Malraux's visit to Bangladesh

21 October 2019
Malraux's visit to Bangladesh


Dr. Mahmud Shah Qureshi :
It was in April 1973. Andre Malraux (1901-1976) France's most legendary living figure in the domain of arts and letters, politics and philosophy, came to Bangladesh for a short visit. Since his early-youth Malraux travelled around the four corners of the world, but the four days he spent here just 46 years ago was indeed an extraordinary memorable voyage for him as well as for the country he visited. Why? Because he responded to the hearty invitation of a people who had just founded the country which did not 'exist before' but in whose existence Malraux trusted miraculously. As a matter of fact, he wanted to fight for this country with a fragile body at the age of 70. He could not forget that he had earlier fought for Spain and France and remained all along a vigilant witness of decolonization. Once he wrote, "nothing is more important, in the history of the world, to be on the side of the people who had been capable of saying 'No'." The people of Bangladesh dared to say 'No' to the oppressors and usurpers of their sovereignty. But for this, they had to pay too much in the form of humiliation, misery, and death.
On 18th September 1971, Malraux made a declaration to the media which instantly became a world event. He said that he would not participate in the conference called to support Bangladesh in Delhi rather he would come to fight in a company of tanks as he had some experience in it provided the governments of Bangladesh and India permit him. He also wrote a letter to the American President "When the most powerful army of the world could not destroy the barefooted people of Vietnam, then how do you think that from a distance of twelve hundred miles the army of Islamabad could get back a country desperate to achieve its independence?" (Le Figaro. 17th Dec. 1971)
By mid-December the fate of war was however decided in favor of Bangladesh. Even before the things got totally settled, the intellectuals of the newly born nation warnted to greet this distant friend and Malraux received an invitation from the Prime Minister Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
On 21st April, Malraux, accompanied by Madame Sophie de Vilmorin, his last companion, Mr. Garofalo, photographer of the Paris-Match and two journalists of the French television alighted at the old airport of  Tejgaon,  just three to four miles from the University of Dhaka, the Prime Minister's office or the Presidential Palace. Foreign Minister Dr. Kamal Hossain with Mr. Arshad Uzzaman, the chief of protocol on the one hand and two renowned members of Bangladesh intelligentsia. Begum Sufia Kamal, poet and social worker, and Prof. Syed Ali Ahsan, Vice-Chancellor, Jahangir Nagar University, waited on him.
After a colourful reception while he advanced amidst the lined- up school children who cried 'Vive Malraux' in lieu of usual words of slogan 'Joy' or 'Zindabad'. Malraux lifted a boy from the ground and said "As I cannot embrace everyone, so by doing this on this lone face, I wish to kiss Bangladesh". Instantly, he was taken to the presidential palace where he was to stay during his visit and to meet the Prime Minister, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the other legendary figure of the time. When asked what he might expect from Monsieur Malraux, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman replied :
"All that I want is the love, the affection and the respect that one should offer to my people. Have not you seen my beautiful people, my magnificent country, my such green fields?"
After the brief meeting, Malraux was brought to the Dhaka University campus where he had an exclusive meeting with the Deans and senior teachers. Dr. Abdul Matin Chowdhury, the Vice Chancellor offered him tea with 'poneer' the Bengali cheese which he seemed to have relished but did not forget to tell his host that in his country there are 236 varieties of cheese. Then, on arrival to the Teacher- Students' Center, he was offered by the Vice Chancellor as a token of love a silver boat, symbol of riverside Bangladesh. Malraux made a very emotional speech while addressing the students:
"For the first time I speak in this lone University in the world where there are more dead than the living. Students of France know that your teachers and your friends embraced death for the liberty, and they know that nowhere else ever before students and teachers paid such a heavy price for liberty. They also know that among so many of the students who fought, there is one place where the students would rightfully tell those who would come later: 'We have fought with our bare hands' ... Your dead have rendezvous with the fate of Bangladesh, but now it is up to you to make the nation."
Then after the official luncheon offered by the Prime Minister Malraux was taken to visit the National Mausoleum at Savar. He placed a wreath while army bugle was being played. Suddenly there was a brief but torrential rain and the former freedom fighter entered the hospital for war victims. As everyone there knew who the visitor was, he was profusely garlanded, but Malraux took a garland from his neck and pull it on a young man who had lost one hand and one leg. He also visited the monument for the martyrs of 21st February Language Movement and placed a wreath there. In the evening there was a grand reception for him at the Alliance Francaise de Dacca. Malraux' made a speech by highlighting the nobility of French culture that showed the world the courage, the justice, and the thought for action.
At 7:30 P.M. a sumptuous dinner was offered by the President of Bangladesh where artists, intellectuals, and political personalities took part. No formal speech was delivered, but in the course of discussion. Malraux opined that he knew that Bengali literature had a rich tradition but he had only read Tagore. About Kazi Nazrul Islam, the National Poet of Bangladesh, he could learn while traveling from Delhi to Dhaka and was attracted by his personality. An interesting cultural show was presented to end up the first day's programs.
The following day was also a very special day as Andre' Malraux was going to be awarded with doctorate Honoris Causa in a special Convocation at the University of Rajshahi. Rajshahi is a prominent northern city about an hour's journey by a special plane and two helicopters. After two salutatory addresses by the Vice-Chancellor Dr. Khan Sarwar Morshed and the Chancellor Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, President of Bangladesh, Andre Malraux accepted the honour with a passionate speech. Following the famous inscription of antiquity to honour them Malraux advised, "On any of the graveyard of your freedom fighters, on the ditches filled with the dead bodies of your intellectuals write in large letters: You, who shall pass later on, go tell to all of ours that those who fell here were dead because during the nine months of suffering they accepted to fight with bare hands…
Salute the dead of the surrounding forest! You have shown the world that one can never assassinate enough to kill the soul of a people who would not surrender…
 On the roads of the Orient there are tombs of French knights, on all the roads of the Occident there are tombs of the soldiers of the year II. ... And on your tombs there are perhaps the memories of the words of justice and of liberty with which the generals of the Revolution had set Europe on fire.
Your culture holds to you in one lone and very big word: Spirituality.
Your liberation has attempted to unite the language of eternal Bengal with that of our Revolution. "
After a lunch at the Vice-Chancellor's residence, Malraux visited Varendra Research Museum in the town, three miles away from the campus. This was an extraordinary scene as he seemed to be in his own world with all the statues and the icons around, and he started very elaborate explanation on the significance of their existence to Madame Sophie de Vilmorin in particular.
Returning to Dhaka, a quiet lunch with the President and his family took place at Bangabhaban.
Justice Chowdhury and Malraux discussed the problems of family planning, as well as of China.
In the afternoon, he visited the National Museum at Neemtoli (the old site) and then came to the Art College (now Institute of Fine Arts of the University of Dhaka) where he discussed with the students and teachers. There was also an exhibition of painting which he watched with care. Then he joined a small cocktail party in the hotel suite of French Ambassador to celebrate the Easter festival. A sumptuous dinner followed by a musical soiree was arranged at the foreign Minister's residence. Malraux seemed to have liked very much the Bengali songs with revolutionary themes and rhythm. He even asked to repeat a song twice.
The third day's visit was at Chittagong where a festive reception was accorded at the airport. Then Malraux was taken to see the dilapidated war torn port. A grand civic reception was held at the Chittagong Club. He was presented with an old manuscript considered as the most precious gift to be offered. His speech was very much appreciated but it was the same as that of Rajshahi with two excerpts, one in the beginning and one in the conclusion where he lauded the role of Chittagong for her special contribution in the war of liberation. He reminded that an extraordinary effort of the people was needed to reconstruct the country in which he would initiate the program of aid as advisor to the Government of France.
As the ceremony was over, a grand launch was awaited in the house of Mr. A. K. Khan, industrialist and a former minister. It was indeed an international festival there. Malraux enjoyed very much, had exchange of ideas with many. He also made his admirers happy by giving autographs according to their demand, a and as per advice of the ambassador of France he had an exclusive discussion session on economic situation of Bangladesh with his host for fifty minutes along with the present writer as interpreter.            
There were two more programs for the afternoon. A quick visit to the Alliance Fran Caise de Chittagong. There he liked very much the 'dab' (green coconut) water with ice cubes on a silver-plate. Mr. Juned Chowdhury offered hima copy of the Etude sure evolution intellectelle chez les of Musulmans du Bengali, de 1857 a 1947 only French book published during the existence of Bangladesh and was written by his interpreter who was also the President of Alliance in those years.
Malraux also had a look on the painting exhibition of the teachers and students of the University of Chittagong there. Then he rushed to inaugurate Chittagong Art Gallery and Folk Museum at Mehdibag where another exhibition was installed. He was offered a painting of Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin which he accepted with great admiration and respect. In a short speech, Malraux called upon the artists to draw scenes of the local culture on their canvas. He was also moved by the gift of a painting from young Nayak, son of artist Sabih-ul Alam.   
Then on helicopter he was flown to Kaptai where the house boat of M.A.K. Khan was ready to show him the beauty of the lake in the middle of Chittagong Hill Tracts. Madame Sophie de Vilmorin, his companion enjoyed it very much as she described vividly in her book 'Aimer Encore'. There was also another surprise from a few sampan loaded people who cried "(Vive Malraux)" Long live Malraux. The present writer got some exclusive minutes from one of the most famous intellectuals of the world to answer his questions. In the Kaptai Guest House, Malraux left his suit and his tie. He put up a red shirt and enjoyed his diner with 'Ruin' fish of the lake.         
Next morning he reached Dhaka and faced a very energetic press conference. He insisted on more foreign help for Bangladesh as the actual loss of the country was unaccountable. He also lauded the role of the freedom fighters in liberating the country.
Before leaving Dhaka on a plane at 12.25 pm, he met the President and the Prime Minister. But he also got time to write his best wishes in two books as gift to his interpreters. From Paris he wrote an extra ordinary letter on May 8, 1973.
"My dear Professor,
On return to Paris (with the book which you have so kindly presented me) I wish to tell you about the friendly memory that I conserve to our collaboration. You have helped me much; and without you my relationship with my listeners in Chittagong would not have been what it was. The intelligence, the rapidity, the tonality of your translations, established a communication, and sometimes a communion of which I am grateful to you. Let us hope that we can now put to realize what we have undertaken for your country which has become a little mine, and trust, my dear professor, to my sympathetical memory.
Andre Malraux here is not the end of the story. Shortly after his return to Paris, he appeared before the court to save the young man who wanted to hijack a plane for sending medicine to Bangladesh. I also met him after four months in his residence. He told me that he had done what he promised. He talked to the Education Minister of France not to disturb the teaching of Bengali as it was apprehended, and to the Chinese Ambassador in favour of the recognition of Bangladesh to be a member of the United Nations. And needless to say that France would continue to help in a massive way to Bangladesh, at least as it was expected by the optimist humanist Andre Malraux.

(Prof. M. S. Qureshi (M.A. Dhaka, D. Litt Paris), taught for nearly 50 years in the Sorbonne, Chittagong ,Rajshahi, Jahangirnagar and Gono University. He wrote and edited about 40 books.
He was honoured with Ekushe Podok by the Govt of Bangladesh and with four Medals from France including Legion d' Honneur.)

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