One must bear in mind that this is an unfinished autobiography. It leaves many questions unanswered, especially those relating to Bangladesh’s liberation and the political developments immediately following that momentous point in history. But what the book does contain is of indisputable worth: it shines a light on crucial aspects of the ground realities that led to the split of Pakistan into two in less than 25 years of its creation.
The memoirs were written during Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s stints in state prisons during a two-year period in the late 1960s, when he was incarcerated as ‘accused number one’ in the infamous Agartala conspiracy case initiated by the Pakistani government.
Thanks to his tenacity and sagacious leadership, Bangladesh was born in 1971 but the life of the architect of the new nation was cut short in a military putsch in the pre-dawn hours of August 15, 1975.
Mujib was then only 55 and had just launched a ‘second revolution’ to make independence meaningful for the poverty-stricken masses of Bangladesh. His violent untimely death at the hands of ambitious and treacherous army men who seized power and sealed his home prevented the completion of the story of those rousing years that led to the liberation of his people.
So Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: The Unfinished Memoirs ends abruptly in the mid 1950s. However, every single year of the man’s life was eventful and he not only observed the unfolding of history from the ringside but was also instrumental in the making of large portions of that history.
Four notebooks containing his remembrances, written in his own hand, were found by his daughter, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, nearly three decades after his passing away. She, with the help of her younger sister Sheikh Rehana, had the brittle and fraying pages meticulously transcribed and then translated from Bengali to English.
The two sisters had survived the 1975 attack on their home because they were away from the country. The lives of as many as 16 members of Mujib’s family, including that of cousin and newspaper editor Sheikh Fazlul Huq Moni who was probably given the task of getting the handwritten memoirs typed in his office, were snuffed out in one fell swoop. It was in Moni’s office drawer that the notebooks were discovered, testimony to a task left incomplete.
The book that has emerged from that discovery is a breathing, throbbing and consistently readable document that brings Bangabandhu’s vision alive for all those that are interested in post-colonial south Asian history.
Among many other things, the book records the challenges and uncertainties of the incipient movement for the creation of Pakistan in the early 1940s. Mujib was at the time a budding student activist under the tutelage of his political guru Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, a successful barrister in Calcutta.
The Unfinished Memoirs then goes on to trace the painful dynamics of the Partition, the mounting disillusionment of the people of the eastern wing of Pakistan with the authorities in the west, the formation of the Awami League (in 1949) in response to the Muslim League’s growing alienation, and the concerted movement against the imposition of Urdu as the state language, which eventually sowed the seeds of the liberation struggle.
It is obvious from these pages that Mujib was a formidable writer. He wrote with great acuity and precision, mincing no words in describing events and people. That quality makes The Unfinished Memoirs an invaluable source of information and analyses from a man who staked his all to transform himself from an ordinary student activist to a leader of an entire nation.
If there is one lacuna in the book, it is with regard to Mujib’s take on Suhrawardy, a man he was clearly in awe of. Suhrawardy was a man of the world who believed in western-style democratic values and worked alongside Mahatma Gandhi to contain the damage caused by the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946.
However, besides being the spearhead of the Direct Action Day, at least in part, triggered the communal violence in Calcutta, he pushed Pakistan down the path of military expansion.
But those facets of Suhrawardy’s career were probably outside the purview of Mujib’s reminiscences, if not beyond his understanding. But Mujib’s abhorrence for the “arrogant” Liaquat Ali Khan is barely disguised. Much of the charm and utility of this book stems from the writer’s personalized, no-holds-barred approach to the historical events and personages that shaped his life and times and, of course, the fortunes of the nation that he carved out of the troubled subcontinent.