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Six years as we walked them past

THE arts dean’s office asked me to join classes, which were about to begin that day upstairs, after I had been sent there by the dean’s office of social sciences, in July 1989, through which I earned my studentship of the English department in the university, having had my higher secondary education in the science group in a college in Dinajpur the year before. We had a ‘gap year’, or at least more than half a year, that time because of the delayed publications of our HSC results and prolonged academic years in the university.

The gap year, unlike the one known as deferred, or even sabbatical, year to many in Europe and the United States, was not meant for volunteering charity or advanced academic, extra-academic or non-academic courses. It was procedural. It had its anxiety but it also provided many of us with the scope and training, in what we wanted to be and in what we could be.

We, mostly having our 1988 higher secondary certificates, matriculated in the department in 1988–1989 bachelor’s course of three years — the BA exams, in fact, took place in July 1993 with the results coming out in February 1994 — with a one-year 1991–1992 master’s course to follow — we took the MA exams in January 1995 and the results came out in October that year, stretching our four-year courses in the university to a little over than six years. It was then the course-based, leaving behind the year-based courses long ago. The semester-based system, with letter grades, was still far off.

The first, or introductory, class at the time of the third period, in Room 2067 perhaps, in a room next to the one above the dean’s office, was full of students, young, brimming with hope and a bit sheepish too, mostly all holding notebooks. It was Anis Ahmed, who came in to assess our knowledge of the English language, leading to the holding of a diagnostic test a fortnight after. Coincidentally, he also had taken the first class that I attended in the master’s course, on discourse analysis, before he left teaching for broadcast journalist overseas, having published an article in Bengali in a newspaper on nationalism.

We had three foreign students — one from Africa, another from Bulgaria, who was a repeater, and yet another from the United States. In the first class, Anis Ahmed came in while the student from Africa — her family had been based in Dhaka for some time that we heard of — was standing in the corridor outside. As the teacher had been into the roll call, he called Udbi Umai Abu Bakr, and with no response forthcoming, he called out loud. Udbi Umai suddenly rushed in, saying ‘It’s me.’ Anis Ahmed looked at her and said, ‘No, it is a he.’ She looked nonplussed, letting loose a laughter, which came as a relief, a comic one, to defuse the tension of attending the first class at the university.

I, and perhaps we, cannot remember when and how Udbi Umai left the department. As days rolled by, she disappeared from our sight and memory, before we could be familiar with, or close to, one another. Jennifer Tims was an exchange student from Texas; she left towards the end of 1990, perhaps before taking the year-final exams. A couple of years ago, I enquired about her departure, on Facebook, and she said that she had been, during the ‘riot’, asked by her country to return as it might no longer be safe to stay in Dhaka. She meant the days, marked with violence, until December 6 when HM Ershad was forced to step down as president. Dora Tzotchevska had been with us for a longer period and she too disappeared at one point.

Ours had soon been days of attending classes, spending time in the library, going to the Teacher-Student Centre, indulging in what the French call bavardages in the DUCSU Cafeteria, meeting faces to make friends with and forming into small groups remaining with larger ones. But before all this began, we had to take the diagnostic test and the results placed us in five groups, in order of linguistic competence, so that our English could be improved, brushed up in E101, a course for written expression, reading comprehension, grammar and pronunciation.

Our ‘college English’, in most cases, then reeked of what English was like when the English had come to India, spiced with deviations from the standard that sprouted in the rural Bengal. I was placed in the privileged group under Dr. Niaz Zaman, a redoubtable figure then, who I worked with as a colleague much later at New Age where she was literary editor — always a statement to make with pride for me. Towards the end of first-year classes, she asked us to write on our days in the first year and I still remember her comment written after what I wrote: ‘You have a tendency to begin too many sentence with “And.” Try to avoid doing so unless absolutely necessary’ (the last three words discretely underlined for emphasis). Now whenever I write and tend to begin sentences with an ‘and’, I try to heed the warning.

I had known of Khondakar Ashraf Hossain, my first tutorial group teacher, much before I entered the university. Our English teacher at Dinajpur Government College happened to be KAH’s room-mate in the Muhsin Hall when they were students of the department. Much later, when he was taking our MA phonetics class, one day I volunteered to pronounce the ‘voiceless pharyngeal fricative’, for him. He was then learning German at the Institute of Modern Languages and I finished my courses in French. Both German and French have the sound in their respective phoneme repertoire. It did not quite cause a ripple, but could cause a stir, as such ventures do, and did, in some cases. I should have been a bit more wise then.

In a tutorial paper on Shylock, towards the close of the first year, I applied my then best to writing five pages of the answer and KAH came up with a B+, with the remark — ‘good quotations but more expositions needed’. I told him that I was not happy about this and he took the answer sheet back and gave another plus in brackets. It appears to have been consolation of a kind as I still do not know whether the bracketed plus in the grade, B+(+), had, in effect, counted. I sought to express my unhappiness about marks once more when I was in the third year. I wrote 13 pages on a topic on Agamemnon, had it neatly typed in WordPerfect and printed in a dot-matrix printer, for SMI, Syed Manzoorul Islam; and he gave me an A- saying that I had stopped writing the moment I began to form my arguments. I mustered up my courage and asked him if he thought that I could write 13 pages of answer to a single question in the examinations hall. He took back my script and gave me an A, which had been my highest grade in tutorial exams, in my entire university education mired in a series of Bs, mostly with fewer minuses.

One day in our second year, after a day I had wilfully missed the classes, everybody I met in the corridor told me to see SMI. SMI anchored a programme on world literature on Bangladesh Television then. He wanted to have a short session of intimate play reading in the programme based on a short story by Nadine Gordimer, who had won the Nobel prize in literature a few days before. He chose, on open recommendations of our fellows, Rumana Siddique and me. We read Gordimer’s ‘Comrades’, which SMI modified into a script, in November 1991. As I was reading, inside the television studio, I faltered once and misread once. As we were coming out, I told SMI that I misread once and he assuringly told me that no one would notice it. I could not get to see the airing.

While preparing for the performance, I had a small, sweet fight with SMI. In ‘Comrades’, Gordimer describes Mrs. Hattie Telford’s dining-room, having an African wooden sculpture representing ‘a lion marvellously released from its matrix’ in the grain of a tree-trunk. I kept pronouncing the word with the ‘mate’ diphthong in the first syllable while SMI kept pronouncing with the ‘mat’ vowel in the hope that I would catch on. After a couple of instances, he asked me why I was doing so. I told him that it was that way it was. Having gone through Daniel Jones’s English Pronouncing Dictionary, which I had handy for more than a year in my poor efforts to perfect my phonemes, allophones and primary and secondary stresses, I knew that the pronunciation that SMI made was a less used variant. But he, instead, took up the OALDCE, which had my variant as the only pronunciation.

Daniel Jones, whose English Pronouncing Dictionary and the Pronunciation of English shaped my vowels and consonants, was offered the professorship of phonetics at the University of Dacca in October 1920. But he decided to refuse the offer. How I always wished if he had laid the foundations of phonetic study here. I remember unambiguously telling SH, Dr Shawkat Hussain — when he asked me, in the viva voce for the second-year exams, why I had ventured to study the English literature — about how I wanted to study languages, or linguistics. I had been so drawn to linguistics, spending hour after hour in the central library, mostly in the reference section reading page after page of linguistic matters, that in my MA year, in the language stream, I had to spend less time on studies and could spend more on my job as a subeditor that I had taken three months before my bachelor’s exams.

I liked the way AH, Ahsanul Haque, taught. We were to read Chaucer with him but all that he talked about in the classroom hardly related to Chaucer. Yet he kept talking of so many things, day after day, drawing from social customs and history which could form a literary mind. I had then thought that he could have given lectures in the first year and not having him to do so certainly constituted a mistake of the department.

I had the privilege to interview SIC, Serajul Islam Choudhury who had attested my photographs at the admission time, twice — the first time in 1995; it had been barely a year we were out of the university. When I met him in his office room, he told me that he would feel comfortable speaking in Bengali and I should not have any problem in translating that into English. The second time I interviewed him at his house was towards the close of 2007 for a January 2008 supplement of the newspaper where I have been working since 2003.

One incident in his life caused a stir among the students. The day his wife, Najma Jesmin Choudhury, whom he married in 1962, died of cancer in 1989, he went to take the class scheduled for that morning; we sent him back home. When I spoke to him in 2007, I asked him why he had gone to take the class. ‘Duty has always been important to me…. I knew my wife was being treated and there were people around her to look after. I also needed to discharge my duty’, he said.

I had been familiar with his writing much before I entered the university. Now at least I can remember reading his Amar Pitar Mukh (1976) and Bacon-er Maumachhira (1978) when I was in the final years of my (higher) secondary education. We, not all of us perhaps, had known of some other teachers before we started our university education.

We had the fabled Kashinath Roy, simply dressed, soft spoken and fond of chat sessions in the teachers’ lounge downstairs. We had to inevitably find him out for tutorial exams. As we approached his room upstairs, if he had agreed, a willing colleague of his at the landing would ask him, ‘Kashi, tea?’ He would hesitantly agree, give us the key to his room leaving instructions for us to take the exam there, place the answer scripts on his table, and leave the key with the office. We did not hesitate to take out books from his shelf and quote texts, as needed, not to the letter but even to the punctuation.

He is fabled to have skipped classes for the remaining duration Dr Syed Sajjad Husain had been head of the department after the Dr Husain asked KR, who had been known for wearing non-European dresses, to wear shirt and pantaloons if he wanted to attend his classes. One afternoon in our third year in the department, I saw KR in shirt and pants, walking in front of the office room. Dr Niaz Zaman was coming from the opposite direction, passing by KR, stopping short, she looked back, up at KR and said, ‘Kashi?’ He smiled a hesitant smile and they both went their way. Many of us knew that Kashinath Roy is a poet. He had his first compilation published in 2008 and another one in 2011–12. I telephoned him at the Eastern University one afternoon and enquired about where I could buy the second one and he said that he had not given the volume for distribution. He asked me to send in someone for a copy. I did, a colleague of mine, and he signed a copy for me.

In the MA year, I met a new teacher, coming here from Glasgow as we heard then, who came to be known as SMZI, Syed Mazharul Islam, as opposed to SMI. There were handful of us from the honours course into the language stream — and I am fortunate enough not to have been declassed by my mates from honours course even after having been egregious. In the first class of his, he talked about vowels, diphthongs and syllabication. When I asked him whether triphthongs would count as a single syllable unit, he said that he would answer the question in the next class. He so did, and brought a bunch of books for references. In June or July, a couple of months after our MA exams, which had ended in April, I had almost been out of touch with the university, I went to the department and as I stepped into the office room, I was told to go to the notice board — SMZI wanted that I would see him.

Into his room a while after, he enquired about the notation that I had employed in showing intonation, along with phonemic transcription, of a large paragraph written in usual English in the question paper, then typed and cyclostyled. I learnt the system from William Stannard Allen’s Living English Speech. He asked me to lend him the book for some time so that he could evaluate my answer script. I did. He could evaluate my answer. I passed. And months, four or six perhaps, after, I went to collect the book — photocopied pages sewn together with a thick thread in one corner — only to find that he left the job a few months earlier and left for where he had come from.

Such were our teachers. We learnt a lot, not from what they taught in the classroom but from how they lived and thought, at least to the extent that we could see. I still believe, as I did when I was in the university, that our teachers — with their erudition and follies, name and fame — could hardly teach what they wanted us to learn. But some of them could certainly light up for us ways to and lanes into the world of learning. My father, who had a BA degree in English from the University of Calcutta and an MA degree in English from the North Bengal University, had always told me that a master’s degree does not earn a student that much of knowledge, but it lights up the way and ‘if you are willing, you can learn some on your own.’ All of our teachers taught us and some of them could lead us to water and we drank it — on our own, to our need.

But the university, and the department, stood us before a world, a world of learning, a world of friends with their age but merely being a number, a world of friendship and a world of clashes, personal and impersonal, separate from everything happening before and separate from everything that happened after. This is the reason the department, or the university, bonds us together so warmly, even after the passage of such a long time. The people who had stood a bit far off have now come close and the people who had been close have come closer.

The more we grow, the more we become rational; and the more we get together, at least mentally. But in those salad days of ours when we were green in judgement yet we could bark, and even bite, when needs be, wrongly or rightly, we refused to read Shakespeare with Niaz Zaman. SMI came in to teach us Shakespeare. I hardly attended classes in our third year; yet I, along with all others, signed the petition for the change of course teacher. As we now approach the ripe age of 50, I clearly see that we did it wrong, creating an uproar, that time, in the department. I would like, on behalf of all of us who were then together, regret doing that and apologise to all who were our teachers then, especially Dr Niaz Zaman. It is not just for this but for all offences, major or minor, that we had committed. We stand contrite.


Akkas, Abu Jar M (2017 Jan. 7). Six years as we walked them past. EDAS Chronicle 2016. 70–74


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