It was probably on a day in the second week of March that I last saw and heard professor Anisuzzaman—our Anisuzzaman sir—speak publicly. As the president of Bangla Academy, he was chairing an event there, as he always did without fail. The speaker was Major Rafiqul Islam, who spoke eloquently and at length about his role in those turbulent days of March 1971 at a critical stage of our Liberation War. Sir looked unwell though and sat still all through the speech. When Major Islam ended his speech, sir spoke briefly and to the point, summing up the importance and relevance of the speech, and thanking the speaker. He was always precise whenever he spoke in such events, but on this occasion he seemed more sparing of words than ever before.
I asked someone from the academy if Anisuzzaman sir was really unwell. He said he was. The two of us noted then that sir would never shirk his responsibility just because he wasn't feeling hundred percent. But how could anyone there understand how unwell he truly was then? In the weeks that followed, he disappeared from public view. I heard from someone later that he had been hospitalised soon afterward. Of course, the corona pandemic had ended all public events by late March. In the first week of May, we learnt that he had been transferred to CMH; yesterday, I saw him being buried in a live TV broadcast.
Anisuzzaman sir's death and the way he was being buried saddened me immensely, as it surely did thousands of others. In normal circumstances, his dead body would have been surrounded by countless grieving admirers, many of whom would have accompanied it all the way to the burial ground. Indeed, when I went to bed the night before, I kept wondering whether I would be able to go to the DU Arts Faculty Building or the Shahid Minar to pay my respects to him there the next morning and be present in his janaza at the DU central mosque. How was I to know that it was not merely what is usually dubbed "old age complications" that felled this unique human being, but that nasty and often lethal human assembly constricting virus, Covid-19?
I know it for a fact like thousand others that Anisuzzaman sir's passing away is an irreplaceable loss for Bangladesh. He was exemplary and worth revering for all sorts of reasons. He was, and I am making this list not necessarily in order of importance, a distinguished academic, a writer and an activist. He had contributed at every bend of the road that led to Bangladesh and afterwards when we as a nation kept going forward, despite the many obstacles in our way. He was our conscience, for when things would take a wrong turn in public life, he would speak up and resort to activism then. To many he was a guardian, to others a dear friend. For my generation and still later generations, he was a much admired scholar, teacher and a role model, a guru in the best sense of the word.
In fact, many were the labels that were applied to him in his lifetime; we can see them circulating now in obituaries and tributes in our newspapers. One label that keeps recurring there is that of a "public intellectual". As Edward Said pointed out in his Representations of the Intellectual, this is a person who has dedicated himself to scholarship/research but is ready to stand up for national causes, and even embrace the role of an oppositional intellectual who speaks "truth to power" when the need arises. He was thus someone who took an active part in epochal events such as the Language Movement of 1952, the movement to uphold Rabindranath Tagore's place in our culture/literature in the 1960s, the Liberation War itself, the campaign to uphold Liberation War values afterwards, and the programmes undertaken to oppose autocracy and punish the war criminals of 1971 in the 1980s and 1990s. He played a key role in translating the Bangladeshi Constitution of 1972 into Bengali. Till the end, he believed in it and its four pillars—democracy, nationalism, socialism and secularism. He also served diligently in education commissions constituted in the nascent state of Bangladesh. Presiding over the Bangla Academy with exemplary dignity was the last public role this august intellectual played, but I am sure I have omitted many others in what I have said above.
Anisuzzaman sir's credentials as a scholar was impeccable; he had done pioneering research on the true origins of Bengali prose, the evolution of Bengali Muslim thought, and the role Bengali women had played in the medieval age. He was also himself a writer of lucid Bengali prose, a critic, an essayist, a memoirist, and has even written books for children. He wrote as he spoke—lucidly and precisely. A crusader for Bengali, he also spoke English fluently and wrote in the language lucidly, and was much sought after overseas not only for his knowledge of Bengali culture and wisdom but also his articulate presentations. Indeed, he was a citizen of the world as well as a Bangladeshi, a true cosmopolitan as well as a Bengali.
If I can put all this somewhat differently, Anisuzzaman sir was, on the one hand, an idealist and a humanist, and on the other, a committed and engaged intellectual. However, he himself said in an excellent longish interview he once gave to Sajjad Sharif of Prothom Alo, he liked best being viewed as a teacher. Let me interject here, however, to say that the grief so many of us felt at the news of his death was because he had gone beyond all such labels; he had become for us a symbol of essential Bangladeshi national/cultural values and an internationalism that he embodied in practice as well as in theory. Only someone who hated the ideology that led to Bangladesh could have found him deficient in any way.
I had the good fortune of knowing him quite well. What impressed me about him throughout our encounters was how balanced and elegant a person he was. He listened intently to others and spoke only when appropriate—an exceptional quality in our part of the world. He was unfailingly polite but could be witty on occasions. He was, I would like to add, a scholar-gentleman, or even better, a scholar and a gentle man. It was my good fortune to have him chair many of my book publication ceremonies and preside over numerous committee meetings in which I was a member. I also had the privilege of hearing him speak on countless occasions, at home and abroad.
How do we cope with the loss of this unique Bangladeshi/Bengali/Citizen of the World in this corona-contaminated world? His favourite poet and composer, Rabindranath at least offers us a way out of taking consolation from his passing away. Here is what the bard had written (in my translation) about the cycle of life and death, inconsolable losses and future directions for those who are left behind:
Shesh Nahi Je Shesh Kotha Ke Bolbe
There is no end; who is to say there is one?
What appears a wound becomes a flame
When clouds cluster, downpours follow
Packed ice melts to become a river in full flow
What looks like the end is only seemingly so
Crossing the dark, one sees light at the door
When an old heart breaks, a new one beats
Where life blooms, the harvest has to be death!
Rest in eternal peace, dear Aniusuzzaman sir!
Fakrul Alam is UGC Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka.