'I always try to tell the truth'

I believe it is important to read a book line by line: Akbar Ali Khan

Akbar Ali Khan was born in 1944. He studied history at Dhaka University and economics at Queens University in Canada. His PhD research was in economics too. Alongside his professional career as a civil servant, he was a teacher too. He retired as cabinet secretary. After that he taught at two universities. He was an advisor to the caretaker government, and resigned when obstructed in carrying out his duties. After retirement, he emerged as a fulltime author. His books cover a wide range of subjects -- economics, history, sociology, literature -- and have a wide and avid readership. He recently spoke on a wide range of issues during an interview with the editor of Prothom Alo, Matiur Rahman.

Q :

Your latest autobiographical book, Purano Shei Diner Kotha, was published in February. Within just two months it has gone into its fifth edition. What makes it so popular among the readers?

This caught me by surprise too because I thought there wouldn't be any readers for this book. A large part of this book focuses on my childhood and my family history. I went into great detail narrating about that remote village Rasullabad and the origins of my family there. I really thought this would not win readers.

The reason why I wrote about all this is that my daughter Nehreen Khan was very eager that I write about our family history. My daughter has passed away. I have written in rather detail about my family history in her memory. It is a mystery why this drew in the readers. Actually, I think readers look for the truth. Perhaps they felt I didn't make up anything, I was honest in my narrative.

Q :

You do not tell untruths.

Perhaps it would not be completely accurate to say that I haven't told untruths. When you write an autobiography, there are many things you cannot write. Let me give an example of hypocrisy. Majid saheb was our director at the Civil Service Academy in Lahore. I have written about him in this book. My batch mates didn't know a lot of things about him. My batch mate Mohiuddin Ahmed (freedom fighter who was in the foreign service), told me, "I learnt a lot of new things about Majid saheb from your book." I asked, "What did you learn?" He said, "You said that he was the district magistrate in Rajshahi and Mymensingh. Ayub Khan did not like him and so he was never made secretary." I said that was true. Mohiuddin Ahmed went on, "I was with you, but I didn't know all this." I said that this was not all there was to know about Majid saheb. I held myself back from writing certain things about him, such as it was when he was district magistrate that the Tebhaga peasant movement leader Ila Mitra was arrested.

Akbar Ali Khan

Q :

In Chapainawabganj, Rajshahi...

Yes, in Chapainawabganj. The main man behind the brutal attack on Ila Mitra was Majid saheb. It was at the orders of the district magistrate that the attack was launched on Ila Mitra.

Majid saheb disliked me. He disliked Bengalis. He would poke fun at me, "Your Urdu pronunciation is weird. You speak Urdu like the Mymensingh people." I asked, "How was that?" He said, "The Mymensingh people never say 'Jinnah', they say 'Jena'. They call 'Jinnah Park' 'Jena Park'. I simply shrugged, "What to do, sir?"

I didn't write all this in my book. I felt that the man, after all, was a gentleman on the whole, quite affectionate. How much could I write about him? There are many other people whom I have refrained from writing about. That is a bit of hypocrisy, I feel. Perhaps I should have torn off their masks of civility. But I couldn't.

Q :

I have noted you have been quite harsh in narrative about your contemporaries and your friends.

No, actually I just have written what I feel. Perhaps I should have been much harsher in certain places. But I couldn't be so heartless.

Q :

It was touching to hear about your daughter and that it was her eagerness that you delved into the heritage of your family. In fact, I feel a part of the interest in this book was created by your narrative that Bamun Khan's Brahmin blood flowed in your veins. In our country no one really explores so far back in their genealogy in their autobiographies, so far back as 200 years.

Perhaps I have been successful in doing what my daughter wanted. Perhaps that's why the book has been rather well received.

Q :

It's not just about popularity. You have steadily been collecting all this information down the years. Perhaps you got some help from others. You had to travel home and abroad due to your career in the administration, but you continued this work. This couldn't have been easy.

If I had been prepared from beforehand to write this, then I would have been able to gather much more information. By the time I took the decision to write this, most of my elders had already passed away. I only managed to contact two persons who were over 90 years old. I would surely have found more details if I could have met others beforehand.

Q :

You mentioned in the book that you took up the task of this book after you were 50 years old. It's quite normal that things don't always happen at the right time. But by then you had acquired a lot of experience, knowledge, had read a lot of books and then you ventured on writing this book.

Other than my PhD thesis, I wrote nothing in my youth.

Q :

In 'Purano shei diner kotha', you wrote that you took 30, 40 and even nearly 50 years in researching and thinking about certain topics and then only would take up writing a book. You took 15 to 16 years in writing a book, never writing instantaneously. And how varied your interests are, how hard you toil...

In retrospect I may think I didn't do well in writing all this. Perhaps what I have written has been relatively light. If I focused on just one area, perhaps I could have written with more depth. But that is how I am. I don't enjoy reading the same type of books for long. I read one book about a certain subject, then I take up a book on a different issue. I like variety in my reading.

Then again, wherever I worked, I tried to learn the details of that job. For example, when I was in the water resources ministry, I did a lot of research on water resources. I did so much research that UNDP in New York gave me a consultancy to write two papers for them in water resources. I had the opportunity to present one of the papers at a UN Economical Social Council conference.

Q :

That paper was later published in the international research journal Natural Resource Forum.

This was published by the UN from England. Another article was published too. When I was training at the Public Administration Resource Training Centre, I researched governance and public administration. That later helped me in writing many books.

Q :

You have such a wide diversity of interests -- economics, politics, society, then again, Rabindranath Tagore, Jibananda Das, the spread of Islam in Bengal, the birth of Bangladesh -- and you have delved deep into everything...

There is so much more which I haven't been able to write about as yet. I don't know if I ever will be able to. Over time, my interest is caught by all sorts of issues. There are many more topics which I should have had an interest in. I never really studied the science subjects much. That is a weakness of mine. You studied science, but I did not though science was my additional subject in the entrance exam. I scored almost 70 per cent marks in that. My mother wanted me to study engineering. I could have easily taken up engineering, but I did not. Most areas of science remain unexplored to me. But I had to learn the methods of science, and work according to those methods.

Q :

You were weak in math. Is it true that you turned to your wife for help in your PhD work?

Yes, I was quite weak in math. My wife Hamim Khan helped me out when I was doing my PhD. She was a scientist. She had a first class degree in Physics from Dhaka University. But she couldn't complete her MSc because I had to go abroad for my PhD. She taught math at Sunbeams School for 20 years.

Q :

You have more plans in the pipeline. In this book you mentioned that you want to write a book about water resources. You want to write the history of Bangladesh. Then there is the second part of your autobiography. You have all of these in your plans. Have you begun any of these?

I have begun working on the history of Bangladesh.

Q :

You have already written a book about Bangladesh -- Discovery of Bangladesh.

Yes, I have. Then I have a book on the rise of Islam in Bangladesh, 'Success of Propagating Islam in Bengal, a Historical Analysis'.

Q :

We have the first part of your autobiography. When will we get the second part?

It will take a year or two to write the second part. There is so much that has happened in the 40 to 45 years after the end of the first part. This has to be written after I gather more information about all that, after I carry out some research. That will take me some time. After that I will be able to determine a publication date and other details.

Q :

Let me come back to that question -- you are very popular as a writer. Why do your books appeal so much to the readers? One of your books which we published is in its 17th edition now. Your books go into 5, 6, 9, 11 editions. These figures are a major yardstick of a writer's popularity. Your personal identity plays a role here. You have always been clear about your independent and non-partisan stance under various circumstances in the country. The people are aware of that and appreciate that. That is perhaps a reason for your popularity.

Perhaps. You are a reader, you will know better. But I have to repeat myself here. I feel that the readers in Bangladesh believe that I try my best to tell the truth. That is what they basically appreciate.

Q :

Even in the first section of your book 'Purano Shei Diner Kotha', you have been very frank about your family's identity, the social and economic standing of your family and relations. As a reader I would say you have been blunt and honest. But even when you have written about your friends and various inside stories of the administration, about the tensions within the government, even about your interaction with Abdus Samad Azad, you have clearly been very honest in your narration.

Let me add to that. If I have nothing of my own to say about any issue, I do not write about that. All my books are written from my own point of view. My comments may be acceptable to some and may not be, but that appeals to the reader. For instance, I am not an expert in Bangla literature. But my book, 'Chabikathir Khoje: Notun Aloke Jibananonder Bonolota Sen' caught the readers' interest because I tried to look at Jibananondo Das from a different angle.

Q :

If we look back over the past 20 years, from your career to your retirement, your role in the caretaker government, your resignation, your statements made at various times, your frank and independent views about the country's politics, economy, the society and the election system, all contribute to you popularity. What is your reaction to this?

I am grateful to the people for taking such interest in my views. I have retired from that sector now. It has become difficult for me to take part in television programmers because of my health. Secondly, the television authorities try to project every issue from their own viewpoint. I don't get a chance to express my own opinion there, that's why I have moved away from that.

But many people of civil society continue to present their views and that really makes me happy. Then again, there are members of civil society who make comments without doing adequate research on an issue. That damages the role of civil society. Those who participate in such areas need to be more careful, I feel.

Q :

Once a book is written, it remains there for posterity. We never know when we need to refer to any particular book. But the need is always there. Books have a far-reaching impact. But you have been so busy at home and abroad, involved in so much work. How did you do all this amidst your busy schedules? How did you get the time?

I really don't know. But I am very grateful that I have managed to do whatever I have done. Pray that I can do more.

Q :

What is the source of your immense capacity to work, your patience?

Reading books. I like reading books. When I read, all sorts of questions crop up in my mind. When I search for the answers to these questions, I write another book. It is because of my reading habit that I have spent my life in this manner.

Q :

You have written that you were interested in reading books since your childhood. There was a place where they sold old books near the livestock market around 10 miles from your home. You would buy books from there. Then you would take 10 taka from your mother and go to stay at your aunt's house to buy books from a bookshop there. You turned from a bookworm into a writer. That is your main identity now. How does it feel?

It feels very good. If I hadn't become a writer from a bookworm, I would have always had that regret of being unable to do so.

Q :

If we look at your books as a whole, the topics, the size, the number of pages and so many books in such a short span of time -- these will be textbooks in the future. These will be reference books for those in the administration, in economics, political and those working in various social areas. That is why we continue to pester you, why we want to publish your books.

I must thank you for that. It may not have been possible for me to write so many books if there wasn't a publishing house like Prothoma in the country. Had I been well and had more time, these books perhaps would have been more detailed. There is one particular issue where my writing has not been adequate, and that is about Bangladesh's judiciary. In my book, 'Abak Bangladesh: Bichitro Chhalanajale Rajniti', I began the chapter on Bangladesh's judiciary with a quote from Bangabandhu. He had said that Bangladesh's criminal cases begin with a lie and end with a lie. All of it is a lie.

The biggest weakness of Bangladesh's judiciary is there is no way to find out the truth. Further research would perhaps benefit the people.

You will be surprised to know that after reading this article of mine, a respected judge of the Supreme Court came to discuss the issue with me. He said, "You have written the truth. We sentence people to death, but we do not have the power to determine who is guilty and who is not. These orders are issued simply on the basis of law."

Q :

I myself am a book collector. I give books as gifts. Books remain forever. Your books will remain forever too. Books help in provoking thought, questions, ideas, to bring about change within people, to organise them, and in a broader sense, books play a role in bringing about change in the society and the state's perspectives, way of thinking. How do you view your own books?

I also buy good books whenever I find any. I don't get to read them all, but try to get the essence at least. I find it important to read a book line by line. The books I had collected in my earlier years, as a student, during the liberation war, are lost. Then due to my career, I would travel a lot between America, Canada and Bangladesh. A lot of books were lost then too. Even so, I have around 5000 or so books in my collection. You will be happy to know that I have donated those books to the BRAC library. They have accepted the books. I feel BRAC University will be a long standing university. I was extremely pleased that they accepted my books. Perhaps these will come to use of many researchers and writers here.

Q :

Could you elaborate on why books are so important and what impact books have? Why should people read?

People are more educated now than before, but even so, not everyone reads the same. There are a number of people who read, and they read mostly for research. But it is seen that other than those who research historical matters, no one really looks for old books. Only when economists grow old do they read old books on economy. Most old economists write books on the history of economic thought when they come to the end of their lives. They try to understand who thought about these issues in the past, what they thought and why they thought so. I think like economics, it is the same in the case of sociology and other subjects.

Q :

You were a student of history at Dhaka University and stayed at SM Hall. You were involved in the politics of Chhatra Union at Dhaka University, you were involved with the Communist Party, though not for long. Politics didn't go with your life, your family and so on. But we do note a left-leaning propensity throughout your life. You have integrity, you were active, you were hard working. But you wrote that there was a dilemma within you about the socialist ideology and your life. There was a sense of regret in your writing.

That is my lifelong regret. That is the only hypocrisy in my life. I believed in socialism. I still believe that the weaker people need to be helped. No community in the economy of the society should remain backward. But I failed to do enough for them. It is not just that I failed to do anything. But I could have done something, I thought -- what about my cigarettes, my books, my meals? These concerns kept me from joining socialist politics directly. My friends who directly got involved in socialist politics, like Shamsuzzoha Manik, went directly into the struggle. He could easily have become an officer in Pakistan civil service, but gave all of that up to join the struggle for socialism. Perhaps he was unable to do so, but he worked on that. That goes to his credit.

Q :

Shamsuzzoha couldn't form any organisation. But you did well by joining the administration and carrying out the state's administrative work with honesty (remaining honest is very important), formulating policies, coming to the assistance of people of the lower rung in society and helping them out of distress. All this is good work. This has benefitted people, the society. You may not have been able to bring about big change in state policy, but the changes you did bring about were not insignificant. These are certainly instances of success. You are a successful man.

I have been successful in certain areas, but not all. Perhaps I have made some impact in a few areas. But if changes are to be brought about in a true sense, then overall changes have to be made. Bangladesh has never seen any effort for such a holistic change.

Q :

You have been in the first government after independence of Bangladesh, in the next government, in all the governments. You have seen how far the governments actually wanted change and how far they have been successful. Your role will be assessed in that light. Where there is no call for any big change, no demand, why should you feel regretful? Why will you underestimate your contribution?

Perhaps this is a romanticism. I feel that Haider Akbar Khan Rono spent his entire life struggling for the emancipation of the people. I respect him. I envy his life. I couldn't be like that. I couldn't be like Shamsuzzoha or Rono.

Q :

But the books you have written, the truth you have investigated, the guidance you have given the people, will contribute to the building of a justice-based society in the future. It will have an immense contribution. They have not been able to do so. So why do you regret?

They have done their part, I have done mine. All sorts of inputs are required in building a nation. The inputs provided by Shamsuzzoha or Rono are required in our society. What I have done may also benefit the nation.

Q :

The leftists had less contribution to the type of work you have done, like study and research. We were mostly busy with regular political programmes, organisational work, meetings, processions and rallies.

Not just that. The weakness of our leftists is that everyone wants to be a Lenin. That is not possible. It is because of this weakness that the parties break up and split ever so often. If there are four workers in a party, they split and form two parties. Even now parties are splitting up. Everyone wants to be a leader.

With wife Hamim Khan and daughter Nehreen Khan

Q :

Actually those of us who were pro-Moscow or pro-China, would blindly follow the path shown to us by Moscow or China. We did not think of a homegrown system. It was researchers like you who were needed for such thinking. We did not have that.

We did not think, we did not even think that it was possible to think. We just thought that we would follow whatever ideas came from China or Moscow. We did not conceive that we needed to find our own path or that it was possible to find our own way. There were many such shortcomings. Even so, I have deep regard for those who have made huge sacrifices in the left wing politics of South Asia. I only have a very different opinion of those who have shifted from the left and have become even more opportunist than the rightists.

Q :

Meanwhile, over the past 30 to 50 years, the world has undergone huge changes -- socialism disintegrated, a unipolar world emerged, the US and other state gained dominance, then China gained one sort of power, Russia another. We never imagined such a situation.

We did not, but extensive changes have come about. Globalisation and technical improvements have clutched the world in such a manner that one cannot forcibly make changes to this world alone. But perhaps the changes will come. Karl Marx felt that the socialist movement could come from the most industrially developed countries and would succeed there. I still feel that a new socialist movement will start from North America. Unemployment and other problems are cropping up there with no solution emerging. Perhaps this won't come about now, but in another 20 or 30 years the capitalist system will begin to crumble.

Q :

So these changes might happen in America, while the socialist countries failed?

Socialism doesn't mean the type of state that Lenin wanted. Socialism means the society run by the common people, where people's rights are established. A socialist movement in this sense may sprout from America. They will come up with new strategies. For example, even if everything is not socialist, the state will run the health system. The state will have to address unemployment. The state will be responsible for education. These issues will come forward.

Q :

There is the democratic socialism of Scandinavian countries where they have addressed unemployment, education, health and social disparity.

We will proceed towards such a society. But there is a huge force opposed to this. Perhaps it is from North America that this will begin to disintegrate.

Q :

How do you see our country now?

It does not seem to the apparent eye that there is any change in the condition of the country, but I feel we are actually going through a process of transition. There are changes taking place within. Perhaps it will take 20 to 30 years for any significant change. It would be wrong to expect change overnight.

Q :

Who would you give the responsibility to prepare for this change?

People from at all levels must take this responsibility.

Q :

Political parties, civil society...

The civil society will not be able to do anything alone. The political parties will have to work together with the civil society. Students, youth, the intellectuals must all work in unison.

Q :

That means an environment must be created as in the best of our times -- the sixties -- when people of all walks of life forged an understanding, a national unity.

It is not just us that can create this, the environment will force us to do so.

Q :

The role played in the sixties by the intellectuals, the civil society, the academics, the professors, the teachers and the students, is absent now. Where will this thinking emerge from?

It is definitely the writers, thinkers and the researchers who have to think about this. They have to write more, think, study and research.

Q :

You have written that taking part in the Liberation War was the best chapter of your life. You had your best days then, taking part the struggle, from Habiganj to Brahmanbaria, back to Habiganj and then onto Agartala, working with friends there, the government in exile at Kolkata, carry out responsibilities... what a time!

We are extremely proud of taking part in the liberation war. We are not proud that because of Bangladesh we have developed economically or our country is run by our people. We are proud because we have won independence. There can be no greater achievement than independence. I am always proud to have taken part in the liberation war because the liberation war brought us our independence. But during the liberation war, there were various inter-political conflict among us, many problems that created obstacles to implementing the spirit of the liberation war. Despite all this, I feel that Bangladesh's independence is the greatest chapter in the life of the Bengali nation.

Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Roy

Q :

Who is your favourite writer?

Rabindranath Thakur.

Q :

Favourite book or books?

That is hard to tell. One of my favourite books is The History and Philosophy of Social Science by my teacher Scott Gordon. After researching throughout his life, he wrote this book on social science. And in Bangla, I would say all of Annadashankar Roy's books. It is not that I have been influenced only by Annadashankar Roy's ideas in my writings on various topics, but I have followed his syntax, his terminology.

Q :

Your favourite poem?

Rabindranath Tagore's 'Nirjhorer Shopnobhongo' to his 'Tomar Srishtir Path Rekhechho Akirno Kori', written in last days.

Q :

So where would you place Jibananondo's 'Bonolata Sen'?

I do not only read the best poetry, I read all sorts of poetry.

Q :

Favourite song?

'Aguner poroshmoni chhoao prane/E jibon punyo koro dohono-dane'.

Q :

It all comes back to Rabindranath Tagore.

I am a person of Rabindranath's times. Whether they admit it or not, most of the people of my time are deeply influenced by Rabindranath.

A scene from Jibon Theke Neya

Q :

Favourite film?

Hard to tell. First I would have to say Zahir Raihan's 'Jibon Theke Neya'. The film was a great inspiration at the time when the people has risen up in struggle and protest just before the liberation war.

Q :

Any other movie?

Satyajit Roy's films, particularly the Apu Trilogy.

Favourite actor and actress Uttam and Suchitra

Q :

That was the heyday of Uttam and Suchitra.

I have seen many of their movies. To me, they are the best actor and actress.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh

Q :

You have watched foreign films too.

Yes, I still remember 'Gone with the Wind' and the unforgettable acting of Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh.

* This interview appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir