|An intellectual's experience of history
Syed Badrul Ahsan is moved by an academic's memoirs
Reading Serajul Islam Choudhury is fundamentally undertaking a journey through the changing fortunes of the Bengali nation. He speaks of the many trajectories his life has taken, especially in the second segment of Dui Jatrae Ek Jatri. And as you read him, you realise at some point, with something of a start, that he has essentially been serving up wholesome history before you. His life could, in that metaphorical sense, also be yours. More to the point, Choudhury is a gentle reminder of the times when teaching came in heavy packages of intellectuality together with an acute sense of awareness about the shifting course of national politics.
Choudhury returned home in the later part of the 1960s after a course of higher education in Britain. It was to a land in tumult he came back to. On the one hand, there was a growing sense of nationalism among his fellow Bengalis. On the other, there were those Bengalis who, rather than acknowledging the winds of change, chose to throw in their lot with a Pakistan that was fast turning into a decadent historical entity. One sign of the decadence was the assault on Tagore, only years into the defiant celebrations of his birth centenary in 1967. Khwaja Shahabuddin, symbol of feudal vacuity and in thrall to Ayub Khan, made it known that Tagore was not to be sung or recited in East Bengal. That was a shock, but one that was somewhat mitigated when intellectuals such as Syed Ali Ahsan, who in 1951 had been ready to discard Tagore in favour of a 'Pakistani ideology', took up the cause of the Bard. The times were changing, for some.
And yet there were all the others, Syed Sajjad Husain for instance, who closed their eyes to the murder of their own people and went around in 1971, at home and abroad, loudly parroting the Yahya Khan regime's propaganda of East Pakistan being gloriously safe in the hands of its patriotic people. Choudhury speaks of such deviant intellectuals, acknowledges the academic calibre in them and yet cannot understand why they went against history. His questions are our questions as well. Too many things were going wrong in the years when Pakistan reigned in Bengal. Choudhury speaks of Dr. Abu Mahmud's being passed over for promotion to the position of departmental chairperson (he was in economics) at Dhaka University. Vice Chancellor M.O. Ghani was happy to have K.T. Hossain occupy the chair, which prompted Mahmud into seeking legal redress. He won in the High Court and then nearly lost his life when angry goons of the government-patronised National Students Front (NSF) pounced on him. Abu Mahmud did not stay in the country. It was ESCAP that gave him a cushy job in Bangkok. But there were those who stayed. Akhlaqur Rahman stayed. Sardar Fazlul Karim, notes Choudhury, did not go to Bangkok. He went to rural Bangladesh, to the peasantry, for he meant to give expression to his communist ideals.
Choudhury's memoirs brim over with the values that once fashioned history for the Bengalis. Beyond that, there are the tales of men we have as good as forgotten with the decline of politics in Bangladesh. Syed Badruddin Hossain, driven by zeal he did not quite explain, thought that M.O. Ghani ought to be life-long president of the Dhaka University Club. Even Ghani balked at the suggestion. It was the Ayub era, a time when his putative memoirs Friends Not Masters was being repackaged in its Bengali version. Serajul Islam Choudhury had learnt that those involved in the translation were Nurul Momen, Munier Chowdhury and Hasan Hafizur Rahman, with Syed Ali Ahsan presiding over the editing of the work.
In Dui Jatrae Ek Jatri, Choudhury ruminates on the extent to which history has gone awry in the subcontinent. Would a single, undivided India have made any difference? For an answer, Choudhury takes you back to the story of Professor Abdul Hye. Hailing from West Bengal, he was never comfortable in his new country and yet was unable to go back to the ancient land. Partition had uprooted the soul in him. Hye died in a freak accident. And Abul Barkat, the language movement martyr? The vivisection of India compelled him to turn his back on his native West Bengal and set up home in Muslim Pakistan. And then Pakistan killed him on 21 February 1952. But Syed Lutful Haq did go back to a home in Birbhum that was no more a home. His friends and acquaintances were dead or had moved to Pakistan. He died, lonely and heartbroken, at a rest house in Shantiniketan. Choudhury speaks at length about Professor Abu Mohamed Habibullah. It was the communal riots of 1950 that forced him to abandon his native West Bengal and move to East Pakistan. He made his presence felt in his adopted country, but was he happy? In 1971, he lived, just as Choudhury did, every day of his life in the fear that the Pakistanis would come after him. As for Choudhury, he moved from place to place, an exile in his country, managing to stay a step ahead of the soldiers.
Choudhury's memoirs are a walk through the lost passages of time. His reflections on Professor Abdur Razzaque are a coruscating glimpse into the life of a leading intellectual who did not write but was forever willing others into writing. In Dr. Enamul Haq was a vigour and vibrancy underscored by a firm belief in Bengali nationalism. For all his questions about M.O Ghani, Choudhury does not fail to recall the qualities which defined the man. His speeches in English and Bengali were of a quality that few could match; and his methods of teaching left little to be desired. Choudhury remembers Rashiduzzaman, who once dripped confidence as he told him, 'One day we will have to provide leadership to the university, right?' Rashiduzzaman did make a mark for himself. Earning a doctorate in the United States, he returned to Dhaka University and was soon all over the place. He was general secretary of the teachers' association, provost of Jinnah Hall, reader and the leading voice in myriad other bodies. He once wrote an article in the Pakistan Observer arguing that the ballot was more important than the bullet, meaning democracy as opposed to authoritarian rule, for the country.
And yet Rashiduzzaman abandoned the ballot and lost his country in 1971, a time Choudhury thinks he spent in America. He did not go through the tribulations his friends and associates in Bangladesh were living through in the face of Pakistani terror. He did not acknowledge the genocide but worked for Pakistan even as millions of his fellow Bengalis died at the hands of Pakistan's soldiers. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
Serajul Islam Choudhury takes you on a sad walk through the dark memories of a darker time. Pakistan was an unnatural state, a strange malady. It led academics like Quazi Din Mohammad astray. A good cook, he played host to Bashanti Guhathakurta and Choudhury at dinner in Britain in 1960. In 1971, on a trip abroad sponsored by the Yahya-Tikka junta, he told people, without batting an eyelid, that Professor Govinda Chandra Dev and Professor Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta had died in crossfire as the army and armed students battled one another in March 1971. Leap ahead, to much after 1971. Bashanti Guhathakurta runs into Din Mohammad at the university bank, confronts him over the old lie in full public view. The old Pakistan loyalist, embarrassed, asks for her forgiveness as a younger brother.
You cannot escape history. Serajul Islam Choudhury tells you why you must never let go of it.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs and Star Books Review.