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An elegy for a teacher

  • Published at 10:03 am August 18th, 2021
Bhuiyan Iqbal


Professor Bhuiyan Iqbal passed away on the 22nd of July. A scholar of Bangla language, literature and heritage, and a lifelong, steadfast admirer of Rabindranath Tagore and his literary creations, he had only moved to Dhaka a few months ago in the middle of a raging pandemic, after having spent much of his professional career teaching at Chittagong University. He had been suffering from various ailments, but it was Covid that claimed him in the end.

He was a student of my father Mufazzal Haider Chaudhury, and often professed his admiration of him. And for the rest of my life, my father's birthday will have an additional tinge of melancholy for me. Because that would have been my father's 95th birthday, this 22nd of July.

Iqbal Chacha and I go back a long way, but I only met him once, on the 7th of June this year. Our acquaintance was over the phone, and that too because, many years ago, he took the initiative of seeking me out, because I was his teacher's son.

There was a particular purpose to his reaching out to me also. He would call me on the phone from Chittagong, and ask whether I had read a particular essay, story or other piece of writing of my father's, or if it had been collected in any of his published books. If I said I did not recall having read it and didn't think it was in any of his books, he would have the piece photocopied and sent it by post to my address. This he did unfailingly, for many pieces of writing, over the best part of a decade.

Books by Bhuiyan Iqbal

At one point, I said soft copies would probably better serve the purpose of preserving these writings than hard copies. From that point on, he would have one of his assistants scan the documents and email them to me as attachments, as well as sending the photocopied hard copies by post. This is the measure of how dedicated a man Bhuiyan Iqbal Chacha was.

I have heard stories of how, each time he went to Santiniketan, Iqbal Chacha would make copies of Rabindranath Tagore's unpublished letters, and once back home, study them, prepare detailed annotations and make necessary comments. His letters to Desh, the literary magazine published from Kolkata, containing his extensive observations on the poet's correspondences, became a regular feature of the magazine.

The one meeting I had with him, on June 7th, came agonisingly close to not happening. The apartment where he lived with his wife Laila Zaman, also an ex-Professor of the Bangla Department at Chittagong University, was close to my office, and I had planned to visit him ever since I heard they had moved to Dhaka. My friend Shoumi Mustafa—Pinu—who knew Iqbal Chacha and his family very well, had been instrumental in making plans to visit them. On the day I did end up going, however, Pinu was detained by office work even though evening was starting to descend. Now or never, I thought, and decided to go by myself.

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That was a wonderful evening I spent in the company of Iqbal Chacha and Laila—Tuku—Chachi. We talked for hours of times long gone and people no longer with us, and works of prose and poetry by writers we all admired. After some time, a mutual acquaintance of ours, the poet and entrepreneur Tarique Shujat, turned up, and that only livened things up more. I learned how Iqbal Chacha and Tuku Chachi had become friends with the entire literary glitterati of West Bengal during their time there, and of their fond memories of the many happy incidents and even a few misadventures of that period.

It was one of the warmest, most enjoyable evenings of my recent memory, a refreshing change after all these months of enforced isolation. I did notice, however, that Tuku Chachi was the more animated of the couple. Iqbal Chacha mostly listened, and only put in his observations and offered anecdotes when they became necessary.

He told me that evening that I had a lot of work to do to preserve my father's memory. He gave me specific suggestions on what to do. But when I asked him if he could write something on his erstwhile teacher, he regretfully said that he would really have liked to, but his memory was no longer what it was.

When I mentioned my observations to Pinu later, he said Iqbal Chacha was very ill. More so than he had himself been fully informed.

This was my one meeting with this gentle and scholarly man whom I had known over the phone for a long time. Who held my father in such reverence!

Some time ago, I prepared a list of people I needed to visit soon. These are all individuals who had gotten on in years; who, whether they were aware of it or not, had impacted my life in some significant way. Some were household names in this country, others were not. Of the ten people on that list, I have only managed to visit two. Iqbal Chacha was one of these two, and for this I shall always be grateful both to Pinu, and my spur-of-the-moment decision to go ahead with the visit that evening by myself.

Tanvir Haider Chaudhury has spent most of his career as a banker and is now running a food and beverage company.

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