My younger sister called the other night to tell me that journalist Peter Custers, familiar in Bangladesh, died of a heart attack. I had no contact with him for over 43 years, but occasionally bits of information came through the proverbial grape-vine that he is still involved in Bangladesh’s (and other places’?) radical politics. I had something to do with him being in Bangladesh, and she thought I would like to know.
For a time in the seventies of the last century I lived in Washington DC in a ‘commune’ in the Adams Morgan area (on Lanier Place, NW). I was a graduate student, had very little money, was having trouble with the girl friend (I am leaving the gory details out, since this is a family friendly write-up), and after sleeping on friends’ sofas for several months, I decided to find a place to live, and ended up in the commune. Being a radical-hippy type myself in those days, I found the arrangement in the commune very comforting. No, there was no orgy going on, but you had company of more or less likeminded people if you wanted to, and did not have to feel lonely. I had a room to myself that I could afford; we residents had to take turn cooking and cleaning the house, lived modestly, sustainably. You learned a lot about living with people of different backgrounds and about responsibility, having to make your contribution towards the collective wellbeing.
Two of the people in the house were Germans and Peter was a friend of them; they had met at the Community Book Store that used to be on P St. NW, and was the hub of a lot of radical activities in the 60s & 70s. He did not live in the commune, but was a frequent visitor. He was a young budding blond bearded Northern European radical, a student at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in DC, working on his Ph.D. (I was working on my doctoral dissertation on hemodynamics) in search of a cause. I do not mean that in a pejorative sense: most young people look for a cause; I came to the US after a stint with student politics aligned with the communist party, partisan of the pro-Soviet faction, etc. One highlight of the time was my effort (along with a few others) to educate (by that time I was a lecturer) Siraj Sikdar that we are not ready for revolution, that social change requires patience and hard work; clearly we did not change his mind! Peter’s tendencies were not unfamiliar to me.
After March 1971, I had basically stopped work on my research and devoted all my time to organizing support in US for Bangladesh. One of the major tasks was to set up, with the help of many supportive Americans, the Bangladesh Information Center on Capitol Hill to organize lobbying U.S. Congress to stop arms shipments to Pakistan that was sure to be used to kill more Bangladeshis. That is the time Peter and I met. He was very earnest, intense and lived a very simple life, almost Calvinistic, being a Dutch and all. We hung around, and for a while chased after the same woman; although he was better looking, I was more exotic and I got lucky. Rapidly he became a Maoist (no, not because he lost out in romance) and soon decided that Bangladesh was ready for a socialist revolution lead by the peasants. As if that was not bad enough, he decided that Bangladesh needed him to take a leading role in organizing that revolution. Residents of the commune, especially I and the two German friends, spent endless nights trying to reason with Peter that the idea of a blond European budding radical intellectual needed to lead the Bangladeshi peasants in Chairman Mao inspired revolution was ludicrous. He also somehow came to the conclusion that Indian imperialism will also have to be stopped from taking over Bangladesh; we tried but failed to convince him that India did not need the headache of another 70 million people (population in 1971). Although he seemed to have read some Marxist literature (more likely, Maoist literature) he did not much care about the objective & subjective prerequisites before one should contemplate storming the Winter Palace! But he was passionate about what he believed in, and at heart was a romantic revolutionary with the zeal of a missionary, an itinerant promoter of peasant uprisings. Whenever he was confronted with the question why he was not working for revolution in his own homeland, he had no answer. Underdeveloped world would be better off if socialism worked in Western countries! He did not seem to be aware of the imperialistic arrogance of an upper class European implied in preaching revolution in a third world country. He often reminded me of the title of one of Luigi Pirandello’s play, “Six Characters in Search of an Author”!
So, with great deal of consternation I had to deal with Peter’s plan to move to Bangladesh; nothing could persuade him that he would be more trouble than it would be worth. Since he did not know a sole in Dhaka, I felt obligated to write to my family to let him stay with them until he found a place for himself. He stayed with my parents and my siblings in Kalabagan for a few months, and then he vanished. Next they heard of him was when it was reported in the media that he was arrested while throwing bombs at the Indian Embassy in Dhaka, in the middle of the first series of military coup in Bangladesh. Military interrogated him, found out that he had stayed with my family. Soon word got around that the military was looking for my younger brother, a relatively high ranking government official, and was advised by friends that he should leave the country immediately. So he did, without a penny in his pocket, leaving a pregnant wife at home; he lived like a vagabond, roaming about in cities in Nepal & India for a while. My father, also a government official, could not leave our large family behind unprotected. He was hauled to the military barracks and interrogated for long hours to find out if our family was involved in the bombing campaign that seem to have been initiated by some anti-Indian radical group(s). I understand that Peter either came from an influential banking family or had some link with them, who in turn had strong influence with the Dutch government. That connection was what got him released from Bangladesh jail so that he could resume his radical activities in Bangladesh!
I have no idea if Peter had changed over the years. When the chaos was going on in my family I had fantasized about beating him to a pulp if I ever met him for the torment he put my family through; I am glad that I never did encounter him again. As for Bangladesh, it has become what it is, Peter Custers’ mission notwithstanding. I hope some people benefitted from involvement with him. I wish his family well.