Kumer Pial Das
It was the first week of February 1996. I was leading a demonstration by non-political students on the campus of Dhaka University, my alma mater. The demonstration was organised as a protest against the brutal police raid in the Jagannath Hall. The attack had occurred a day before the then Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia’s planned visit to inaugurate the Ekushey Boimela. About 700 law enforcement personnel including Bangladesh Rifles and police raided the student residence hall, where more than 40 rooms were ransacked and about 200 students injured.
Our procession started from the Teacher-Student Centre and the plan was to circumambulate the campus. Even though our intention was to register our protest peacefully, I knew that a procession of 50/60 young students might turn violent quickly. The sight of a police truck in front of the Begum Rokeya Hall agitated a number of protesters. I took them inside the premises of the Kola Bhaban (Faculty of Arts) to avoid any confrontation. As we got into the premise, suddenly a private car came right in front of the procession. Before something violent could take place, someone wearing a white panjabi and pajama got out of the vehicle. His gentle expression and father-like smile gave us a pause and then suddenly we felt a sense of calmness; it’s almost as if a running bull was calmed by his master. It appeared to us that we had found our guardian and his silent support. So we proceeded to bypass his car. He didn’t say a single word, he didn’t have to. Because he was Dr Anisuzzaman.
I was not his direct student, many in the procession were not either; however, we treated him as a father figure. We had a feeling of admiration, esteem, and appreciation for him. That very fast, rapid and short moment which took place more than two dozen years ago still remains very vivid in my memory. I believe Dr Anisuzzaman sir’s calm and serene standing outside his car in front of the Kola Bhaban is engraved with what psychologists call “episodic memory,” a very powerful system for preserving the rich details of events.
It was not the first time I met a life-long teacher, a notable writer and a freedom fighter, Dr Anisuzzaman. I saw him in a number of cultural events including in a few debate competitions. He used to tell us “debating is a formal method of interactive and representational argument.” He expected us to know first and then talk. He liked the way I used to present my point of view in debate. He encouraged me to read books and lent me a few books from his own library. To him reading was a way to gain perspective and stimulate critical thinking.
I was the master of a ceremony in a cultural event hosted by Vivekananda Siksha and Sangskriti Parishad where Dr Anisuzzaman was the keynote speaker. I have heard many speakers talking about the teachings of Swami Vivekanada and how the teachings inspire many of us to strive for success and aspire for a more meaningful life. But it’s Dr Anisuzzaman who encouraged students like us to aim higher and live life without fear. He articulated Swami Vivekananda’s vision on love and life in his keynote. He used to take time to listen to us after every ceremony. He was an artful listener. He used to inquire about our wellbeing frequently.
I took his permission to sit in his class just to observe his teaching style. I enjoyed being in his class a few times during my undergraduate education. In my professional career, I have taught in five universities in North America, have been awarded many national teaching and research awards but I’m yet to learn how Anisuzzaman sir used to control the class with his proverbial thick but calm voice. He’s an example of how one can get students’ attention without raising his/her voice. He was committed to his students’ wellbeing both inside and outside the classroom. He had a significant, lifelong impact on all the students he met both formally and informally. This impact involved not only the teaching of Bengali literature, but more importantly, the fostering of student self-esteem. One’s self-esteem has a direct positive relationship with his/her overall wellbeing and that’s why educators such as Dr Anisuzzaman promoted self-esteem in their teaching, and writing.
Dr Anisuzzaman came to Houston, Texas as a chief guest of FOBANA in 2009. During his inaugural speech at the George Brown Convention Center, he talked about the scant evidence of diaspora contribution in the forms of intellectual contribution. While he thanked the attendees for their remittance contributions, he urged us to get involved in democratic institutionalisation. He talked about the idea of our children adapting to the American way of life and becoming “too Americanised”. After the inaugural session, I saw him at a bookstore where he was chatting with another prominent writer Mr Anisul Haque. To my pleasant surprise, I found him recalling me. He was very happy to know that I became an assistant professor in a university in Texas. We talked for about five minutes. He was asking me to “visualise myself”, honestly, I didn’t know what he meant. I still don’t. However, the impact he will have in my life will remain invaluable. He will keep influencing me.
“Episodic memory'”, mentioned above, is a person’s unique memory of a specific event, usually it may be different from someone else’s recollection of the same experience. Any other individual attending the procession with me on that day in February of 1996 may have a different recollection of what I described above, but everyone has to agree that Dr Anisuzzaman changed many lives for the better. He gave his students confidence that normally would have been just pushed by the wayside. The impact that he had will remain legendary. The passing of this legend will make us poorer intellectually, and the absence of a Dr Anisuzzaman will make us vulnerable literally.
Professor Kumer Pial Das, PhD, is Assistant Vice President for Research, Innovation and Economic Development and Assistant Provost at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, USA. Email: [email protected]