The Financial Express

The appeal of diaries and autobiographies

The appeal of diaries and autobiographies

The style of conveying the Gregorian New Year's greetings has continued to change radically in the 20th century. Certain popular trends became prominent in the years in the decade of the 1970s. The changed vogue had replaced bouquets of fresh flowers in the morning kept on one's door. Books also no longer remained an appropriate New Year's gift. In place of these 'obsolete' items, the objects which made spectacular entry into public life were lavishly printed 12-page photograph or painting-based calendars --- and the equally expensive diaries. Both the gifts came from single companies. The calendars were regarded as a highly useful item. But when it came to the diaries, a debate could well have warranted to be sparked between those backing the usefulness of the deluxe diaries, their first few pages filled with assorted data and information, and those opposing. The latter would place their arguments saying when the educated people have veritably stopped reading, presenting them with diaries was sheer wastage of a company's money.

Surprisingly, and to the distress of consummately educated persons, the observations proved true. The diaries, finally, would end up being university and college students' class-note taking exercise books. Youth has always been considered the ideal time for keeping diaries. Although a major segment of the entries into the pages of diaries dealt with romantic broodings, lots of others used to keep diaries on serious happenings in a country. Personal or family events would also comprise a significant portion of the day-to-day chronicles. Dozens of celebrities in different areas of activities at some time of their careers enjoyed added reputation for their diaries. Some of these serially recorded accounts of their lives came to light posthumously. The most notable of them published in the sub-continent is, indisputably, 'The Osomapto Atmojiboni' (The Unfinished Memoirs) by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib wrote another autobiography titled 'Karagarer Rojnamcha' (Prison Diaries). It chronicles his life in different jails in the then East Pakistan as a political prisoner. As a born leader, Sheikh Mujib's couldn't remain a purely solitary life. Surrounded by other political leaders of his time, Bangabandhu was able to turn his prison wards into the platforms of different political struggles. The dominant of them was his unflinching mission for attaining self-rule for the then Pakistan's eastern wing, which later emerged as independent Bangladesh under his heroic leadership.

Politicians, statesmen, philosophers and social thinkers have kept diaries in different ages. In the modern age, viz. the 20th century, the world was gifted with several diaries in book forms and autobiographical works. They include the 'Long Walk to Freedom' by Nelson Mandela, 'Dreams from My Father', by Barak Obama, 'Wings of Fire' by A P J Abdul Kalam, former Indian President and scientist, and many others. These were preceded notably by 'Toward Freedom' authored by Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the leaders of the sub-continent's independence from British rule, 'An American Life' by former US President Ronald Reagan. Despite being a portrayal of the socio-political and intellectual state of India in the early 20th century, 'Autobiography of an Unknown Indian' by the Kolkala-based Bengalee intellectual Nirod C. Chowdhury, also deserves a distinctive place among these documentation works.

Hundreds of educated ordinary people nurture the habit of keeping a diary. These people mostly limit themselves to the circles of family, relatives and friends. Before going to bed, they would record in writing what had happened to them during the day. This practice pays off if the persons concerned are in need of knowing which particular person visited his home on a particular date. They can find the names of certain medicines written on a particular page of the diary. An interesting feature of keeping a diary is many people's entry for a particular day comprises just one sentence --- 'Nothing remarkable occurred today.' The opposite also occurs. Think of the days of the 1969 mass upsurge or other turbulent and historic days of the country like the 7th March in 1971, the great day of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib's watershed speech at the then Race Course Ground. Other equally important national days that deserve to be recorded in diaries include the 25th March,1971; the start of genocide by the occupation army in East Bengal; the 9-month reign of terror in this land, then already called Bangladesh; the formation of the government-in-exile at Baidyanathtola, later named Mujib Nagar; the operations of the Freedom Fighters; the victory of the Allied Forces, comprising the Freedom Fighters and the Indian Army, on 16th December, 1971; the formal surrender of the defeated Pakistan Army at Race Course on 16th December and countless wartime events.

Jahanara Imam, then a teacher at the Teachers Training College in Dhaka, had started keeping a diary after the day his two sons joined the Liberation War. One of them embraced martyrdom on the front. The mother shed tears in silence; but she remained undaunted by continuing her diary keeping, recording the major events centring round the Liberation War in East Bengal. Jahanara Imam's diary came out as a complete book in independent Bangladesh. It has sold hundreds of copies in the over last forty-five years. The printed diary has been recognised as one of the most authentic collections of the chronicles of the happenings in Bangladesh, Dhaka in particular.

In the late1940sTajuddin Ahmad, a young activist of Awami League, began writing a diary. In it he would record in detail the socio-political developments that took place in the state of Pakistan, newly created on the so-called two-nation theory. From the very start of the Bangla Language Movement in Dhaka in 1948, which took a decisive form on 21st February in 1952, Tajuddin got himself engaged in the movement demanding Bangla be a state language of Pakistan. The emerging leader used to note down almost all the events related to the Language Movement which left far-reaching impacts on the consolidation of Bengali nationalism and the 6-point demand, both spearheaded by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. For his active role in all the nationalistic movements, Tajuddin Ahmad was picked by the party leaders as the Prime Minister of the Provisional Bangladesh Government at Mujib Nagar on April 17, 1971. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was declared as the President of the country in his absence.  He was arrested by the Pakistan army on 25th March after his formal declaration of independence and taken to West Pakistan.

After the independence of Bangladesh, the diary of Tajuddin Ahmad emerged as an authentic source for researches and lengthy discourses dealing with the political and socio-cultural movements in East Bengal leading to the start of the independence struggle. Diaries written in countries under the siege of enemy forces, like during the World War-II, were later emerged as highly authentic records of physical and mental ordeals endured by their authors. Although written by the adolescent Dutch girl Anne Frank while in hiding to escape Nazi persecution of her family, her 2-year diary became an extraordinary record of wartime trauma.

A similar piece of WW-II related writing is considered an autobiographical classic. Called 'The Pianist', it presents the nightmare-haunted life of a Polish-Jewish pianist and composer in Warsaw in occupied Poland during WW-II. While dealing with diaries, they inevitably bring to mind a number of autobiographies. Due to their not being written chronologically, these works are not commonly viewed as diaries. In a sense, they are set against a normally wide backdrop. Their protagonists vary, amazingly, in their identity. Thus the autobiographical works of Adolf Hitler's 'Mein Kamph', Agatha Christie's 'Secret Notebooks', Ernest Hemingway's 'A Moveable Feast' and Jean Paul Sartre's 'Words' on the one hand, and 'Baburnama', the autobiography of the founder of the Mughal Empire --- Zahir ud-Din Babur, 'The Greatest: My Own Story' by Mohammad Ali, 'Moonwalk' by stellar singer Michael Johnson or 'The Autobiography of Malcom X' keep the true readers equally spellbound. It's saddening to note that keeping a diary is fast becoming an out-of-vogue trend. In fact, the educated people, even those with a flair for writing, feel tired when asked to write something of their own choice. But still there could be rays of hope flickering somewhere. Optimists firmly believe that individuals living in far-flung corners of the pandemic-plagued world must be jotting down their traumatic times in one or another form of autobiographical notes.

[email protected]

Share if you like