Invoking memories of someone who tends to overwhelm you with awe is at once daunting and tempting. It's not common to find such personalities during one's lifetime. They are, in fact, luminaries sending out light long after they are no more. Professor Razia Khan Amin was such a personage. She carved out a unique place in the deepest recess of my heart and still exists there, compelling and exuberant, never to become blurred.
It was a rare epiphany that I experienced after what I should say was my first encounter with my revered 'madam'. One morning in 1982, I desperately needed to make a phone call to an official at the Secretariat in connection with a family matter. When I went to my department at Dhaka University to make the call from the lone phone there, I found Shushil da in the office room where the Department of English's chairperson's personal staff worked. Professor Razia Khan was chairperson of the said department. I let Shushil da (then a junior colleague to the PA of the chairperson) know my urgency, and asked him quietly if Madam had already arrived. He suggested I hurry up and finish the phone call before she came in. I was halfway through my telephone conversation when the rustle of pleats of a sari pricked my ears. There was a framed screen partition a few steps along the entrance of the room, which offered some privacy. The sound sent chills down my spine. I managed to raise my right hand to the forehead in a gesture of greeting, and in the same breath said, “May I carry on, madam?” No sign of irritation appeared on her face, and so I could muster the courage to ask for her permission. I received a silent nod in response as she, wearing a quiet serene smile, walked round the other corner of the table and sat in her chair. As I put the phone down, madam looked up and with affection on her countenance, asked me smilingly, “Do you belong to the English Department?” I mumbled, “Yes, madam.” She then beckoned me to sit. Madam asked me about my studies, which topics attracted me and other students most, etc. She even enquired about the quality of food at my hall. What motherly concern for her pupils!
It was not the first time I saw madam. She had been giving us lessons on Walt Whitman. The inextricable mix of her sparkling grace and lofty respectability attracted us.
Her art of teaching involved discussions between a teacher and her students. She used to sometimes sit and at others stand while making a point, as we experienced her art of speaking in an entranced manner. Madam let us share our views and understanding on the discussion. Once she started her lessons, she took us on a journey of literature, no matter how complex the topic was. When she started her lessons on Whitman's 'Song of Myself', she asked us what could be the Bangla translation of its first line, “I celebrate myself and sing myself”. The whole class went silent, pondering on how best to translate the line while keeping the essence of the maiden line of the masterpiece. Breaking the silence, Azfar, the most brilliant student in our class (now a PhD, and teaching at a university in the US), presented his translation in an effortless manner. It instantly received madam's approval. While explaining the poem, she frequently referred to Whitman's philosophy of life so that we could link the poet with his poetry.
On subsequent occasions, I found our discussions highly edifying. She once asked me if I had the habit of reading literary works beyond my syllabus and how much Bangla literature had I read till then. My answer did not disappoint her altogether. But one thing delighted her. A few days before, I had read a piece of her fiction that was published in a Bangla weekly on the occasion of Eid. I mentioned it to her. It was named Shikhor Himaadreer (it was later renamed “Draupadi” and was translated into English by her). The story centres around a woman who is married but two other men also have concealed passion for her. The plot is highly complex but it is woven so lucidly that the readers follow the progress without getting into a labyrinth that can leave readers puzzled. The finesse of her storytelling charmed me so much that I felt tempted to compare her style with that of Tolstoy. Madam instantly reacted with pronounced reproach that comparing her with Tolstoy was a sin. Madam was impregnable to flattery, though that obviously was not my intention.
That madam was a politician's daughter (her father was Tamizuddin Khan, Speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan from 1962 to 1963) manifested itself on one occasion in 1983. The committee of Bhawal Mirjapur Haji Jamiruddin High School in Gazipur invited her to their celebrations of the International Mother Language Day on February 21. On that solemn occasion, the school committee used to invite renowned scholars or academicians to speak to the students and parents/guardians. That year, madam graced the celebration as chief guest while popular TV personality Fazle Lohani was the special guest. When madam rose to speak, there was pin-drop silence. As far as I can recall, the importance of education and of Bangla as the medium of public instruction, sacrifices of the valiant martyrs in the Language Movement, the beauty of rural Bangla glorified by the simplicity of its ingenuous populace, among other things, were the focus of her some 30-minute delivery. Her choice of words in the speech matched the understanding of the people. Madam apparently made it a point not to mar her speech with pedantry and pedagogy. She finished her speech by expressing her gratitude for their hospitality and love. Its spontaneity pointed to the inherent flair she had in communicating with the masses. Her finesse at so lucidly connecting to the general public was testimony to the fact that a politician father's blood ran through her veins.
When this invariable source left her mortal coil on December 28, 2011, we her reverent pupils felt a deep void in us. “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”. But my mind instantly refused to find Thomas Gray's line in sync with Dr Razia Khan Amin. Her glories will not follow her to the tomb. With her physical frame under the earth, she is to live forever in spirit and continue to inspire us. Her teachings, literary works, our sweet and solemn memories of her, will never cease to cast light over our lives.
The writer is Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Youth and Sports.