Vol. 5 Num 35 Wed. June 30, 2004  

The voice of Mukulbhai is stilled, long live Charampatra
During the war days of 1971 , his radio broadcast made millions find hope and courage

M.R. Akhtar Mukul, who wrote and read out Charampatra from the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro in 1971, was one of the greatest institutions that 1971 birthed. His voice and reading kept the spirit of ordinary people alive during those dark, desperate days. He was certainly more influential than any civil institution in the country, and had as much impact on the situation as the other forces including the armed forces that fought on this side of the war.

By reaching out to people inside the country who had access to radio, he literally became the voice of freedom and ultimately liberation. In that process, he also personified the sense of continued existence of an independent Bangladesh lending proof and therefor belief to the war waged by the Mujibnagar government. That voice is now stilled.

Through radio, he spoke to those who didn't have a voice and gave them hope and courage when nothing else or no one could. Charampatra was the voice heard, the most telling evidence of resistance, speaking to them in their tongue, their language, and their tone. His greatest success was to turn the medium of radio from an official tool of ordering into a public tool of communication, jumping across the fences of occupation. Yet in his last days, his words were shaded by the dark as he reflected upon the fact that the people he thought he was speaking to in 1971 had found no space in the republic after the war was over. It was a republic in founding which he had played such a significant role.

On our last conversation

The last time we met was almost two years back in his Bailey Road residence. He was unwell and was reluctant to talk about his deeds on radio in that year. I was producing a series on 1971 for the BBC and had wanted to know about how the SBBK was run and his own process of creating Charampatra. He had had a couple of operations, but we went back to the days when I was working with Hasan Hafizur Rahman, and we shared an affectionate albeit irregular relationship, and he couldn't refuse.

He sat on the sofa and explained that several of his internal organs were seriously affected and his family was planning to sell property to send him abroad for treatment. He walked with some difficulty but otherwise looked hale and hearty. He looked at my tiny mini disc tape recorder and said, "That little thing?" I nodded. He laughed at miniaturization. As we were chatting, I had the machine on, and when I told him I was recording he was taken aback. But he gamely went on.

He must have spoken about it before, but here he gave a detailed description of his residence in Kolkata, waking early to write the script, check the sources and collect any extra information on battles fought and then put it in his script, apart from managing the radio station.

"I knew many were listening so it was a dicey job. I couldn't afford to lose credibility in my broadcasts. So when I heard five on the enemy side had died, I would make it eight perhaps, but not ten. The people in that area would know it was a lie and never listen again, never believe again."

"My father had a transferable job so we traveled all over Bangladesh. I knew many cities and places and some I could recall in great detail. So when I mentioned that tree, that lane in some distant town in my script, people would be shocked. How did he know? He must have been here. People would trust me more. "

"I lived in the old city for long and knew the culture. The sense of neighbourhood and social camaraderie is high. In almost every para there was a Chokku Miah and a Meramot Mia -- and I just transplanted them into my script. They were part of my cultural ambience and had a universality that touched everyone."

Of course these two were the most celebrated characters not only in our history of radio but in the literature of 1971 as well. They found their way into his books too.

A roaring life

Mukul bhai led ten lives cramped into one. He had every kind of story to tell and they ranged from escaping to India to flee from police in 1952 -- he crossed the border bought some peanuts and chewed them and laughed in relief lying on the grass -- to the frightening days of April 1971 as he made his way to India on a rickshaw with his family and came upon an insanely enraged mob who had killed all Pakistanis and Biharis, and one fellow whose father had been killed had ripped out the heart of an army officer and chewing it in revenge and grief cried," Pasee re pasee, captain saber koljeta pasee (I have it, I have got Mr. Captain's heart)." They were not nice times and he never flinched in retelling. They were part of his life.

After returning to Bangladesh in probably 1980 and starting a transport business and later branching into publishing, he relished talking about his bloodied hands after a hard day at a leather cutting shop in London after 1975 when he lost his job as the Press Counselor in the BHC there. He would laugh loudly and share the irony and he was in a way as proud of his troubles as he was of his success. No regrets.

His spirit was close to that of his leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Mukul bhai's pieces in Ittefaq on the Kolkata based intellectuals was criticised by some for not being non-communal, but they missed the point. He wrote about the contemporary Muslim mentality that drove many to the folds of the Muslim League and however great or flawed, he was responding to his heart. And many other hearts too. It was a good mirror of the era.

Of course he was a hustler in some sense too, but he never bothered to hide that. During the Ershad era he landed close to him, became important, and later led the final stage of the Liberation War History project. This was not a happy phase because he ran into management problems and in a way peace returned in his new life as a publisher of Sagar publishers, with his best friend and companion, his son Sagar in tow.

These were less rumbling waters and he slowly slowed down and as bad health gained the upper hand, he too became slightly distant. When I met him he was on his final lap.

Radio's finest hour

I had told him that our research showed that the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra was the most popular radio at any time and his programme the most popular too. I suppose he knew it and didn't need a researcher to tell him that. But he had shown the immense possibility of radio too.

On that day when we were chatting, there was load shedding and we talked in candle light. I then asked him to recite a few lines from Charampatra. He refused. I gently pleaded. And then suddenly the voice, the words, the memory were all back. He was reciting the final script, the one read out on December 16 describing the end of Pakistan and it was yesterday once more. After all these years I could sense the power and the magic of that great broadcasting. I used that clip in the inaugural episode of my series and it was a big hit, coming across with all its aplomb, zaniness, crudity, and relevance. It was radio for all, I suppose the only time radio really became the voice of the people.

His final words were somber. "I don't think the poor peasant who gave the most in this war got a fair deal. We urban elite have no complaints, but it didn't become the poor peasant's state." I hope our book on 1971 will carry the full interview but nothing can carry the voice.

And now he is gone or maybe liberated from all the bodily ailments that plagued him. He is free now. I would like to think he is somewhere amongst the radio waves and ether, reading out Charampatra to an eternal audience who in its darkest days had found hope and comfort in his words and voice.

Good-bye Mukul bhai.