Dwijen Sharma, botanist, naturalist and writer found that delight in early childhood.
“My home was near Madhabkundu in Moulavibazar near the only waterfall in Bangladesh", says the octogenarian botanist, writer and naturalist sitting in his living room overlooking a small but beautiful garden in his eighth floor apartment. My family had a garden in the mountains. I spent my early childhood amidst the flora and fauna, the birds and the animals of the mountains.”
He once undertook a 15-day journey on foot from Mohanganj in Netrokona to Sunamganj in Sylhet in order to explore nature and collect botanical specimen on the way. Perhaps he was inspired by Henry David Thoreau's classic 1862 essay
Walking which extolled the virtues of immersing oneself in nature and lamented the encroachment of private ownership upon the wilderness. This inquisitiveness and love for nature took Dwijen Sharma, born on May 29, 1929 in Shimulia in Borolekha, Sylhet to many countries in the world. His father, Vishak Chandrakanda Sharma was a famous Kabiraj (a doctor specialised in Ayurvedic practices), mother Magnamayi Devi, a social worker. At home his father had a large library that helped shape his enlightened worldview. After getting his MSc in Botany from Dhaka University in 1958, he joined the B M College in Barisal and taught there till 1962. He took part in the education movement in 1962 and got arrested and stayed in security prison for three months in Barisal. “My goal was to undertake PhD in a foreign university. But I had to give up on that dream because I would not get a passport due to the 'prison record'. So I started doing research at Dhaka University. Two more years and I would have obtained the PhD. Then I got an offer to work as a translator for Progress Publishers of the then Soviet Union. I left for Russia in 1974,” says Sharma.
A recipient of numerous awards including the Kudrat-i-Khuda gold medal, Bangla Academy Award, M Nurul Qader Children's Literature Award, Nature Preservation Award by Channel i, he has more than 30 books to his credit. His Shamoli Nishorgo (Green Nature), Shomajtontre Boshobash (Living in Socialism), Jiboner Shesh Nei (No End To Life), Phoolgulo Jeno Kotha (Each Flower Is A Word), Biggan Shikkha O Daiboddhotar Nirikh ( Science Education and Our Responsibilities) and Nishorgo Nirman O Nandonik Bhabna (Building the Environment and Related Thoughts) are considered classics by critics and readers alike.
Dr Zia Uddin Ahmed, visiting Professor of Microbiology at Jahangirnagar University says via email, “Reinforced by a strong biological
background Dwijen Sharma is an ardent naturalist with a deep conviction in Darwinian doctrine as the driving force of life on this planet. A stern proponent of biodiversity conservation Dwijen Sharma also keenly appreciates biological realism—overbreeding of the human species and consequent decimation of other forms of life. Dwijen Sharma has written widely on nature and biodiversity in lucid Bangla. His prose is pleasantly plain with a sublime lyrical touch.” Dr Ahmed is the author of such critically acclaimed books as The Fading Horizon: Science and Technology in Bangladesh and JibBigganir Shomajbhabna (Sociobiology: Thoughts from A Biologist's Perspective).
After coming back home in 2000, he was invited by the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh to join them as an editor and translator of biology. He served as vice president of Asiatic Society for three years. An encyclopedia of the flora and fauna of Bangladesh in 56 volumes was published by the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh while he was the president of the publishing committee. “Most of the work was done by others. I didn't do much,” he says unassumingly. He proves that true knowledge makes one humble and kind rather than arrogant, egotistic and self-complacent.
Naturalists like Dwijen Sharma recognise that science is fallible. Its self-correction, its continual increase in breadth and accuracy, give them confidence in the resources they borrow from physics, chemistry and biology. It takes patient observation, but witnessing the inner workings of nature is exhilarating to them— from the discovery of a new species to the complex interrelationships of ecological systems.
Dwijen Sharma aspires to think in a scientific spirit. It's a vague phrase, but one might start to explain it by emphasising values like curiosity, honesty, accuracy, precision and rigour. He doesn't just pay lip-service to those qualities — that's easy — but actually exemplifies them in practice — the hard part. The scientific spirit suggests that experiments ought to be done where experimentation is the likeliest way to answer a question correctly. Dr Jyotiprakash Dutta, eminent writer and professor at City University of New York says via email, “Adopting a rational and scientific attitude toward life as championed by Dwijen Sharma is extremely essential for the modern times but a majority of the population, particularly in our part of the world, have a hard time understanding it, mostly because of religious beliefs, superstition, lack of education.”
His apartment where he lives with his wife Devi Sharma, a PhD in Philosophy from Moscow University who retired as professor at Central Women's College, is practically a library— everywhere you look there are books, most in English. His son, a doctor lives in Moscow and daughter, a microbiologist lives in London. He loves to spend time with his grandchildren when they visit him.
At Notre Dame College, where he taught till 1974, he designed a landscape garden that still beautifies its campus. That's one thing about Dwijen Sharma— wherever he worked, he built gardens. Renowned folklorist Shamsuzzaman Khan says, “When I was the DG of the national museum, we made a botanical garden under his supervision in the back of the museum. Again when I joined Bangla academy, we sought his guidance in planting trees on the premises of Bangla Academy.”
He went to Russia with a dream. “Bangladesh had just gained independence,” reminisces Sharma. “I dreamt that Dhaka would be a garden city—there would be parks, a riverfront on the banks of Buriganga, open fields where children would play— the whole city would be like Ramna Park. I wanted to learn from the Russian experience of socialism and then come back and work to rebuild the country.”
While in Russia he translated several books on political science, economics, sociology and science from English into Bangla. From Moscow he would visit Europe to see the birth place of Darwin and the Kew garden, the holy grail of botanists all over the world. He would walk around in the Regents Park and St. James Park and make plans about designing our botanical garden in the same fashion. He would carry a lunchbox and spend the whole day in bookstores. The libraries, museums, the parks, the herbariums of London had a great influence on him. “If I did not go to Europe, I would not have been able to have exposure to all this,” adds Sharma.
There is another side of this story that a family friend, Jahanara Noushin, ex-professor of Eden College and author of the critically acclaimed
Pitamohir Pakhi (My grandfather's bird) recalls, "One day he stopped by at our house at Azimpur at lunch hour. He ate with relish the daal and chingri bhorta (shrimp paste) we had that day. Then he lied down on the couch and told me to play Tagore's Shapmochon on my LP. He looked sad. I asked him what happened. He said, ‘Didi, I am leaving for Russia in a few days.’ I have never seen anyone look so sad for having to leave the country.”
Dwijen Sharma's books are scientific and yet philosophical. Dr Dutta says via email, “Marxist ideas imbued with his life experience made him more of a philosopher than a scientist.” In an article Sharma writes about Chief Seattle, chief of the Suquamish and other American-Indian tribes around Washington's Puget Sound who in 1851 delivered what is considered to be one of the most profound environmental statements ever made. His speech was in response to a proposed treaty under which the Indians were persuaded to sell two million acres of land for $150,000—“You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of our grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of earth.”
He started writing seriously in 1957 in Shomokal while he was a student of Dhaka University. Hasan Hafizur Rahman, his friend and the assistant editor encouraged him to write. He has written extensively for children. “Ekhlasuddin Ahmad, the publisher of 'Tapur Tupur' insisted that I write science stories for children,” says Sharma. “These stories got published as a book under the name Jiboner Shesh Nei (No End To Life).”
He laments that our cities have become unliveable over the years. “This happened for three reasons,” he explains. “During the colonial era, the British rulers imposed their model of development on us, distorting the natural socio-economic development of the subcontinent. Second, when Bangladesh got independent, the responsibility to build industries and develop the agriculture sector fell on the shoulders of the citizens of this new country. But we did not have any experience of urbanisation and industrialisation. So we built our cities without any proper planning. Third, the population exploded in way that it put a heavy pressure on nature.”
Dwijen Sharma has been writing for 40 years and has been working relentlessly to make people understand the importance of preserving our environment. Over the years he has sat on many high powered committees for the preservation of nature. “I cannot say even one of my suggestions has been implemented,” bemoans Sharma.
When asked about a memorable event in his life, he closes his eyes for a moment as if to visualise it and says, “During the Liberation War, I joined a group of people who were going to India for shelter. At nightfall, our guide took us to his home near the border. The floor was muddy. So he scattered some straw on the floor for people to sleep on. He brought a small bed for me. I declined. The next morning he introduced me to his wife and said, ‘Take a good look at him. This is what a professor looks like. The Pakistani army is killing them all.’ Till date I consider it the highest honour I have ever received.”
Perhaps Dwijen Sharma's greatest achievement is that he has always stayed focused on how science can help our society. The relationship between science and socio-economic development often appears unclear to the scientist. Asif, a science orator, executive editor of Science World and author of several books on scientific topics, says, “Science cannot survive only in laboratories. It has to take into consideration the socio-economic conditions. Although a scientist, Dwijen Sharma has a deep understanding of our social systems.”
In his articles in response to over reliance on technology and wealth as cures for human condition, we see hints of the ideas of Tagore, Martin Heidegger and Thoreau, American transcendentalist and philosopher. He says, “Mahatma Gandhi got his idea of non-violence and civil disobedience movement from Lev Tolstoy and Thoreau's Walden, a timeless book on nature in 1854.”
Noted writer Hasan Azizul Huq has known Sharma since the late sixties. “Dwijenda is very adventurous in nature. He and I would sometimes tell Boudi (Dr Devi Sharma) that we are going out for a walk and will be back shortly. Then we would saunter by for hours looking at trees and shrubs. One day we went to see the abandoned Jaminder building in Murapara which is the background of Atindro Bandopadhay's Nilkontho Pakhir Khoje (In search of the Nilkontho). We hired a small boat and went down the Buringanga. It was an abandoned building, full of snakes and insects. We went to many more places like a couple of vagabonds and explored nature and people.”
When he is not busy helping botanists with identifying a species or giving a lecture or an interview, he takes children to parks and introduces them to trees. Bipradash Barua, novelist, story writer and naturalist says, “Whenever we face any questions related to botany, we call him. He is like an encyclopedia. For example, if I see a new botanical species, I bring it to him. One look at it and he can identify it.”
When a traveller asked Wordsworth's servant to show him her master's study, she answered, "Here is his library, but his study is out of doors." Diwjen Sharma's study has been the roads, lakes, ponds, rivers, forests of Bangladesh and Europe. When he showed us around his garden and introduced us to different species of plants, it seemed as if he was taking care of little children.
William Wordsworth wrote in his 1798 poem Lines Written in Early Spring, “To her fair works did Nature link/The human soul that through me ran/And much it grieved my heart to think/What man has made of man.” Taking a long pause from our conversation, Sharma quotes Jibananda Das, “Prithibir govirotoro oshukh ekhon. (The earth is suffering from a serious illness).” He adds, “We all must try to determine the disease and find its cure.”
We can only aspire to fathom the beauty Dwijen Sharma moves through. At 84, he still dreams about building a large garden where people can commune with nature. He used to go shopping for fresh produce every morning. Now his age does not allow him to do that anymore. But he still gets up at sunrise and goes to the terrace. He might see something beautiful.