It has always been a journey of discovery, a long, happy trek to the hut of the great soul in search of nirvana. There have been, there are, all the twilight moments when I go in search of my teacher. I do not spend very many hours with him, for there is yet in me that certain old-fashioned consciousness which informs me that my teachers are my gurus, the lighthouses who continue to point me in the direction where enlightenment and intellectual refinement are to be had. Which is why when I meet Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury, for a few shining moments when the stars have already made their appearance in the gathering dark, I remain aware of the line that I cannot, must not cross.
All the speeches, all the statements, all the phrases I had prepared on my way to see him somehow go missing once I find myself in his overpowering, humbling presence. I am in the shadow of his vast intellectual presence. But then, the loss is never mine, the gain is all mine, for anyone who has heard Professor Choudhury speak will know that every phrase that issues from him is essentially a spark of wisdom. And so I listen to him, he the pedagogue, I yet the little wide-eyed child eager to hear the stories he will relate to me.
And, listening to him, I am once more made aware of the richness that accompanies the humility in his being. For a lot more than four decades, I have observed Serajul Islam Choudhury make his slow yet determined trek to wherever he happens to be going in a manner that eschews the arrogant and the hollow. The sight of him with an umbrella over his head, in all the heat of summer, or of him talking to his students, hands in his pockets and with a natural smile playing on his lips, is what has strengthened my belief in the thought that those who are possessed of the scholarly in their being are necessarily those who shine in the brilliance that issues forth from them in all the spontaneity of nature.
It remains a mark of SIC's brilliance that when he made his way to the classroom where we waited for him, back in the 1970s, we sat ready to note down every word, every phrase he would employ in his lecture. Not a word, not a phrase was to be missed, for Choudhury was, and is, one of those teachers whose classroom lectures amounted, for us, to a virtual reading of the literary work he happened to be critiquing before us. You do not come by such academics any more. He did not stumble, he never repeated a word and he never got distracted. In the classroom, absolute silence was loud by its presence. Intellectual religiosity defined the moment. He was the guru, we his disciples. The ambience was all-encompassing literature.
That is how I have seen my teacher. And there have been all the other ways as well. His consistent faith in Marxism, his belief that socialism can redefine the way in which we conduct ourselves in this country of tragedy and misfortune are thoughts I have identified with. I cannot say that I have graduated to being a full-blooded socialist, for socialism calls for undiluted courage in the one who aspires to it. But that my faith in the ability of socialism to do immense good to this People's Republic echoes that of my teacher is a truth I make a point of emphasising to myself every moment of the day. Serajul Islam Choudhury's assessment of global issues is what has kept me glued to his every pronouncement.
In an era when nearly everyone you know is willing and ready to be carried away by such inanities as globalisation, my teacher offers a path out of the dense woods. Internationalism, he tells us, is what ought to underpin the world we are part of. For internationalism reassures us about the sovereign nature of national cultural identities, about distinctive political priorities. In other words, it is through internationalism that we keep a firm grip on our individuality as nations or nation-states. Globalisation is a road that takes us nowhere, or to oblivion. That is what I have learned from my teacher. And much more.
In Serajul Islam Choudhury, my generation spots a heroic figure who informs us, without fear and with profound conviction, that it is the country that matters. I have learned from him the cardinal lesson that cosmopolitanism is a journey that must always take you back to your roots. In him I have noted the mellifluous quality of language. He speaks impeccable Bangla. And he speaks unalloyed English. Never has he mixed one with the other. From him, then, I have known the beauty that comes of using language that must not be mangled.
Long years ago, Prof Serajul Islam Choudhury educated me and my friends on the universality of Shakespeare and the metaphysics of John Donne and the romance of John Keats. His reflections on Rabindranath and Nazrul have been an odyssey in profundity of thought for the nation. His books, deep scholarly analyses of politics and personalities, have consistently added substance to our intellectual world. He continues to shape our worldview, to have us be part of the world beyond the parameters of the country we inhabit.
These days, in the munificence of his wisdom, in my increasingly weather-beaten life, I yet go on learning from him, by the minute, by the hour, by the day. The twilight is resplendent with starry luminescence.
(Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury — academic, writer, thinker, voice of conscience — was born on Jun 23, 1936)