Razia Khan was a formidable presence, and not just in the classroom. As this Omnibus Edition reminds us, it is her imprints on the field of creative literature that has kept her legacy alive both among her students and colleagues. And then there is the wider world of readers out there who have remembered, always remembered, that Khan’s was that early Bengali image which implanted itself on minds and souls as an authentic literary voice from Bangladesh. But, yes, her forays into the world of creative literature had their beginnings in her youth at a time when Bangladesh was yet part of Pakistan, which is one way of suggesting that in the old country, in both wings of it, Razia Khan made a deep impression as a South Asian not afraid of demonstrating her forte as a powerful writer in her native Bengali as also in English.
Omnibus recreates for our times, indeed for a new generation of literature aficionados in Bangladesh, the ambience in which Khan operated in her times. The selections of her writings—and the old eclecticism which consistently defined her thoughts before she put them down in black and white being resurgent—once again bring home the truth that in so very many ways Razia Khan was our window to the world of English literature, literature that was homegrown in Bangladesh. She wrote with passion in Bengali. But given her dedication to English literature and her interaction with her teachers and fellow students abroad in her youth, and prior to that, it was clearly her penchant for originality in thought which impelled her into writing in English.
But—and here is the point—Razia Khan’s literary canvas was peopled with her reflections on aesthetics in her own land. Consider “Flight to Parnassus,” where the sheer exhilaration she spots in poetry in East Pakistan is the governing thought. Her reflections on Nazrul and the influence she spots on him of Whitman gives the Rebel Poet a universality which Khan realizes early on. Additionally, she spots the urgent outburst, as she puts it, in Nazrul’s poetry reminiscent of John Donne’s passion. Khan’s travels through the world of Bengali literature cover an entire gamut—and this is a journey she is undertaking in 1970—as she leads readers through certainly some tortuous passages in calling attention to translations. The translations, into Bengali, bring into focus Mahmud Shah Qureshi’s take on Rilke and Ahmed Abdullah’s and Rafiq Azad’s work on the poetry of Dom Moraes. As Khan puts it in perspective, “East Pakistan’s Bengali poetry thus reveals a juxtaposition of the world view and the local flavour of East Pakistan.”
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The message is obvious: even before East Pakistan translated into the sovereign republic of Bangladesh, the Bengali’s understanding of Western literature and his readiness to align his own literary world with the West were a mark of the cosmopolitanism defining his creative being. A creative Razia Khan was thus letting the world in on the idea of Bengali creativity. Omnibus is a vehicle which soon moves on, to Khan’s fiction. Short stories such as “The Tamarind Tree” exhibit the modernity which exercised Razia Khan’s persona in her view of the world. Contemporary politics such as Al Gore’s inability to be America’s leader and images of the cafeteria at Boston College are emblematic of the writer’s deep association with the world beyond her national frontiers. Something of this theme governs the narrative in “The Symphony of Silence.” Amina’s disappointment at not being able to secure a place at Oxford and therefore forced into studies at a provincial college in England is effectively an opening of doors, for the reader, to the enthusiasm which English literature generates in her. Imagery has always been part of Razia Khan’s literary discourse; and imagery runs through her fiction. Dwell on this:
“She shivered in her leaf green blouse. She quickly covered the bare portions of her neck and arms where six spots of sunlight filtered through the stained glass—and where Knight’s attention was fixed for a fleeting second.”
And then there are the tributes which have enriched Omnibus. Kaiser Haq and Fakrul Alam, students of Razia Khan in the English Department of Dhaka University before they became her colleagues, provide warm and touching accounts of their interaction with her. Haq’s recounting of an episode in the classroom, where to Razia Khan’s question, “What do you think of Hamlet’s personality?” a classmate comes forth with a not too remarkable “He’s basically OK,” is a glimpse into Razia Khan’s fastidious nature as an academic. That OK leads to a torrent of justified indignation from Khan. “You are a poet, and all you have to say about the most enigmatic character in the entire history of English literature is that he’s OK?”
Depth in literary understanding mattered to Khan. Frivolous responses to her questions in the classroom or outside it left her deeply disturbed. That response to her student above is illustrative of the profundity she demonstrated in her teaching and which profundity she expected from her students. In his recollections of her, Fakrul Alam refers to his use of the term “articulate” in his tutorial essay on Pride and Prejudice. The term energized Razia Khan. As Alam puts it: “‘Articulate’, she exclaimed excitedly; ‘What a good word to use!’ And I felt, all of a sudden, that our class had come alive with her.”
This unquestionably rich compendium brings together reminiscences on Razia Khan by Hameeda Hossain, Rebecca Haque (who herself would go on to be a teacher in the English Department); Junaidul Haque, Azfar Hussain, Munize Manzur, Amitava Kar and this reviewer. The Foreword by Emeritus Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury is poignant, evocative of the affection in which he held Razia Khan. Observe the trail of his memories:
“In 1971 all of us were prisoners in our own country, haunted by the fear of death. One day, while walking to the bank in the Nilkhet area I saw someone waving at me from a parked car. On a closer look I recognized Razia Khan and she said, sotto voce, ‘I am leaving, but don’t tell anyone about it.’ I wished her a safe escape. And indeed, she left the country to spend her days in exile.”
In exile, Razia Khan lived in her suffering country within the parameters of the mind, pouring words into her literary expression. It was a liberated land she would come back home to. And then Bangabandhu’s assassination three and a half years later once again created that sense of exile in her, as it did in the rest of the country. It was a suffering country she inhabited; and in and despite suffering her creativity in her works and her dynamism in the classroom shone through.
That was the force working in her. There was a true light of literature which burned in her, a light she transmitted to her students, her colleagues and her readers.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer. His books include From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Published by Anwarul Amin, Kaiser Amin, Aasha Mehreen Amin