Remembering a pioneering sociologist and a dedicated teacher
The prestigious Ekushey Padak awarded to Prof. A. K. Nazmul Karim in 2012, three decades after his death, was a fitting tribute to a great social scientist and a remarkable teacher. I remember a particular conversation I had with Professor Karim when he told me: "You can come to see me anytime you want -- day or night -- to discuss sociology, but if it is to discuss politics, you are not welcome." I narrate this to my students often, reminding them that my doors are always open to them. I remember fondly the time when we were students of Professor Nazmul Karim, who dedicated himself to teaching and promoting social values when at a time when the entire society and social values in particular were up against great challenges in the post-independence Bangladesh.
Once, I followed him to the faculty lounge after a class and asked: "What is existentialism?" To which Professor Karim responded by saying: "What a coincidence! I asked the same question to Professor Herbert Marcuse once." Although I was hugely impressed by knowing that the person I was talking to knew Herbert Marcuse, one of the gurus of the student movements in the United States and Europe in the 1960s, an émigré philosopher from the Frankfurt School to Columbia University, New York. In the excitement of the thought I forgot that I did not get an answer to my question. Late in the day, after class hours, I saw Professor Karim checking out a bunch of books from the Dhaka University library. I felt sorry that I asked him that difficult question. But Professor Karim was part of a generation of teachers who would not give a perfunctory answer to a question. He would check facts, read, reflect and then answer. Students were always important to him. And he wanted to impart knowledge. He was a model teacher.
A teacher is a mediator of meanings, said Pierre Bourdieu. Professor Karim was a great teacher as he would prepare his class diligently and would always give his best. On many occasions, his lectures were, perhaps, above our heads but he would not water down his materials. He wanted us to rise to the occasion, which we tried. He was a reserved man -- we mistakenly perceived him as petulant. Once, as an undergraduate student, I visited his office with some trepidation. As students, we kept ourselves away from the head of the department's office. I needed a letter of reference for an overseas scholarship. He looked at me, perhaps slightly surprised at the affront, and asked: "What have you learned about sociology?" "Economic kinship is stronger than blood kinship," I replied promptly, almost instinctively. He agreed to write a letter. His own research, as I later found out, was on class and elite.
Born in 1922 in a family given to education, Professor Karim studied in Dhaka University, Columbia University and London University. His Columbia professors included, Seymour Lipset, R.M. MacIver and C.Wright Mills apart from Herbert Marcuse. At London University, he studied with Professor Tom Bottomore, the leading British sociologist at that time. Professor Karim also studied with sociologist Morris Ginsburg and anthropologist Raymond Firth.
Once, as our relationship became somewhat informal, he asked me about my family. I told him that my father did not hold a high position in the civil service. He was somewhat annoyed at the foolishness of my reply and admonished me: "It is not the rank but the human quality that matters." My grandfather Khondker Ali Mohsin was, probably, the first Muslim head master of Murshidabad Government High School at a time (probably in the late 1930s) when Muslim graduates were scarce. Coincidentally, Professor Karim's father Abu Rashid Nizamuddin Ahmed was a School Inspector around that time with a sojourn in Murshidabad. We shared such family histories over tea at his Fuller Road residence.
Apart from several scholarly contributions, Professor Nazmul Karim wrote highly readable introductory sociology text in Bangla. He was a stickler for correct Bangla spelling. Once he came to class troubled by the wrong spellings in the Bangla posters that adorned the Arts faculty walls. He taught us the value of language. He even gave us some tips on Bengali grammar and asked us to read literary magazines published in Kolkata. He would contribute to both English dailies as well as Bangla publications. He confided in me his deep admiration for Professor Saaduddin who would come to class with copious notes in English but would deliver a superb, well-crafted lecture in Bangla without using a single English word. Another teacher we had, a practitioner of sophisticated Bangla was Dr. Borhanuddin Khan Jahangir. Professor Karim stood for quality education in social science and championed bilingualism.
In his twilight years, frail from diabetes, Professor Karim was particularly perturbed by the declining social values in Bangladesh. He stood for social justice, human dignity and humane values.