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Syed Mujtaba Ali: Wit, humour and great scholarship

  • Published at 04:15 pm February 4th, 2018
Syed Mujtaba Ali: Wit, humour and great scholarship
In the exciting, turbulent, sad and happy days of 1971, I read Chacha Kahini in my village home and instantly fell in love with Syed Mujtaba Ali’s books. His erudition, brilliant wit and humour, skilful satire and wonderfully lucid prose simply bowled me over. I was a sixteen-year-old tenth grader then. In the next couple of years I read almost all of his books, including his latest columns in the Calcutta (now Kolkata) weekly Desh and the Bangladeshi newspapers, like a boy possessed. I came to know a lot about him too. He was born in a respectable family of Karimganj, Sylhet on September 13, 1904. But why was Khan Bahadur Syed Sekandar Ali’s son living and writing in Calcutta? In 1948, as the Principal of Bogra Azizul Huq College, he wrote an article to advocate for Bangla as the state language of Pakistan. The parochial Pakistani rulers couldn’t tolerate this “audacity” and forced him to leave the country. As a schoolboy Ali had written a letter to Rabindranath Tagore, got an inspiring reply and was invited to study at the Shantiniketan. He had the honour to be taught directly by Tagore. The Nobel Laureate taught him his own poems and those of Shelley and Keats. Later Ali taught in Kabul, studied in Cairo’s Al-Azhar University and had a PhD in comparative religious studies from Bonn. His dissertation was on the Khojas. He taught in Baroda. After leaving Bangladesh in 1948 he lived and worked in Calcutta. He was a brilliant talker in the typical Bangalee adda, a centre of attraction to his admiring listeners. He kept his listeners spell-bound. People understood that he had read a lot, was a great scholar knowing many languages but didn’t write. While in his mid-forties, the Desh editor forced him to write Deshe Bideshe and it instantly made him famous. Till his death he was one of our most popular writers. Bangla literature has not seen a better travel book than Deshe Bideshe. I read the book in 1972, again like a boy possessed.
Here was a great scholar who could hide his erudition like the bricks of the Taj Mahal. He was always exciting and interesting and never dull.
After the independence of Bangladesh, he wrote for the Bangladeshi papers and came to live in Dhaka with his wife, a senior civil servant, and his two sons. He fell sick by late 1973 or early 1974. The great admirer that I was, I went to his elder brother’s residence in Dhanmandi, collected his address and went to meet him, albeit a little nervously. It was on Dhanmandi Road One, on the way to my Dhaka College. Mrs Rabeya Ali was very nice to me and treated me with sweets. The writer was a connoisseur of good food and I saw excellent butter packets on a table in the verandah. He was bed-ridden and couldn’t come to meet me. He gave me a smiling, affectionate look from his bed and autographed the book of his that I carried with me. He even drew a flower for me. Perhaps my young and excited face touched his heart. I went to my college like a victorious warrior. Alas! A few years later a lady relative borrowed the book and lost it. She didn’t realise how much pain she had caused me! Syed Mujtaba Ali could not appreciate modern poetry or Bangla poetry after Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. To me this was the greatest flaw in his genius. He couldn’t appreciate the poetry of his contemporaries – Jibanananda Das, Sudhin Dutta, Buddhadev Bose, Amiya Chakraborty and Bishnu Dey. On the other hand, they were great heroes to us, young students of literature and budding writers. So were Charles Baudelaire and TS Eliot and our own Shamsur Rahman. However, we never gave up liking Syed Mujtaba Ali. May be we read him less for a few years. But when we resumed reading him as mature men, we liked him immensely once again. His Shabnam was a love novel of rare quality. It was simply poetry in prose like Tagore’s Shesher Kobita. So were Abishashya and Tuni Mem. He wrote memorable short stories like "Padotika", "The Colonel", "Bneche Thako Sordi Kashi" and "Roshogolla". Often he made us laugh only to make us weep at the end. In "Padotika", he tells us that the village teacher’s eight-member family lived with much less than the money spent after the Alsatian dog of the English Inspector of Schools. We don’t forget the story for the rest of our life. His Hitler is perhaps one of the best books ever written on the dictator. Well-researched, witty, sensitive and breathtakingly interesting. He was the best writer of belles-lettres in Bangla. His literary columns were as interesting as ever. I feel proud that as a young man I relished his writing as much and as long as I could. The great scholar, linguist, academician, patriot and writer breathed his last in Dhaka on February 11, 1974 (a day after my 19th birthday). He had published twenty five immensely popular volumes of novels, stories, essays, columns and belles-lettres. He effortlessly mixed Arabic, Persian and Sylheti words in his Bangla prose. Then he dipped it in his great wit, brilliant satire and incomparable scholarship. Here was a great scholar who could hide his erudition like the bricks of the Taj Mahal. He was always exciting and interesting and never dull. He had researched extensively on religion but was secular and progressive. He was cosmopolitan as well as deeply rooted in eternal Bangladesh. I feel that all his life he stood for those ideals for which we had fought our Liberation War. He has been a great admirer of Bangabandhu. He loved everything and anything Bangladeshi. In fact, he was the writer closest to our heart. He was very happy to see the emergence of independent Bangladesh. Syed Mujtaba Ali died forty four years back. May he live long in our hearts! Junaidul Haque is a bilingual writer of fiction and essays. Born in 1955, he has published two novels, four volumes of stories and two volumes of short essays. Pathak Samabesh has published his Nirbachita Galpa in 2009.
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