The more I use my strength in the service of my vision the less I am afraid.
– Audre Lorde
December 28 marked the sixth death anniversary of Razia Khan Amin (1936-2011). “You got to call patriarchy by its name,” she told us repeatedly. I recall she delivered an entire lecture on the eighteenth-century satirical poet Alexander Pope’s mock-epic The Rape of the Lock
from a pronounced anti-patriarchal, feminist perspective. She gave that lecture back in the mid-eighties when I was her direct student. I was then an undergraduate struggling with both life and literature in the English Department of Dhaka University, where she was our Department Chair.
That lecture by Professor Amin has stayed with me up to this day. It was a beautifully delivered lecture marked by the power of ideas, the force of illumination, the grace and ease of movements from the mundane to the enormous, the care for language and the joy in the sounds of words. Also, I'd never forget her brilliant lectures on the Bible, on Whitman, on Eliot and on an entire range of Bengali, English and French modernists. And she was a fabulous storyteller, one whose verbal zest and sense of humour never flagged. As I write this, I keep hearing in my head my teacher’s powerful voice – those inflections, those cadences, those stories, those anecdotes that characterised her lectures. And I keep seeing her dark fire-lit eyes as well.
But Professor Amin was more than an outstanding classroom lecturer and more than a gripping storyteller. She was a wonderful teacher. Teaching for her was not just a profession but her passion, love and commitment made visible all at once. As if her life depended on nothing but teaching. She almost always alternated between her superb lectures and in-class discussions to know what we were thinking, and then she could easily help us develop our half-articulated, floundering thoughts about, say, a Pope or a Whitman or an Eliot or the Bible, without diminishing the importance of what we, her students, had to say. At a time when the lecture form constituted the backbone of the mainstream pedagogy at our university, Professor Amin exemplified nothing short of a student-centred pedagogy, making the point that teaching – like love – transforms life. As my classmates would surely bear me out, she transformed us a great deal, helping us develop not only a taste for literature and the arts, but also a sense of justice. Looking back at my life, I can confidently assert that she taught us to see how – to use my Cuban communist comrade Aleja Martinez’s words – “justice, compassion and clarity go hand in hand.”
Poet, fiction writer, literary critic, essayist, translator, columnist, educationist, researcher (her doctoral work was in the area of Victorian fiction), she wrote equally brilliantly in both Bengali and English (and, of course, we do not have many bilingual writers in Bangladesh)
Indeed, Professor Amin exemplarily taught an entire generation of students how to read poetry, or how to relate the poetic to the political and the historical. She knew how to situate the literary in the terrain of everyday life, given her Marxist orientation. But teaching for her was never confined to the classroom. She decisively ranged beyond it to embrace every possible site for her pedagogical interventions, her home included. She taught us wherever she could: In the department corridors, at bookstores, at the Bangla Academy book fair, even in the marketplace. Several times she invited me and other students over to her place – which was surely a thrilling experience for undergrads like us at that point – where she even fed us and discussed almost everything. Nothing human was alien to us. I can go on and on recounting stories of her teaching but owing to space constraints, suffice it to say for now that she intransigently lived and breathed teaching itself. She was undoubtedly one of the best teachers Dhaka University ever produced, and I was more than fortunate that I was her direct student.
But Professor Razia Khan Amin was not only a teacher. Poet, fiction writer, literary critic, essayist, translator, columnist, educationist, researcher (her doctoral work was in the area of Victorian fiction), she wrote equally brilliantly in both Bengali and English (and, of course, we do not have many bilingual writers in Bangladesh). But it’s unfortunate that her work has not received as much critical attention as it surely deserves. I cannot do justice to the entire range – wide as it is – of her work in this exceedingly space-constrained piece. But let me make some categorical observations quickly. Her first novel, called Bot-tolar Upannyas
, appeared in 1959. She wrote this novel when she was only 18 but it appeared in print when she was 23. The novel immediately inaugurated a mode of “subaltern” writing from a woman’s perspective in a patriarchal social formation. Her other works of fiction include Anukalpa
(1980), He Mohajeebon
(1992) and Padatik
(1996). Their different thematic preoccupations and stylistic signatures notwithstanding, these novels enacted an exemplary dialectic between the personal and the political and the social in ways that amply disturbed the conventional middle-class consciousness. Her poetic works include Sonali Ghaser Deshe
(in Bengali), Cruel April
and Argus Under Anaesthesia
. In addition to introducing a number of new elements in those works, Razia Khan Amin politicised the erotic from a feminist perspective for the first time in the history of Bangladeshi poetry, reminding me today of none other than the Black feminist poet-theorist-activist Audre Lorde.
Last: I was not only Razia Khan Amin’s direct student but was also close to her at a very challenging and difficult time in my life when she sustained me in more ways than she actually knew. Although she is not with us physically today, she continues to remain alive in my words and work and world, in our stories and memories, and, of course, in her own work. Indeed, her life is truer than her death.
Azfar Hussain is a Bangladeshi theorist, critic, academic, bilingual writer, poet, translator and activist. He is Associate Professor of Liberal Studies/Interdisciplinary Studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, and Vice-President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS) and Honorary GCAS Professor of English, World Literature and Interdisciplinary Studies.