To think of Syed Manzoorul Islam—Manzoor bhai to me (but let me call him SMI in the rest of this piece!) —is to think of someone always in motion, whether in the everyday world we inhabit, or the life of the mind that he lives so intensely. Indeed, to think of SMI is to think of a whirlwind, twisting and turning in its course, but in his case through parts of Dhaka on any given day, and in his mindscape, from morning to night.
The details of what SMI does on a given day will of course vary, depending on the time of the year and the academic calendar; however, most days for him will consist of many, if not all, of the following-- teaching, reading at leisure, reading for academic purposes,correcting scripts, writing creatively, contributing thoughtful, readable op-ed features for newspapers, giving interviews, appearing on talk shows on television or on radio, attending meetings as a senior academic, or contributing to seminars/conferences/workshops as one of Bangladesh’s leading public intellectuals. Although approaching seventy, there is no sign of him slowing down, but whether a friend, student or devoted reader, or just an admirer, who would you have it otherwise?
Nevertheless, SMI, it must be stressed, always seems to find time on any given day for an adda or two. For him, intervals of inactivity when he can lounge with friends appear inevitable. Interactions with writers and students, past as well as present ones, punctuate his otherwise busy day as well. Moreover, from the time he was growing up in Sylhet, studying at the University of Dhaka, hanging out with artists in Charukola, or spending time in DU Arts Building Teacher’s Lounge or Club, he was always and is still a favorite in well-known adda spots of Dhaka. He has too the gift of making and keeping friends, and he always seems to have quality time to spend with them. Take a car trip with him, and you will be amazed at the number of calls he deals with in one trip then!
In short, SMI is not by any means your typical closeted intellectual. Anyone who knows him well will also know how accessible he tries to be, not only to students, even though people solicit him endlessly for interviews, or favors, or contribution of one kind or the other. If the cause is a just one or the event worth participating, he will not say “no” without giving the proposal a thought.
How does SMI manage to combine work with leisure and intellectual preoccupations with a lively interest in the everyday world so well? I feel the answer to this question is his vast appetite for life as well as knowledge—a combination that makes him one of our major writers of fiction as well. This is why he can comment readily, not only on cultural and campus happenings but also on politics and contemporary events. That is also why he writes mesmerizing fiction about everyday events in a prose where you can hear him talk to his readers, casually but meaningfully, and draw them effortlessly into the narrative.
To think of SMI is also to think not only of his extraordinary range of interests but also the range and depth he exhibits in his writings—but of course the two things are closely connected. Intellectually, he initially did advanced studies in literature, specializing in modernist western poetics, but he has always had a keen interest in aesthetics and theory that he would pursue on his own. He still reads widely in world fiction and keeps track of new developments in the literary and art world everywhere as much as he can.
SMI once told me that had learnt the technique of speed reading at first from one of our DU English department professors, but also that he attended a course on the subject in Canada. When he first attracted wide attention in Bangladesh in the 1980s, it was through his Sangbad column, Olosh Diner Hawa, where he would, among other things, acquaint his readers with books that he had been reading—whether fictional ones or works on aesthetics—from all over the world. Not surprisingly, when he began to write short fiction at the end of the decade, he chose the magic realist or postmodern mode, something that his readers took to instantly.
SMI is also one of the few intellectuals in Bangladesh who is equally proficient in Bengali and English. He is, everyone will agree, one of the finest writers of Bengali prose of our time. He chooses not to write in English a lot nowadays, but when he does, his English is also characterized by its readability.I believe that he can also read Spanish with the help of a dictionary.And, of course, he can speak Sylheti—not really another bhashsa, but unique in so many ways among our dialects—with the ease of someone to the manner born—so to speak!
What makes SMI stand out among academics and writers at a time of increasing polarization in our public sphere is his commitment to progressive, non-partisan politics. In his DU student days, he was committed to JSD—then a party that had progressive, even radical elements in it; as a teacher, he was always part of the independent “pink panel” of DU teachers; at the moment he is very much an independent voice, committed to critique and a liberal outlook and averse to extremism or fundamentalism of any kind. His teaching and writing testify to a humanist at work and his reading has given him an open-minded perspective on the world around him. His commitment to teaching and to his students is so well-known that it needs no further comment from me.
In my view though, SMI is so much in motion and so immersed in the world around him that he has not been able to justice to himself in at least one way. His multiple commitments have meant that he has not executed what he had demonstrated the capacity to do very early in his career—write in Bengali path-breaking works on aesthetics and/theory/ criticism, or a big novel. But perhaps that is precisely the reason why he has flourished in short fiction and the short essay.
This essay is a tribute to Manzoor Bhai, a dear friend (he is only one year my senior!), and colleague, and someone who has always been with me over the decades as we transited from being senior students of DU’s English department to young academics to western-trained faculty members bent on changing the curriculum and modernizing it. Both of us have now retired from DU but still find ourselves rooted in it.
I have written this tribute, I must declare at its end, solely at the request of the editor of this literary magazine. Rereading what I have written till now, however, I realize that I have left out something absolutely central to SMI’s personality, something readers of his fiction will know readily—his sense of humor and eye for life’s oddities. This makes him a natural story teller and the transition from enlivening addas with wit and anecdotes to short fiction in the magic realist/ post-modernist mode was undoubtedly an easy one for him. But then, let me remind readers as I end, Syed Manzoorul Islam can claim as a not too distant relative, one of the greatest raconteurs and wits of Bengali letters—Syed Mujtaba Ali. SMI was in some ways then to the manner born!
May SMI continue to enliven our literature and culture with his intelligence, wide reading and wit and humor, as well as our addas, for a long, long time!
Fakrul Alam is UGC Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka.