A conversation on Syed Najmuddin Hashim

Syed Badrul AhsanSyed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 18 July 2022, 04:24 PM
Updated : 18 July 2022, 04:24 PM

Memories of Syed Najmuddin Hashim come alive today. It was on Jul 18, 1999 that the life went out of him. In London, as the news of his passing reached me, it was a spontaneous but sad journey back into the past, one I shared with Hashim Bhai, that the heart in me went back to.

Syed Najmuddin Hashim was among the nation's intellectual aristocrats, in every sense of the meaning. His education at Calcutta's Presidency College was proof of the glory that beckoned him. His erudition, his grasp of literature and his hold on political history remain unmatched. And with that comes his sense of humour, the wit which was a natural accompaniment to his personality. In literary terms, his was a rounded character.

Hashim Bhai and I travelled to Kathmandu for a South Asian media seminar in May 1994. It was a visit that gave me not only my very first opportunity to interact with fellow media practitioners from South Asia but also, and more importantly, a precious chance to get properly acquainted with Hashim Bhai. What left me surprised was the simplicity and humility that defined the Hashim character.

I was in the company of a scholar, a man of letters, a diplomat I had heard so much about. His friends, eminent men from India and Pakistan, were people he took pleasure in introducing me to. I listened to their conversations, to their good-natured banter, marvelling at the sheer eloquence which underscored their thoughts. Each of them had been a participant in the making of history.

In the course of the media seminar, I made bold one day to ask Hashim bhai about the role he had played or may have played in Field Marshal Ayub Khan's autobiography 'Friends Not Masters'. I did that because I had heard many peddling the notion that Hashim Bhai had ghost-written the work. Syed Najmuddin Hashim was only too happy to relate the entire story to me as we lunched — just the two of us while the other delegates were off either on sight-seeing or to prayers — in a cosy restaurant in the Nepali capital.

As Hashim bhai put it, his superior at the ministry of information in Islamabad, Secretary Altaf Gauhar, one morning handed him a sheaf of papers he said was a chapter from the Ayub manuscript. Gauhar told Hashim bhai to read through it and see if everything was in order. Hashim bhai diligently went through the chapter, making, as was his wont, a good number of corrections. In short, he went into full-scale editing of the chapter.

The next morning, Altaf Gauhar was literally taken aback at Hashim bhai's editing. Indeed, he was afraid the President would be upset. And because he was troubled about the editing, he had Hashim bhai accompany him to the President's House in Rawalpindi in the evening. Ayub Khan was sitting on the lawn on what was a breezy spring day. Gauhar quietly handed him the Hashim-edited pages.

For his part, Hashim bhai was slightly worried about the possible reaction from the President, who glanced through the edited parts of the chapter and, without looking up, asked Gauhar who had done it.

Gauhar, not looking very happy, nervously informed Ayub Khan that it was Syed Najmuddin Hashim who had done the editing. It was at that point that Ayub looked up and looked at Hashim bhai. He asked him about his position in the ministry and Hashim bhai told him. "Good editing", said the President, to both Gauhar's and Hashim bhai's relief.

The President asked the information secretary to give Hashim another chapter for editing. As we finished our meal and waited for our coffee in that Kathmandu restaurant, Hashim bhai told me that editing those two chapters for 'Friends Not Masters' had been all the contribution, if indeed it was a contribution, he had made to the book.

Not long after Kathmandu, it was to Delhi that Syed Najmuddin Hashim and I travelled, to be part of a media conference organised by the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung in the mid-1990s. I was still young and still a trifle shy to be able to make my presence felt at such gatherings of men and women more experienced and qualified than I.

At one of those plenary sessions, Hashim bhai asked me to say something and demonstrate to the participants from other South Asian nations that we in Bangladesh too had a point of view on how the media should go about doing business. I did as I was told. Hashim bhai had boosted my self-confidence to no end.

On that visit, Hashim bhai and I decided to have some ice cream at Nirula's and so off we went to that place. Hashim bhai stood waiting in a corner and asked me to go and get two ice cream cones for ourselves. At the counter, the man wanted to know what flavour we wanted. Back I went to Hashim bhai.

Well, he said, ask for orange. I did as I was told, only to find that our problem was not yet over. What nature of orange, asked that man. Any kind, I said in exasperation. Finally the man obliged. As we made our way out of Nirula's, ice cream in hand, Hashim bhai muttered good-naturedly, 'See how difficult it is sometimes to have an ice cream, even when you pay for it?'

On that visit, it was my good fortune to meet the veteran Indian journalist Nikhil Chakravartty and his wife Renu. On a chilly November evening, as South Asian journalists gathered at a dinner in Delhi, Chakravartty spoke to me and Hashim bhai of Bangabandhu, of how close they had been in the times before Partition and of how they met, a quarter century later, in a free Bangladesh in January 1972.

It was Hashim bhai who gave me an opening to the weekly Dialogue (now defunct) where he was part of a team that included Saiful Bari and Mahbubul Alam. Hashim bhai asked me to write a weekly column for Dialogue. And once I had written the first article, in longhand, I took it to him. I was pretty anxious as to what his feedback might be. To my surprise, he did not read it but called the typist and asked her to have the article typed out for that week's issue.

"Don't you think you should see if the write-up is okay?" To my question, he had a surprising response that left me humbled. "Your articles do not need any editing", he told me.

Many were the anecdotes Hashim bhai related to me about his career and his interaction with people. His books, which he was generous enough to give me copies of — 'Bondishala Pakistan', 'Oshleshar Rakkhoshi Belae', 'Shamuddata Doibo Durbipaake' — are testimony to the vast intellectual landscape he traversed even as he pursued a career in the civil service.

When he returned to Bangladesh from Pakistan, where he had been in a camp with other Bengalis following Pakistan's defeat in war in 1971, he went to see Bangabandhu at Ganobhaban. The Father of the Nation was thrilled to see him back and instructed him to immediately take charge as director general of external publicity.

As he related the story to me, Hashim bhai remarked on the simplicity which was so much a part of Bangabandhu's nature. When Hashim bhai told Bangabandhu that his instructions were formally needed for him to take up his new assignment, the Father of the Nation scribbled a sentence on a piece of paper purporting to Hashim's appointment and told him to take it to the ministry.

When Hashim bhai turned up at the ministry the next day, everyone told him that a proper, meaning official announcement under the rules about the appointment would be necessary and that that slip of paper would not do. Hashim bhai went back to Bangabandhu, told him what he had been told at the ministry.

It was then that the Father of the Nation called one of his officers and ordered him to apply the official procedure in ensuring that Syed Najmuddin Hashim took charge of external publicity without delay.

Hashim bhai served with distinction as Bangladesh's ambassador to Burma (now Myanmar) and the Soviet Union. His role as minister for information in the Ershad regime certainly raised eyebrows, but he made sure that the impression did not grow of his being identified with the politics of the military ruler. Unlike so many others, Hashim came away from the regime unscathed. He was free of taint.

Syed Najmuddin Hashim introduced me to our eminent writer ShawkatOsman. In the company of both these intellectual powerhouses it was many precious moments of enlightenment I spent. To this day, though, the regret which has never quite left me is that I met them rather late in the day.

By the time I returned home after my assignment in London in March 2000, Shawkat Osman and Syed Najmuddin Hashim had both taken leave of life.

And I have passed deeper into my sixties, have watched the clouds float across the heavens at dusk and the birds fly home to their nests in silence.

(Syed Najmuddin Hashim — scholar, writer, diplomat, aesthete — was born on Jun 1, 1925 and died on Jul 18, 1999)

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher