“My God! I felt like a bull in a China house!” Professor Nurul Islam was reflecting on his UK days when he began to appreciate the western culture. He realised the pitfalls of not having direct exposure to the actual culture or a lived experience for those who were studying English literature as an academic discipline. In the early 1990s as a student, who was transitioning from the uncritical appreciation of English culture to postcolonial undertaking of “Other Englishes,” I found this statement a bit problematic. Then again, over the years I have learnt to locate this statement in an appropriate context to understand one great English teacher who has passed away recently. I reckoned that this same professor had the opportunity of teaching in the UK, but decided to return to Dhaka after an epiphanic realisation that there was hardly any tree around him that he could name just like he used to do in his childhood village in Chandpur or in his favourite Jahangirnagar University campus; this same man who had earlier instructed his wife to sing Tagore’s song at the time of his death.
Prof Islam was the founding Chairman of the Department of English. He retired from Jahangirnagar University in 1998 after an illustrious career of 28 years, and joined Eastern University as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Law and eventually became its vice-chancellor. In his demeanour he looked like a typical country gentleman who would wear his flat cap and tweed jacket. Prof Islam went to the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland for his PhD, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on novelist Graham Greene. He earlier spent a year at University of Leeds for a postgraduate diploma following his Master’s from the University of Dhaka in 1966. Prof Islam was one of the few Bangladeshi teachers of his generation to get a PhD in English literature from the UK. In the 1970s, when Bangladeshi universities were trying to shape up with a national characteristic, English departments were still seen as a foundational degree for civil service. Prof Islam’s overseas exposure made him aware of the cultural orientation and contextualisations for true aesthetic appreciation. But at the same time, he was aware of the changes in the world literary scene which he tried to introduce in our course curriculum.
He was an erudite professor who would transport his students to the worlds of Yeats, Eliot, Dickens, Joyce or his specialty Graham Greene. At the same time, he would make us aware of their local implications. At the height of the anti-Ershad movement, Prof Islam would make the Irish revolution our own; the rise of right-wing fundamentalism made him quote Joyce: “God-forsaken, priest-ridden country.” He would make us locate the Yeatsian wild swans at Jahangirnagar Lake, or the illusion of social mobility of Dickens’s Great Expectations in contemporary Bangladesh. He would reflect on the identity crisis while living in a troubled time through Joyce’s Stephen or DH Lawrence’s Morel brothers. He would talk of the allegorised love-hate diatribe between America and Vietnam narrated through a quiet American. In his lectures we recognised the vastness of his scholarship.
He was a voracious reader. I can hardly think of Nurul Islam sir without a book or some other print matters. He would browse through the Oxford dictionary or newspapers if there was no book around. So much so, I once saw one senior brother going to the exam hall with a newspaper. People normally carry books or notes, but I was curious to see him carrying the newspaper. “Well, if I put it on the table, Islam sir is sure to pick it up and get engrossed in reading, which will allow us all to talk during exams.”
Prof Islam was a gentleman par excellence. He was extremely witty. For about three years, he taught at King Saud University and was the departmental Chair. He was very popular among his Saudi students who insisted on visiting his home. To avoid them, he told them: “You see I have four wives and countless children. How can I have you over in my small house!” Well, whether the Sauds got the joke or not is another issue. After a successful stint in the Saudi, he came back to Bangladesh and built a fanciful house near his favourite campus, in the housing society of Jahangirnagar University. He used to tell me: “People think I am a fool to squander all my money in a suburban house.” He named it “Retreat,” and would spend most of his weekends there. “A newspaper and a steamy coffee in a sun-drenched wintry morning, what more do you want?”—he would tell his colleagues.
Prof Islam was one of the writers of our intermediate textbook. When the government tried to introduce Bangla at all levels, he strongly supported it. His support was not based on any jingoistic agenda; rather, he knew knowledge could be acquired and expressed in any language in which one is good. Deep down he was a true Bengali who believed in Bengali nationalism, and upheld its spirit in a post-1975 era when the time was congenial. But his professionalism never allowed his political interest to interfere with his administrative or academic role. He was loved by his students as a father figure, one who can be trusted. He forged hope, enthusiasm, and encouragement in the smithy of our souls (to borrow one of his favourite phrases from James Joyce once again).
Prof Islam is survived by his wife, Prof Sauda Akhtar of JU Bangla Department and three children. He was laid to his final rest at his ancestral village in Chandpur. He was 78.