This was 1973. Bangladesh had been born only about two years before. I was on my way back to Dhaka after attending a seminar in Belgrade, capital of the then Yugoslavia. I was in transit in Rome Airport. I had arrived there early in the morning, but I had to wait for several hours for my next flight to Dhaka via Delhi. The wait seemed interminable in the airport.
I was getting bored doing nothing when I saw a brown skinned man coming towards me. He was a rotund man with a round face and a moustache. He was wearing thick glasses. He came to me and asked, “Are you from India?” “No, I am from Bangladesh”, I replied.
The rotund man burst into a wide smile and said with great elation, “How fortunate I am! I am also a Bengali, but from West Bengal.” And then he broke into Bengali. “My name is Prabhat Vaidya. I was in Paris for last few days with my boss Ashok Pandey on official business. Now we are returning home.”
“I have not been able to speak in Bengalifor last few days,” Vaidya continued. “My travel companion does not speak Bengali. He is from Rajasthan, does not know a word of Bengali. How can one survive speaking in English and Hindi all the time?” he asked but did not wait for an answer. “Brother, you are a god send. I can now speak my tongue. You are one of our own. Same language, same history”, Vaidya went on and on.
Vaidya did not stop a moment to let me speak. He kept on “Do you know how happy we are with liberation of Bangladesh? We are ecstatic; we are so joyful that Bengalis now have a country of their own. Blessed is Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Blessed are the Bengalis of Bangladesh. Oh God, what joy!” Vaidya became emotional.
I was pleased to see Vaidya although he spoke incessantly. I was pleased to find a fellow Bengali in a foreign land particularly one who seemed so genuinely happy for independent Bangladesh.
Vaidya told me he lived in Delhi working for the central government. He had been living there for a long time with his family after joining a government department. He missed Bengal and speaking with Bengalis. I could understand that. Our conversation went on for some time.
During conversation Vaidya told me that his ancestors were from Barisal of Bangladesh (then East Bengal). “My ancestors were landlords there,” he informed me. “We had a large house in the village, lots of farm lands, big tanks, and a whole lot of other assets,” Vaidya said uttering a long sigh.
I could relate to his sentiments. Many Hindus had left East Bengal after partition leaving behind property, and they often became nostalgic remembering the past. Some were really genuine stories. But the fact was that these people had their homes once in East Bengal. All they have now are memories. I always felt for these Bengalis who had left their hearths and home after partition.
Well, there was nothing else I could do except empathise with Vaidya. He seemed to be a nice person, genuine in pouring out his heart to a fellow Bengali. I enjoyed the time I spent with him.
Our flight was announced, Air India flight to Delhi. Vaidya's destination was Delhi, and mine Dhaka. I would get continue to Dhaka directly from the Airport in the same plane. I said to Vaidya that we would meet again in the plane. He nodded in agreement but suddenly hurried to greet his boss Mr. Pandey who I saw was beckoning him.
In the plane I found Vaidya and his companion Mr. Pandey were seated three rows behind me. They were seated before me, so I did not have a chance to speak with Vaidya when I boarded the plane.
It was a long flight and therefore I had to pass by them a few times to visit the toilets at the end. I saw Vaidya was busy chatting with his boss in broken Hindi. I did not know if he had actually noticed me when I passed by him, or whether he ignored me. May be he was focused on his boss all the time I thought.
The plane landed in Delhi in the morning. Since this was the final destination for Vaidya I expected Vaidya to say goodbye to me before he disembarked. The exit was in the front, and Vaidya would have to pass by me. Several minutes passed but Vaidya did not come up. I thought I should probably get up as he might be busy getting his hand baggage out.
I found Vaidya still seated with his boss, probably waiting for other passengers to clear the passage. Vaidya looked at me and acted as though he had seen me for the first time in the plane. “Oh, I see, you are here,” he said. Then he hesitatingly introduced me to his companion speaking in Hindi, “Mr. Pandey, this is Mr. Hussain from Bangladesh. I had mentioned to you about him, remember?”
Mr. Pandey extended his hand to shake hands with me, and said with a broad smile “How nice to meet you, Mr. Hussain. My brother was in the Indian Army. He fought the war in Jessore Sector along with Mukti Bahini,” he added.
Then looking at Vaidya he said, “Vaidya does not think very highly of Bangladesh. He thinks the country will not last long. But I do not agree with him. Bangladesh will do well I think, with hard work and guidance.”
Vaidya seemed not to hear this. He got busy getting out the hand baggage from the overhead bin. But he shook my hands before going out and sheepishly said in English, “It was nice meeting you”.
Hearing Vaidya, Pandey asked him, “Why are you not speaking in Bengali with him, Vaidya?”
Looking at the embarrassed face of Vaidya I came to his rescue. “Mr. Pandey, we speak in both languages among ourselves. Vaidya and I spoke in Bengali earlier, but we speak also in English often. Isn't it Mr. Vaidya”?
Vaidya did not say another word. He left the plane without any expression following his boss Mr. Pandey.