I was lucky enough to wind up in Chicago, the same city—“city of big shoulders” (Sandburg)—where Anisuzzaman, my great teacher and mentor, once lived, lectured and celebrated Thanksgiving at a large, quintessentially American, farm in rural Illinois (Geneseo).
He hung out with funny guys like Edward Foy, formed lifelong friendships with such luminaries as Edward C Dimock and Ronald Inden, watched all the Hollywood classics that came his way, met Buddhadeva Bose in Bloomington (Indiana), and endured the torture of translating Sudhindranath's air-tight prose into English at the request of Edward Shils (p.389-90). His home was the historic “International House” (located exactly eight blocks down from Barack Obama's redbrick Georgian house on 51st street and Greenwood Avenue). He, of course, lived here half a century ago, well before many of us were born, but Western cities do not change as much as do their Eastern counterparts.
I was thrilled to be offered an academic position in Chicago -a city associated with literary icons like Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, and John Dos Passos and is home to modern disciplines like sociology or literary movements like Harriet Monroe's “Poetry” (1912) magazine. Naturally, when my order for Anisuzzaman's two-part autobiography (Kaal Nirobodhi,  2008, and Amar Ekattor,  2008 was delivered in my mailbox, I quickly flipped to the chapter (pp.379-409) on the windy city, as it is called on this side of the Atlantic, before sitting down to begin at the beginning and read through to the end.
Like the rest of the autobiography that would consume my weekend, the intensely precise, yet nuanced and panoramic, account-packed with suggestive anecdotes and happy memories -of his life in Chicago (from October 16, 1964 to August 10, 1965, to be exact) is absolutely fascinating. What strikes me most is the fact Anisuzzaman, who has by all accounts played a major role in all great events that have shaped the making of Bangladesh since the fifties, happened to be present right here in America's heartland during the heyday of the civil rights and antiwar movements, a time of monumental change, challenge, and renewal.
When he arrived, the landmark Civil Rights Act - hailed by the New York Times as the “most far reaching law since Reconstruction days” and “most sweeping civil rights legislation ever enacted in this country”—had just passed (July 2, 1964) and Dr. King's “I have a dream” speech was, observes Anisuzzaman, “on the lips of everyone except racists” (p.399). Anisuzzaman did not, however, come to the University of Chicago to write a dissertation for a second doctorate. Bengali Literature and the Muslim Mind (1964), his doctoral dissertation, had been published in Dhaka shortly before he was due to fly to the U.S. Before that, he had sold copyright of his Bengali Muslim Periodicals, 1831-1930 to Bangla Academy for a flat sum of two thousand taka as he was packing things for his long trip overseas (2003: 374).
Anisuzzaman's judicious recounting of these events, delivered in masterly, measured prose, illuminates as much the formative years of the rising young star as the cultural politics and clashing intellectual currents of that moment (i.e., post-1952 East Bengal). The personal commingles with the collective in this extraordinary autobiography, so that Anisuzzaman's personal tale ceases to be personal, becoming instead an exuberant saga of a yet-unborn Bengali nation emerging triumphantly out of tumultuous conflicts and a hundred obstacles.
The first part of Kaal Nirobodhi ( 2008), especially the first two chapters (“Before Birth” and “Awakened”), are important as a definitive historical record of a time long past, spanning from 1466-67 (i.e., the construction of an ancient mosque in Bashirhat, 24 Pargana district) until the morning of August 15, 1947, when Anisuzzaman, with his mother, little brother, and physician father, left Calcutta and arrived, shortly after dark, in Khulna—a neat, picture-like, squeaky-clean city (p.115). They were greeted by his khalu in the soft light of kerosene lamp and ushered into a two-room thatched earthen house (p.112). As he rose up from bed the next morning, the little boy—now a little over ten years old—found himself to be not in the familiar, one-story, Park Circus flat, but in “some other place” down south in East Pakistan. From that time forward, the narrative takes a new turn as does his life in the new country. We know the history of our nation only in the abstract and are quick to dismiss or take offense if anyone asks about, say, the dates of past events we are so passionate about. It doesn't have to be that way. Read this gripping, splendid autobiography, return to it often, and keep it handy at all times. If you take this little advice seriously enough, you will have, on one hand, fewer excuses to skip legitimate questions and, on the other hand, infinitely more dates and details than you will ever need to back up your argument on television, talk shows, or in a book that you set out to write without doing the requisite homework. Why did it take us so long to make the case for the 1971 genocide? Why is our liberation war referred to as an India-Pakistan conflict in Western history books? There are, of course, many reasons, one tied to the other in a complicated way, but one of them is this: We have a lot of poets, bloggers, and talk show hosts, but only one Anisuzzaman.
At the outset of the book, Anisuzzaman quotes Saratchandra insisting on a cardinal principle of great writing. The person who cannot discriminate and yields to the temptation of “saying more,” is the person who cannot write. One must leave out a great deal, says Saratchandra, economize on words and sentences, and be ruthless in removing the superfluous. All of these requires, thinks Saratchandra, long experience, staunch discipline, and much self-control. Every page and paragraph in this two-part autobiography lives up to this cardinal principle. Anisuzzaman has neither invented, nor substantially deviated from, the tradition of autobiographical writing in Bengali. But he has perfected the genre as its great master, establishing a new standard against which all current and future autobiographical works will be assessed and judged. If that sounds like hyperbole, get a copy of the book today and judge it for yourself.
Dr. Salahuddin Ayub is a faculty member in the Department of Criminal Justice, Philosophy, and Political Science at Chicago State University. He is the author of several books, including Adhunikata o Uttoradhunika (1994) and Sanskritir Jiggasha (1999). email: firstname.lastname@example.org