Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury reached eighty on June 23, 2016. He is affectionately called SIC Sir by his students. Regarded as the country’s foremost intellectual, he is the most inspirational and influential teacher of Dhaka University’s Department of English in independent Bangladesh. When Edward Said said the men and women of learning in our time should be “oppositional, progressive, secular and independent”, wasn’t he talking about intellectuals like Prof Choudhury?
I still remember his brilliant lectures with awe. He was always well-prepared and focused, and there always was pin-drop silence in the classroom. He would keep us spellbound with his majestic voice and his deeply insightful thoughts. He would not even look at us. He would look through the window into the distance. That was, I suppose, partly because of his shyness. Even in the corridor he looked downwards while walking, not looking at us. But we never failed to identify the devoted, selfless teacher in him.
Prof Choudhury was a voracious reader. I saw him collecting four books every day from the DU library, month after month, year after year. He read, he wrote, he taught and he edited. He was the most active teacher of his generation. We never saw him wearing expensive clothes or even riding a rickshaw. In the campus he always walked. In our noblest dreams, we wanted to be like him.
As a teenager I thought loving Bangladesh was to love her nature – her majestic rivers, her green and golden paddy fields, her lovely trees and her beautiful villages. SIC Sir’s books taught me that loving Bangladesh means loving her people, her suffering millions. Since my boyhood I have been sort of a socialist democrat. It is for Prof Choudhury that I learned to respect Marxism and take it very seriously. His books taught my generation how to love our poor people, how to live to think about them. He is our first and foremost literary genius to interpret literature in sociological terms. He has been a very serious writer but always immensely popular, mainly because of his championing the cause of the poor and never failing to understand their suffering.
I have always been fond of his wonderful prose which flows like the waters of a serene river. He has explored our history, our culture, our politics, our society and our literature with matchless insight, imagination and erudition. SIC has been our first scholarly essayist who could move people of several generations to tears.
We remember with pride that SIC Sir was in the VC panel of DU on three occasions in the past and always received the highest number of votes. But he never wanted to be the VC. I remember that in my early twenties, while going to the British Council, I would look at the VC’s beautiful residence and feel sad that SIC Sir never stayed in it. We heard from reliable sources that Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed and Justice Latifur Rahman wanted him in their caretaker governments but he refused them both, though thousands like me felt that he could be the best possible advisor.
I have written elsewhere that as a young man whenever I saw SIC, either in the English Department corridor or anywhere else on the campus, I kept gazing at him till he was no longer visible. If I had a companion, I stopped talking to him or her to look at him. In fact, our admiration for this very simple, grey-haired person knew no bounds.
I’d conclude with an anecdote. Politics and Culture, which is a collection of essays published in honour of SIC, was edited by Fakrul Alam and Firdous Azim, two of his best students. On a winter afternoon in 2002, at the TSC, I asked Sir for an autograph on the lovely anthology and requested him to write even more after his retirement. What was his reply? “Tumi kokhono lekha bandha korbe na!”(You should never stop writing). He wrote those words on the book before signing it. Was I happy? I had this bad habit of going into hibernation after a few years of writing. The teacher I adored read my works and liked them!
Why shouldn’t his comment make me ecstatic? He has been the best teacher we had at the department. He had thousands of adoring students and he was the best scholar we had. He was also the nicest and the most affectionate person we knew.
The great teacher, scholar and writer should live for a hundred years. That is what his students, readers and well-wishers pray for at his 80th birthday.