SERAJUL Islam Choudhury, or SIC as he is known to his students and colleagues, was my teacher when we were students of English at the University of Dhaka in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Any proposition of my being a favourite student of his does not come up for the obvious lack of my classroom fame. But, and definitely, he was, and still is, mine.
A committed intellectual, as he described himself, in his measured enunciation typical of his classroom lectures, on a definitive note, when I asked him how he would like to be remembered on a winter afternoon at his house towards the close of 2007 for an article on him in the January 2008 New Year Special of New Age, is what he has come to be known as all his life — with his commitment to the furtherance of knowledge and society and to his job of teaching students in the best manner he can. After the issue had been out in January, I called him the next day telling him that I would reach him the day’s issue of the newspaper. He said that he already had the issue with him and had seen it and that I would not need to take the trouble to take it to him.
This was the second time I met him with professional work in hand. While I was headed towards his house at Dhanmondi, I felt a bit nervous as how to begin the interview with. It is not very easy to face such a personality whom we have revered since our school days. I have known him from the books that he has written before meeting him at the English department. On reaching there and ringing the door bell, he opened the door and showed me in. As I was taking my seat, he handed me four sheets of paper, the course of his life and other information that I might need for the writing. He was prepared, as he has always been.
I had the privilege to interview him first in 1995 on issues of private tuition and its harmful effects on education for the Independent which I was then working with. It had been barely a year we were out of the university. When I met him in his office room, he told me that he would feel comfortable speaking in Bangla and I should not have any problem in translating that into English. In classrooms, he has almost never allowed his speech to be larded with Bangla. And outside classes, we have hardly heard his speech to be buttressed with phrases in English. This has always highlighted his commitment to the use of the Bangla language in every sphere but where he needed to speak in English, the teaching of the English literature being a case in point.
I asked him, during the interview, what he was thinking the future of private tuition might be. He said that it would affect society more than it was doing then and it was spreading like a disease, with a possibility of giving education a distorted shape in future. So it has done. When I was glancing through the interview, a year or so ago, in print, I was thinking that whatever he then said has come to be true, as now evident in the state of education. He is quite apt at understanding society and getting down to social problems that he, as an intellectual, needs to deal with in what he speaks about and what he writes on.
I met him first when we were completing out admission formalities at the department. The rule required us to have our photographs attested by a teacher of the department; the office told me so. As I was wandering outside the department office, I suddenly saw SIC open his office room and when he was about to step out, I rushed in, requesting him to attest my photographs. He unhesitatingly did it. These are the all three incidents of my personal interaction with him. He was mindful towards even the slightest inconvenience of his students
I heard of an anecdote of him lecturing bachelor’s students much before we were at the department. Someone, a while late of the class, hurried in through the door, sat on the bench and tried to figure out, by looking at the book the next student opened, exactly where SIC was that moment. He noticed it, stopped short, closed the book that he was holding and said Act III, Scene I, Page 124 or so.
One incident in his life caused a stir among us when we were his students. The day his wife, Najma Jesmin Choudhury, whom he married in 1962, died of cancer in 1989, he went to take the class scheduled for that morning; we mustered up the courage to send him back home. When I interviewed him in 2007, I asked him why he had gone to take the class. ‘Duty has always been important to me…. I knew my wife was being treated and there were people around her to look after. I also needed to discharge my duty’, he said after he had paused for moments.
I had been familiar with his writing much before I entered the university. Now I can remember at least reading his Amar Pitar Mukh (1976), Bacon-er Maumachhira (1978) and Aristotler Kabyatattwa (1975) when I was in the final years of my (higher) secondary education. He is known for the way he writes, larded with punctuations and moulded into the syntax of the English language, free-flowing and fitting for the subjects he deals with, influenced, knowingly and unknowingly, by Francis Bacon with his reasoning, Buddhadeb Bose with his style, Sudhindranath Dutta with his deliberateness and Shibram Chakrabarty with his humour — with initial deliberateness gradually being replaced with spontaneity, as he once said.
He has discharged, and is still discharging, his role as an intellectual as it should be the case, being involved with the issues yet staying off the fray, successfully attending to issues in the university by properly teaching his students, in society by taking part in movements and raising his voice against social injustice while writing what he felt he should to enlighten people and advance society. While he has written about 75 books, including fictions, his prominent works include, to name a few, Unish Shataker Banglagadyer Samajik Byakaran (1980), Bangalir Jatiyatabad (2000) and Jatiyatabad, Sampradayikata O Janaganer Mukti: 1905–1947 (2015). He has half a dozen compilations of his writings and has edited a three-volume set of the works of Anwar Pasha and six journals.
He first initiated the move for the English department at the University of Dhaka to offer PhD degrees in English. He edited journals, the university journals of arts and letters in Bangla and English — Dhaka Visvavidyalay Patrika for 15 years and Dhaka University Studies for nine years. He founded the University Book Centre in 1978 and the Centre for Advanced Research in Humanities in 1986. He took part in the drafting of the Dhaka University Order, which laid the ground for the autonomy that the university needed. And he had been with university politics, the panels, till 1991 to ensure that the university, in addition to being autonomous legally, should also be autonomous institutionally. After his retirement from the department as a regular teacher, he has been editing a quarterly, Natun Diganta since 2002 — a feat to take pride in by any standards. All what he has so far done or all he still does are a manifestation of his commitment to understand society better and to bring about social transformation. He has always been with people at large.
We, not all of us perhaps, had known of some teachers of English and other departments before we started our university education. He was one of them. We learnt a lot, not from what they taught in the classroom but from how they lived and thought, at least to the extent that we could see. I still believe, as I did when I was in the university, that our teachers — with their erudition and follies, name and fame — could hardly teach us what they wanted us to learn. But some of them could certainly light up for us the ways and lanes to know how and what to learn. Some of them could lead us to water and we drank it on our own to our needs. Serajul Islam Choudhury is one such teacher. Happy birthday, Professor!
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.
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