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Professor Imtiaz Habib: A homage

  • Published at 09:00 pm October 11th, 2018


Professor Imtiaz Hasan Habib died in his sleep on August 27, 2018 in Norfolk, Virginia. He was only sixty nine. Last year the famed teacher, scholar, and writer visited Dhaka and gave a lecture at the Dhaka University where he had taught brilliantly as a young man. He had the energy of a young man. Who had thought that his end was so near? 

My first encounter with him was memorable, to begin with. It was my admission test viva at Dhaka University’s English Department. It was late July or early August, 1975. I was indeed in love with literature and was almost a famed young writer, having written nearly a hundred stories, essays and poems for the Young Observer, the popular teenager’s page of The Observer, a famous English daily back in the day. It was far beyond my expectation that Syed Manzoorul Islam Sir, then a young lecturer of twenty five, would recognize me as a budding writer. It made me very happy indeed but it was enough to provoke Imtiaz Habib Sir, who was perhaps twenty six then. "So, you are quite a known young writer! What are you reading these days?" Quite honestly I told him that I was reading DH Lawrence, EM Forster, Aldous Huxley, and Manik Bandopadhyay. "Dropping names to impress us?" roared the Royal Bengal Tiger. Perhaps he could not believe that a boy of my age was truly reading those writers. I was a little frightened even though Manzoor Sir had a sympathetic smile on his face. Sadrul Amin Sir, substituting for Prof Kabir Chowdhury as the chairman of the Viva Board, smiled affectionately too. Imtiaz Sir asked me a few tough questions about my favorite authors, some of which I answered nicely and some not very nicely. Suddenly a sweet smile swept across his serious face. “Okay, we take you only if you can name the other Lawrence. Yes, there is another Lawrence in literature.” I heaved the proverbial sigh of relief. Only a couple of weeks back I had gone through the fat “Adda” issue of the Kolkata weekly Desh and had learned about TE Lawrence and his Seven Pillars of Wisdom from an article on Sudhin Dutta’s adda. So I answered nicely. Imtiaz Sir was happy and both his colleagues looked happy and relaxed too! The angry young teacher with a big heart! Once he was sure that I was not a pretender, he was quite happy. 

Imtiaz Habib Sir, we soon discovered, always looked angry but was a perfect gentleman. A tall, slim, elegant man—always smart and confident. Well-dressed in loose, well-tailored shirts, he was a proud Bangalee; he was very scholarly and the best orator of the department. He had a passion for learning and sharing his knowledge with his students. The young pundit with wavy hair kept us in awe of him. He was intimidating but was inspiring as well. He always addressed his students “apni” and never used “tumi” even on request. He taught us Metaphysical Poetry and made us fall in love with John Donne and his contemporaries. A devoted teacher with brilliant speaking skills, he was always focused and always well-prepared. I wanted to do tutorials with him but never got a chance to. I listened with envy when close friends described their tutorial experiences with him. Later on Prof Habib became a famed Shakespearean scholar and taught his plays and poems with great success in the USA.     

His school (St Gregory’s High School) has produced four renowned teachers of literature who are brilliant writers as well. While Prof Serajul Islam Choudhury was more than a dozen years older than the others in the lot, Prof Shawkat Hussain, Prof Habib, and Prof Kaiser Haq had passed the SSC in three consecutive years (1965 to 1967) and were good friends. I was indeed very sad when I learned that Imtiaz Sir had settled in the USA.   

Prof Imtiaz Hasan Habib loved to argue and his sensitive mind loved the deprived people of the society. We learned from his friends that he was a very good contract bridge player. Former national cricket star Yusuf Rahman Babu mentions in his autobiography that he had played cricket with Prof Habib in the lanes of Dhanmandi during their teen days. The professor is survived by his loving wife, a son, a daughter, and two grand-daughters.  

Prof Habib did his BA (Honors) and MA in English Literature from New College at Oxford, UK. He earned his doctorate from Indiana University in Bloomington in 1984. In the United States he first taught at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas till 1997, then moved to and remained at the Old Dominion University in Norfolk as Professor of English Literature until his death. He is recognised as one of the world's leading scholars in anti-colonial empirical race studies of Shakespeare's England.

His best books are Shakespeare's Pluralistic Concepts of Character: A Study in Dramatic Anamorphism (1993), Shakespeare and Race: Postcolonial Praxis in the Early Modern Period (2000), and Black Lives in the English Archives 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (2008). He had published numerous scholarly essays too, mainly on colonialism and race in the early modern period. 

Imtiaz Habib Sir’s works have been featured in the British Library's Exhibition on the history of London. He has been interviewed by the Folger Shakespeare Institute in Washington, DC and by BBC for a documentary on “In Search of Shakespeare.” His take on Africans in Shakespeare's London was published in several American media outlets. Recently The New York Times cited his work on the “dark lady” in Shakespeare's sonnets.

His book Shakespeare and Race is an authentic study that connects the subject of race in Shakespeare with the advent of early English colonialism. In the book he argues that “a small population of captured Indians and Africans brought to England during the 16th century provided the impetus for Elizabethan constructions of race rather than existing European traditions in which blackness was represented metaphorically.” His research has brought out how Shakespeare responded to the phenomenon of race and how he grew as a writer over the course of his career. Using postcolonial, neo-Marxist, feminist, and psychoanalytic insights, Prof Habib seeks to understand if there was the existence of a black woman that Shakespeare knew and wrote about in his sonnets. His analyses of Shakespeare’s black male characters, such as  Othello, Aaron and Caliban are regarded as solid contributions to Shakespeare studies all over the world. 

May his brilliant soul rest in eternal peace! 

Junaidul Haque is a bilingual writer of fiction and essays. He has published four volumes of short stories, two novels and two volumes of short essays. His Collected Stories was published by Pathak Samabesh in 2009. He was born in 1955.

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