The 8:20-class in room 2080 on a particular day of the week would have me extra alert, even edgy -- to be strictly on time. 'On time' for me meant I presented myself at the corridor of the classroom on the first floor of the Arts Building at least a couple of minutes ahead of the electronic bell to ring. It was a practice I made myself used to, so my eyes could feast on Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury's average-built features emerging from the ill-lit far-end of the corridor -- one hand dug rather deep into trousers' pocket, the other holding a book or two close to his chest, eyes down-cast, feet briskly pacing to where they were to take him - room number 2080, adjoining the seminar room of the English department of Dhaka University. Hardly was there any exception, even on chilly mornings-late riser though I was, and merrily still am.
Silence would descend upon the classroom no sooner he stepped in. Someone from the back of the classroom would quietly shut the rear door, while Professor Choudhury would take care of the front door himself. Positioning himself at the rostrum, he would never ask which Act of King Lear he had dealt last time. He would open the book right where he stopped in the last class a week back, and in no time all eyes, as though by a magnetic pull, would be riveted to his beautiful face, the double chin, eyes opaque from the heavy lenses. It was all too compelling to get distracted as Prof Chowdhury would negotiate the Shakespearean masterpiece with his mesmererising commentary accompanied by the most memorable of recitations one only hopes to expect from an accomplished Shakespearean actor on stage.
Those were the days in mid-seventies when we in our late teens took to a kind of smug pride about our teachers in the English Department. They were not big names in those days, the seniors mostly in their early or mid-forties, except one. Besides, there were the much younger ones, freshly passed out. The academic discipline, thanks to their sincerity and love for teaching, was unbending despite the rowdy campus environment in the post-liberation times -- first of the kind experienced by students and teachers alike.
While Prof Choudhury's classes on King Lear were the preamble to introduce me to his distinctive teaching, later, when he encountered Francis Bacon, and still later more of Shakespeare (Hamlet, Othello) and the trio -- Forster, Lawrence and Conrad, it was his sheer love for teaching that drew me close to him. Forster's 'Only connect' and 'flat and round charters' dealt by him in extensive detail are fresh in my mind even to this day. Among other things, he spoke of subtlety and reticence. I'm afraid I've been able to take the right cue from these in my own writings.
Serajul Islam Choudhury in those days with his slightly graying hairline was already a name outside the classroom, for his erudite social commentaries published regularly in journals and weekly supplements of the dailies. One may recall how almost obsessively he busied himself on the two terminologies - progressive and reactionary, in an attempt to show how the newly liberated nation was fast becoming hostage to the authority of the state, how it was straying from where it was meant to be. His books -- collections of those essays/columns-were being published, around half a dozen each year or more. The beauty of his writings, for the most part, was, and still is, the lucid clarity and a style uniquely his own, illuminated by sparks of references to literature, philosophy and indeed his sense of history and understanding of social dynamics.
Most of his writings are reflective as they are expected to be, in that all he has attempted is to interpret and redefine things in ways he considers appropriate-from Marxist point of view, especially in terms of social equality and distributive justice. He very much sticks to this mode of interpretation when he puts the great literary masters under his scanner. His books on Bankim Chandra, Sharat Chandra, Rabindranath Tagore, his English favourites Bacon, Forster, Lawrence and Conrad and indeed Shakespeare do provide food for thought. One of his most monumental works, a well over 800-page book titled Nationalism, Communalism and People's Freedom is much acclaimed as one of the most exhaustive account of socio-political history of the subcontinent during 1905 to 1947.
As I look up to him, the octogenarian intellectual celebrity - his eightieth birthday was observed yesterday (June 23, 2016) - it is the teacher who takes over. Not the writer, not the scholar who spent a whole life time with his thought-provoking writings. I consider it most appropriate to regard myself as his student, though I have been an avid reader of everything he writes. For most of us, in fact all of us whom he taught, he is the teacher per excellence, simple, yet majestic and last but not least, uncompromising. I take the privilege on behalf of my friends to wish Prof Choudhury all the best.
Wasi Ahmed short story writer and novelist. [email protected]