A teacher, writer and unrepentant socialist

by Golam Faruque Khan

spe01WHILE still a secondary student in the early 1970s, one day I picked up an old issue of monthly Saugat from a pile of literary magazines in my father’s study and started flicking through it until I got up to an article entitled ‘Kathasahitye Bhabaluta’ (Sentimentality in Fiction). I do not exactly know why but the title caught my fancy and I began to read the article only to find myself rapt in it in a few minutes. I finished the article quickly because some of the ‘sentimental’ novels discussed in it were quite familiar to me as I had devoured them with great enthusiasm during the preceding summer vacation just a couple of months ago. In fact I was still rather starry-eyed about those novels which were much discussed and popular those days. But the article, written in a remarkably lucid language and captivating style, put forward very convincing arguments and shattered my illusion that I had read novels that were impeccable both in style and content. Then I looked at the byline and discovered that the writer’s name was Serajul Islam Choudhury. I was in a daze for a few days, not knowing what to think of this Mr Choudhury who put a damper on my good feeling that had resulted from the reading of some supposedly good novels and yet showed cogently with appropriate quotations from those texts how the novelists’ occasional slips into sentimentality compromised the merit of their works. But I got rid of my confusion a few days later when I came across another old magazine in which the above article was highly appreciated by a poet and critic of note who considered it the best of a number of articles read out in a seminar on the literature of the then East Pakistan. This is what piqued my interest in Serajul Islam Choudhury’s writings quite early on and I soon came to know that he was a teacher in the Department of English of Dhaka University.
Happily, in the late 1970s I could become one of his students in Dhaka University. By then I had read quite a few of his books such as Anweshan (1964, Quest), Dwitiya Bhuban (1974, The Second World), Nirashray Grihi (1974, The Homeless Homemaker) and Pratikriyashilata Adhunik Ingreji Sahitye (Reactionary Trends in Modern English Literature). I was also an avid reader of his column entitled ‘Uparkathamor Bhetorei’ (Within the Superstructure) that was coming out in weekly Bichitra and was raising many razor-sharp questions about our culture and society. As far as I can remember, two of his books on iconic figures like Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and Saratchandra Chattopadhyay also came out soon, rocking the world of received ideas about them .
It was in my second year undergraduate class that I could expose myself to his unique teaching style; he initiated us into the world of the English novel in his characteristically dispassionate and engaging way. I do not remember a single moment I could take my mind off what he said for about an hour in a class, and yet in his manner there was nothing light-hearted or intended to create a dramatic effect. All he said was nothing short of hair-splitting analyses of important passages from the text and illuminating interpretations with a sociological edge to them. Needless to say, his lectures were always shorn of “bhabaluta” that I saw him discard in one of his early essays. The only moments there was something in his tone that could be said to border on the passionate were when his face beamed with joy as he went into the narrative techniques of Jane Austen or Emily Bronte or any other novelist and exclaimed softly: “Notice, notice how she does it!” He was spellbinding when it came to discussing economic issues in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or the matter of class that threw Heathcliff and Catherine apart in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Those of his students who were already familiar with the way he was honing his Marxist approach to the study of literature, only expected more of such sociologically grounded new interpretations in his classes.
It is not that studying and teaching English literature and writing in Bengali is new in the Bengali-speaking milieu — in fact such literary bilinguality dates back to the colonial period and there are many examples of English teachers choosing Bengali as their medium of writing. Eminent Bengali poets like Jibanananda Das, Buddhadeb Bose and Bishnu Dey and critics like Srikumar Bandopadhaya, Gopal Halder, Subodhchandra Sengupta and Rabindrakumar Dasgupta were all teachers of English literature. More to the point, in the then East Pakistan, writers like Abu Rushd, Kabir Chowdhury, Munier Chowdhury and Zillur Rahman Siddiqi were teaching English and writing in Bengali at full throttle when Serajul Islam Choudhury appeared on the literary scene. But it needs to be noted that everything was not hunky-dory in the English Departments and there was also an inverse tradition here of looking down upon Bengali literature. The colonial hangover still persisted in substantial measure and the prospect of becoming brown Englishmen was highly seductive for many. Serajul Islam Choudhury bravely resisted such temptations and dedicated himself to writing in Bengali like his worthy predecessors. Probably the point for him was to write in his own language, making full use of his training in English literature and inspire his students to do the same so that the standard of literary criticism and literary theoretical discourse in Bangla could go up. It is now easy to see that he has remained steadfast in his determination to contribute to Bangla literary and social criticism for the last six decades and his sustained work has remarkably enriched Bengali literature. The huge corpus of his writings would be a pleasant surprise for many; he has already produced nearly a hundred books. And the range of subjects he has covered is simply amazing — literature and language, society, politics, economy, biography, reminiscences and what not! Apart from writing his original essays, he has translated from English to Bengali, edited a number of literary journals and played his role as an activist.
Broadly speaking, three phases can be traced in Serajul Islam Choudhury’s literary career. The first phase marked his allegiance to democratic values as reflected in his first book Anweshan. Though in this book he looks at culture and society through a sharp critical eye, he is more concerned here with the development of the individual. He is still hopeful of the gains that can be reaped from the development of the bourgeoisie. He is also more appreciative than critical of nationalism. In his second book Dwitiya Bhuban there is a growing skepticism of the liberal-humanitarian tradition and a discernible shift towards a radical world-view. This book includes essays written before and after the liberation of Bangladesh and mirrors the writer’s growing interest in phenomena like class, economy and imperialism. Alongside Rabindranath Tagore, Qazi Nazrul Islam and Qazi Abdul Wadud, a communist poet like Sukanta Bhattacharya, a famed Marxist critic like Raymond Williams and a revolutionary writer like Frantz Fanon have claimed his attention. It is in this phase that he made a devastating critique of a ‘Krishna sahib’ (dark-skinned Englishman) like Nirad C Chaudhuri and the others of his ilk. That he made this assessment long before the rise of postcolonialism speaks volumes for his critical insights. This radical awareness crystallized into a stronger critique of capitalism and a firm socialist conviction in the mid-1970s. There is a line of argument that a few perspectives emerging from the intellectual environment created by the Naxalbari movement can be traced in some of his writings in this phase. The iconoclastic mood triggered by Naxalbari was still smouldering in some Left circles after the movement had been crushed and this mood is thought to have percolated through to his writings, particularly his shorter books like Bankimchandrer Jamidar O Krishak (The Landlord and the Peasant in Bankimchandra’s Writings) and Saratchandra O Samantabad (Saratchandra and Feudalism).These books provocatively question these canonical writers’ perceived inclination towards feudalism more or less in the same fashion as Ranajit Guha castigates what he thinks is the paternalistic and collaborationist attitude of Dinabandhu Mitra, the author of Neel Darpan, to peasants forced by colonial planters to cultivate indigo, in his classic essay ‘Neel Darpan: The Image of a Peasant Revolt in a Liberal Mirror’ (1974).This line of thinking can be traced further back to what Bhabani Sen, Binoy Ghosh, Saroj Dutta and some others postulated while participating in a prolonged debate among the Bengali Marxists on assessing the tradition of Rammohun-Bankim-Rabindranath-Vivekananda and what is known as the Bengal Renaissance. The third phase of Serajul Islam Choudhury’s critical engagement began with the collapse of the Soviet model of socialism and the concomitant capitalist triumphalism in the early 1990s when, instead of giving way to frustration and cynicism like many others on the Left, he thought it his moral duty to critique the globalized capital more mercilessly and keep alive the radical hopes of social transformation. He kept on passionately defending socialism in the face of lethal attacks on it from different quarters and, quite unabashedly, argued why Lenin was more relevant when his statue was being demolished in the former Soviet Union. The experiences of the preceding decades also helped to temper some of his previous views, especially those on Rabindranath Tagore and other canonical Bengali writers, and made him look anew at the relevance of their thoughts in the contemporary world. It is in continuation of this realization that he has recently published a whole book (Rabindranath Kena Jaruri; 2016) explaining why Rabindranath is essential for us.
It goes without saying that the global intellectual environment has undergone tremendous changes over the last few decades. As Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal (1998) have succinctly put it, there has been ‘a significant shift in historiographical fashion from politics towards discourse, economies towards identities, materiality towards culture, class towards community.’ In fact this shift has extended much beyond historiography to encompass all branches of social science and humanities. The new intellectual trends have long made their inroads in our part of the world. In the broad frame of what are known as postmodernism and postcolonialism, a host of schools of thought such as subalternism, neo-traditionalism, communitarianism, post-Marxism, post-feminism and the Lacanian version of Freudianism are spreading more heat than light in the arena of theory. In today’s ‘post-marked’ world, the idea of a radical social transformation is a ‘grand narrative’, Enlightenment rationality is in the dock as smacking of Eurocentrism and history is thought to have ended. The categories of class, equality and progress are branded as ‘essentialist’ and ‘positivist’ and even the word ‘imperialism’ is being conveniently traded for such culturalist categories as ‘Western dominance.’
It deserves special mention that in this re-organized intellectual conjuncture Serajul Islam Choudhury is someone who would make no bones of his persistent concern with the old concepts of class, political economy, materiality and equality as well as of the fact that he is still a stern critic of capitalism and imperialism as they are. He is still a firm believer in the onward march of history and in progress notwithstanding many hard obstacles on the way. He would, as it seems, gladly risk being an ‘essentialist’ and ‘Enlightenment rationalist’ if he feels he can continue to contribute, as he has been doing for many decades now, to the advancement of the ‘grand narrative’ of socialism in his own country and beyond. The unrepentant socialist in him never shies away from whatever he can do to promote his cause with all the words and ideas at his command.

Golam Faruque Khan is a poet and essayist.

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