He was of a generation whose dedication to principles was all. He came of a class of erudite men for whom scholarship was an end in itself, untainted by thoughts of glory or a climbing of the stairs to vaunted ambition. Professor Anisuzzaman, when his life drew to an end even as the day was beginning to pass into the grayness of twilight on Thursday, was suddenly and powerfully a reminder for people of my generation of the quiet humility his life had consistently embodied.
And that was his greatness. Men of intense intellect are individuals without hubris, people who make it a point in life to respect other people, to interact with them on equal terms. Anisuzzaman never strayed from basic decency, a trait that manifested itself in his use of ‘apni’ in addressing every man and woman he chanced to come across. His greetings were a sure sign of how he engaged with people, with nothing of the perfunctory or formal about them. He shook hands, and that smile played on his lips as he inquired about the welfare of the one who had just come into his presence. It has been my experience to observe Professor Anisuzzaman often rising to his feet as a well-wisher or admirer stepped up to him to whisper a nervous hello or a salutation.
My last meeting with this man of quiet heroism—and he was and will forever be a hero to all of us owing to his participation in the making of history—was in early February this year at the seminar organized by the family of the late reputed educationist Abu Rushd Matinuddin on the occasion of the latter’s centenary of birth. He was rather frail but did manage to step on to the stage to preside over the ceremony given over to honoring some eminent people on the part of the Abu Rushd family. It was my good fortune to share, along with others, the stage with Professor Anisuzzaman. Once the formal part of the program was over, I sat beside him, nervous as always in conversing with a man of his intellectual stature. He was reassuring, telling me once again what a pleasure it was for him to go through my writings. My evening was made.
I had to leave early as I would be catching a flight to Kolkata the following morning. I will never forget the smile, nothing less than beatific, when he took my hand in his and said goodbye. I had precious little idea that I would never see him again. For me, in that very personal sense, there have always been those times when the scholars I have consistently learned from passed into the region beyond life one after the other. Professor Khan Sarwar Murshid, Waheedul Haque, Professor Kabir Chowdhury, Professor Salahuddin Ahmad and Professor Khandaker Ashraf Hossain are but some of the inspiring figures from whom I have imbibed ideas over the years. I cannot say that I have grown any wiser, but that these men kindled in me a desire to learn, to test the world of ideas, has always been a truism.
With the departure of Professor Anisuzzaman, my communion with the generation of wise men preceding my own generation of rather unmistakable mediocrity shrinks a little once more. And yet it will always be for me a matter of pride that I have known these illustrious men, have in my vicarious way been in touch with history. Anisuzzaman was part of history, integral to it. His involvement with it was cerebral as well as emotional, going back all the way to his youthful perception of it in the Language Movement of 1952. His new avatar, as an academic in the 1960s, was only a spur to a further assertion of his sense of nationalism, as was made so evident in the Mass Movement to force the ouster of the Ayub Khan dictatorship in 1969.
The War of Liberation was a seminal point in our history, calling on the Bengali nation to plunge into the struggle to eject the enemy lock, stock and barrel from the land. Anisuzzaman comes in again. My sense of wonder at the role he played in the war has always been aroused by the track he followed, as he worked in close harmony with Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad, one that was far removed from the language and literature he was academically adept in. Here he was, occupying a coveted niche as a member of the planning commission constituted by the government-in-exile. It was all a matter of economics, as the student of economics Tajuddin understood so well. But, of course, he saw the ability, indeed the wisdom in the literary man that was Anisuzzaman to handle issues beyond his field of scholarship. Anisuzzaman acquitted himself well in all that company of economists and planners. It was development strategy he helped shape for post-war national reconstruction. He and Tajuddin Ahmad stayed on the same wavelength, then and later.
Sometimes I have asked myself if Anisuzzaman, born in what is today West Bengal, did not miss his ancestral home. He went to school in Kolkata’s Park Circus area, finished school before the vivisection of India in 1947. His family moved to the newly created Pakistan which, observed through the exigencies of the times, was not unusual. Muslim families were making their way to Muslim Pakistan. It is the lesson of history in our part of the world that a very large number of Muslims migrating from West Bengal to East Bengal were unable to clothe themselves in the liberal raiment that was happily to be Anisuzzaman’s. His family arrived in East Bengal as Muslims seeking a future in Pakistan, in fealty to the so-called two-nation theory. But then he transcended that limitation, to scale the heights of secular individuality. It was a principle he would pursue and propagate till the end. Many were the threats hurled at him by Islamist bigots in the past couple of decades, but none of those brickbats could dampen his resolve for secular liberalism to be revived in Bangladesh. He was unwilling to see the fruit of his diligence, of his political convictions, come to naught through the mischief of the anti-historical forces that seized the State in 1975. He was not to be defeated.
We will miss Professor Anisuzzaman for more reasons than we can conceive of. Yes, he was a scholar of the highest calibre. Yes, he demonstrated brilliance as a researcher and then as a visiting scholar abroad. Think of his written works, the many books he penned on a diversity of subjects. They are a delight to read, for in them Anisuzzaman’s wisdom flows quietly and deeply, as the waters of a river in rural Bangladesh flow on to their end and yet to no end. Nowhere in the works can you spot an opinionated Anisuzzaman. He was among those scholars who have historically steered clear of intellectual bigotry. Read Bipula Prithibi. Read Amar Ekattor. Read Culture and Thought. There is magic in the words wafting from them.
As Anisuzzaman begins to turn to dust in his grave, it is the vibrant scholar in him I go back to in the landscape of my mind. There he is, a powerful member of the Qudrat-e-Khuda Education Commission, enriching its deliberations with his pearls of wisdom. But that is not all. His facility with language, his sophisticated knowledge of it were enough to convince Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that he was the man who would and could prepare the Bangla version of the nation’s Constitution in 1972. He did the job marvelously well.
I was never a pupil of Professor Anisuzzaman, in that formal sense of the meaning. But, then, he was indeed my teacher on a transcendental plane of thought; he was one I always addressed as Sir. I was humbled every time he commended my write-ups; I was touched when he appreciated my use of English. Coming from him, they only spurred me on into trying to do better. When he spoke at the launch of my work on Bangabandhu a few years ago, I knew of the warmth he held me in. He was happy knowing that I was working on a biography of Tajuddin Ahmad.
The ages have claimed Anisuzzaman. Sunlight will play on his grave. The rains will seep into it. Storms will blow over it. But poetry will have us remember that beneath that accumulation of soil, covered as it is with leaves blown about by the winds, rests a soul who played a decisive hand in the making of history and of scholarship. And thus did he become a hero, for his generation, for the generations that would follow his.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.