It was on a December day that I first met him. There was something of the stern-looking about him as he asked me if I could write an editorial in the half hour ahead. I said I could. It was something I should not have said, for there was the distinct possibility that I would fail to meet the deadline. Besides, I had never before written an editorial. In the event, though, the gods came in to help. The editorial was ready in fifteen minutes. Waheedul Haque smiled, gave me a cup of tea and then took me to Barrister Mainul Hosein. I walked out with an appointment letter in my hand, thrilled that I was officially a journalist.
In the times after that exciting moment in my life, I travelled all across this city with Waheed Bhai, knowing all that I yet did not know, imagining everything that I had not imagined till that point in time. On a rickshaw taking us toward Shahbagh one autumn evening, he spoke about the universe. We are all concerned, said he, about the minuscule dots we are in this cosmic pattern of things. But doesn't it interest you to imagine that the universe could have begun somewhere up there and then narrowed itself all the way till it took your shape and dimension? I wondered, for what Waheed Bhai had just told me made me, made every individual, the centre of the universe. That was the way he thought. And even as ideas took shape in him, he did not let go of the yearnings of his soul. Music was a fundamental part of his soul. Those rickshaw rides were all too often punctuated by the songs he sang all the way, the ragas he tried out on sizzling afternoons.
It was a particular moment in national history that I shared with Waheed Bhai. As the democratic movement against the Ershad regime gathered pace, Waheed Bhai and I found ourselves inexorably drawn to the public rallies, became part of the human sea which gathered to hear the politicians of the fifteen-party alliance at Manik Mia Avenue. We walked through police tear gas shells on Bangabandhu Avenue. There was a song he sang with profundity in those days. Ekhono galo na andhar / ekhono roilo baadha. It was forever the dark he railed against. If in 1961, the battle against the Ayub Khan martial law regime came in the shape of Chhayanaut and the Tagore centenary celebrations, in 1971 it was as an organizer of the Liberation War that Waheedul Haque upheld the dignity of this country. He was a full-blooded Bengali, a substantive believer in secularism and would brook no compromise on the issue of Bengali nationalism. I will not forget the withering manner in which he re-emphasised national history for a visitor who had just referred to the 1971 war as days of trouble --- gondogoler deenguli. Waheed Bhai stopped writing, looked the man in the eye, and quietly told him that there had been a war of national liberation in 1971. Where was the gondogol?
Idealism for Waheedul Haque was all. He was a fervent believer in socialism. He once told a visitor, who wondered if communism would at all define life for us in the future, that being a communist required the kind of sacrifice and dedication none of us had at that stage in our lives. What was important, therefore, in the meantime was for us to focus on rebuilding secular nationalism, on beating back the medieval forces that had seized the country in 1975. He was hugely enthused when Mikhail Gorbachev rose to the top in the Soviet Union in 1985. For once in a long time, he mused, here was a young, decisive and urbane communist leader ready to take on the likes of Ronald Reagan. When Gorbachev collapsed along with the Soviet Union, he was disappointed, as were so many of us.
Waheed Bhai's greatness lay in his ability to straddle both the political and the cultural. On a visit to Bangabandhu's residence in late 1989 (it had not yet turned into a museum), he and I shared 'gur' and 'muri' and tea with Sheikh Hasina even as he dispensed words of wisdom to the young leader of the Awami League. At around the same time, on another day, when a popular Rabindrasangeet artiste came up to him and asked him if he watched her perform on television, he curtly told her that the goal of Tagore music was not the creation of celebrities. And that was that. There was this fastidiousness about him when it came to music, to journalistic writing. It was he who inspired me into listening to Subinoy Roy when he learned that Sagar Sen was all I knew about Rabindrasangeet. The leftist that he was, he hardly ever agreed with the opinions of The Economist. But he did enlighten me on the superior quality of the editorials produced by the journal. I have never missed reading The Economist since.
Waheedul Haque was a troubadour who went discovering music, and disseminating it, in the hamlets and villages of Bengal. Along the way, he came across the various manifestations of heritage. The question of roots was a cardinal point of his social beliefs. His knowledge of herbs and plants and trees was prodigious. He once gave me a book which detailed nearly every kind of medicinal herb and plant found in Bangladesh. On a walk through Ramna Park and Suhrawardy Udyan, he named all the trees, before pointing out their scientific terms and then proceeded to tell me about their historical background. He was always the teacher, forever the guru from whom flowed an eternity of knowledge. At his home, in Asadgate, I discovered the meek child that he was before his mother. He was close to being sixty, but that was no reason for his waiting, worried mother not to reprimand him for coming back home late. He stayed quiet, head bowed in contrition.
Our paths diverged after that seven-year association at the New Nation. I met him quite a few times at the old office of The Daily Star, usually when I came home from London (where I was serving a stint at the Bangladesh High Commission). We shared stories. He was amused at the tales I related. Come back soon, he said, and we will have the good old days again.
Now he is gone, for good. The good old days will never be, not for me, not for the thousands who learned about life, about the stars in the heavens, from him. He has gone back into the womb of creation.
(Waheedul Haque --- Tagore exponent, melody maker, journalist, polymath --- passed away on 27 January 2007)
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