The baby at 32 Dhanmondi - Syed Badrul Ahsan

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Published on October 19, 2019
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He was the baby of the family, the youngest of the five children of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Begum Fazilatunnessa Mujib. When he was born in October 1964, his father - the future Father of the Bengali Nation - named him Russell, after the reputed British philosopher Bertrand Russell. It was Bangabandhu’s acute sense of history which went into the naming, or call it christening, of his youngest child. Bangabandhu loved the philosopher and his work. In his baby son, he sought to instill the sense of purpose which had defined Bertrand Russell in his times.

For those of us who recall that little boy today on his birthday, it is those flashes of his innocence which pass before us. On his tricycle, he played at home at 32 Dhanmondi with not a care in the world. There were all the important men and women, along with the multitudes, coming into the famous house and then leaving it. The baby Russell must have been intrigued and yet it is fair to say he was not of an age that could comprehend the history his father was making in those tumultuous times in the story of this country. His tricycle was all. And with that the little bag of books he carried to school every day.

And yet we must not forget the cruel reality of the life Russell lived in the few years, less than eleven, he inhabited the earth. It was his mother and his siblings in whose company he found warmth, for his father was away much of the time, a prisoner of a cruel dispensation we know was a militaristic state. Bangabandhu went off to the loneliness of prison, the eternal rebel that he was, when his baby son was yet to be two years of age. It was May 1966 and close to three years would go by before he could take Russell in his arms again.

For Russell, the repeated absences of his father were part of life. Yet he was too young to comprehend life in its full meaning, for he remained the little boy every time Bangabandhu went to jail and every time he emerged free of it. At the time of his birth, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the yet-to-be Bangabandhu, was busy campaigning for Fatima Jinnah to defeat Ayub Khan at the presidential elections. He was having a rough time of it, for the regime made sure that the firebrand Bengali politician did not stay long enough outside prison to overturn the apple cart it had cobbled into shape.

If Russell did not quite know of the politics his father was involved in --- and he certainly did not --- he knew to whom he could turn for love and comfort. It was his family, a typical middle class Bengali ambience at home. His mother was his strength. His brothers and his sisters were his support. In their loneliness, through the persecution exercised by the regime on the family, through the inability of friends and relatives to commiserate, for fear of the regime, with Begum Mujib and her children, the spouse and sons and daughters of the Father of the Nation stayed together. Russell was part of that steely union.

The little boy moved from place to place with his mother and the family once Bangabandhu was abducted by Pakistan and commandeered out of a tragedy-driven Bangladesh in March 1971. Fear must have gripped Russell in those days of murder and mayhem in the country. He must have watched his father, in the hail of bombardment and tracer fire, being taken away once again. A little boy does not understand politics, but a little boy surely understands trauma. None of us knew in 1971 if Bangabandhu would return to us alive. When he did come home, free of the jaws of death, how did he look at the baby Russell? With what love he must have lifted him in his arms and hugged and kissed him!

All of this is a tale that has mingled into fleeting time. The old images of Russell frolicking on the bed, with Bangabandhu stretched out in relaxation, with a young Sheikh Hasina and her baby son occupying part of the bed, with a homely Begum Mujib patently in the image of a happy Bengali housewife, are what we recall today. The father clasping the son in a loving embrace, a very Bengali image, is the poetry we weave all these years after tragedy snuffed the life out of them, out of Bangladesh’s most illustrious family. We remember too an excited Russell running around in Japan, where Bangabandhu had travelled on a state visit. With his sibling Rehana, he marvelled at the cherry blossoms. And then he held his father’s hands even as the great man discoursed on statecraft with his peers. He ran around happily amidst the flowers, innocence driving the energy in his young being.

Russell was our own, the baby brother we in this land have loved through the years. When those men of satanic intent murdered his family and then took his life, part of us died with him. And yet he lives --- and we live with him, with everyone who fell silent at 32 Dhanmondi in those sinister pre-dawn hours when bloody treason reigned supreme.

(Sheikh Russell, youngest child of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was born on 18 October 1964 and murdered on 15 August 1975).