Md Shafiqul Islam
Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury, a distinguished teacher, research scholar as well as leader in sociological, philosophical and political thinking, assumed the chairmanship of the Department of English of Dhaka University after the war of liberation to usher in an era of the democratic tradition of liberal intellectual exercise. SIC, as he is popularly known, has always been a brilliant, dutiful and compassionate teacher who commands the deepest respect and admiration of all the students.
The Department of English of Dhaka University has shaped the lives of many of us with Professor Choudhury at the centre of all important events. I am trying to go back to the mid- seventies stretching to the early eighties when my generation was fortunate to get taught by an illustrious teacher like Professor Choudhury. I will also try to recollect a few memorable episodes in connection with our growing to be trained students of literature under his mentoring and tutorship.
Professor Choudhury, who crossed seventy five years of his life on 23 June 2011, was only thirty nine when we got ourselves admitted to the First Year Honours class of the Department of English in 1975. He was a teacher of teachers and he imparted knowledge to us, rather taught us in the English Department precisely from 1975 to 1981 in B.A. Honours and Masters classes. In addition he instilled in us avid enthusiasm for literature in our tutorials, comprising five students in each cluster. While pursuing M. Phil, my friend and classmate Junaidul Haque and I got another opportunity to be disciples of our greatest guru in 1982.
Even the most casual student would be very mindful to attend his classes as they were not only ‘intellectually energizing’ but also fully rewarding. I never found any of my classmates unready or absent in his classes. Here is my classmate and friend Syed Badrul Ahsan describing our preparation to receive SIC in our class: “Our notebooks, pens and pencils were ready even before Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury walked into class. He was always a thinker, still is. His humility- and that comes from his greatness as one of the foremost intellectual voices in the country- was transparent. We were awed in his presence. His hands in his pockets, he went straight into the subject., almost as if he was engaged in reflections. Of course we noted it all down, and at the end of class, there was enough material to prepare a good tutorial on the subject.”
SIC was unfailingly punctual in entering the classroom, staying there till the last second of the 50-minute session. When he finished just before the closing bell rang nobody felt that there was any other point left unexplained or unfinished. It was a rare and inimitable example of time management transformed into an art. His was a lecture or a speech, not a conversation and there could be no occasion when he would ever falter or fumble. All the students would listen to his spellbinding lecture with rapt attention and note down almost every syllable he uttered. His message was so clearly intelligible and voice so sweet and musical that I never found any of my classmates raising a hand for clarification. He was the only teacher in my life at home and abroad I found fully satisfying. I was used to raising challenging and thought- provoking questions or introducing a debatable topic very often in almost every session except that of SIC’s. In my entire tutelage under him, I only complemented or added one word in his class on Sophocles’ Oedipus when he mentioned Mother Earth. I enquired whether he meant Gaea the Earth Goddess and he replied ‘yes’, only to continue with the remaining session.
He was a teacher of a different kind when we used to meet him in his room as tutorial students. After giving a thorough introduction to the author we meant to discuss, he would proceed with the discussion on the specific text in Socratic method through probing questions and extracting answers from every one. He encouraged every student to take part in the discussion and express his or her own opinion which he valued much. The textbook became so easy after his lesson that we hardly needed to study any other note.
He never gave us the impression that his view was the last or final. He was so exacting a tutor that he used to read the tutorial script line by line and word for word to point out any mistake even in spelling or punctuation. In my case, I found him even detecting a small ‘p’ looking like a capital ‘P’ or a capital “S” looking like a small ‘s’. He wanted perfection and seriousness in all our efforts.
While discussing Francis Bacon’s Essays, he sensitized in me the interest to study the great French essayist Michel de Montaigne. It was not available in the library at that moment. So I came back to Sir and mentioned that I was looking for a copy of Montaigne’s essays. Without hesitating for a moment he stood up from his chair, walked a few steps and advanced his hand towards his own shelf packed with books to find the desired copy for me in a fraction of a second, without any deadline to return it. So did he do on different occasions whenever or even at night I visited his residence at 34/B opposite the Shaheed Minar.
I never found him absent in any of his classes in my entire student life except on one occasion about which he notified a week before the class. It suddenly caught my eyes on the notice board of our department on a Wednesday in 1976, when I was a student of Second Year Honours. The notice read, “I shall be unable to take your class next Wednesday. Please do not come that day.” It was possible for only SIC to feel the predicament a student faces when he appears in the class from a faraway place only to find his teacher absent halfway through the class hour without any previous notice or no notice at all. I just wanted to mention the difference between teacher and teacher.
While I was a student of second year, I translated a short story entitled Araby by James Joyce and submitted it to SIC for his comments. He read every word meticulously, encouraged and also advised me on some needed improvement and finally asked our junior lecturer Fakrul Sir (Professor Fakrul Alam) to get the translation at least cyclostyled for the perusal of other students and teachers. On another occasion, while I was engaged in a so-called intellectual discourse with other ‘young scholars’ on the corridor of the Rashid-Guhathakurta Memorial Library of our Department, SIC walked out of his corner room and beckoned me to follow him. He handed me a magazine entitled, probably Counterpoint, published in English in the Sixties and which included an article on Poet Ahsan Habib by SIC. He asked me to translate the article into Bangla for publication in the quarterly magazine of the Bangla Department of Dhaka University. I translated it, though it needed to be revised time and again with the guidance of SIC Sir. It was a sign of his keen interest in stimulating our interest in literature as a complement to our academic pursuits.
Professor Choudhury has always insisted on realizing the importance of literature in real life, developing awareness of the role of literature in the development of humankind and sensitizing the values for social change. He makes relentless and committed efforts to inculcate in us the ideal that literature is not only for literature’s sake, it not only imparts artistic delight but also has a social and philosophical role to play. It can be a vital instrument for social change and human welfare. SIC loves to read books and wants his disciples also to read them but he never wants his students to be a generation of bookworms. Himself a great creative writer and avid social reformer, he is always an example to be followed. No matter which subject or author he has taught, be it Old and Middle English, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bacon, Marlowe, Milton, Pope, Lawrence or T.S. Eliot, even the weakest student would find himself or herself comfortable enough to prepare notes for his tutorial or final examination.
Unfortunately standards have fallen. They have rather become substandard these days in the study of literature. Most students prefer to read notebooks or copy from the internet to prepare tutorial papers or examination scripts. It is a story of bookworms eating the entire book without understanding a single word or in this case without much caring for a mastering of the texts. The expansion of English departments in numerous colleges and universities without efficient , dedicated and trained teachers like Professor Choudhury on the one hand and erosion of values on the other have done great damage to standards in the study of English literature.
A teacher like Professor Choudhury is not born in every century. But the values and traditions he nurtures and stamps on our minds can be examples for us to be followed and replicated to eradicate unfairness and injustice in society. SIC has shown us the way.
Md. Shafiqul Islam, a senior civil servant, specializes in studies of William Shakespeare.