Serajul Islam Choudhury: a tribute

by Syed Manzoorul Islam

TributeMY FATHER, who was a passionate believer in pursuing one’s dream with a ‘deep driving desire’, once told me that he always wanted to be a teacher. A series of early setbacks, however, forced him to take a salaried job, although in the education department. When he finally became a teacher, a head master, in the last four years of his long career, he earned quite a name as a dedicated educator and an uncompromising disciplinarian. One of his favourite quotes was: an average teacher tells, a good teacher instructs and a great teacher inspires. I don’t know how inspirational my father himself had been in the classroom as he always carried with him the aura of a strict taskmaster, but he never gave up on chasing greatness. When I decided to take up English as the subject of my undergraduate studies at the University of Dhaka, he was excited at the prospect of his son being taught by no less a person than Dr Serajul Islam Choudhury, among others. He had read his book Anweshan (The Search) as soon as it had come out in 1964 and he admired it for the range of scholarship and the intellectual profundity it displayed, and the brilliant insights it offered about society, culture and history. He remained a lifelong admirer of Dr Choudhury.
At the university, our first-year work load was quite daunting, as, in addition to the usual course matters, we were handed out a list of 18 must-read ‘reference’ books (including the formidable A History of Western Philosophy by spe01Bertrand Russell). As I struggled with the load, all I wanted was for the years to pass by quickly. But then I met Dr Choudhury (whom all his students lovingly called SIC), at the beginning of the second year, and things began to change. In SIC I discovered an inspirational teacher, a mentor and a role model. We were grateful that he hadn’t confined himself to teaching the senior classes only. He taught us how to engage with and investigate a text (literary or otherwise); to evaluate and critique it; to place it in a historical or cultural context and understand the various intertextualities that go into its making. ‘Intertextuality’, of course, was a later coinage for us, but SIC’s methods of analysis did indeed bring to light the relation between texts and the diffused penetration of one text into another through historical and cultural memories or transformative ideas. As we followed his lectures, read the books and essays he wrote, listened to seminar lectures he delivered in different learned society meetings, we could see how different his idea of academia was from the usual ivory-tower view. He taught us how to graduate from the world of ideas to the world of action; to work for social change and pay back our debt to the society. In my college days I had developed a fascination for Marxist thought — thanks to my endless forays into my favourite bookstore in town, News Corner. In the university, as I read SIC’s essays dealing with the complex issues of historical materialism or labour theory of value; the history of class struggle or alienation, I realised how these ideas did not constitute a pure realm of thought removed from conditions of our complex everydayness, but were keys to understanding our material conditions. Over the years, I discovered SIC’s commitment to critical theory, and to Marxism as a political imaginary. Like all imaginaries, this one also has its limitations, as the historical processes that shape material conditions shift gear, change directions, or become fractious; but despite the failure of some of Marx’s ideas to evolve over time and adequately address many emerging issues, many more of his ideas still remain valid in our time. SIC was the first to alert us to the fact that there is never an authorised and sovereign interpretation of a text or idea; that each idea leaves behind the possibilities of revisit and revision. This was something I found immensely helpful when the moment of theory arrived in the 1980s, and I had to make sense of the complex formulations such as post-structuralism and deconstruction that increasingly tended to be opaque.
Overall, though, SIC’s literary criticism, despite its Marxian leaning, has affinities with the tradition of inclusive criticism associated with such literary critics as FR Leavis who believed that a real literary interest is ‘an interest in man, society and civilisation’ (Leavis, The Common Pursuit). SIC’s writings too move away from ‘words on the page’ to seek to find the relation between literature and the wider world of man and society. He believes that literature should be placed in the context of social and economic realities, class struggle and the suppression of proletarian consciousness. Literature, he maintains, reflects how these issues are not mere spectral or marginalised presences even in a classicist like Shakespeare, but are important concerns that shape the texts’ engagement with history and society. Indeed Edward Said has shown how the immensely exploitative plantation economy associated with British colonialism remains an unmentioned but invasive presence in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. SIC, in his extensive study of the women in Shakespeare explores the discursive power that sustained the prevalent social order of Shakespeare’s time and denied women their agency, but also shows how many of these women wield a subversive power to challenge and unsettle traditional roes. SIC’s approach echoes new historicist emphasis on the interconnectedness between a literary text and the cultural ethos of a period, the constructedness of the past and the multiple consciousnesses of history. His study also uses key persuasions of materialist feminism which highlights socio-political aspects of the history and struggle of women for empowerment.
Despite his abiding interest in the study of the historical and material existence of human societies and despite the similarities that exist between his critical studies of literature, society and culture and the traditional approaches of Marxist literary criticism in terms of their central focus, it would be wrong to categorise SIC as an orthodox Marxist, or to place him in one of the influential Marxist schools because he always brings his own reading of history, class, rationalism and ideology to bear on his interpretation of literary texts and his writings on society, politics and culture. While he is an ardent believer in socialism, he also shows an anxiety about its definitional rigidity and its functioning in a society where poverty and illiteracy demand a new engagement with it.
What this means is that SIC has evolved over the years as social and political imperatives have changed, the terms of his engagement with his society and his time have changed, and as new realities have emerged. Back in the late 1950s, he committed himself to Bengali nationalism, which after reaching a high point during our war of liberation, and a brief period of ascendancy thereafter, began to face new threats from different rightist — and later fundamentalist — quarters. SIC realised that one of the grounds that weakened Bengali nationalism was its exclusivity — the Adivashis and the ethnic population had no place in it. He has written on the need for a new inclusivity, as he has advocated for their rights and the need for the state apparatus to respect the uniqueness of their social and familial institutions. SIC has also lent his support to the religious minorities’ fight for their rights and religious freedom. One of the broad themes that he has pursued in his work is justice which he believes has been problematized by the operations of power and the capitalist exchange system. He is aware that politics and power have continuously disguised the logic of domination, and have suppressed individuals’ rights. Politics is also a running thread that binds his works on literature and society. He regrets how various forms of autocracy — even the newer, post 1990 version of democracy — have turned freedom into unfreedom, and perpetuated inequality among social groups.
One way a new awareness about man and society — and, in a larger sense, the world — can be created, according to SIC, is by remodeling our education system. As an educator himself, he sees the futility of pursuing a tripartite educational system such as the one we pursue — (Bengali and English medium and madrassah) which only consolidates inequality and class differences. He is not happy with the way our schools function and the way education is imparted. While the reach of education spreads every year and the number of children enrolled increases, quality goes down or remains stagnant. SIC asks for a change of philosophy of education — which will automatically ensure a change of approach. He believes education should aim to form secular, progressive, culturally sensitive individuals who will not only be able to pick up the knowledge and skills necessary to enter the wider world of learning in a progressive manner, but also show a deep commitment to humanity and social justice.
SIC’s fields of interest range far and wide — from literature to journalism, from subaltern historiography to ecocriticism. His newspaper columns, on society and politics, (particularly the long running Sangbad post-editorials, ‘Samay Bahiya Jay’ as ‘Gachh Pathar’) have a very wide readership and have been inspirational, particularly to the younger readers, for their hardcore idealism. Written with an elegant and anecdotal style, and laced with satire where satire is due (and also a tongue in cheek humour) his columns explore our contemporary scene for identifying our failures and ways to mitigate them. SIC maintains a moral standpoint (but never a moralizing tone) befitting an educator, to expose ‘human follies’ (we heard him repeatedly talk about human follies when he taught us Congreve and Restoration comedy), and emphasise human reason.
SIC is a visionary literary magazine editor, a job he began a long while ago, when he was entrusted with the editorship of the journal of the writers’ guild. Quite late in his career, he reignited his old love by bringing out Natun Diganta. As an editor he draws together a pool of writers, researchers and cultural thinkers who consistently maintain a critical engagement with the issues of our time.
Most students of SIC, however, aren’t aware that he is also an outstanding creative writer. Many have, no doubt, read his translations — particularly that of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which was also turned into a successful TV drama — but not many may have known about his short fictions. It’s a pity that he didn’t continue to write fiction, but that’s a regret that is far outweighed by the satisfaction we derive from reading his non-fiction work.
Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury turns 80 on June 23. For most people of his age, it is a time when the body slows down and the mind refuses to be agitated by issues that fired them up in their youth. But not SIC, and we are confident that he will take his octogenarianism with stride and continue to do what he had always enjoyed doing — writing. As he has given up on classroom teaching — a sad loss that his older students regret and new entrants to the English department only sigh about — he has concentrated on communicating with an ever increasing readership through his writings. We only hope that he has the good health to remain active for many more years. 

Syed Manzoorul Islam is professor of English at the University of Dhaka.

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