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Interleaving personal memory with political history

  • Published at 12:33 pm July 14th, 2018

Review of  ‘Memoirs of Dacca University: 1947-1951’

In her graduate years, Amy Geraldine Stock, also known by the sobriquet “Dinah,” was a regular participant in the meetings of the Oxford Majlis, an anti-colonial student forum. She spoke there occasionally as an only European student and supported the Indian independence movement. She had expertise in English literature, especially in classics, but she wanted to contribute to the cause of India’s liberation struggle against the colonial rule and to teach in “one of the emerging countries.” 

Years later when she was teaching as a part-time lecturer in a London training college, an advertisement in The Times Educational Supplement persuaded her to apply for a teaching position in erstwhile East Pakistan. And in the winter of 1946-47, the 45-year old anti-imperialist—bored with London’s “dark skies, bitter winds, [and] streets choked with piled-up snow”—would soon find herself on SS Franconia, a ship bound for Bombay to join as the head of the Department of English at Dacca University, where she would be teaching from 1947 to 1951. 

Though a stranger to this part of the world, her view of the subcontinent’s politics and Bengali culture, which she describes brilliantly and with critical objectivity in her book Memoirs of Dacca University: 1947-1951, has all the potential to demand our absolute attention. It was published in 1973 by Green Book House (now defunct) while Professor Stock was serving a year’s stint as Visiting Professor at the Department of English in her former university, now in newly independent Bangladesh. Many years later, Khademul Islam, editor of literary journal Bengal Lights, discovered a dusty, dog-eared copy of the original edition in a used bookshop in Dhaka, and soon it was decided that the book would be published under a new colophon. He tells this evocative story in an impressive editor’s note to this sleek new edition published by Bengal Lights Books in 2017. Furthermore, the current edition comes with a very engaging foreword by Professor Kaiser Haq, who attended some of the lectures of Professor Stock during her second tenure at Dhaka University. Haq calls it a classic memoir that sheds light on major watersheds of our politics and culture. 

Professor Stock’s memoir is steeped in the history of the newly independent Pakistan. From the rise of Indian nationalism that led Indians to seek first self-rule and later total independence from the British Raj, to the creation of Pakistan and the rift between its eastern and western wings and the subsequent Language Movement, Memoirs  takes its readers to many historical epochs with a fresh outlook and qualitative analysis, as they were seen through the eyes of an European political activist and teachers. Evident in the narrative is her empathy to the crises and distresses of erstwhile East Pakistan’s people who were subjected to appalling political, cultural, and economic exploitation by its western counterpart simply because “Bengali Muslims [were] not Islamic enough in their sense.”  

Professor Stock starts with partition, which was still a haunting memory for people of the subcontinent. Though she knew that the separation of Pakistan from India was a by-product, which even “took the Pakistanis themselves by surprise,” she also knew well that through bloodshed, riots, and political turmoil, partition had already solidified its memory both in the minds of Indians and Pakistanis. And for her, it was this “power of experience that had torn the two countries apart.” Months later a Panjabi supporter of Jinnah commented on his death, though in a dismal tone, “It was he alone who created Pakistan. The rest of us stood by him because we believed in his leadership, but we never, to the very last moment, believed that it was actually going to come true.” 

As the narrative moves on, she beautifully interleaves personal memory with political history of those times. Many interesting characters appear and disappear throughout the book. For example, Abdul, her cook-bearer in the university bungalow, who still lives by the book of the Raj and feels honored to cook for his white-skinned employer; Rahman, an Intermediate student, who claims to have organized more successful strikes and protests than anyone else in his college, and is now determined to repeat the same at Dhaka University; and her chaprassie in the English department who knows administrative perils and how to tackle them better than any of the professors—the book will introduce its readers to a batch of amusing characters from a long gone time who are truly charming and illuminating as well.  

Professor Stock also recounts her encounter and association with some of the doyens of Bengali literature and cultural activists who were still in their early days of a potential literary career. She gives us some interesting bits about Munier Choudhury, one of our foremost playwrights and a martyred intellectual, who tells her during their first meeting that more than anything else he likes the experience of being chased out of a Muslim student hostel “for being a communist and atheist.” One of her pupils introduces her to Poet Jasimuddin, whose endeavor to capture the folk tradition of rural Bengal into literature is highly admired by her. She compares his efforts with those of Douglas Hyde’s, one of the key figures in Gaelic Revival in Ireland. Through her association with Shamsul Huda, also her pupil, she steps into the world of medieval Bengali poetry written by the Muslims. Eventually she translated a good number of poems, including a few by Kazi Nazrul Islam. These were published in Dr Khan Sarwar Murshid’s journal, New Values, to wide acclaim. 

A teacher of literature and language, Professor Stock also captures the beauty of the tropical climate, its tone and temperature. She was in deep love with Bengal’s “luminous green ocean of paddy fields,” fringed by coconut palms or mango groves, with the monsoon rain that sees winds rise like “a sighing of far-off trees”, or with frogs “bursting into a deafening chorus” with the unanimity of a well-conducted orchestra. She records a lost time and its geo-political climate, and her feeling of strangeness in it, now only to be realized by the imagination of her readers. She also admires her students’ love for poetry, which she thinks is inspired by Bengal’s evergreen nature and its beautiful countryside. She observes aptly: “There was poetry everywhere in Bengal, both among the learned and the illiterate; there cannot be a country in the world where the name of poet carries more honor. Every student in the university either was a poet or thought he was or meant to be.”

Memoirs is a moving narrative laced with true historical events and facts. Professor Stock has written a scintillating book, combining both analytical and personal perspectives to offer a fascinating account of our politics and culture in the post-partition period.

Mir Arif works with Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.

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