It was thrilling, in our raw undefiled youth, to step into the Department of English back in September 1975. That was the day when a bunch of 'scholarly' young men and glamorous young women first came to know that they had all been taken into first years honours classes. There was no stopping us from then on. We were all English-speaking Bengalis. We had read all those works of fiction, right from fairy tales to serious novels through school and college. We knew everything, didn't we? Being in the Department of English was only a formality, an acknowledgment of how much we knew --- and we knew much. That was the charming hauteur which did not allow for any humility in us.
But then came the rude surprise. In the classroom, we knew there was little that we knew. Or it was a smattering of literature that we had stored in our minds, mistaking it for knowledge. And it was a truth beginning to dawn on us as one teacher after another chose to slice into the nuances of literature and let us in on the secrets which lay embedded in all those stories of writers and the tales and poetry they had spun all their lives. When Professor KMA Munim called us young scholars, he was not undermining us but he was not exactly complimenting us either. He was simply provoking us into going for deeper peregrinations in a world of what had begun to look like an endless expanse of ideas.
Those teachers taught us to be humble even as they instilled in us all the wisdom that was to be had through all those studies of Greek literature, Shakespeare, Marlowe, the Victorians, those dreaded Metaphysicals and, of course, that inimitable creator of Prufrock. Kabir Chowdhury, Serajul Islam Choudhury, Ahsanul Haque, Razia Khan Amin, Shamsuddoha, Niaz Zaman, Imtiaz Habib, Syed Manzoorul Islam, Kaiser Haq, Fakrul Alam, Syed Khwaja Moinul Hasan, Suraiya Khanam, Nadira Begum, Mohammad Khurshid, Nizamuddin, Khondkokar Rezaur Rahman and Kashinath Roy were the icons in whose tutelage we came to know of the meaning of literature, of the many dimensions of it. They helped us step out of our naivete and into proper literary reasoning.
For many of us, the boys especially, the corridor before the department was a sacred spot, inviolable in its appeal. For it was here that we debated, or thought we debated, the finer points of literature. And we watched the girls go by, each one of them a subject for new poetry. Some of us did indulge in that silly habit of writing paeans to the young women we secretly admired, without calling forth in ourselves the courage to gift them the poetry thus composed in an appreciation of their eyes, their smiles, the many ways they walked and the waterfall laughter which often emanated from them. You see, the courage we now have in our sixties was something we had in plenty back in the years we traversed through the Department of English. The difference between then and now is that back then we kept all that courage bottled up. And we suffered inwardly. There was a plenitude of Bathsheba Everdenes, but a sad paucity of confident, garrulous farmers like Gabriel Oak.
There were all those tutorial classes we did with our teachers. And, yes, there were some teachers who by design or accident failed to show up on the days their pupils waited for their tutorials with them. And of course there were those teachers for whom we sat long on those long benches for days on end. They did not turn up, but every time we decided not to be in those classrooms because we were certain they would be absent, they turned up and, finding us missing, would in fury go looking for us in the seminar library and all over the corridor. They did not of course think of sending out surveillance teams to Madhu's Canteen or the IBA canteen, where some of us always were ensconced between classes for tea and shingaras and putatively wise deliberations over literature.
We scoured the university library for reference books our teachers had recommended we study. Our happiness knew no bounds when we found the books after a tiring search, dying to have our fingers on the chapters we needed to peruse. And then came the shock. Those very chapters, entireties of them, had been torn out of the books by students more enterprising than we. We cursed them loudly, bringing out from somewhere deep in the darkness of our souls some extremely expressive expletives. Those who had purloined those pages were not there, of course. But our expletives were a certain purgation of emotions for us.
We were respectfully frightened of our teachers. The respect was old-fashioned. We stood ramrod straight every time a teacher passed us by. We were frightened at the possibility of a reprimand from any one of them for a multiplicity of reasons.
And, yes, we --- and I am speaking of the boys --- kept falling in and out of love with our beautiful classmates without their knowing of it. They must have guessed, to be sure. But that was about all. All of them went away, at a point, to marry other men. We were devastated. But, again, there were too those girls who were an intellectual challenge, both in the classroom and the tutorial room, for us. Besides, some of us, including yours truly, were often pretentious fools, attempting to brood Hamlet-like or watch the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. We scuttled across the floors of silent seas. No one looked at us.
It was a wonderful six years, those extra two being a consequence of a session jam. And ours was a generation determined to remain young. We still meet --- and we scream and laugh and eat and drink, imagining we are back in the department as rising scholars.
Our collective sense of romance has lived on.
Syed Badrul Ahsan entered the Department of English, Dhaka University, in September 1975 and left in May 1981. He is a former Executive Editor, The Daily Star.