Fierce, Friendly Fire
Usually, newspaper pages are dedicated to venerable people who have passed away or won an award. The occasion for today's issue is neither. A request for write-ups on teacher-student relationship resulted in two pieces from two very dear people. But as it happens, both of the authors were English Majors and the chosen professor turned out to be the same person. Coincidentally, July is his birth month and perhaps the main reason why I received these. So, today's page 10 carries belated Birthday wishes for our dear Professor fakrul Alam.
Imagine a mid-sized brown woman in an English classroom, surrounded by Snow White's children, (well, mostly); then imagine a pair of Orthodox Christian students, with their Bibles open in front of them, ready to recite examples in response to every obscene word or scenario she might deliver—be it from Wuthering Heights or Dracula, The Beetle or Frankenstein. Then imagine the little brown woman holding John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, a Christian allegory written in 1678. If you don't know what the story is about or how it runs or how you should teach it, I have only one answer: ask FA. And if you are wondering who the heaven this FA is, I will give you a look so fierce and make you feel aware of your ignorance with so much fire that you will instantly know.
I am digressing. Let me go back to my story now. The day I stood in that classroom and saw those two famous orthodox English majors of our department, I thought, “God knows what horse's excrement have I forced myself to fall into by agreeing to teach this course!” I took it as a sign: God wants to test my patience and tolerance the way He tested Christian in The Pilgrim's Progress, or the way FA tested his students, in a classroom of Dhaka University's English department. It was the time of General Ershad, whom I feared not. But I was afraid of FA. He could stand before us and make us cringe at our own ignorance (he did that to me, I must say), and make us want to run to the library and look for a book the way a Bangladeshi gushes into a 'Mishtanno Bhandar.' The moment I thought of FA that day, I saw light, dancing in front me, like a force of hope. If I could survive a terror like FA in a classroom, then these students will survive me too, I told myself. After all, I appear way sweeter and kinder and friendlier (even though I have a serrated tongue and a serpentine brain). My journey to the Celestial City (in this case, the end of a semester) was smooth and easy after that.
Ask an English major to give you a list of the toughest (read boring) texts in a university classroom, and you will hear them mention some or all of these: The Pilgrim's Progress; Robinson Crusoe; Gulliver's Travels; Essay on Man; The Rape of the Lock; Life of Johnson; The Way of the World. And those were the texts that FA had to deal with. Imagine a world with tough texts, tough professor, and a bunch of students that are way tougher than the texts and their teacher, and you will find yourself in FA's world. And he reigned that world like one hell of a king.
Teaching is a tough game. We are always being watched and heard and judged and scrutinized. We have to perform. Every day we pack our bags and straighten our heads and go meet the ones eagerly waiting for us, willing to hear our words and then imagine a universe out of them. Some of us cower and falter, some of us feel arrogant for having such power over hungry minds, and some feel inspired to keep on learning and teaching with equally rigorous intensity. FA belongs to the last of these three categories.
Back in the day, The Pilgrim's Progress was a hard nut to crack. But we had a fresh bucket of knowledge being poured over us, by a man who did his PhD in everything Defoe-ish! Christian, the protagonist of that book, takes a trip from the land of sins to the Celestial city, carrying the burden of sins on his back and dragging a classroom full of confused Bangladeshi English majors with him. All those reminders to outgrow all worldly temptations coming from every direction of the Bible, and all those vigorous note takings, and in the end, the ultimate realization that everything was nothing but vanity (“vanity, vanity, sayeth the preacher…”)! What a dreadful journey that was!
And this FA, he could speak French too (or so we thought). One day, while teaching Congreve's The Way of the World, he casually mentioned that the male protagonist Mirabel's name is derived from admirable, and the heroine Milamant might be (or surely) an example of Congreve's witty use of the word 'my love' or “mon amour” (or French, to be exact). O readers, can you blame us for treating him like a French-speaking Defoe, who knew how to make Christian reach his goal or help Arabella survive the disgrace after the rape of her lock, or assist Gulliver in his journeys through the lands of Lilliput and Brobdingnag and Laputa and Glubbdubdrib and houyhnhnms? Those hard words never betrayed his tongue either. If you can speak French, you can pronounce any darn word without raising your eyebrows, no?
I spent four horrendous years under his tutelage, fearing for my life in every encounter that I had with him. What if my answers were wrong? What if I hadn't read enough? What if there were more books available than the ones that I found in our seminar library and the British Council library and the USCIS library and the university library and the books that I bought from Choudhury's bookstore in Neelkhet? What if my textual references were not to the point, or my analysis was completely wrong? What a Kurtzian world of horror that was! What a sublime way of learning!
But I could not find the ferocious FA anywhere after I joined the department as a new teacher; instead, there was a respectful colleague and an enthusiastic mentor who just happened to look and talk like him.
When I left for the US, my mentors/colleagues were visibly worried about their nerdy, naïve disciple. One, named SMI, tried to convince in his usual affectionate way that I would eventually get used to not wearing my most favorite outfit—the cotton saris. And the one named FA gave me a copy of David Lodge's Modern Criticism and Theory. “We haven't taught you any theory here,” he told me, “this book will help you prepare yourself a little.”
Because of that book, I came prepared to battle all those big theory giants, and even had the audacity to take a course with a professor named Norman Holland, who I later learned was a dangerously big name in psychoanalytical theory. But I was not afraid to take Holland's class. To me, no teacher could ever be more frightening than FA. He is one of those people who would never let you drown—whether you are afraid of him or not.
The husband of the orthodox wife raised his hand one day. He had a question. “Dr. H, your name suggests you are a Muslim. You are the best professor I've had so far in this department. I only wish I could save your soul—by making you embrace Jesus.”
I gave him my usual quirky smile and said, “Let me give you a hypothetical scenario. Let's say you guys are walking by the lake that runs around our campus, and let's say you find me in that water, drowning. Will you think of saving my body first, or my soul?”
He did not answer.
“But if I find you in that situation, I would drop my things and jump into water to save you,” I said, “even though I don't fucking know how to swim. At that moment, I will be your savior. I will not let you drown.”
I mean, how can I? After all, I am a fierce teacher, who was once taught by FA (I mean Fakrul Alam).
Fayeza Hasanat teaches at the University of Central Florida.