"How does Tagore intoxicate a growing young man . . . .? How has Dhaka transitioned through the Partition of Bengal and the birth of the University of Dhaka? . . . . how does one remember-- with nuance, with style-- icons of history and culture . . . .?" I have this habit of stopping mid-stride while reading a book and looking at the last pages as well as the book jacket, tracing the cover design and reading the blurbs. The quoted sentences are from the jacket of Fakrul Alam's collection of essays, entitled Once More Into the Past, and it occurred to me that many others would be repeating these questions while reading the book.
When I first picked it up, I was thinking of many of the articles by my venerable professor that I have read over the years. I was indeed looking forward to re-reading at least some of them. But I had not anticipated their effect on me. A third of the way in, I realized with a jolt that the book goes on to include memoirs, travelogues, personal essays, tributes and reflections he wrote over the course of three decades—and that is exactly how long I have known Fakrul Sir, as a teacher, mentor and later, also as a colleague. In this collection, I was actually able to trace his thoughts on various subjects from childhood memories and university activities to public events and literary analyses. Little wonder that reviewing this book seemed both appealing and daunting.
Published in February 2020 by Daily Star Books, Once More Into the Past is a collection of essays by an observant and introspective writer. The first two sections, titled "Personal" and "Public," comprise twenty essays. The third section called "Essays: Literary" showcases twenty-one more. Many of the personal essays are reminiscences of the past, for example, growing up with Rabindra sangeet and the inspirations and aspirations brought about by a culture centred around Tagore and Nazrul. The public essays range from the history of Dhaka University and student politics to the colossal figure of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
The first three pieces concern the author's early life, reflecting on his parents and his maternal grandparents' house. "Ah, Nana Bari!" is a title that endears in the first place because any adult from our part of the world is bound to give a shout of rapturous pleasure recalling the childhood visits to one's nana bari. The excitement and longing, however, essentially ends with inevitable sadness when one compares the current state with the past: "Better not to come any more, I told myself, better to keep Nana Bari intact in memory than confront the diminution of the place where more than anywhere else we had once been totally happy" (15). "Memories of Durga Puja" falls in the same category of nostalgic essays and a reminder that the memories of bygone days are always golden: "Age ki shundor din kataitam!" It made me realize sadly that the dream of a secular Bangladesh is indeed gone with the wind.
One piece in the "Personal" section that made me nostalgic is "A Short, Winding and Legendary Dhaka Road," referring to the famous Fuller Road that bridges the University of Dhaka and BUET. Anybody who has lived around that area or walked the road on a daily basis will not forget the calm and quiet, and the large canopies of trees. Fakrul Alam's essay provides a historical background of many of the surrounding buildings and sculptures. Students who studied and lived in Shamsunnahar Hall around 2002 would appreciate "15 Days in the Life of a DU Professor," covering the events of the infamous police attack on the Ladies Hostel when students protested against the unauthorized stay of JCD leaders there. He also points out the moments when people actually go beyond political affiliation and raise their voices together. Quite a few of the essays throw light on incidents and events pertaining to the history of the University of Dhaka, where Prof. Alam had studied and still teaches as a UGC Professor.
"In the Land of No Worries" records the author's visit to Australia, a country which still remains widely unexplored in South Asian travelogues. The Aussies with their casual, easygoing habits seem inviting, and their games, flora and fauna quite different from most of the things we know about Australia. But as I finished reading the piece, I started looking for more travel pieces and discovered there this is the only travelogue in the book. And that came as one disappointment. Speaking of disappointments, I should also mention that the volume seems to follow two different styles with punctuation. A little more editorial care could have solved the problem.
Among the "Public" essays, the ones focusing on the evolving of the British Council Library reflect on the purpose and function of a library. The prettily decorated place under high security that is known as the British Council Library today is nothing compared to what it was in the 1980s or early 1990s even. As the author notes, he has no problem with the British Council "cashing in on the O and A level exams" (93), but truly, what happened to the books? What is the point of keeping one or two shelves and calling it "library" when it fails to serve the purpose of a library?
Four essays at the core of this collection are about the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. I can recall editing at least one of these pieces for the Star Literature page. I could see why these particular pieces were chosen for this volume, as they present Bangubandhu from varied angles. We encounter him as a folk hero and a tragic hero, a leader who spent much of his time behind bars for the people of his country, and a man who was deeply concerned about ethical issues: "Bangabandhu realised early that the real enemies of a country are those who exploit ordinary men and women" (124).
The third section of the book contains literary essays that connect the literary scenario in Bangladesh and abroad. Prof. Alam writes about his anxieties as a teacher when he first started to teach. I laughed because I could relate. "The Literary Club of 18th Century London" is a wonderful reconstruction of one of the most famous of addas of all time, eighteenth-century London's "The Club," with good food, great coffee and drinks. Reading the essay on Melville was like travelling back in time to my undergraduate days when Fakrul Sir taught us the great prose epic Moby Dick. The essays on Shakespeare and Rabindranath, on Buddhadeva Bose and Edward Said, Günter Grass to Arundhati Roy, are informative and deep-delving, and yet not too scholarly for the lay reader.
The last three essays of the collection hold a special attraction for me as they are testaments to two towering literary figures who were also my revered teachers at Dhaka University, Prof. Syed Manzoorul Islam (aka SMI) and Prof. Kaiser Haq. In the two essays on Kaiser Haq, Fakrul Alam comments on two of Kaiser Haq's books, namely, Published in the Streets of Dhaka and The Triumph of the Snake Goddess. The tribute to SMI was written on the occasion of his 70th birthday and reflects on SMI as a scholar and writer, as well as a literary friend and guide.
In the preface, Fakrul Alam mentions his fondness for the famous E.B. White essay, "Once More Into the Lake," which inspired the title of his book. In fact, the connection with E.B. White's "Once More to the Lake" goes beyond just the title. The well-known memoir is not just a recollection of past events, but reflects on the present when the author takes his own son to the very same lake to which his father used to take him. Memoirs turn more meaningful when one can connect them to the present and future. As Mahfuz Anam, the Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star, points out in the foreword, the essay collection "tries to bottle this journey, gathering the greater part of Fakrul Alam's pieces written for The Daily Star over the past three decades." This volume is a small token of the varied literary journey Dr. Alam has made over the years. Once More into the Past holds precious moments of the past as witnessed, assimilated and recorded by a scholar for the readers of today and the days to come.
Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities, ULAB. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.
ISBN: 978-984-929-66-7-6. Daily Star Books, 2020