Jiboner Bone Bone (In the Forests of Life) is a heartfelt autobiography written by Nuruddin Ahmad (1920-2010), one of the first Bengali-Muslim officials of the Indian Forest Service (IFS). The tales of his eventful life take in the growth and coming to being of Bangladesh, his observations on Bengali middle-class society and how he worked his way to the top of the Forest Department in the midst of hostile British and Pakistani governments.
The book is divided into four chapters: British India, Pakistan, 1971 and Bangladesh. It starts with Ahmad's early life in Kushtia under the British Raj. Kushtia in those days was considered an epitome of flourishing Bengali culture and religious harmony, and the book paints a society where Hindus and Muslims shared their religious rites and festivities, largely untouched by the religious tension that was rapidly spreading elsewhere in the subcontinent .
There were two theatre halls where local performers and artists from Calcutta regularly performed. Bangladesh's national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam used to frequent the town and once stayed in the author's home for a month as a guest. “I can remember his face covered in curly hair. I always found him busy with a harmonium, or pen and paper. He used to sit to write with a plate full of betel leaves,” writes Nuruddin.
When he gained admission to Ripon College and Presidency College in Calcutta, Nuruddin bade farewell to his peaceful life in Kushtia and embarked for the hustle and bustle of city life. His descriptions of Calcutta's populous streets, budding movie theatres and flourishing art and culture in Santiniketan highlights how taken he was by the charms of that city. In Santiniketan, Nuruddin made friends with famous singer Kanika Banerjee, Abdul Ahad and Shamsul Huda Chowdhury (later speaker of the Bangladesh Parliament). After completing his higher studies, Nuruddin was selected for the Indian Forest Service through a highly competitive IFS exam.
After a brief stint in the hilly forest of Kurseong, Nuruddin was stationed in CHT in 1946. His mission was to conduct the “First Exploratory Survey of Inaccessible Sangoo and Mathamuri Forests and War Damage Assessment of CHT”.
In this part of his memoirs, he paints elaborate word pictures of what he saw and experienced in the cloud-covered mountains and rainforests of CHT. During his trip to Lama he witnessed huge herds of wild elephants, gaurs (Indian bison), barking deer and saw pugmarks of clouded leopards and, on one occasion, he came face to face with a Bengal Tiger, which has now disappeared from this forest.
The local Chakma people also helped Nuruddin most of the times voluntarily and sometimes, in exchange for small amounts of opium. At that time, the only way to travel in the CHT was by rowing canoes along the Sangu and Matamuhuri rivers.
“We faced great difficulty in controlling our canoes due to the frequent rapids all along the rivers,” writes Nuruddin.
Nuruddin was briefly stationed in Calcutta after completing the survey but returned to CHT again when Pakistan was formed. He was in Rangmati when the Kaptai Dam was under construction and one of the most moving passages in the book is Nuruddin's view of how the ancient Chakma town was engulfed by the artificial lake created by the dam.
The author also reveals how Pakistani and British ruling classes hunted many animals to extinction. When he was in CHT, the Deputy Commissioner of CHT Colonel Niblett ordered him to collect ivory to be offered as gifts to the visiting ambassador of the USA. Nuruddin refused and so faced harassment during his stay in the CHT. An example of how much his life is woven into the fabric of Bangladesh history is that his memoirs contain a tale of Pakistan President Field Marshal Ayub Khan's visit to the Sundarbans when Nuruddin was stationed there. Ayub Khan wanted to hunt crocodiles, but when East Pakistan Governor Momen Khan presented him with a dozen hatchlings, Ayub Khan ordered them to be released in the river. Nuruddin also mentioned that the President and all the officials devoured several chitral deer at lunch and dinner.
Throughout the book, Nuruddin is vocal against corruption in the forest department. He blames corruption of the forest officials and the negative intervention of political leaders for the rapid disappearance of Bangladesh's forests and wildlife. He writes: “Corruption in the Sundarbans was a legendary thing. Officials used to offer huge amounts of money to the ministers to be transferred to the Sundarbans. The corrupt officials maintained a good liaison with the pirates who destroyed the forest mercilessly. After the liberation of Bangladesh, I received requests from the ministers even for the transfer of a forest guard to the Sundarbans.”
As a close confidant of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Nuruddin Ahmad managed to get several afforestation and coastal afforestation projects passed by the leader. However, after Bangabandhu's assassination, Nuruddin was jailed and sent into retirement after his release.
Nuruddin and his family played an important role in organising Bangladesh's movement for liberation. As the closest neighbour of Bangabandhu, his family provided immense support to the family members of Bangabandhu during the tumultuous years of the late 60s and early 70s. Nuruddin's wife Begum Budrunnesa Ahmad was the founder of Bangladesh Mahila Awami League and a staunch organiser during the Liberation War. After fleeing to India, she served in the refugee camps to organise and distribute relief for the refugees. Nuruddin's eldest daughter Professor Dr Nasreen Ahmad, current pro-vice chancellor (academic) of the University of Dhaka served in the Shwadhin Bangla Betar Kendra as a singer and news presenter during the war.
For his front seat view of Bangladeshi history and his part in the valuable, although now diminishing, natural resource of the country, this book holds substantial value for those who are interested in the country's past. The many rare photographs in each chapter only add to its worth.
Jiboner Bone Bone can be purchased at Agamee Prakashani in Bangladesh and at Camp 2 B in Kolkata for Tk 300.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org