He was an Oxford educated actor best known for his his time with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His mother was a Russian actress of Polish descent. An Englishman in diction and in form, Robert ‘Bob’ Ashby passed away alone in his London apartment on February 7th aged 79. He left no issue.
Nearly 60 years earlier, in December 1963, Ashby’s father had also died alone in an apartment in Beirut – only six years after he had resigned as Pakistan’s fifth Prime Minister.
While he was known to the world of acting and the elite London circles he moved in as Robert Ashby, he was born Rashid Suhrawardy, the only son of former Pakistan Prime Minister and the last Chief Minister of United Bengal, Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy.
Fair, tall, poised, and traditionally handsome, Robert Ashby seemed a natural to London society. After his passing, he was remembered fondly by many for the sharp wit he would deliver straight to the person on the short end of it, and his ability to take in equal measure what he dished out. The quintessential theatre actor, one would not naturally think to associate him with his late father.
Yet anyone that has seen even a picture of Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy would not miss the striking resemblance between father and son. While he may have inherited the fair complexion and dancer’s gait of his mother, as opposed to the dark skin and burly figure of his father, Ashby was quite clearly his father’s son.
But taking the name Robert Ashby was not a way to shun or get away from his heritage. Perhaps it was easier to introduce himself as such, without the baggage that comes with recognisable name, in the field he was entering. Perhaps it looked better on screen or on card. But Rashid Suhrawardy did not call himself Bob Ashby out of an insecurities, for the man adored his father with a passion. A theatre actor he may have been, but he was also the greatest proponent of his father’s legacy. As the only son of the only Bengali Prime Minister of Pakistan, Rashid Suhrawardy was a staunch Bengali nationalist. Bangladesh’s father figure is undoubtedly Sheikh Mujeeb, but the Awami League idol is Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy. His death may have been mourned in London squash clubs and theatres, but it was also commemorated by Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka.
He was not, of course, an idle man in his convictions. Even as he enjoyed the life of a London actor as Robert Ashby, his love for his father compelled him to be a prominent voice for Bangladesh. He was no stately leader of men or a savvy politician, even though he played not just Nehru to Christopher Lee’s Jinnah in the 1998 movie, but also led the planet Karfel in Dr Who. But what he lacked for in political clout, or perhaps acumen, he more than made up for in enthusiasm.
Where Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy’s daughter, Begum Akhtar Suleiman, went out on a limb to support the Yahya Khan regime during the war of 1971, Rashid Suhrawardy loudly upheld the Bangladesh cause in London. As described by a friend in an obituary, it was “patriotism par excellence.”
His stubborn defence of his father as a driving force behind the creation of Bangladesh did not require any of his prowess as an actor, for it was a conviction he held with all his heart, to hear his friends speak of his regard for his father and his obsession with his legacy. As Syed Badrul Ahsan, a friend of the younger Shurawardy, points out, “He was sad but not bitter that, while people in Bangladesh celebrated their struggle for freedom and revered their leaders, no one recalled his father when March 26 and December 16 came round.”
“It was his view that Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy’s politics had paved the way for Bangladesh’s liberation. To flesh out the idea, he went into a long discourse on the Sarat-Suhrawardy proposal for an independent Bengal on the eve of Partition. It was hard to accept that argument, but there it was. He was doing all he could to defend his father’s legacy.”
Despite calls for it from his friends and supporters, and his fondness for Sheikh Hasina, Suhrawardy never got to hold office for the Awami League or for Bangladesh. Steeped in western liberal political tradition, the prospect of Bangladesh embracing democracy – in the true sense of the word – excited Rashid Suhrawardy. There had apparently been talk of making him High Commissioner to the United Kingdom when the Awami League had returned to power in 1996 after a decades long hiatus, yet that never panned out.
If his acting never achieved him great laurels, he was respected in the field nonetheless. He was a man that lived at a crossroads between two worlds, and he made them both his own. Now, the stage has gone dark and the curtain has fallen. Robert Ashby has made his final bow and Rashid Suhrawardy has gone the way of the father he so adored.