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The symphony of our times

Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley

My school fellow Abdul Hamid Biswas, son of the then central minister Abdul Latif Biswas was also among the participants. Friend Safayet Jamil joined the camp on the last day at Manikganj. Safayet who was a brave freedom fighter in 1971, became a colonel of the Bangladesh Army. He played a historic role also in the dramatic and tragic happenings between August and November 1975. That, however, is a later story soaked in blood and tears. In 1957 and 1958, we had no way of knowing what lay before us in the far future.
The opening of the Paril Noadha camp was simple but loaded with the potential of a new experience. Here we all were young men from early teens to mid-twenties. They were students and young professionals such as subordinate accountants, auditors and fledgling lawyers. There was one thing in common among them: they were all social workers representing voluntary organisations devoted to social welfare. They were indeed campers in the village.
These were the vary last days of December 1957 when the Paril Camp began at the local high school. All 20 or so camp members slept on mattresses supported by straw covering the cemented floor of the large assembly hall of the school, coming as we did from middle class families sleeping on the floor in cold December was a challenging experience in itself. The briefing by the Parkers in bright light of a mentle lamp prepared us for the weeklong camp. The project undertaken was to build, or rather repair, a narrow village road about two/three miles long.
Early next morning, most of the campers left for the project area. The organisers with the help of local councils provided cane buckets and spades with which they had to dig earth from the low land beside the road. Once enough earth was dug, it was carried from hand to hand to the road and use for dressing and levelling. Not all 20 campers participated in the hard work every day. Some four stayed back in the camp by rotation for sanitation duties and supervision of cooking food. Evidently the group of 16 was not enough to do the desired amount of work. The number was vastly increased by local volunteers, students and off-hour manual labourers. It was inspiring to find that their help assisted campers to do the work more efficiently and in greater measure.
The manual work continued from 8:00am to 1:00pm with a short tea break of a few minutes. Then we had muri (puffed rice) and chira (flattened rice) with tea. These were enthusiastically supplied by generous villagers. They were impressed by the sight of young gentlemen, ‘bhadralok’ from the cities and town doing free manual work to serve their community.
In the noon, we returned to the camp to bathe and have lunch of fresh vegetable, fish or chicken. There was an hour of rest when we retired inside our blankets. Then there was a discussion session followed by games such as ha du du or badminton as long as there was daylight. In the early evening, it was time for diner, simple and tasty. Both austere lunch and dinner proved the old saying ‘Hunger is the best sauce’.
Camp fire assemblies in the school field was a source of joy. There were songs and comedies, story telling or recitation of poems by the camp members encouraged by the energetic participation of the camp leaders Max and Margaret Parker. Before we retired for the night, there was a session of evaluation of the days work done by members individually and collectively. The drill of work camping got inside our skins. In fact, it became a part and parcel of our existence henceforth. It taught us the value of hard physical work in the service of the community. Even after 56 years, my palms are as hard as those of day labourers digging earth. More importantly, it gave us the lesson of living in a camp sharing resources, ideas and things with fellow campers. It thus, reinforced our training in team work under new and often difficult conditions.
The work camp at Paril led to the foundation of the then Pakistan Work Camp Association by A Gafur, an auditor in a government department. Gafur is now no more but his contribution to the popularisation of the Workcamp movement still lingers in memory. The late ATM Wali Ashraf, and founder editor of London Bengali weekly ‘Janamat’ and member of the Bangladesh Jatiya Sangsad later in the late 1980s and early 90s Ashraf Bhai formed in 1959 a Dhaka University-based group called student’s Work Camp Association of which I later became the general secretary. Another international voluntary organisation, Service Civil International (SCI), later established itself in the then East Pakistan and still continues as SCI, Bangladesh. I was its president during early 1990s. I was followed by my younger brother Dr Maswoodur Rahman Prince as president for a few years.

Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelley, founder chairman of the Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh and editor of the quarterly Asian Affairs, was a former teacher of political science at Dhaka University (1964-1967), former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (1967-1980) and former non-partisan technocrat cabinet minister of Bangladesh (1990) 

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