A public intellectual turns 80

Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury, who has witnessed the British rule, Partition and the Bangladesh independence movement, hopes that a socialist revolution will one day create a healthier, happier polity. Professor Choudhury tells Kaiser Haq in an interview that he would have loved to be a journalist but became a teacher as journalism was not a viable proposition

Serajul Islam Choudhury  family

Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury with his family.

Kaiser Haq: Sir, first of all I wish to felicitate you on your eightieth birthday, and to wish you many happy returns. It’s been a long life well lived, and I am sure you’ll witness many startling changes in the coming years. Let me start this dialogue at the beginning. You spent your first 11 years as a subject of the British Raj. I believe your parents, like mine, were good colonial subjects while being at the same time ardent nationalists who wanted freedom from colonial rule. What did you feel and think about your country, about the wider world, and about your place amidst all this?
Serajul Islam Choudhury: Thank you, Kaiser, for your nice words and very fine sentiments. You define me neatly when you call me an intellectual. I have been a teacher and a writer; and the two coalesce in the identity of an intellectual, and perhaps I am an intellectual at the core. As I see it, an intellectual is a person who has feelings but tries to understand the world intellectually and to communicate his understanding to others, and because of his feelings joins in the collective struggle to change the system he is living under. My first commitment has been to writing. This I developed through my interest in literature. Professionally, I would have loved to be a journalist — on the editing and not reporting side. But journalism was not a viable proposition, and I became a teacher instead.
spe01I recognise in me the working of two contrary forces — one of sensitivity and the other of responsiveness. I have been both sensitive and responsive. That explains why I have often written pseudonymously, even mischievously.
I see my country as part of a world which is capitalist in terms of both economics and ideology. In its youth capitalism had a progressive role to play. It had achieved the opening up of enterprise and discovery, particularly for Europe. But now it is old and decaying. While it has not given up its interest in making profit through trade and war, it has turned war itself into a trade. It has put on the garb of what it calls globalisation, which is totally opposed to internationalism. Whereas globalisation thrives on trade and exploitation, internationalism promotes cooperation and understanding. Capitalism is now the most unsparing enemy of mankind and the planet itself. This realisation is widespread at present. Bernie Sanders’s election campaign on a socialist platform is a wake-up call not only for the American public, but for people all over the world. Capitalism is beyond cure and it has to be replaced by socialism. The anti-capitalist struggle is both local and international. And we in Bangladesh must join it. That is the position I take, and believe in.

Kaiser Haq: Could you tell us something about your mental world in the years following the Partition?
Serajul Islam Choudhury: The Partition was sudden. My parents, like everyone else, were overtaken by that sudden turn in history. We were in Calcutta and had thought of staying there for some time. Dhaka was a disappointment. My younger brother still recalls that when we got off the train at the Dhaka railway station in the evening of a tiresome day, he was tearful, looking at the ramshackle building and the narrow strip of a platform which called itself the gateway to the new capital.
The euphoria of independence did not last long. Accommodation was not easy to find. Sanitation, electricity and means of communication were hopelessly inadequate. Even essential commodities were scarce. Very soon came the realisation to us that Urdu would be the state language and that the Bengalis would be reduced to second-class citizens in a country which they had fondly expected to be an independent homeland. The state language movement began in 1948 and we as school students participated its programmes. It gave us both courage and hope.
Kaiser Haq: Do you have fond memories of school? Where were you schooled and how would you evaluate the education you received?
Serajul Islam Choudhury: There are unhappy memories too; but they are few compared with the happy ones. My schooling was in five consecutive parts. It began at a primary school in our village in the district of Dhaka. After about two years, my father took his family to Rajshahi where his office was and I was admitted to Rajshahi Lokanath High School. On my father’s transfer to Calcutta, I became a student of St Barnabas High School in that city. Partition took us to Mymensingh and for three months, I was at the Collegiate School of the town. The last two years of my school life was at St Gregory’s High school in Dhaka.
I remember the head masters of all the five schools I have been to. Of them, Gosta Behari Majumder I found the most impressive. He was patriarchal and kind and looked like Ashutosh Mukharjee and Swami Vivekananda rolled into one. The smiling face of Brother Jude of St Gregory’s is impossible to forget.
Most of my school teachers were committed as well as professional. They were not exceptional, but knew what they were required to do and what they were doing. I had to change institutions, but they were not very different from one another, the standard being almost the same. Much of my interest in reading books and in socialisation I owe to these schools. Especially I remember Jagadish Chakraborty at St Gregory’s, who we knew was a contemporary of Buddhadeva Bose at Dhaka University. He introduced us to the pleasures of reading prose and the essay.

Kaiser Haq: Choosing a subject at university is often the result of serious deliberation. What drove you to study English?
Serajul Islam Choudhury: My father thought I should study economics. He knew that that state would continue to be capitalistic and bureaucratic and expected me to join the civil service and had the idea that economics would be helpful in that enterprise. I did not have the heart to tell him that I wanted to study the Bangla literature. English was a compromise between economics and Bangla; but he insisted on economics and political science as subsidiaries and I had no grounds for disobliging him.

Kaiser Haq: You were a student of English at Dhaka University in the mid-1950s when the department enjoyed a certain academic reputation. Did any of your teachers have a significant influence on you?
Serajul Islam Choudhury: Some of them definitely had. The teacher who attracted me most was Jyotrimay Guhathakurta. He used to communicate his joy in reading literature to us. And he was also critical in his approach, and sometimes used the comparative method much to our benefit. Dr Guhathakurta was a very friendly person both inside the class and outside. He invited opinions and loved to talk and hear arguments. His range of interests was wide. Syed Ali Ashraf had just returned from Cambridge and he introduced to the wide-eyed audience that we were what was then known as practical criticism. He would analyse a poem structurally and lexically, and then put it together, organically. Munier Chowdhury taught us before his departure for the Bangla department; listening to him was an initiation into the art of effective public speaking. I had learnt from others too. Syed Sajjad Husain was a model of discipline, Khan Sarwar Murshid of sophistication, BC Roy of scholarly devotion, and JS Turner, who was the head of the department, was full of moral enthusiasm; I am indebted to them in many different ways.

Kaiser Haq: For some time in your youth you were a member of Tamaddun Majlish. Could you tell us about the Majlish and the nature of your involvement with it? I understand it played a progressive role at a particular moment in our history, in the Language Movement for instance.
Serajul Islam Choudhury: Tamaddun Majlish belongs to history. It was set up in September 1948 by a group of young men, a couple of whom were university teachers. They dreamt of a social revolution sans Marx. Their dislike of Marxism was on account of their interest in the existence of a metaphysical God. Not a very important question really if one comes to think of it; but with their cultural upbringing through the Pakistan movement they believed that Islamic socialism was a better idea than secular socialism. Tamaddun Majlish was the first organised group to speak about Bangla as a sate language, and, by and large, had tried to fill in the vacuum created by the suppression of secular cultural activities consequent upon the creation of Pakistan. My own connection with Tamaddun Majlish was literary and neighbourly. The organisation used to run two journals — the Weekly Sainik and the Monthly Dyuti. The weekly was overly political and its politics, as that of the Majlish itself, was anti-establishment; the monthly was purely literary. I used to write for both, and, at a certain point of time, found myself on the editorial boards of the publications. This was facilitated by neighbourliness; we lived in Azimpur Government Staff Quarters and the headquarters of the Majlish was almost next door.

Kaiser Haq: Did you form any firm friendship in your student days at university? What kind of social life did you have among your university friends?
Serajul Islam Choudhury: My university friends were many and of varied interests. Ghyasuddinn Ahmed, one of the martyred intellectuals, was a school friend. Abdul Bari, who became a diplomat, was quiet in disposition. He and I met daily, for we were neighbours. Muzaffer Ahmed, the economics professor whose demise we all mourn, and I have worked together in Azimpur Colony Students’ Association. The association had set up a library and its activities included arranging of cultural functions, literary meetings, and occasional publications and even holding of exhibitions. Abu Jafar Ahmed Sayed and I did not have many things in common, but had deep affection for each other and shared a critical view of what was happening in the world. I met QAIM Nuruddin, who was to become professor of journalism, in the examinations hall. In fact, we sat on the same bench while taking an Intermediate Arts Examination. We had formed a friendship which lasted until his death. Talehuddin Khan was a delight to speak to and to be spoken to. Abid Hussain was both passionate and outspoken. He went to England without completing his honours; became a barrister, came back in 1969, and finally left as soon as the army crackdown began. During my two sojourns in England, Abid and I met quite a number of times, he being a remarkable guide.
I had friendly relations with senior students as well. Abu Zafar Obaidullah was senior to me by two years. He joined the department as a lecturer while I was still a student and I became a lecturer in his place when he left for the civil service. Mahfuzul Huq read political science, became a lecturer before I had passed out. I used to have a really fruitful connection with both.
Life at the university overflowed with cultural activities, and we used to be really busy. I contested in the union election of the SM Hall as a freshman, got elected, and widened the range of my contacts. Elections were a festival and they brought us together, despite ideological differences. As students, we met in the canteens, libraries, common rooms, bookshops in the New Market and even in the radio office.

Kaiser Haq: After finishing your MA, you taught in a college and then joined Dhaka University. And I believe you went to Britain sometime in the 1960s, first to Leeds and then to Leicester University to do your PhD. Could you tell us something about your English sojourn, the ambience in academia, the atmosphere outside, relations between the English ‘natives’ and sub-continentals? I believe your late wife was with you; how did she find England? I never met your late wife, but I was aware that she was in a sense your collaborator since she was interested in drama and cultural studies in general. Sir, if you feel that this question gets too close to your personal life, please ignore it.
Serajul Islam Choudhury: I went to England twice, first to Leeds and then to Leicester. At Dhaka, we were rather provincial; in England, the context was fairly international. In the 1960s, the world was throbbing with excitement. There were the students’ uprising in France, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in America, anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the Cultural Revolution in China; and each of these had its impact on the students and teachers on the campus. Angry Young Men were producing plays and novels. Brecht and Ionesco were being staged. Frantz Fanon had just published his The Wretched of the Earth. It was an invigorating experience to be in the midst of all these.
The difference between the teaching system we had kept in operation and the one in England was illustrated to me by the manner students were examined. I had taken up a course in Milton and we were told right at the beginning that we would be allowed to carry unannotated texts into the examination hall. Clearly, it signified that the emphasis was on the power to analyse and interpret and not on the capacity to cram.
By the mid-1960s, it had become clear to the young Bengalis studying in England that it would be impossible to live with the West Pakistani rulers. The spirit of independence was abroad and rising. The nationalist and socialist elements had come together. I was impressed by what I saw and felt that the inevitable would happen.
Even if reluctantly, the English were yielding some of the places to the sub-continentals. This was happening because a sub-continental middle class had already emerged. There were the second-generation men and women who were competing with their English peers in the job market, and even in schools boys and girls were performing quite well, sometimes better than the natives.
My wife, Najma Jesmin, was with me in Leicester. She had hoped to take up an academic course, but did not find any that suited her. Moreover, she had the first of her two children born while there. But Najma made full use of her time, watching plays on the television and the stage and listening to them on radio. She was reading books of literature with great interest and was very receptive to new ideas. Returning home she wrote her PhD dissertation on politics and the Bangla novel, showing politics as essentially a power relation between the rulers and the ruled as also between the classes. She wrote plays, novels and short stories and was among the organisers of a theatre movement for the young. For me she was a cheerful companion and a great friend.

Kaiser Haq: When I came up to Dhaka University as a fresher you already had an enviable reputation as an academic. But in the years following independence, you quickly became a formidable public intellectual as well, a committed leftist, even though you have, as far as I know, never carried a party card. Was this the result of a sudden conversion, or a gradual process? When did you become interested in Marxism? Could you recount your political transformation?
Serajul Islam Choudhury: What had happened in me was not sudden; it was a development and not a transformation or conversion. Even at school I had a strong sense of right and wrong within me. Later, in the mid-1960s, I wrote my PhD dissertation on the treatment of evil in the writings of Joseph Conrad, EM Forster and DH Lawrence. And the evil that I was examining was a palpable product of capitalism and colonialism. Long before that I had noticed how the Marxist idea of economics and class relations could be used as fruitful tools for explaining the happenings even in the novels of as quiet a writer as Jane Austen. My exposure to Marxist thinking and writings while in England had convinced me that no better method of interpreting the world was available to me.
In 1969, I witnessed, like others, that the mass uprising demanded more than autonomy or even independence and that it would not be pacified without a real social revolution. It was the responsibility of the socialists to lead, but they failed; and the leadership was taken over by petty bourgeois nationalists. The Pakistani rulers thought that an election would solve the problem, at least for the time being. It did not. The result was a violent confrontation in which the leaders did not suffer as much as the people did.
The price we paid was heavy; and it was paid mainly by the peasantry. After liberation, the rich continued to get richer as they had done before. To anyone looking at the phenomenon, it was clear that neither the state nor society had changed, and that only power had been transferred by the Pakistani rulers to the emergent Bengali bourgeoisie.
Personally I too had suffered. Having been tipped off in early April by a Bengali officer in the intelligence service, I was on the run during the entire period and escaped certain death because I did not live at a known address. My expectations, not unlike that of those who had suffered more than I did, were of a complete social transformation.
I found many of my friends and colleagues abandoning their idealism and collaborating with the ruling class. They must have expected personal benefit. This was a great disappointment and a devastating shock. It did not take me long to realise that the struggle for emancipation must continue and that since the national question had been resolved, the class question had become easier to address. And in realising this I have been trying to contribute to the cause of that struggle in my limited way. Partition made me see the world realistically and independence gave me a better understanding of it. I call my development an advancement and not a breach.

Kaiser Haq: The 1960s and 1970s were a time of vigorous leftist activity, in both theory and praxis. All that seems to have become history. Nowadays, if I mention socialism or the Russian Revolution in class I am met with uncomprehending stares. The word ‘radical’ by itself would no longer be taken to refer to a leftist. Even a severe indictment of capitalism today, like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is based on empirical evidence rather than on a grand narrative about history like Marxism. How do you place yourself in this radically altered situation?
Serajul Islam Choudhury: The change one notices is superstructural and not structural. The capitalist media and its collaborating intelligentsia are making all the confusion-creating noises. The grand narrative has been shelved, purposefully. Instead we are made to see a bewildering number of macro power-relations and power-struggles. Capitalism is the disease; all the other troubles are symptoms and appendages. The small may be beautiful, sometimes it really is, but in economics and politics the small is not independent, it is part of the large. I would not like to confine myself to the micro, ignoring the macro.
Kaiser Haq: You have often declared that our society has degenerated to such an extent that the only effective solution to its problems would be to rebuild it from scratch. How can that be achieved? Would you advocate violent revolution? If so, who would be the revolutionaries in a society rotten to the core? Someone has compared society to a ship on the high seas, so that any attempt to rebuild it would only sink it. What are your thoughts on this rather unsettling issue?
Serajul Islam Choudhury: I do not take an extremist view of the society of ours. It is not really rotten to the core. Men and women are working silently and earnestly to keep it going. To abandon it would be trying to escape, which one can, if one has the means to migrate and settle elsewhere. But that is not human, not even honourable. What is human is the effort to change the dominant relationship of the proprietor and the servant obtaining in society.
It would, perhaps, be helpful to see the problem as one of equation. Surveys tell us that only 20 per cent of the people here are privileged as against the 80 per cent who are deprived. Inequality is not new. There was the inequality between the Muslims and the Hindus in the undivided Bengal. The Muslims constituted 52 per cent and the Hindus 48 per cent of the population. We had failed to bridge that gap; the result was the Partition. In Pakistan, 56 per cent of the population were Bengalis with 44 per cent non-Bengalis. That gap too proved unbridgeable. We had to break the state. In Bangladesh, the gap has widened further. The unprivileged 80 per cent will demand an equation with the privileged 20 per cent. The country was partitioned in 1947, the state broken in 1971; now it is the turn of society to change, and it can change only through a social revolution. That revolution would achieve social ownership of the means of production and distribution, resulting in equality of rights and opportunities, decentralisation of power and rule by properly elected representatives at all levels and in all spheres.
Kaiser Haq: Can we come back to academia, where you spent your professional life? You are well aware how the atmosphere there has been vitiated by partisan politics. Is there a way out of it or is it just another symptom of a general malaise in society?
Serajul Islam Choudhury: It certainly is a symptom of a general malaise in society and the state. But that does not mean that we should give in. We must try to establish the value of merit, dedication, research and publication in the academia. For this it would be necessary for the teachers themselves to unite and rise professionally. Teachers’ associations in the universities should come forward. Those who are interested in collective improvement should be made to see how important academic advancement is. We must write and speak about it — in groups and as individuals. And it is necessary to see to it that elections in the students’ unions are held annually so that the atmosphere within the universities improves and opportunities are created for the cultivation and recognition of merit. The alumni associations ought to be encouraged to rise up to the occasion.
Piecemeal though these are, it is quite likely that they will have an effect. The disease, however, lies at the core, and needs proper treatment. Efforts to improve are required as contribution to the cure of the disease which is Capitalism. Tributaries cannot be expected to live if the river dies.

Kaiser Haq: Even if the situation in today’s world seems dark and hopeless, I know that you are not someone to give in to pessimism. You are carrying on a lonely struggle, editing an influential journal, writing prolifically. What advice do you have for those of today’s youths who might be interested in working for the betterment of our society and culture?
Serajul Islam Choudhury: The advice is simple. Have no doubt in your mind that it is the capitalist system that ails us all and that our survival depends on the overhauling of that system. You cannot do it alone; you must unite with others, particularly with the toiling masses, the largest part of whom are the peasants.
It is no use brooding like a Hamlet or looking for the enemy at wrong places in the manner of an impulsive Don Quixote; one has to be active and clear-sighted — morally as well as intellectually. Despair would lead to surrender, and to surrender is to die.

Kaiser Haq: Let me round off by a question on something seemingly mundane but quite important: your lifestyle, the way you have led a life of self-discipline. This is important: after all, Michel Foucault titled one of his books The Care of the Self. What is your daily life like, your habits, your diet, etc. When and how did you begin to regulate your life like this?
Serajul Islam Choudhury: Yes, I have tried to be regular in my habits. I get up early in the morning, near about the time the sun rises. Going out for a walk in the morning has been a routine I have tried to maintain dutifully. This I began in 1972. As I look back I find myself preferring walking to riding a vehicle. I like food, and enjoy eating, but I am neither a gourmet nor a connoisseur. I seemed to have developed the habit of eating at short intervals and in small quantity. I go to bed usually at 11. These, however, are uninteresting details, Kaiser; what may be of interest to you is the influence my quiet mother had on me in the developing of a lifestyle within a patently patriarchal family. She would urge us to rise as early as she herself did. And she hated wastefulness. The reasons were two; she could not afford to be wasteful and she wanted to share whatever she had with others. She was a democrat, if not a socialist. There was modesty in her, far away from meanness.
And as far as a way of life and outlook are concerned, my wife was not unlike my mother. I have lost them but fortunately have been able to keep their influence alive in me.

Kaiser Haq: There are many more questions I’d like to ask and I hope I’ll get the chance to ask them in person at our occasional encounters. I hope I and all your other well-wishers will be able to carry on a dialogue with you for many years to come. Thank you, Sir.

Kaiser Haq is professor of English at the University of Dhaka.

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