She walked softly by . . .
Razia Khan Amin was the one of the first teachers who enlightened us at Dhaka University on English literature. That was early in October 1975, barely two months into a situation where Bangladesh teetered on the brink of chaos. Bangabandhu had been assassinated and we who had entered university suddenly found ourselves in conditions where the country was on a steep slide to regression. On that first day, apart from speaking to us of literature, Razia Khan Amin reflected on the violent political change that had taken place. Neither she nor we had any way of knowing on that October morning that our national tragedy had just begun. In a month's time, the leading lights of the Mujibnagar government would be dead. Some of the bravest of our war heroes --- Khaled Musharraf, Shamsul Huda, ATM Haider --- would die too in a country they had fought so hard, and so successfully, to liberate.
On that morning, my teacher mused loudly before her new students. Do you see what is happening to the country? She placed the emphasis on that 'to'. Some of us quickly noted that she had calmly left out the verb 'in', which said a good deal about her feelings. But, of course, at that very greenhorn stage in life, we were perhaps too naive to comprehend the nuance in Amin's statement. But it did give us that certain feeling that here was an academic not quite willing to look away from politics at a time when so many others were either too traumatised to speak of politics in public or too afraid to make their feelings known. Razia Khan Amin was different. On that first day, as on subsequent days, she made it a point to depart from the text to let us in on certain higher stages of thought.
In those early days as a student in the English department of Dhaka University, my interest in Razia Khan Amin was enhanced by the knowledge that she was the daughter of Moulvi Tamizuddin Khan. In my early days in school --- and that was in 1963 --- when it was a thrill knowing that Tamizuddin Khan, as speaker of the Pakistan national assembly, took charge as the country's acting president every time President Ayub Khan left on a tour of foreign shores. The image of a sober-looking, bearded politician, one who appeared to be an object of universal respect, was what impressed me even at that early point in my life. I recall reading of Tamizuddin Khan's death that year. There were other deaths that year which were to leave indelible impressions on me. Mohammad Ali Bogra went the way of all flesh and so did Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. In distant America, John F. Kennedy's life was brought to a swift end by an assassin.
It was all this I recalled every time Razia Khan Amin walked into the classroom with that no nonsense attitude of hers. I will confess that I seem to have always lived in a sort of beautiful fear of her. I cannot explain that, but even after I left university and moved into middle age with something of alacrity, that irritating thing called fidgeting always took hold of me every time I ran into her at some place or the other. The irony, though, is that she always seemed to be trying to bring me out of my stiffness. At a certain point, the department decided that she would be my tutorial teacher for that year. It was with absolute dread that I appeared every week for my tutorials with her. Apart from my general state of nervousness, I guess it was the fear that she might put to me questions quite beyond the scope of the text she enlightened me on which kept me in a state of alert.
And yet somewhere inside me there was this recurring idea of how serious and modern a teacher Razia Khan Amin was. She left me stuttering even as I tried to say 'thank you' to her one day on the corridor before the department seminar library. I had written a small article on Raja Rao for a departmental journal. And here she was, making it a point to stride up to me to say that she had liked the write-up. She made my day. And she was the only teacher to give me that kind of feedback on my article. But should I have been surprised? She was, besides being a teacher at the university, a writer. Her fiction was bold, clearly in the feminist mould. Her handling of relations between men and women in her fiction was pretty unconventional in the sense that she refused to throw up stereotypes in literature. The bottomline was obvious: literature for Razia Khan Amin, whether it was hers or that which she taught in class, had to be lived if it was to be understood at all. As she walked down the corridor to a class or back to her office after a lecture, you could sense the creative imagination working in her all the while. Lost in thought, a half smile playing radiantly on her, she walked softly by. A considerably good number of years after I left university, it occurred to me that there was something of a Susan Sontag in Razia Khan Amin. Or it could have been the other way round. Both women brought passion into their thoughts. Both were happy in holding forth strongly on the intellectual issues of their times.
There was too an innocence about Razia Khan Amin. At an annual gathering of departmental alumni once, she spotted me speaking to a woman who had been my classmate and therefore her student. She drew the conclusion that the woman was my wife and cheerfully told us how happy she was to see us both happy in marriage. Neither my friend (for whom I had indeed composed poetry in vain at university) nor I had the heart to clarify the situation. We mumbled a thank you together. I nearly stuttered. A couple of years later, on another occasion, as I conversed with another young woman who had been in the English department, Amin came up, said hello in that calming way and asked me if the woman was my wife. This time I was a trifle bolder and answered her in the negative. She had quite forgotten, until she was reminded of the fact, that that young woman had been, like me, her student.
The night thickens in deeper circles of darkness as I write. My teacher's mortal remains will not be placed in her grave until the arrival of a new day tomorrow. That voice which resonated with the profundity of imagination in the classroom long ago, the intellectual who gave us, on a platter as it were, food for literary thought --- that is the story which emerges from the mists tonight.
Razia Khan Amin withdrew from public view quite a while ago. Tonight she has renounced a world she once made a little more meaningful for us in our ambition-laden youth.
(Razia Khan Amin, academic, novelist, poet and critic, died on 28 December 2011)
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.