Tuesday, August 21, 2001

Ahmed Sofa LIVES!

"A Great Spirit passed last night, a mere mortal with no claims to immortality, no stakes attached to survive till eternity, nor any calculations worked out till infinity. A mere mortal, so that when he passed to his Heavenly abode, so that when we all said this is how he was destined to go, so that when we said MAY PEACE BE UPON HIM...... we did not really mean a DAMN thing !"

The news of Sofa Bhai's death on Saturday the 28th July came suddenly. For months there have been reports of the seesaw in his health, but each time around he seemed to have an uncanny knack to beat back whatever was ailing him. I remember meeting him at his Mymensingh Road flat, the first time he came out of hospital in early 1999. As ebullient as ever, he refused to acknowledge that he was in poor health, proof of which he ofcourse pathetically betrayed. All the while he sat in front of me, wheezing and coughing as he had another massive drag at his trademark Gold Leaf cigarette. Sofa Bhai was a chain smoker and probably smoked more that 40 cigarettes a day!

I did not feel it necessary to go and 'see his dead body' like many, and there were two specific reasons for that. Firstly as a practicing agnostic I refuse to attend these 'religious get-togethers' of friends and foes alike when somebody dies, neither do I participate in 'social necessities' of chelums or remembrance's of the dead. Secondly and most importantly, I want to remember Sofa Bhai ALIVE, so that when I sit to write this piece, I am reminded only of the wonderful and amusing times that I have had the privilege of spending with him. Also the part escapist in me hesitates to confront the reality that many around me have already accepted - 'Sofa Bhai dead and buried.'

"Let the incense and joss sticks burn, smelling of sweet nothing...seething in fragrance of a new beginning for the human heart is only selfish? The human kind does not cry for the one that dies nor does it weep, for one that has gone to sleep, it does so in despair, for a future that heals and repairs for a TOMORROW that hold's out, only as a mystery of how predictably unpredictable, only a moment can be in ones life...that is tied together in incessant moments of ones profanity for the mundane!"

I have had a life long fear of great men. This in part comes from the shock of the let downs that we in Bangladesh routinely encounter once we get close to 'larger that life' figures. My personal experience have been bitter, because 'intellectuals' as they are called by some, are among the most hypocritical two faced characters that one can have the pleasure of a meeting! Sofa Bhai for want of more colorful expression was an 'intellectual', atleast that was objectively one of the few kind things said about him - by those that held him in awe and reverence for all the right reasons. He was also among the greatest of our times. What however attracted me to him, was that he was also referred to as a 'pagol' or a mad man in private by 'many'. Interestingly it is the 'many' in our society that are today organizing all these grand discussions and symposiums following his death? Well that is something Sofa Bhai was destined for and hence no regret. The legacy of Ahmed Sofa is :one of our greatest free thinker. While lesser souls with lesser credibility make it everywhere in our media - Sofa Bhai was shunned, and for instance there is hardly any record of a TV talk show with him. The tragedy and irony of free thinkers is that they are discovered posthumously, after much damage has been done to them. The damage done to Sofa Bhai was immense. Our society has had no dearth of ill meaning vile people whom the uncompromising Sofa Bhai held in deep contempt - isolated and marginalised as he was, thanks to his non-conformist iconoclastic views.

"It is easy to plead forgiveness of the dead, one that has been humbled and unable to defend oneself. He will respond no more, much as you scums of the earth were unable to speak out, and for a mere pittance, you harmed, hurt and humiliated....... reduced to a semblance of a defeated being, marginalised him to a recluse, to repair, You tried so hard to play GOD as he lived, tried to bludgeon him to unwilling submission, an apology to him is a luxury, that you do not deserve ...Forgiveness .... perhaps ?"

It was back in 1987 that I first met Sofa Bhai at a painting exhibition of S.M.Sultan (Lal Miah). It is because of Sofa Bhai's unending efforts that Sultan received some kind of media attention in Bangladesh - indeed the whole world. Sofa Bhai was available all the time at the exhibition and he took pain to explain Sultan's work to almost anybody who walked in. His was polite and sincere to a fault, and for the young Sultan enthusiast gathered at the Goethe Institute in Dhanmondi at the time, a great source of inspiration. The hour I spent listening to him as he guided us from one painting to the other is an experience I will never forget. His depth and knowledge about the arts was simply phenomenal.

That was it - and I never made any attempt to contact Sofa Bhai.

In 1997 when my album 'Prapto Boyeshker Nishiddho' was released and I was making a list of 'important people' that I had planned on sending complimentary copies, my poet friend Saifullah Mahmud Dulal suggested that I send one to Sofa Bhai - 'as he loves music'. I was hesitant. In the back of mind was the stereo typed intellectual who hated any 'western form of music' and made mincemeat in the local press about our improprieties, and therefore asked Dulal if it would be the proper thing, to send him a copy. Dulal assured me that there was no harm and he volunteered to hand over the tape to Sofa Bhai.

A week later I received a call at home from somebody very politely asking me if the musician Maqsoodul Haque was at home? (shilpi Maqsoodul Haque shaheb kee baritay acchen?) I was taken aback for it is the first and perhaps the only time in my life, that anybody had addressed me as 'shilpi'! Thinking that this was a crank call, I went on the defensive and wanted to know who was calling. I was pleasantly surprised that it was Sofa Bhai. A full half-hour was spent talking to him and I was convinced that he has had more than just a cursory 'listen in' to my album. He referred to several songs and musical scores, and was critical about others, that I too was not happy with. He asked me to come over one day so that we may spend more time talking about music and that he had couple of good poems that I could feel free to put to music and sing. Somehow I could not come around to go and visit him.

Almost a year later, I had popped in one evening to say hello to my now estranged Bhaijan (elder brother) the poet Farhad Mazhar - who was all dressed and ready to go 'somewhere very important'. He asked me to tag along. Going anywhere with Bhaijan was a ofcourse a sheer pleasure and without any further question I followed him. It was not until I boarded the micro-bus with him had I any clue where we were going. I was filled with great joy when he said that 'Sofa Bhai has summoned him urgently for a very important reason' and that's where we were headed. From Bhaijan I learnt a lot more about Sofa Bhai, and I remember one sentence that buzzed me. 'No poet, litterateur or artist in this country can be complete without having spent some time with Sofa Bhai'. As an after thought he also suggested that I need Sofa Bhai's 'ashirbaad' or blessings. Bhaijan could never ever have been more correct.

Noticing my waist length hair those days (as was Bhaijan's) it was typical of Sofa Bhai to enquire as he greeted us in, if I was on the same 'Baul trip' as Farhad Mazhar! I said 'yes ofcourse' and what followed consequently was two hours spent in his company chatting over cups of tea and cigarettes. Everything from the state of the politics in Bangladesh, writing censorship, Islam and Buddhism, West Bengal's patronizing attitude - and when Bhaijan dropped a hint about myAssamese origin - the freedom struggle of the Assamese people came up and he emphasized how important- if it was only even for a handful of us to support their struggle for emancipation from India's subjugation. I was impressed as to how much he knew about Assam and its people - both historically and socio-politically.

Two weeks later I was back at Sofa Bhai's place in Mymensingh road just after lunch and what I witnessed was a most perplexing yet amusing 'ritual' he indulged in. Bare bodied and with only a lungi on, up in his roof garden, there he was with a tin full of moori or puffed rice, feeding his friends the crow!

I learnt later that this he did almost routinely and the neighborhood had to endure the cacophony of hundreds of crows that assembled waiting for Sofa Bhai to throw in his handfuls. In the middle of feeding he commented that there were similarities between the character of crows and that of artists in Bangladesh! I was in for a rude shock and wanted to know what he meant?

'Now look at those crows fighting among themselves over just a few morsels of moori. Some may get a few, yet the others may not. I can never say for certain that I have been able to satisfy all the crows, all the time. When you see 'them crows' fighting, one wonders - whether crows have any compassion at all? Yet try and shoot down a crow and see what happens. Thousands of 'them' (unara!) will assemble and blacken the sky - and their 'ka ka' crowing will not permit you to leave the house. If you did, you will be pecked like you must have seen in Alfred Hitchcock's BIRDS'.

But what had this got to do with characters of artist - I asked?

'Well for one - all you artist will kill each other over the share of what is called 'market' - do everything to keep out other artist from competing, indulge in nasty politics and make personal attack. Yet when an artist dies - it is only natural for thousands of artist to show up at his funeral and make a big tamasha of how much they loved you, and how sorely they miss you' - he laughed aloud, although I could not help but detect the tinge of poignancy in his voice and the ironic manner in saying what he did.

It was a big learning process for me - but Sofa Bhai was also telling me in not so many words the bitterness in his life, and the paltry recognition that the system would give him despite his Herculean effort in speaking, writing, living and standing by his commitments. I remember leaving his house deep in thoughts and considerably troubled.

"Lest you be termed a Godless being play along dear humankind, for your society has a penchant for rituals, pray along for the dead, thanks and thrive on your living death for consolence in empty words, and come on the TV, write out your OBITUARY and bore people to death with oft repeated monologues harp upon the lingering nostalgia of get-togethers of friends, relatives, enemies and progenies, in silly ceremonies of remembrance's, which all of you will shortly forget !"

A few months later it was at Obeid Jaigirdars house that I ran into Sofa Bhai. This time around other that cigarettes we had chilled beer for company and what followed was a monologue by Sofa Bhai that continued for several hours. When Sofa Bhai spoke it was usually in a soft yet firm tone, full of anecdotes and similes and it was very difficult to keep up given the depth and wide spectrum of his knowledge base. He exuded the image of a superior being and he definitely was one, despite his simplistic façade that more than often spoke volumes for his child like disposition. He knew his greatness and displayed it blatantly, which might have ruffled a lot of feathers, but what I felt was the right thing he always did. This was in the end of 1998

Barely a fortnight after this one fine morning I was awaken by an anxious call from Bhaijan asking me to come over to his house immediately, because 'Sofa Bhai is very troubled and wants a decision'. Bhaijan wanted to share this with me - and without further delay I ended up at his house in Shyamoli. Sofa Bhai apparently had a heavy show down with a section of Awami League 'intellectuals and cultural activist' a few days back, and told Bhaijan point blank that 'the time has come to take side or perish'. He suggested that a body of alternative thinkers, cultural activist and other like minded people, should 'immediately and openly join the BNP'. To that end Sofa Bhai instructed Bhaijan to set up a meeting with Khaleda Zia and that all of us (including me) should go and meet her!

While I could not help overlook how distraught Sofa Bhai must have been when he mentioned this to Bhaijan, I could not seem to agree with his proposal i.e. of joining the BNP. I hit the ceiling when I heard this and one heated moment reminded Bhaijan that it was the BNP that had imprisoned him (the only time in his life) for standing firmly behind the Ansar rebellion in 1995, and for all practical purpose I could not accept this, insisting that only an apolitical forum will ensure our credibility with the people of Bangladesh, no matter how difficult times become.

Because this concerned Sofa Bhai, Bhaijan was in two minds - and to further emphasize my point I told him, 'I refuse to meet Khaleda Zia, in protest of the wrongs she has done by imprisoning you Bhaijan'. The matter fizzled out - but how Bhaijan handled this delicate issue with Sofa Bhai is still not known to me. Suffice to say it was not easy.

"Some amongst you, will ofcourse bend twice over in tears in an apology to the dead !! It is easy to plead forgiveness of the dead, one that has been humbled and unable to defend oneself."

It was in the winter of 1998 -1999 that our friend Lamia Karim came to Bangladesh for research in Anthropology, that would lead on to her Phd from Rice University in the US. As part of her research she had spent considerable amount of time with Sofa Bhai and Bhaijan, and she was also doing some guest lecturing in University's campuses to present her paper. Lamia called me one afternoon asking me to 'make sure' that I come to one of her lectures in an NGO in Dhamnmodi the next evening. She was troubled. It seems there would 'hostile reception' accorded to her from some petty academicians - and she was wary about one particular female known to be highly obnoxious. She needed 'friends and faces I know' around. This was no SOS call from Lamia, This was what I would learn later is to the level of 'crow fighting' our academicians stoop to - to deny an entry into our campuses anyone they feared, while we knew all along that Lamia was not even looking for a placement in any University in Bangladesh!

Lamia was in for a rough ride when she was half way through her presentation and it all started as to why she had not 'delivered her lecture in Bengalee?' The obnoxious female was fuming HATE. From that point onward it spiraled out to abject 'bitchiness' if we may, and all us friends joined in hammering out a heated response. Sofa Bhai ambled in late that evening - but from the moment he entered, he was following the debate with considerable interest, his eyes cocked with the words 'hmm, hmm' interspersed, which indicated that he was getting angrier by the minutes! Seated next to me, I suddenly heard him ask me quite loudly in Urdu (of all languages!) if I had a match (aap ka pas match hai bhaisaheb?) I politely told Sofa Bhai that smoking was not permitted inside the hall - to which he replied 'I only asked you for a match - now do you, or don't you have one?'

I fumbled and from deep inside my pocket retrieved a match box - which he proceeded to make a 'chikh chikh' noise up , threw into the centre of the large table and said very rudely 'eibar amee agoon dhorabo' (this time I will light a fire!).

He did - veritable fiery oratory - and for the next fifteen minutes or so what followed was a intense delivery on anthropology and some interesting personal attacks carried out with devastating flair and intellect that was so typical of him. His anthropological discourse into the word 'khanki' (the well meaning ladies in khanka sharifs who looked after women and children that went for pilgrimage) and 'magi' (women in colloquial Bengalee) as opposed to the derogatory word it has become today - had us flushed with heat behind our ears! Lamia who was half in tears earlier, now had a dazzling smile on her face - and it was all thanks to Sofa Bhai's very timely thought and mind provoking intervention.

It was towards the wee end that I understood the exact reason for Lamia's antagonist to be so hostile. It seems she had spent several years in Europe, yet failed to receive her own Phd that was troubling her so much - although she had the comfort of a University job? Sofa Bhai knew about this background, and as he very amusingly put it in the end ' Lamia, why do need a Phd degree - many are getting jobs in Universities in Bangladesh without one anyway. What's the big deal about a Phd - other than the fact the people will know how few books you have read in your life? After all how many books do you need to read before you get your Phd twenty, maybe thirty at best '.

Lamia's day was complete . Her 'friends' were there - and she or non-of us could think of a greater friend than Sofa Bhai.

"The Great Spirit passed, he had no need to shine you a LIGHT much as he tried on YOUR darkness……..as he came, as he lived as he left. Alas a great spirit passed ..... last night."

Quotes from Mac's 1994 poem AN OBITUARY, dedicated to S.M.Sultan