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Serajul Islam Choudhury: A committed intellectual

HOW would he like to be remembered? Pausing for moments, in his measured enunciation typical of his classroom lectures, Serajul Islam Choudhury, on a definitive note, said, ‘a committed intellectual.’

A man of commitment, or rather public commitment, Serajul Islam went on to define intellectuals as people who could rise up vertically in knowledge and achievement, but could also spread horizontally towards society, but for which they are reduced to mere scholars or professionals, or even mere social beings when they are inclined more towards society. This responsibility, shouldered out of volition, is to understand society and to strive after social transformation.

And this commitment has been with him as the guiding spirit and the driving force in all he has done, contributed or achieved in his vocation, teaching, and avocation, writing, all his life.

In his early life, he wished to become a novelist, but failed. His father wanted him to join the civil service after a degree in economics, but he wanted to study the Bangla literature. On a note of compromise, he enrolled with the English department at the University of Dhaka after an intermediate of arts degree in 1952, obtained from Notre Dame College, preceded by matriculation from St Gregory’s High School in 1950.

He joined the department as a teacher in 1957, setting out also to be a writer. He decided not to become a bureaucrat which many around him were doing then. He counted two reasons for his becoming a writer: his work at the university, which ensured that he would not be transferred and which made scope for him to read a lot, and his temperament. He liked the library too. He received his master’s degree in 1956 and worked briefly with Haraganga College in Munshiganj and Jagannath College in Dhaka.

In more than four decades that followed, he taught students, wrote essays, headed the department, became dean, spawned off several academic and research processes, initiated doctoral dissertation guidance at the department, started periodicals, founded study centres and remained involved in university politics.

He went to England twice by the time – for a post-graduate diploma in English studies at Leeds University and for doctoral studies at Leicester University.

After his retirement, now he edits a quarterly, Natun Diganta (new horizon), which started coming out in 2002, writes, gives lectures and leads or joins social movements. All what he has so far done or all he still does are a manifestation of his commitment – to understand society better and to bring about social transformation.

He had failed to become a novelist: for two reasons; he has never been familiar with the bigger life out there, one that is beyond the bounds of the middle class, and his academic job in the university which has hampered his creativity and showed him that his literary attempts did not reach any heights compared with what he read and taught.

The life out there may still be unknown to him, but he knows middle-class sentiments, or meanness, very well, always trying to rise above such issues which he thinks is necessary to make progress.

He failed to become a novelist; but he has emerged as a writer – an essayist – with a style very individual of him, larded with punctuations which he thinks are necessary to give readers space to breathe and think. He has achieved to write in a style that is moulded into the syntax of the English language, free-flowing and fitting for the subjects he deals with. Yet, there are some who think the style is too populist to go with philosophical contents; he differs.

His style, which he prizes less than the content, has been unknowingly influenced by four writers — Francis Bacon, Buddhadeb Bose, Sudhindranath Dutta and Shibram Chakrabarty. He liked the style of Buddhadeb, although the contents failed to attract him, the deliberateness of Sudhindranath and the humour of Shibram, which have probably moulded into the reasoning of Bacon in his writing. He started prose-writing with Anveshan, a volume of his essays published in 1964, and now he admits drifting from what he started with. He had deliberateness in his writing which has now been replaced with spontaneity.

Serajul Islam has more than 73 titles, mostly volumes of essays on literary criticism and social analysis, to his credit and about a dozen of them have run to the second or third reprint, from 1962 till now. He has half a dozen compilations of his writings and has edited a three-volume set of the works of Anwar Pasha, and six journals.

Serajul Islam first initiated to offer PhD degrees in English at the university. He guided eight students in doctoral dissertations beginning in 1980, as he had thought it had been time the university should have started doing such things. He edited journals, the university journals of arts and letters in Bangla and English — Dhaka Visvavidyalay Patrika for 15 years and Dhaka University Studies for nine years. He founded the Visvavidyalay Patrika.

It was for him that the journals came to be published regularly, at least for the period he edited them. During his student days, he decided not to be a bureaucrat, but feels he has a bureaucratic temperament, which he enjoys when he edits magazines.

His commitment to striving for changes in society led him to stand for the position of member on the executive committee of the Salimullah Hall union soon after he had become student of the university. He worked as treasurer of the Dhaka University Central Students’ Union and during the period he pushed for debates, cultural functions and other such events involving students and teachers, which he said had disappeared after the rule of Ershad.

He founded the University Book Centre in 1978 and the Centre for Advanced Research in Humanities in 1986. In keeping with the spirit, he now runs a centre called Samaj Rupantar Adhyayan Kendra (centre for studies on social transformation), which works towards waking people up to a democracy which would mean ‘equality of rights and opportunities. Rights being equal would not mean anything unless the opportunities remain equal.’ He also set up the seminar in the department and introduced seminars every week with teachers and students.

He took part in the drafting of the Dhaka University Order, which laid the ground for the much-required autonomy. And he had been with university politics, the panels, till 1991 to ensure that the university, in addition to being autonomous legally, should also be autonomous institutionally. He was nominated by the senate to the three-member panel for vice-chancellor’s appointment on three occasions, heading the poll for two times. He was elected to the executive committee of the Dhaka University Teachers’ Association for several times, which, too, was out of his commitment to the university, students and fellows.

Diligent and dutiful he is, Serajul Islam said. He loves being social, too. This is how he evaluates himself. The day his wife, Najma Jesmin, whom he married in 1962, died of cancer in 1989, his students said, he went to take the class scheduled for that morning and the students sent him back home. ‘Duty has always been important to me,’ said Serajul Islam, at the reminder long after the event. ‘I knew my wife was being treated and there were people around her to look after. I also needed to discharge my duty.’

Born on June 23, 1936 at Bikrampur in Dhaka and having lived in Rajshahi and Kolkata, till 1947, and in Dhaka thereafter, Serajul Islam, like most others around him, had colonial influence dominant as he grew up. He became leftist when he went to England for a diploma at Leeds University. He stayed there for 10 months.

When he reached England, he found many of his friends had become Marxist by then. He followed suit, studied Marx and became interested in the politics, economics and social order underlying the literature, which led to his doctoral dissertation on the evil in the novels of Joseph Conrad, EM Forster and DH Lawrence, and similar criticisms of the classics in Bangla.

He believes he is not an orthodox Marxist, but Marxism has taught him to analyse society in the light of class differences. He started believing that capitalism could not cure capitalism and nationalism would also fail to change society. And since then, he has had no regression, no aberration, in his belief.

Serajul Islam, who has written so many books, inspired so many people, contributed significantly to academics, won so many awards including the Bangla Academy Award in 1976, Ekushey Padak in education in 1996, Abdur Rab Chowdhury Gold Medal (Dhaka University) in 1988, and came to be loved and admired by so many people, says life has given him fulfilment, although there is discontent, or dissatisfaction rather, as to making proper use of his time. He does not feel he could do more, but feels he could do what he has done in a better way. There is nothing for him to regret.

Now focused on writing a book on nationalism, communalism and people’s emancipation, being serialised in Natun Diganta expected to be finished in a year, he feels he will look forward to progressing in what has done and is doing and look back to his past to learn from, the never-ending process that keeps life rolling further, for better, for him and for society.


Published in the 2007 New Year Special of New Age.


Revised: 5 April 2011