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A public intellectual seen at close quarters

  • Published at 05:40 pm September 3rd, 2016
  • Last updated at 07:09 pm September 3rd, 2016
A public intellectual seen at close quarters

The earliest memory I have of him is that of a very bright, lively and eloquent young man conversing with my father and bursting into laughter every few minutes. As far as I can remember, it was in 1961-62 that I saw him first at our home. Sitting in my father’s lap, I happily noticed every day the immense happiness the two friends derived from their conversations that continued for hours together, and tried to join their guffaws, not having a clue to what it was all about. Usually A pile of books and journals lay on the table between them, and they often read out passages from articles and stanzas of poems as a basis for some new observations or a fresh peal of laughter. ‘How happy these two friends are, playing so long every day with their books and papers!’ – this is what I, a small kid snuggling up to my father, might have always thought. The young man I have just mentioned is none other than Jatin Sarkar, a leading light in our literature, who has turned 81 on this 18th August.

Later, as I was growing up, I discovered that some of the books that engaged them so intensely in those days were Banalata Sen by Jibanananda Das, Adhunik Bangla Kavyaporichoy by Dipti Tripathi, Charles Baudlaire: Tnar Kabita by Buddhadeb Bose, Ekaler Kabita edited by Bishnu Dey, Sudhindranath Dutter Kavyasangraha edited by Buddhadeb Bose, Prothom Gaan Dwitiyo Mrityur Aage by Shamsur Rahman and Bimukh Prantar by Hassan Hafizur Rahman – books that were just out or relatively new and were setting new trends in Bengali literature. The journals were ‘Samakal,’ ‘Porichoy,’ ‘Kabita,’ ‘Natun Sahitya’ and the like. As both the friends were on the Left, the new-published books by Marxist writers like Gopal Halder, Amit Sen (Sushobhon Sarkar), Hirendranath Mukherjee,Debiprasad Chatterjee and Benoy Ghosh frequently came under discussion. The lingering Marxist debate on what came to be known as the Bengal Renaissance as well as on some great writers and poets from Rammohun Roy to Rabindranth Tagore also claimed their attention.They closely followed how Bengali literature was changing under the impact of European modernism invoked by the poets of the 1930s, particularly Buddhadeb Bose, and their successors but were not fully uncritical of that modernist shift. They were always on the lookout for new books and journals, and despite being located in a remote corner of the country, they acquired a remarkable skill for grabbing any new publication of some consequence.

Apart from this daily adda, they were regularly staging plays at our house, setting the whole neighbourhood on fire. And there was their politics aimed at bringing a new socialist order – an order that seemed feasible till then. As I came to know later, they had worked together day and night organizing the language movement in their part of the then Mymensingh district in 1952, kept up with all the political changes that followed, and had a hard time coping with the martial law proclaimed by Ayub Khan in 1958. Jatin Sarkar has documented many events of this phase of his life in detail in his magnum opus Pakistaner Janma-mrityu Darshan.

He was already a teacher, political activist and writer when I had barely enough intelligence to know him as my ‘kaka’ in the early 1960s. More than five decades later now, amid many tumultuous changes at home and abroad, he is still steadfast in pursuing the vocation he once gladly chose for himself. As a writer he earned his spurs in 1967 when he was awarded Enamul Haque Gold Medal for his well-researched essay Pakistanottor Purba Pakistaner Upanyaser Dhara, and he has not looked back since. His first book Sahityer Kachhe Protyasha was published in 1986 – rather late in the day. But the huge crop of literary works – more than 60 books – that he has produced afterwards has remarkably enriched our literary and intellectual domain. His seminal works, Bangalir Samajtantrik Oitijya and Pakistaner Janma-mrityu Darshan, are path-breaking studies in our cultural and socio-political history. Through these books and other works he has called our attention to some less explored but important areas of thought. That socialism is not an alien concept and a socialist dream has been part of our tradition is a point he has forcefully made with ample evidence. With deep insights he has looked into peasant psychology and the role of peasantry in effecting great changes in our political history, and has reminded us of the priceless treasure of thought and reason in what is known as our folk tradition. He has convincingly demonstrated that the so-called folk tradition, marginalized as it was when the notion of ‘modern Bengali literature’ emerged in the 19th century as an outcome of colonial education, is actually the mainstream literary-intellectual tradition in Bangladesh. He has also warned us against the danger of not trying to understand matters pertaining to religion and leaving the interpretation of religion to bigots.

Jatin Sarkar was born on 18th August, 1936 at a village called Chandapara in Netrakona. His family belonged to the rural literati and his ancestors did a lot to spread education in that locality. He started teaching while he was a student in the 1950s – this he had to do to pay his way through his studies -- and then he taught Bengali for nearly four decades at Nasirabad College in Mymensingh. He has been a communist and cultural activist from his student life. As a passionate believer in Amilcar Cabral’s postulation that ‘culture is an act of national liberation,’ he flung himself into the struggle against the communal ideology of the Pakistani state, and organized a number of very effective study circles and cultural forums in Mymensingh throughout the 1960s. Later he also led Udichi, one of the foremost radical cultural organizations in Bangladesh, for quite some time. He was even jailed for a year for his ‘dangerous’ political belief when there was a resurgence of the defeated Pakistani ideology in Bangladesh in the mid-1970s. Living now at ‘Banprastha,’ his tranquil house in a small town like Netrakona, he is still intellectually engaged as before – always writing, speaking and working quietly to raise awareness around.

It may not be out of place to point out that we are now on the verge of a huge generation gap as those who fought the long political and cultural war leading to the emergence of an independent Bangladesh, and remoulded our values and set the standards of excellence are on the way out. The world of our scholarship is not that vibrant either, to say the least. Nonetheless, we are lucky that a few devoted scholars and teachers like Jatin Sarkar are still with us. He is one of those versatile scholars whom we can still turn to for an answer when faced with a knotty intellectual problem – be it in the area of literature or history or philosophy or any other branch of the humanities. And his exceptionally simple life dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge holds out ever so valuable lessons for us. He has always looked upon life – even in the hardest of times -- with the same fortitude and sanity as he always finds emanating from his favourite words from Rabindranth Tagore: ‘Monere aj koho je/ Bhalo-mondo jahai asuk satyere lou sohoje.’

Our only wish on his 81st birth anniversary is that he will be with us for many more years in good health and his characteristically high spirits, and keep lighting our path with his rare wisdom.

Golam Faruque Khan is a poet and essayist who writes with equal fluency in both Bangla and English.