As Bangladesh continues to grapple with the crises unleashed by the Coronavirus pandemic, it was forced to deal with the trauma of bidding an abrupt and unceremonious farewell to one of its foremost intellectuals, National Professor Anisuzzaman.
His illustrious life was entwined with the most momentous cultural and political events of our nation that paved the way for the birth and growth of Bangladesh. His literary research, enriched with socio-historical insights, brought to life an era left behind within the depths of time.
For readers like us who grew up in the new millennium, his memoirs were like priceless chronicles of our political and cultural origin. My first vivid memory of him is of a conference several years ago at Dhaka University where I was fortunate enough to be present as a school-going kid. There he presented an essay on ethics, entitled “Nitikothar Porer Kotha”. In the essay, with reference to numerous classic Bangla stories and novels, he delineated the moral conflicts that emerge within an individual and their surroundings. The uniquely compelling perspective on morality he described in the essay is crucial especially in these times, as our religious values and cultural norms keep changing drastically and clash perpetually with one another to strike a growing discordance within our individual souls.
Muslim Manosh O Bangla Sahityo
His magnum opus Muslim Manosh O Bangla Sahityo is a brilliant portrayal of the emergence and evolution of the literary practices of Bengali Muslims from the late 18th century to early 20th century. With a detailed historical backdrop, he narrates how the local Hindus and Muslims simultaneously dealt with the paradigm shift in their socio-political circumstances after the rule of the East India Company began in this region. His eloquent analyses explore how the drastic changes in the social order created by the colonial regime profoundly altered the Muslims’ outlook on their cultural practices and religion. The proliferation of the doctrines of Wahabism also had a substantial impact, all of which was destined to shape the literary pieces authored by most of the esteemed Muslim authors in the era that followed. His meticulously-done research and fluid language breathes life into a period in literary history that outlines not only the history of our literature, but also the roots of our religious identity.
His memoir trilogy Kal Nirobodhi, Amar Ekattor and Bipula Prithibi reveal themselves as vital sources of historical insight and national history.
Kal Nirobodhi is the first volume which outlines his life experiences from his early life to the beginning of the Liberation War in 1971. It gives us glimpses of his family life as well as the political backdrop unveiling in India right during Partition, including the communal riots that tore Kolkata apart into shreds. His pain-filled, yet dispassionate description carried the reader through the perilous roads of post-riots Kolkata to Khulna, then a part of erstwhile East Pakistan.
As his academic career commenced and flourished, so did his involvement with numerous cultural and political events that culminated to the Liberation War in 1971: his participation in the Language Movement of 1952; role in organizing Rabindranath Tagore’s birth centenary celebrations in 1961 and resistance against the ban of Tagore’s songs on Pakistan Radio in 1967, and his involvement with the mass uprising in 1969. It might not be an exaggeration to call it a treasure trove of socio-historical data about the most crucial time of our nation. Interspersed throughout with his war-time experience are the heart-wrenching moments of grief separation and priceless memories with luminaries such as Indira Gandhi, Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay and many others.
Amar Ekattor, the second volume, is an honest and insightful depiction of the wartime Bangladesh; it paints a deeply poignant picture evoking the dreams, anguish and the bloody sacrifices that gave us a country to call our own. It might not be an exaggeration to call it a treasure trove of socio-historical data on the most crucial time of our nation.
In another recollection, he shares a touching telephone conversation with his beloved teacher and martyred intellectual Munier Chowdhury. Anisuzzaman called him from Chittagong on March 7 in 1971, at the dead of the night when the latter described to him the mesmerizing experience of hearing Bangabandhu’s historic speech in person. This was the last time they ever spoke.
He also goes into detail about the bond he shared with Tajuddin Ahmad—the Prime Minister of the Mujibnagar government and a central figure in the Liberation War. To accomplish and coordinate a multitude of activities during the war, Tajuddin created the first Planning Commission of Bangladesh and enlisted him as one of its members. This was his first volume filled with grief and hope whose colors and brushstrokes still resonate with our souls and touch our hearts.
Bipula Prithibi, the third and final volume of his autobiography, picks up where its predecessor left off and spreads itself out over three decades of history and countless illuminating stories that chronicle the growth of Bangladesh as a young nation.
The secular vision he had for Bangladesh was revealed in the role he played as a member of the Education Commission headed by Dr Kudrat-E-Khuda, shortly after the war was over. As different sections of the society began to demand the reinstation of the madrasas, he, along with other members of the Commission, remained loyal to the proposal of having a uniform, secular education system throughout the nation. Unfortunately, though, this particular vision was not to be fulfilled. He aptly pointed out later in an interview with Swakrito Noman that our social fabric is on the verge of being torn apart along the lines of religion, and economic class and value systems; the multiple education systems flowing through different sections of the society simultaneously and imparting vastly different values and social customs, he went on to explain, are largely responsible for this state of social rupture.
Through many such moments of disappointment and fulfillment, the journey of his exceptional life took him beyond national and continental borders opening the door for illuminating encounters with different scholars, visionaries and icons such as Kazi Nazrul Islam, Kalpana Datta, General Jagjit Singh Aurora, the eminent historian Romila Thapar, Ranajit Guha, etc, giving us a rare glimpse of the souls of those who shaped our culture, politics and the international intelligentsia.
Professor Anisuzzaman’s demise marks a profound loss for us all, not only for the admirable role he played as a secular scholar in a fragile post-colonial nation, but also for the precious memories of many decisive moments of our history that he carried within and shared. His presence gave a ray of hope for a generation like ours who are struggling to cope in an increasingly complex and painfully fractured society in an era of neo-liberal globalization that is shaping our lives. In the end, we can only hope his teachings, research and writings continue to find relevance within the dystopian reality we are being compelled to live in as we move toward an uncertain future.
Ashabori Mayurakkhi can be reached at [email protected]