These are a collage of memories, reflections of an individual who has seen men and women of knowledge pass into the Great Beyond.
These are not stories and yet they are a story of teachers who, having imbued their pupils with ideas and thoughts and idealism, are today part of the tradition which goes into an enriching of the academic landscape of this country.
For me, indeed for those boys and girls who are today men and women in their sixties, who entered the Department of English of Dhaka University in the mid-1970s and left in the early 1980s, those teachers we have lost to the inevitability of time and mortality remain as poignant a presence today as they were in those early days in the department when we thought the world was ours to shape and forge into a universe in line with our specifications.
Those teachers were our world. The universe we built in the placidity of their long shadows is one we have not let go of. For obvious reasons. For perfectly valid reasons.
In Professor Ahsanul Haque was reflected the image of a teacher you could imagine in the distant climes of Oxford. He was soft-spoken, humble and every inch symbolic of wisdom. In his tutorial classes, as we looked outside the window and observed the afternoon breeze create melody among the leaves on the tree outside almost hugging the walls of the room, we explored the depths of literature as it had come to define aesthetics around the world. Haque explored Victorian literature or Chaucer, but that was not the radius he confined himself to. He was forever going beyond the theme under discussion. And we emerged somewhat wiser from his discourse.
If Ahsanul Haque was emblematic of a proper don in the mould of distant Oxford, there was Imtiaz Habib, confidence dripping from all of him, a mastery of the subject he happened to be instructing us on that we did not miss. There are often teachers who make light of the serious themes students are confronted with, the lightness being in the form of breaking down barriers—of language, of nuances, of symbolisms—in observations of poetry. Professor Imtiaz Habib fell into that category of academics. Our understanding of Metaphysical Poetry, indeed our appreciation of John Donne and Andrew Marvell and of every other poet in that class was made easier through Habib’s parsing of the ideas which underpinned the poetry. Habib smiled in class but rarely. There was something of the stern in his character, an attitude we initially feared but soon came to respect. Many among us who went for stints in teaching after university attempted emulating him. We could not fill the big boots Imtiaz Habib wore.
One of the gentlest of teachers we lost to time a long time ago was Professor Shamsuddoha. Where our readings of Jonathan Swift, especially Gulliver’s Travels, in school had been mere passages through story-telling, in Shamsuddoha’s hands they were a journey of political discovery into the world the writer inhabited in his time. It was in Shamsuddoha’s classes that we took some significant strides into a comprehension of political symbolism, indeed grasped the deeper meanings which lay beyond the black and white of literary narrative. In the short walks he took between the classroom and his office, head bowed in thought, we spotted a proper man of literature.
And then there was Professor KMA Munim, the elderly teacher from whom flowed a brevity of ideas upon which we were expected to build thoughts in their originality. In the classroom, as he spoke to us, there was that tinge of charming sarcasm when he referred to us as young scholars. We were certainly no scholars, but that tone in him was a warning bell, a hint of what might befall us if we so much as moved the mind away from his lectures. There was a terrifying moment when one morning he surprised us all with the question: ‘What is the most profound statement in all literature?” All literature? Here we were lost in the woods with English literature and there was our teacher testing us on territory we had few clues about. We looked sheepish, even as a grin played on his face. His scholars stayed properly silent rather than spring forth with answers dipped in folly. He put us out of our misery. “Jesus wept.” That was the most profound statement in all literature. Initially a surprise for us, it would soon turn into a statement replete with the profundity of meaning.
On our very first day with Professor Razia Khan Amin, it was the state of the country she reminded us of. It was a day in September 1975 and we had been in the department for barely a week. Professor Amin was visibly sad as she spoke to us of the tragedy that had overtaken Bangladesh with the assassination of Bangabandhu and his family. It was that moment in life when a sense of collective tragedy took hold of us. And in the years that followed, as we traipsed in and out of Amin’s room in our pursuit of literature, it was her political thoughts and her literary record—as a poet and novelist and critic—which spurred us on into our own explorations of poetry and fiction and the world beyond. For me, a proud moment came when she stopped me in the corridor one day, to let me know of her appreciation of my article on Raja Rao that had appeared in the department journal. My thrill went in circles around me.
Studies of Greek literature were all Greek to us before Professor Kabir Chowdhury introduced us to Aeschylus and Sophocles. It was in Chowdhury’s classes—and his was a formidable presence resting on absolute friendliness—that we first gleaned the meaning of Greek tragedy, of the literary miles which lay between it and Shakespearean tragedy. In effect, Kabir Chowdhury’s classes were a conference of ideas as they shaped up through our questions and his responses. And once the exchange of thoughts was done, Professor Chowdhury would breeze out as he had breezed in. We trooped out and into the seminar library, fishing for works on Greek civilization.
In the young and vibrant Syed Khwaja Moinul Hassan we spotted images of ourselves, of the dreams and idealism which beat wildly in our hearts. It was Professor Munim who took us on long journeys through Shelley, but it was Hassan who transformed us all into modern-day images of Shelley, in essence of Keats and Wordsworth and Coleridge. He was a veritable storm in the classroom, sign of an imminent revolution in the formulation of literary thought.
We did not have much of Professor Nadira Begum in the classroom, but some of us had the privilege of being her pupils in the tutorial classes. It was for us a matter of huge pride knowing that we were under the tutelage of a 1952 Language Movement veteran. There was sheer energy in her, a confidence which boosted our own belief in our ability to do good for others and ourselves as well.
We have not forgotten Professor Suraiya Khanam. We ought to have had more of her classes, but did not. In her was yet another dimension of literature, for she had been to Oxford. And it was Oxford which dominated our thoughts in all those classes we experienced in all the years we spent at Dhaka University.
All these men and women, these scholars who shaped us into what we are today, lie buried in graves around the world and across the country.
Thoughts of them remain, as a formidable memorial to the profundity in them, in the core of our collective being.
We hear them speak to us, in the whispering winds rushing through the bare trees in the depths of gloom-laden winter.
Their footsteps, as they approach the classroom, are yet heard. And we yet rush into the classroom, to take our places on the benches, to gain newer nuggets of wisdom, to try understanding the world a little more.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is currently Editor-in-Charge of The Asian Age. His books include Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: From Rebel to Founding Father, Glory and Despair: The Politics of Tajuddin Ahmad.