First published in 1973, Amy Geraldine Stock's Memoirs of Dacca University: 1947-1951, is not just another memoir. The current edition, published by Bengal Lights Books in 2017 has a foreword by Kaiser Haq, who had known the author during her second stint as an academic in Dhaka from 1972 to 1973. A poet himself, Haq notes with enthusiasm the “finest literary flourish[ing]” in pure travel writing in Stock's description of village boys at the early stage of her journey, and sets up her readers' expectation thereby. The foreword and the editor's note by Khademul Islam explain clearly why the book should be considered a historical document, to be precise, a piece that assesses and addresses key socio-political issues of a crucial period in newly born (East) Pakistan. Moreover, it is by someone who, in spite of her sympathies for an emerging nation, maintains a distance from some events in a manner possible only for an outsider. It is indeed an amazing rendition of that period of time.
A.G. Stock was appointed professor of English at Dacca University (Formally known as the University of Dhaka) right after the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Her Memoir gives minute detail of everyday life in her new place of work. In the Introduction to her book she calls her recounting “patchy and impressionistic,” while at the same time, “authentic” (xxi). Stock also claims that hers is not an autobiography but “an impression of East Pakistan” as she saw it during the first four years of its life (4).
Stock gives us information about herself that reflects how she was the perfect candidate for the job she took up at Dacca University. When a student at Oxford she was the only white participant in anti-colonial student forums, and consequently, the then Vice-Chancellor of Dacca University had remembered her from his days there as a doctoral student.
She describes her surroundings with the sensibility of a careful observer and the meticulousness of a record-keeper with just the right proportion of sensitivity to understand and sympathize with a nation that is well-known for emotional outbursts as delineated through the characters of Abdul, her cook, or the young boy selling knick-knacks, the one who introduced himself as a “I businessman” (23). That she is unlike most other colonizing expatriates is clear n her recounting of Abdul's behavior who resents that too many brown-skinned people frequented Stock's bungalow. The way she pacifies him shows her deep sense of respect for other people's beliefs and opinions. This is also clear in her dealings with the businessman vendor who borrowed fifteen taka from her to set up a small business and diligently returns the money in very small sums. Her visit to Khorshed's village is another instance of her regards for the simple and poor people of the country she was visiting and where she had a temporary home.
Any sub-continental reader would probably note in Stock's book her acute interest in her surroundings, from people to culture, and even nature. She takes immense interest in learning local history and folklore as well. She writes, “There is poetry everywhere in Bengal, both among the learned and the illiterate; there cannot be a country in the world where the name of poet carried more honor” (29). She certainly captures the gist of the Bengali spirit accurately. Hence there is little wonder that during her four years in East Pakistan it virtually became her home. Thus she mentions how after returning from a trip to New Zealand, “it felt like dropping back into a life where I belonged” (162). Her descriptions of the congregation and orchestra of frogs and the invisible inhabitant of her house that made a raucous cry, “Hoch-haw,” (39) are very real and humorous too. Her frequent visits to surrounding areas with others tell of an inquisitive soul with a caring nature.
She is, of course, not enthusiastic about all that she sees in Bengal. For example, she is often impatient about the bureaucracy in the system. A reader would feel being observed through the other end of the telescope because many of these lengthy bureaucratic procedures are still in prominent practice in government offices in our part of the world. However, people are so used to them that nobody raises any question. But Stock's observations would surely make one wonder why things are still the way they were some seventy years ago.
Stock's attempts to understand and address problems regarding the education system are noteworthy. Present- day educationists will surely find it of concern that the problems with the use of help books and notebooks continue to persist in our time as does the smuggling of books inside the examination halls. That “vomiting” could be a synonym of “expressing,” and used in national newspapers, is another not too unfamiliar example of twisted and idiosyncratic use of English.
Perhaps because of her position Stock is not too candid about the Hindu-Muslim riots occurring at the time of the partition. But she does note how student numbers in Jagannath Hall shrunk during this time. She also addresses an important question that rose then: “What's the use of an Islamic state if it doesn't translate the principles of Islam into a social order?” (84) Her anecdote of a Pakistani police officer saying that there would be no more riots or problems because the Hindus were all gone, is a tell-tale sign—she had prescience about problematic issues that would eventually lead to the Liberation War of 1971.
Moreover, Stock displayed admirable courage during the Language Movement in standing with her students and even joining their processions and picketing activities. Her association with Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta and Munier Choudhury provides a unique perspective to her tales and involves her directly with the early days of the Language Movement. Her open display of support for the spirit of East Pakistan caused indirect friction with the university administration, but Stock did not waver from her stance.
Stock's Memoir is an amazing documentation of the time she was here and thus of great historical significance. There are many accounts of the period, of course, but this particular memoir stands out because the author is British; as Khademul Islam points out her work is “a part of the greater dialectic of Empire” (x). It is almost as if through her text the Empire is writing back; however, the voice is not that of a subaltern's, but one of the ruling population who had ventured into forbidden territory and was speaking up for the mute. Thus Islam's editorial attempt to dig out such a document from the rubble of oblivion is commendable.
The only problematic aspect about this publishing venture though is the cover photograph of A.G. Stock in black and white. While the editor notes that the publishers retained the original photograph and design used for the first edition that came out in 1773, this reviewer could not help wondering if it could have been done in some other way. The black and white photo indeed brings in a timeless and classic aspect to the book. But perhaps the coloring and binding could have been more attractive! This limitation of book designing, however, is of little consequences to readers truly interested in the history and formation of a nation and Dhaka University's role in the process.
Sohana Manzoor teaches English at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh. She is also the Deputy Editor of the Star Literature and Review Pages.