I DID not see Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury, or SIC as his colleagues and students call him, at the English Department Alumni Society reunion at the Teacher-Student Centre on the last Saturday of this January. He might have been busy or have left early. I did not see him at the EDAS reunion, which society members call EDAS Bash, on the last Friday of January 2017 either, probably because of the same reasons.
But I could speak to him, for a while, at the reunion the year before. Everyone seemed eager to have a photograph, mostly selfies that are self-portrait photographs taken with smartphones, standing beside him, which they might show to family and friends as prize possessions. We exchanged pleasantries and he inquired about the editor, also his student, of New Age, the newspaper that I have been working with since it came out in June 2003.
It gives us pride to have been able to stand by a fabled teacher, who is favourite of almost everyone in the department of English and many others outside the department and the university for the role that he has played, and is still playing, as an intellectual. I often boast of, with my friends of the university days, working with Dr Niaz Zaman, another teacher of English at the university who was a redoubtable figure then, as a colleague much later at New Age where she was literary editor.
Teachers having profound influence on students are rare to come by. Yet Serajul Islam Choudhury is one of them, at least for me, not solely because of what he taught us in a little over six years when we had been students at the University of Dhaka, but because of the living that he has — what he has written, what he has done and how he thinks. The other teacher who has influenced me greatly is Pundit Chandrashekhar Das during my school and college days in Dinajpur. I am immensely indebted to this man, our pundit in school, for what I know of or about the Bangla and other languages. Not that he taught me all, but he instilled in me a love for Bangla and language. And the living that he has lived, with unflinching commitment, still inspires me.
I had the privilege to interview Serajul Islam Choudhury twice. The last time I interviewed him, at his house at Dhanmondi, was towards the close of 2007 for a January 2008 supplement, New Year Special: Heroes, of New Age. Although I had interviewed him in August 1995, at the department, for the Weekend Independent, the weekly supplement of the Independent newspaper, a few days after I had left the university, the very thought of interviewing him made me nervous. A few days before, in October 2007, Saptahik 2000, a weekly magazine, had published in its Eid supplement his autobiographical essay, in two instalments, headlined ‘Dui Jatray Ek Jatri’ (One traveller’s two journeys).
The essay later grew into two full-blown volumes under the same title, the first volume coming out in February 2008 and the second one in February 2011. I had read the essay then and read it again in preparation for the interview. I read the books later as they came out. As I stepped into his room, he handed me two sheets of photocopied paper, headlined ‘Serajul Islam Choudhury: A Chronology’, a list of the important happenings of his life, achievements and awards, along with three more sheets of paper, which had listed 73 of the books that he has written, five volumes that he has compiled and seven magazines that he has edited till then.
I remember taking up with him the issue of his not directly naming his PhD dissertation superviser when he talked about him and naming him in some other places in the Saptahik 2000 essay. Although the context makes it clear, I asked him whether this was deliberate. He looked at me and then said, ‘If I haven’t so done, I will have it corrected later.’ Back in office the next day, I was chatting with the executive editor, NM Harun, and told him this. He said that I had done it well in talking about the issue and said that Serajul Islam Choudhury, as a teacher, would remember one of his students talking about this. I am not certain, and I do not want to be, if he has ever talked about this later, but my executive editor telling me this gave me a filling sense.
In July 2001, about 150 trees of Osmani Udyan were cut down, with a plan to take down more of them, and about 2.8 acres of the park, which the Dhaka Master Plan then designated as a public park, were fenced off for the construction of a hotel and a shopping complex. Protests rolled, with Serajul Islam Choudhury joining the protests and condemning the incident in no time. I was assigned by NM Harun, we were both working on the Weekly Holiday then, to cover the protests that Serajul Islam Choudhury attended. I reached late and by that time the ground had been deserted. We managed to have the report from other sources but probably because of this, I have failed to make my mark as a reporter. The impending disaster taking place in Osmani Udyan could be staved off. Serajul Islam Choudhury has always stood up in protests against social injustice.
One trait of his classroom lecture, which all his students and many others know of, was that he has almost never allowed his speech to be larded with Bangla when he was lecturing his students; and outside classes, he has hardly buttressed his speech with English words. We read, if my memory serves me correctly, Francis Bacon, his Essays, under Course E203 ‘Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Prose and Drama’, with him in our second year in the university, in Room No 2092, Tuesdays, right at 8:00am, lasting for 50 minutes. In our third year, we read William Wordsworth, his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, under Course E307 ‘Critical Theory’, Saturdays, in Room No 2067, right at 9:00am. He had been in the classroom right on time and his preparation for the lecture had always been well-timed, with a conclusion for the day’s lecture ending as the bell rang 50 minutes after the class had begun.
I stopped having the privilege of attending his lectures in our fourth year, the MA year, in the university as I did my master’s in the language stream, but my friends still having the privilege, in the literature stream, said that he, invariably in all cases, bowdlerised the bawdy in DH Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers when he needed to read out the text in the classroom by skipping the words or phrases that he considered improper or offensive, leaving students with the text open before them to look for the words or phrases on their own.
In an article, ‘Shiksha, Shikshar Man O Sikshaker Kaj’ (Education, education standards and the job of teachers), that he wrote in 2015 and included in his volume Uttaradhikarer Anibarya Prashna (Inevitable issues of inheritance), a collection of essays that came out in February 2016, he said, in my serviceable translation, ‘Teachers remain no longer teachers when they become shopkeepers; but the situation appears to have reached this pass. “Successful” teachers now are all successful shopkeepers.’ He has all his life been a teacher to the core in the sense he means being a teacher, leaving others a model to follow.
He has ended the article saying, I again apologise for the translation, ‘Being imprisoned in the Cave that Plato talked about will do no good; it is important to break free into the realm of sunlight.’ He referred to Plato’s Republic, where Socrates tells the Allegory of the Cave, also known as Plato’s Cave, to Glaucon, one of Plato’s brothers, stating ‘… the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already; and that just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so to the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being ….’
Serajul Islam Choudhury could make us, his students, not all though, and some others, turn from darkness towards light.
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.