My friend Md. Shafiqul Islam recently wrote a wonderful piece on Prof. Serajul Islam Choudhury, the best teacher we had at the Department of English, Dhaka University. He was our favourite teacher, scholar extraordinary and perhaps the best essayist of the land. He reached the age of seventy five on June 23, 2011.
Prof. Choudhury is affectionately called SIC by his students. After reading Shafiq’s article, I felt that I have a few words of myself to add. Our respect and love for him is boundless. He is the country’s foremost intellectual, the best teacher we have seen and the best person we have come across during our student days. Rightfully do Prof. Fakrul Alam and Prof. Ferdous Azim, two of his most illustrious students, call him ‘a leader of men and women against oppressive systems, and an activist in the cause of truth and enlightenment’. He has been the most inspirational and influential teacher of Dhaka University’s Department of English in independent Bangladesh.
Edward Said, born, like Prof. Choudhury, in 1936, would like the men and women of learning in our time to be ‘oppositional, progressive, secular and independent’. Prof. Alam interprets this as follows: ‘…the intellectual must not sell his conscience to a party or for power; he must, essentially, be a truth-sayer, and must resist becoming inducted into the establishment’. To me it seems that both men of learning are here describing Prof. Serajul Islam Choudhury.
He was our Socrates, our Aristotle. He was the most caring and compassionate teacher to us. He taught us that Shakespeare was next to the Bible. To us he was next to an angel. He would not even look at us. He would look through the window into the distance. That was partly because of shyness. Even in the corridor he looked downwards while walking. He would not look at us and embarrass us, busy gossiping. But we never failed to identify the devoted, selfless teacher in him. He would read more than his students. I myself saw him collecting four books every day from the DU library, month after month, year after year. He read, he wrote, he taught and he edited. He was the most active teacher of his generation. We never saw him wearing costly clothes or even riding a rickshaw. In the campus he always walked. In our noblest dreams we wanted to be like him.
As a teenager I understood that loving Bangladesh was loving her nature her majestic rivers, her green and golden paddy fields, her lovely trees and her beautiful villages. Serajul Islam Choudhury’s books taught me that loving Bangladesh meant loving her people, her suffering millions. Since my boyhood I have been sort of a social democrat. It is because of Prof. Choudhury that I learned to respect Marxism and take it very seriously. His books taught my generation how to love our poor people, how to live to think about them. He is our first and foremost literary genius to interpret literature in sociological terms. He has been a very serious writer but always immensely popular, mainly because of his championing the cause of the poor and never failing to understand their feelings.
I am sad that no government seeks the services of neutral and wise patriots like him. He could guide a government to serve our people better. No government can trust him fully. A person who always speaks the truth and wants to be in the right path is not welcome in political circles. However, he is always with the people.
I remember a discussion we had with Shamsur Rahman at the poet’s residence in 2002. A young writer complained to the poet, ‘Junaid Bhai’s guru weeps for the trees of Osmany Udyan but has no time for the oppressed minority or the repressed opposition workers’. I knew hard core Awami League or BNP supporters were not happy with him. He praised Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib and supported the ideals for which we had fought our liberation war. How could BNP supporters like him? So only those who understood his genius liked him fully. As is my wont, I ventured to defend my favourite teacher before the young writer at the poet’s residence. I could only say that SIC never tolerated injustice and repression when, to my surprise and deep satisfaction, the soft-spoken poet decided to firmly defend Prof. Choudhury himself and did it beautifully. He said that SIC was not a politician and could not call a public meeting to protest government repression. But he was doing his duty as a sincere intellectual. He was taking part in human chains, addressing Shaheed Minar meetings and signing courageous statements protesting oppression carried out by the establishment. We looked up to him and he never failed us. It was nice of him that he fought for both the people and the environment.
I was so happy that I said ‘Hats off!’ to my favourite poet. Our foremost poet was also a true intellectual in the Edward Said sense. His judgement was always objective. I felt proud of both my favourite poet and my favourite teacher. They have written almost nothing about each other although I am sure their admirers wanted it. So the poet’s words in defence of our best anti-establishment intellectual made me very happy indeed. We remember with pride that SIC was selected to the VC panel of DU on three occasions in the past and always received the highest number of votes. But he never wanted to be the VC. I remember that in my early twenties, while going to the British Council, I would look at the VC’s beautiful residence and feel sad that SIC had never had the opportunity to stay in it. We have reports that Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed and Justice Latifur Rahman wanted him in their caretaker governments but he declined both the offers, although thousands like me strongly felt that he could be the best possible advisor.
SIC the essayist has no comparison. I have always been fond of his wonderful prose, which flows like the waters of a serene river. He has explored our history, our culture, our politics, our society and our literature with matchless insight, imagination and erudition. Once I asked a twenty-one-year-old to read his ‘Amar Pitar Mukh’. The boy reported to me a few days later, ‘Sir, I was moved to tears.’ SIC has been our first scholarly essayist who could move people of several generations to tears.
I have written elsewhere that as a young man whenever I saw SIC, either in the English Department corridor or anywhere else in the campus, I kept gazing at him till he was no longer visible. If I had a companion, I stopped talking to him or her to look at him. I told you before that our admiration for this very simple, grey-haired gentleman knew no bounds.
Junaidul Haque writes fiction and essays.