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Beneath the bright smile

  • Published at 08:14 pm June 19th, 2014
Beneath the bright smile

I got to know Sardar Fazlul Karim (who died on June 15) after I joined Dhaka University as a lecturer in 1978. Though I had been a student from December 1972 onwards I had only been peripherally aware of the teachers in departments other than my own and a few in the English department.

As an escapee from Pakistan, I was way too busy in absorbing the shock of the new, a process which carried on for a considerable time. This shock in part was also from a campus environment where political ideologies were riddles wrapped up in enigmas. I had never before encountered such an atmosphere and environment, especially the middle-class Bengali’s fondness for radical politics and watery tea.

I joined the university after I graduated. After which I used to pop downstairs from our International Relations department to Political Science below, to the corner room of the Centre for Social Studies run by Dr B K Jahangir, or BKJ. To look at their journal, studies and reports, as well as their projects – the political economy of aid and dependence was something my department was blank about, and which to me now seemed central in any analysis of Bangladesh’s external relations.

It was there that I first noticed Sardar Fazlul Karim, who would sometimes come in for a quick chat with BKJ. From the very start he was friendly with me – on the way out, lifting the university-issue orange curtain at the door he would turn to me and flash that extraordinarily bright smile. I too would smile back and give a brief wave. But beneath the bright smile there was something austere about him.

The lean face, the gaunt body, the modest way of disappearing into the shadows of those long corridors – all hinted at privations and endurance. I asked, and got the highlights: the first-rate student, the hounding and jailing by Ayub Khan, elected to the Constituent Assembly from prison in 1954, the communist party membership, the renunciation of the university post, and the later reinstatement.

I instantly warmed to the tale. So there was steel beneath the gentleness – always an attractive quality. But also because he was an old-line Bolshevik, one of the old-guard Communist Party. By this time I had some clue to the politics around me – the Pinkies, Blues and the Whites among the teachers, not the least resembling football team colours – and the daunting array of the leading student fronts. Hard core Maoists and Moscow-wallahs, with all shades in between. This moitree and that co-ordinating council. That Union and this League.

I had also to dislike the Maoists around me. In larger terms of course I always had a quarrel with them over China’s role in 1971. How could so many of the Maoists sneer at a liberation struggle fighting against calculated genocide, a struggle where the masses had plunged in? How could you bow and scrape to a regime that was supplying arms that was killing your own people daily? Why venerate Mao if he was with the Pakistani junta?

With the Chinese themselves I had no real quarrel – they were following their state interests. But the local Maoists, these Bengalis, what were they thinking, colluding with their nation’s killers? I tended to dislike them personally too for their intense factionalism and cold-bloodedness. They were people best given a wide berth.

The Moscow-wallahs, on the other hand, though they salaamed an oligarchic monstrosity in Kremlin, at least had fought the Pakistan army tooth and nail in 1971. And personally I liked them – they tended to have loyalties, to be warm human beings, and no less important, could be rather literary in a genteel way, knowledgeable about “Anna Karenina”. I could get along with them, even when their proletarian instincts were roused by my manifestly regressive class consciousness. But here I would agree with them: after all, how far could you trust somebody who liked cricket!

And Sardar Fazlul Karim was of this stock! Fine with me, then! So now whenever I spotted Sardar sir sitting in the arts faculty teachers’ lounge in the Arts Faculty building I would walk over and exchange pleasantries. He had innate courtesy. Once we spent some time side by side doing the khata kata for the university entrance exams (yes, I am talking of those days!), with me complaining about the quality of the scripts and the food served and Sardar sir laughing at some of my more outre comments.

He wore an old wristwatch, one with an old-fashioned strap in our age of chained glitter, and often I would wonder whether that had been his companion in prison during those long lost years. I did get an answer of sorts. In the lounge even when in a group he was not particularly talkative. One day near noontime I saw him sitting with another man engaged in animated conversation.

This made me look twice. He caught my look and motioned me over. He introduced me to the other man, who was also short, and sunburnt a shade of black that I have seldom seen, and almost never in the confines of the lounge. He was wearing a kurta pyjama of coarse weave, and looked out of place, gawking at the lounge in a wide-eyed manner. His Bengali accent and usage were somewhat rough too.

It turned out he was a veteran communist up from Bhola, and both he and Sardar sir had done prison time together. Soon, however, the two of them were launched on some uproarious memories of those times, laughing at some episodes, especially at one comrade’s futile attempts at a vegetable garden, and at another’s equally futile attempt to grow a full beard.

These two men, jailed for their political activism, I realized were a community apart. Among them was the bond of men who had shared foxholes in combat, something those of us who have not done so cannot quite imagine. Finally, Sardar sir took him home for lunch, inviting me also to puti mach and bhaat, but I declined, out of some obscure desire to leave these two old comrades to their memories. 

Another memory I have is a bit of a weird one. When in 1984 Menachem Begin launched his deadly assault on the PLO in Beirut, the Israelis used cluster bombs. Appalled at the high civilian death rate I began to research CBs, going through not just the SIPRI reports but hunting out technical papers.

One day I happened to be in the lounge next to a very Jamaat-looking teacher, possibly in Arabic or Islamic Studies, togged out in shalwar-kurta Pakistani style, with beard and henna. Today I forget how but we got on to the subject of Israelis and Beirut. I began my disquisition on cluster bombs and he listened to me with deep interest.

From then on we would sometimes sit together and talk about bombs and Israel – especially since I was graduating to neutron bombs. He in turn to my surprise turned out to be good on the early years of Israel, on the Zionist founding fathers. One day, Sardar sir called me over and in the course of sipping lemon tea, mildly enquired what I was discussing so earnestly with that “Pakistani” chap.

I told him about the cluster bombs. He too became fascinated, and now I had two listeners for my ten-minute seminars on this arcane research subject. Sardar sir would listen quietly as I detailed the grisly effects of neutron bombs on a city, whereby buildings and structures would be left intact but all of its inhabitants would be dead. He would shake his head at the end, no doubt in humanist horror at the infinite capacity of man to kill his own kind.

I remember this continued for about two weeks. It gives me pause now to think that in those days at least some Jamaatis read outside the scripture, and were not the intellectually bankrupt party of today so corrupted by Saudi money that when Tony Blair, mass murderer of Muslims, came to Bangladesh they didn’t even stage a token protest!

My contact with Sardar sir stopped abruptly when I left for the United States shortly afterwards. After I came back I would read the occasional account of him in the dailies, but didn’t re-establish contact. I somehow had the idea that he lived in old Dhaka, and did not feel like diving into its alleyways. But just now I read somewhere that his house was in Dhanmandi – and so I missed my opportunity. And when his namaz e janaza was held I was abroad – I seem to have missed that boat too.

So the only thing I can do is write this memorium of a very modest, old-fashioned communist whose feelings for the society he lived in ran deep and true. There are very few of his kind left anymore.

May Sardar Fazlul Karim rest in eternal peace!