It has been more than three decades since I drifted, rather unobtrusively, into the field of journalism. And I have stayed there. I will confess that many have been the moments when I have considered the idea of moving away from it, but there is that old bug of writing which keeps coming in the way. Writing, if you must know, is what many people become captive to. You can safely count me among them.
The idea of writing is something that was thrown my way back when I was in high school in the late 1960s by an excellent teacher who taught me English language and literature. The first time he read one of my essays, one he had assigned the class, he looked happy. Stick to writing in future, he told me. I have never forgotten the advice. Allahyar Malik was the man who sowed the seeds in my young mind. Writing is what I do, and yet I know that writing is a never-ending process of learning.
On a day in 1980, as I recall, gratitude welled up in me for Afsan Chowdhury. Afsan Bhai was then on the management of a weekly journal, Sunday Star, here in Dhaka. I walked over to his office, gave him a little piece on the Palestine issue. The next week, it was in the magazine.
Afsan Bhai gave me the break I needed. That article was the first ever write-up from me that saw the light of day. At Dhaka University, where I expected to do well and join the department of English eventually as a teacher (that plan did not work out, for reasons that I have never been able to fathom), it was again my teachers who seemed to be delighted with what I wrote, either as class assignments or as contributions to such departmental journals as Form.
In my second year honors, I contributed a small write-up to Form on the fiction of Raja Rao. When it appeared in the journal, my teacher Razia Khan Ameen walked up to me --- and I was in conversation with my classmates in the department corridor --- to tell me how much she had appreciated it. Coming from as fastidious an academic as Professor Ameen, it was a huge boost for me.
Writing, you see, often gets into your system, into your blood stream as it were. When the first editorial I wrote for the very first newspaper I worked for --- it was the New Nation, back in late 1983 --- appeared in print, I went through sheer childlike pleasure showing it to my father. He was happy. He was happier when my first article, with my byline, appeared on the editorial page of the New Nation.
Soon I began writing a column, which I called 'Through Blinking Eyes'. And, yes, I did ruffle some feathers among readers, one of whom seemed to be waiting perennially for the column to appear every week so he could pounce on me. His taunt is what I recall. The column, he wrote in a letter to the editor, should be called 'Through Blinkered Eyes'. I was young. I was restless. I was furious. But then Waheedul Haque, forever my guru in journalism, spoke to me of the necessity for a journalist to develop a thick skin. I took his advice.
My writing career was threatened with obliteration, if I may use that term, when I went off to London in the late 1990s as Minister Press at the Bangladesh High Commission. The rules do not permit you to write for the media if you are in government service. For the first three months in London, I did not write. And I did not like the idea of not being allowed to write. I wrote to the secretary, ministry of information, asking for government permission to write for the newspapers back home. He did not respond. I wrote again.
Silence again. I wrote to him a third time. Still no response. I was beginning to understand how bureaucracy works, or does not work. At the end of my third month in London, I came to Dhaka on a week's visit to see my mother and my siblings. At a point, I went to Ganobhavan to see Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, indeed to ask her if I could resume writing despite my official position. Miracles never cease. The moment I found myself in her presence, she asked me why I had stopped writing! I explained. She told me to begin writing again. For the remaining period of my diplomatic stint, I wrote for Dhaka Courier, the Independent and the Bangladesh Observer. I was happy.
To be sure, writing is a liberating feeling. Something of the ego comes in when you write. But more than that it is the thought that you just might be giving expression to what many others may be thinking of on a particular issue which is often the engine that drives you. Of course, you cannot please everyone. There are the stones and the brickbats which come flying at you. And if you take into account those readers who have no qualms in hitting you below the belt (despite their seeming sophistication or education), you know how very important it is to keep your cool.
And you need to keep your cool when some editors you work with somehow fall below your expectations. I have worked with one who did not feel comfortable with my use of the honorific 'Bangabandhu' before 'Sheikh Mujibur Rahman'. These days, on television talk shows, I spot him resort to 'Bangabandhu' without fail. Another editor once took exception to my article, a tribute, to a friend who had died and who in life had been a personality in the public domain. Articles of a personal nature, he told me, were to be discouraged. Fine. Subsequently, though, in that very newspaper, articles of a personal nature --- and very many of them --- were published. I do not think I saw this editor take exception to them.
A career in writing, you see, sometimes brings you in touch with hypocrisy. Your worries thicken when you realize that some of those above you in rank or designation do not read much, hardly ever write, do not have the urbanity you expect from them. Sheer medieval arrogance keeps them going.
For myself, it is writing that has kept me going. Add to that a habit of reading. Wait for the rains to descend on your little thatched hut in your ancient village. That is one moment when reading makes a pass at you. And writing seduces you into temptations of the liberating kind.
The writer is Editor-in-Charge,
The Asian Age
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