It was 8 January 1972. After his release from jail in Pakistan, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was travelling via London on his way back to Dhaka. At the Claridge's Hotel, he had a meet-and-greet session, where hundreds of people queued to get a glimpse of the Father of the Nation.
Among them was a 30-year-old Roger Gwynn, who had a very special connection with Bangladesh.
Roger had already visited the land previously known as East Pakistan multiple times and played a significant role during the Liberation War.
As the staff from the Bangladesh Mission (later the Bangladesh High Commission) were controlling the people's access to the man of the hour, Roger could not spend more than two minutes with Bangabandhu. Still, he was able to shake hands and let him know that he had taken part in the activities of the Bangladesh Action Committee of Birmingham and even travelled to occupied Bangladesh.
Upon hearing this, Bangabandhu was very pleased and invited Roger to visit the liberated Bangladesh. In Bangla, he said, "Bangladesh is now a free country, and Insha Allah it will remain the same forever. Joy Bangla!"
Roger gave Bangabandhu his word and he kept it.
Later that year, Roger once again visited Bangladesh to do further voluntary service. Some of his time was spent at the Ganashasthya Kendra – the first health centre in independent Bangladesh – where he became good friends with Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury as well.
Though Roger never met Bangabandhu again, he has remained a true friend of Bangladesh throughout his life. And gone on to become a legendary figure in the Bangladeshi community in Britain. He even kept coming back to Bangladesh till the winter of 1995-96.
He can speak in Bangla and Sylheti dialect very well, and he also has great command over writing Bangla prose. After independence, an article about Roger was published in the renowned weekly magazine Bichitra, titled "Vindeshi Bangali" (The Outlander Bangali).
Apart from his voluntary services in the country, some of his photographs in pre-independence Bangladesh have acquired enormous historical interest. And as an author, he penned the highly acclaimed Londoni Sylheti Dictionary.
Also, as part of his mission to preserve the memories of 1971, he published several memoirs and photo albums of Bangladesh and also translated some books from Bangla to English, of which the most notable is Humayun Ahmed's "Josna O Jononir Golpo."
Roger, now 82 years old, recently had brain surgery, and was admitted to a hospital in Bristol, England. Still, in an interview with The Business Standard, he reminisced some of the stories of his eventful life, especially those related to Bangladesh.
How Roger first arrived in Bangladesh
Roger, born in 1941 in London, always had a liking for voluntary work and assisting those who are underprivileged. After graduating in Social Anthropology in 1963, he decided to spend a year doing voluntary service overseas. And the following year, quite by chance, he was sent to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by Service Civil International (CSI) to work with local volunteers carrying out small community service projects.
"On my first visit, I was lucky to be received with great sincerity by the Bangali volunteers, who adopted me as their brother. I loved the country and the people so much, I wanted to go on working there as long as possible," said Roger.
So, he did another 18-month stint of voluntary service in 1966-67. After returning to the United Kingdom, he kept in touch with many friends and visited them from time to time.
"With Barrister Shafiuddin I also undertook 'local enquiry' expeditions to Sylhet in order to help families with complex immigration problems," he added.
Roger also had an interest in photography since childhood. He always liked to document his experiences. When he first came to Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), he was charmed by the beauty of the land, the culture and the people.
"So, I did my best to record what I saw with my camera," said Roger. Through his lenses, one can still go back to the Dhaka and other Bangladeshi regions of the 1960s and early 1970, including the war in 1971.
In March 1971, Roger was working as a school teacher in Birmingham. He had already been involved with Birmingham's Sylheti community. When the Liberation War broke out, he joined the Bangladesh Action Committee of Birmingham, which was headed by Jaglul Pasha.
"I assisted with publicity, street demonstrations, fundraising and other activities," Roger recalled.
And then, in October 1971, he spent three weeks in occupied Bangladesh serving as an interpreter for a British TV documentary team from the Granada Television Company.
At that time, Roger and his team visited Noakhali, Faridpur, Chattogram and some Char regions.
"We filmed scenes of atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army. The Pakistan government confiscated our film but with the help of Mukti Bahini agents, it was recovered and smuggled out of the country.
The full documentary was aired on British TV in December 1971," Roger explained.
A few years back, a series titled "Project London 1971" was curated by Ujjal Das, capturing the movement by the Bangladeshi expatriate community in London and Bangabandhu's stay there. A large number of photographs were collected from Roger, who gave the curator the copyrights of the photographs.
After Bangladesh was liberated from Pakistan, Roger was eager to do another stint of voluntary service. International Voluntary Service (IVS) was also willing to sponsor him, and he was attached to SCI Bangladesh so that he would participate in its ongoing SCI work camp programme.
The programme was mainly concerned with post-war rehabilitation. But for some time, he was loaned to the rural health project Ganashasthya Kendra as well.
"As an office secretary [in Ganashasthy Kendra], I had regular contact with Dr Zafrullah and we became good friends. He was an inspiring figure for me," Roger said.
And even after his stint was over after a total of three years in Bangladesh, he continued to be involved with the Bangladeshi (mainly Sylheti) community in Birmingham until 1996.
During that time, the community increased in size and a new generation of British Bangladeshis grew up. Many members of this younger generation took advantage of the available educational and occupational opportunities and made successful careers.
"The third generation was even more successful. Now you will find distinguished British Bangladeshi individuals at the top of every profession and in all spheres of business. The community is thriving," said Roger.
The close bond with the Bangladeshi community in Britain also prompted Roger to write the Londoni Sylheti Dictionary.
"During my time working with the Bangladeshi community in Birmingham, I learned the Sylheti dialect. While learning I made a collection of the words and phrases I encountered," recalled Roger.
Later, he had the task of teaching basic Sylheti to English-speaking professionals. That's when he realised there was a need for a simple Sylheti-English dictionary and developed one based on his existing collection.
"It has been welcomed by English-speaking learners of Sylheti," he revealed.
Josna O Jononir Golpo and Humayun Ahmed
Roger also realised that many younger-generation British people of Bangladeshi descent knew very little about the Liberation War and the creation of Bangladesh.
"I was convinced that Josna O Jononir Golpo gave the most vivid and comprehensive picture of what the liberation struggle was like for people at all levels of Bangladeshi society, and decided to translate it into English and make it accessible to English-speaking readers," said Roger.
Unfortunately, the publisher of the original book did not approve of Roger's translation and eventually blocked its commercial publication. Still, the translated book titled "Liberation: Josna o Jononir Golpo" was self-published by Roger, and is available on Amazon.
Though Roger never met Humayun Ahmed personally, he is fond of Ahmed's literary work.
"Humayun Ahmed was notable for his straightforward narrative style, his skill at reproducing the speech and mannerisms of ordinary people and his realistic depictions of the characters in his novels and screenplays. These qualities gave his works great popular appeal," Roger evaluated.
Roger's other literary works include but not limited to "Agor Din: Sylhet in the 1970s," "Mashab: The official story," "On A Mission: Dinajpur Diary 1966-67," "Chicken Curry Rice: Behind the Scenes in an Indian Restaurant, 1976," "Bengal to Birmingham," "Songram 71: Bangladeshis in the War of Independence", "Old Dinajpur: A Photo Album", "Old Bengal: A Photo Album."
However, it is unlikely that Roger will produce any more creative work in the future due to his deteriorating health condition.
"I am now losing capacity and have no further creative plans," he concluded.