Tribute to a Gentleman
AKHTAR SANJIDA KASEM
Major General Moinul Hossain Chowdhury (Retd.), Bir Bikram
Staunch patriot that he was, Major General Moinul Hossain Chowdhury (Retd.), Bir Bikram, would probably have preferred this tribute to be written in Bangla. On second thoughts, he probably would have preferred nothing to be written at all. Despite being a public figure, he was an intensely private person, and strictly guarded the privacy of himself and his family until the last day of his life.
Major General Chowdhury (Retd.), breathed his last in the early hours of October 10, 2010, at the Square Hospital, Dhaka, after battling with cancer for more than six months. In his death, the country has lost one of her bravest and most patriotic sons.
Major General Chowdhury was a valiant freedom fighter. In his illustrious career, he was the Military Secretary to the President, Adjutant General of the Army, and the youngest Major General in Bangladesh Army at the age of 37 years. He was the Ambassador/ High Commissioner of Bangladesh to the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Australia. He was the Permanent Representative of Bangladesh at ESCAP during 1989-1993, and was a Fellow of University of Canberra, Australia. He was an Advisor to the Caretaker Government in 2001, in charge of the Ministries of Post & Telecommunication and Commerce. He had authored two books and numerous articles.
This article is not about evaluating his contribution to this country and this nation as a freedom fighter, diplomat or author. There are many experts who will be able to do this very well. This is a personal tribute to a gentleman extraordinaire.
I called him “Moin Dulabhai”, although we were not really related. My parents and his parents-in-law were friends for several decades, since their days in Calcutta before the Partition in 1947. Moin Dulabhai, and his wife Ruby Apa (one of the most beautiful and most elegant women I have ever met), had spent many years overseas, and my husband and I really got to know them when they returned to Bangladesh after Dulabhai's retirement in 1998. We kept in touch since then, and over the years, we were blessed with their generous affection. We don't think we had really done anything to deserve this.
As his public persona started to emerge since his return to Bangladesh, we started to get to know another side of him ----- the personality of a true gentleman, a generous host, a strict disciplinarian who was stylish and austere at the same time, and most of all, a devoted husband and father. These aspects of his personality deserve to be acknowledged and appreciated. While the nation mourns the demise of a hero, for many people like us, the loss is intense and personal.
There are so many incidents to remember, the problem is to decide where to start. I remember that in one of his articles, he mentioned that his family home was burnt down by the Pakistan Army during the Liberation War in 1971, because he was a freedom fighter. He apologised to the younger members of his family as, because of him, they were deprived from seeing the family heirlooms. Not many people would have so much sensitivity.
When he became Advisor to the Caretaker Government in 2001, we were very proud. But he was embarrassed because he felt the enhanced security and protocol “ would disturb the neighbours”. My son, who was four years old at the time, was very excited at the prospect of riding General Uncle's car with him. “General Uncle” suggested that he could drive the car himself, and my son could ride with him, flying a flag out of the window! This was obviously not the treat my son wanted, and the plan was quickly abandoned.
This is quite amusing to remember that this widely travelled, very stylish man, was never truly comfortable with modern telecommunication gadgets. He was compelled to use a cell phone only after he became Advisor in 2001. In the initial stage, he could not even save numbers on the phone, and wouldn't even let anyone else do it for him. He promptly relinquished it after three months, and took another one much later. His woes doubled when he was forced to use the internet, mainly to keep in touch with his children. It is ironic that in his final days, the internet became the only hope of searching a cure for his disease.
General Chowdhury had a Man Friday, Akram, who was butler, valet, personal assistant, telephone operator, all rolled into one. To us, he was an indispensable part of his household. One day, I found him gone, leaving Dulabhai and Ruby Apa struggling with inexperienced servants. Akram did not leave on his own, Dulabhai arranged a job for him elsewhere, because “Akram has a future, he can't spend the rest of his life being a houseboy”. I don't know many people who would go through so much personal inconvenience, to secure a future for their staff.
All the years that we had known him, we noticed that he had a deep sense of respect for people, especially towards ladies and younger persons. He never failed to make a proper introduction between people who met for the first time at his house. Even when he was at the hospital, and I went to visit him, he gave a long introduction of my family and myself to his other visitors.
Dulabhai had a very rich collection of books, and a tastefully decorated study. He kept up his habit of reading until the end. Over the years, he introduced me to many excellent books on varied topics, one of them being “From Third World to First” by Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore. Ever since I saw his study, I dreamt of having one of my own, and when we were decorating our own apartment, we converted the guest room into a small study. He had very generously allowed our architect to visit his study and take notes. Ruby Apa brought back a large collection of exotic things from their stations abroad. She gave one of the original paintings from her collection for my new apartment.
He also had a collection of walking sticks. Having read once that some of these had weapons concealed inside, I once asked, “Which one of these has a concealed weapon?” He promptly said, “This one”, and brought out a mean looking stiletto out of the hollow casing of one of the sticks. I jumped back a few steps, and wisely stayed away from that corner of the house afterwards.
While browsing through his books, I found a book on Etiquette. He had quite a collection, natural for an army officer turned diplomat. We started discussing the idea of writing a book on etiquette. He lent me all his materials, and inspired and advised me throughout the whole process of putting the book together, which took nearly three years. I remember spending long hours discussing such crucial topics like “Which is the right position for closing your cutlery after you have eaten, 6 o' clock position or 4 o'clock position?” or “On which side of the plate do you keep your napkin after you have finished?” When the book “An Executive's Handbook of Etiquette and Manners” was finally published, he graciously attended the launching ceremony as Chief Guest. Nowadays, most of the national dailies publish columns on etiquette, few of them probably know the source of inspiration.
When his disease was diagnosed, this true soldier decided to fight it with courage and determination. But this time, he had to bow down to his Creator's will. Even then, he maintained his dignity------ he never expressed his pain, never asked for help, nor did he let anyone nurse him.
However, we realised that in his own way, he was preparing himself for his eternal journey. During the last days of Ramzan, Ruby Apa (whose movements were limited due to a long-standing illness), asked me to buy two saris. She and Dulabhai wanted to choose the outfits themselves. So I gathered enough courage to enter a swank shopping arcade, had a round of negotiations, and finally took out a few samples for her to see. They chose two, promptly paid me, and told me to gift wrap the two boxes, and deliver those to their house. After a couple of days, they ceremoniously presented one of the boxes to me. I almost started crying when he said “This is yours on one condition, you don't bring any return gifts for us. Ruby and I will not receive any more gifts from anybody.” After his death, I finally found the recipient of the other gift ----- another close family friend. She didn't know the background story, when I told her, she started sobbing.
We went to see them on Eid day. Instead of talking about himself, he started telling us that he was very embarrassed because Apollo Hospitals had kept their concerned department open on Eid day only to serve him. Even in this situation, he did not want to trouble others on his account.
Moin Dulabhai was undergoing severe discomfort in the last week of his life. He decided to go to the hospital on the evening of the 5th of October. He shaved and dressed himself, wore freshly ironed clothes and polished shoes, and walked the wide expanse of the lobby of the Square Hospital by himself. Without a wheelchair, without a walking stick, without letting anyone touch his arm. Shoulders squared, head held high, the soldier walked away to respond to his Creator's call.
We always used to visit them in the evenings, seldom in the daytime. We usually found Ruby Apa and Dulabhai in the family lounge, watching TV or just sitting together. With both children living abroad, the big house remained mostly empty, with most of the lights switched off. Still, the house seemed to glow with the warmth of their personality. With more than a hundred people inside, and all lights blazing, it somehow seemed cold and empty on the day he died.
We will never get the chance to tell you how special you were, not only to us, but to all those whose lives you have touched.
Au revoir, till we meet again………….Death is a transition, not the end, you know.
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