he was a very close friend of mine. He used be a whimsical yet simple person. I roamed around many places with him. When Bangobondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman used to be Prime Minister, Jasimuddin and I went to see him. That visit was so surprising the Prime Minister had no police around him at all! Bangobondhu, me and Jasimuddin discussed many issues back then. I recited a poem from 'Gitanjoli' to Sheikh Mujib.

RH: You have lived in Bangladesh for so long. What do you think about Bangladesh?
FR: I love this country, it's beautiful. I love Bangladesh more than any other country in the world. Great minds, great philosophers, great leaders and great visionaries were born in Bengal. But for some reason, I do not see personalities of the same greatness coming up anymore. The future of Bangladesh can only be foretold by God and perhaps by people in power running the country.

RH: What do you think is the main element behind the growth of a civilisation?
FR: I feel that the main element is literature and culture. A civilisation with a strong literature and culture grows up to be strong. Bangladesh has this element. What it needs is a capable and honest leader who can lead the nation towards growth.

RH: What does religion mean to you?
FR: My priesthood comes from my strong belief in my religion. Although I am a priest, through years of experience, I have come to believe in humanity above all. I am a humanitarian at heart. My dedication is to the people, and I wish to do well for them, to them. My identity is my work and my dedication. People are remembered for their deeds, for what they have accomplished in their time, not by their religion.

RH: What do you think is the right philosophy of life?
FR: To me, the right philosophy is to acquire knowledge and learn more. The more you learn about the world, the more you learn about yourself. Secondly, to love people and protect love for the people. Above all, everyone should love their language, their culture, their country and its people. Everyone should be motivated to doing well for the people around them.

RH: What do you have to say about the education system in Bangladesh?
FR: It is very unfortunate that the education system in Bangladesh is unsatisfactory. The government should always put education at the heart of development and handle it with care. The teachers need to become a lot more dedicated. It is their dedication that will uplift and motivate students. I think private tuition greatly reduces efficiency of the actual classroom education and it should be stopped. Institutions need to be careful to maintain a maximum allowable student-teacher ratio, or else lessons taught cannot be properly understood by all students in the classroom. Before looking to the students, I feel that the teachers themselves should be trained properly and their skills need to be developed so that they can deliver the right matter in the right manner. They need to be clear about the goal of their profession. There needs to be a teacher's certification programme under a formal authority, which is the regular practice globally. Teaching is a noble profession; the devotion to this profession comes from the love of teaching. Only trained, devoted and dedicated teachers develop good students.

RH: You are more of a Bangladeshi than many Bangladeshis born here. Has Bangladesh recognised you as a citizen?
FR: I first applied for citizenship in the year 2003 and then in 2007, as far as I know now, the government is going to grant me the honourable citizenship. Processing is done, and I am waiting earnestly for the day when the citizenship is officially handed over to me. I hope that my citizenship is not delayed because of the election. I hope whoever comes to power follows through with the decision of the caretaker government regarding granting me citizenship.

Some of his book covers

RH: You have expressed that you wish to be buried here after you die? Why?
FR: Because I love Bangladesh too much. Even if I did not get the citizenship, I would still be a Bangladeshi at heart. That's why I wish to be buried here. In 2001, I had a heart surgery in Venice at Saint Anthony Hospital. Before the operation, I requested my body to be sent back to Bangladesh in case of my death.
“Dhono dhanne pushpe bhora, amader ei boshundhora…
oma tomar choron duti bokkhe amar dhori,
amar ei deshete jonmo, jyano ei deshetei mori.

Father Rigon has realised these words by Atul Prashad with his own experiences in Bangladesh. He has fallen in love with Bangladesh, her soil and her people. He has lived here almost all his life, and wishes to remain here even after his death. There are many things we take for granted, such as being a citizen of Bangladesh. Seldom do we feel proud about being a Bangladeshi. Father Rigon is a true Bangladeshi; he is a beacon of dedication an inspiration to all of us.

Special thanks to Nasir Ali Mamun and Kabbo Kamrul

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