‘Memoirs of Dacca University’: Turning the pages back to the ’40s
The first of July has always been a busy day. With remembrances, special anniversaries and the beginning of a new financial year, the day also reminds us of how fast time passes, as half of the year flies by at the blink of an eye. Yesterday, however, the day was extra significant, because Dhaka University turned a century old. The only known institution in Bangladesh turning 100 (to my knowledge), and that too an important one both academically and historically, led me to look for books and other published items from the past which would speak at length about the university.
Syed Badrul Ahsan, a journalist and also a former student of the university, suggested two books that one could read to comprehend the different times in which Dhaka University truly existed in all its might—Bangladesher Muktijuddho: Dhaka O Kolikata Bishwabidyalayer Obodan (UPL), authored by Rangalal Sen, Dulal Bhowmik and Tuhin Roy; and AG Stock's Memoirs of Dhaka University, which was republished by Bengal Lights Books few years ago.
After looking everywhere for the books, I eventually got my hands on Memoirs of Dacca University by Professor AG Stock. Quite an interesting read; even though Professor Stock reminds the reader every few chapters that she is simply recording facts and the experiences that she had found special, endearing and not easy to forget, her book of memoirs turned out to be a reflection of the amalgamation of the political, religious, and cultural views of the late 1940s and the early '50s of a new country which resulted from Partition.
Some of what she recorded more than 70 years ago can still be related to today. According to her, Bengal was always a land of dense green, of rural homes and songs transferred orally over generations. Back in the late '40s, many educated young people belonging to the contemporary urban class were doing all they could to hold on to these cultures and traditions, especially when East Bengal of India suddenly turned into East Pakistan—a confusing state for a new country with new policies underway. "It was then that I saw East Pakistan as I see it now in memory," she writes. "A natural landscape of greenness and wide waters, a human landscape compounded of poetry, politics and poverty."
A new country, new faces, and a new bunch of teachers—the air was filled with uncertainty yet lots of new possibilities. Was Dhaka University, back then, as adventurous and intellectually stimulating as many claim it to be? No. It was so much better! Stock writes about students and teachers dropping by her quarters quite often, where they would enjoy conversations on philosophy, on the new country or even folk tales that would emerge on almost a daily basis, much to Stock's amusement. She describes a particular Eid-ul-Adha when a student named Munier Chowdhury, who had just completed his MA examinations, had come to visit with her. Little did she or anyone back then know that Chowdhury would eventually be one of the most remembered playwrights of the country, and also eventually be killed by the Pakistani soldiers during the Liberation War. Young Chowdhury, on that day, was trying to avoid the slaughtering of the cows and goats and thought he would wait out in Professor Stock's garden by her quarters. Professor Stock writes about a meaningful conversation that took place between them, in which he mentions the latest play he was going to write based on the incident where he was beaten and thrown away from the Muslim students' hostel for being a communist and an atheist.
While going through Professor AG Stock's memoir, I wondered why more of such narratives aren't available. The 100-year mark of Dhaka University, an exclusive platform for uprisings, protests and revolutions, should have brought into the open more written documents, more testimonials, records, and books, which could let future generations get a peek into the past.
Regardless, not only is Memoirs of Dacca University a testament to the times when Dhaka was trying to re-emerge in a post-Partition era, but it is also an inspiration for women of all ages who would like to travel and lead an unconventional life. Professor AG Stock talks about the days she spent all by herself, travelling from London to Bombay on a ship, to Calcutta on a train, and then the last leg of her journey on a cycle rickshaw. "[I]n the years that followed I did plenty of solitary travelling in the normal course of work, without ever being murdered, raped or even robbed," she writes. Even today, in Bangladesh, a woman living in the university quarters all by herself, and even travelling all the way to a developing country, is a rare sight, though of course not an impossible notion. What boggles me, however, is how, back in the '40s, this was accepted quite readily by the then VC and the department of English at Dhaka University.
If you are a history buff like I am, you would definitely pick up this book and read it to understand how different Dhaka was back then, and you might be surprised to learn how open the people were back then—to ideas which even today we find impossible to (or rather refuse to) comprehend and accept.
Elita Karim is a journalist, musician, and editor of Star Arts & Entertainment and Star Youth, The Daily Star. She tweets @elitakarim.
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