Pahela Falgun, the first day of spring, did not work its magic of rebirth upon my soul. I felt no quickening, burgeoning re-awakening of the creative spirit in myself, nor did I find it in the natural world around me.
As I drove past the Shahbagh intersection and crossed into the campus grounds and walked up to my department, the Falguni flowers and colours and woven coronals on buoyant belles left me cold and detached. A strange lethargy, an emotional disconnect, a languorous awareness of a sense of loss wrapped my mind in layers of nebulous sadness. Nothing seemed real or natural and spontaneous. All was affectation; garish gaiety momentarily, somewhat futilely, defying the dust and denudation around me.
I looked out at the crowded, bare ugly paths and bland rubbishy grassless grounds, and my heart bled at the deliberate destruction of flowering trees and lush lawns we had cherished in days gone by. Pahela Falgun then was a fusion and harmonious union between the human and the natural world. It was a true celebration of renewal, of marriage of the mortal and the Divine. The breeze carried the notes of a communal epithalamion. Our souls were enshrined in worship of hundreds and hundreds of tall trees heavy with flowering boughs of rainbow hues. Dressing up in yellow and green and blue and magenta and red of every shade was in reverential homage, not in cacophonous mimicry as it is now.
I did the necessary work of the morning hours, irked slightly at the inflated ego and shameless self-promotion of the mediocre spin-mistress at the head of the oval table. I looked around at my female colleagues, and connected instantly for a moment in sheer pleasure and infinite gratitude to the Creator for the miraculous rebirth of the dear one, so beautiful, so alive again in her mustard handloom saree, bright and effervescent with her sparkling eyes and coiled golden garland in her hair. I remember her as she was so long ago, my student, in my class, sitting alert and upright and absorbing every word and gesture and quietly soaking up my verbal performance. A prayer of thanks rose unbidden from my heart.
It is the middle of the night as I write, still three hours from dawn of Valentine's Day. My spouse coughs softly in the next room as I tap out my thoughts in words on the laptop. Sudden distant revved engine of a passing truck and the blaring receding sound of the horn from the main road on the east make me lift my fingers from the keyboard. I stop. I stretch my aching back. I walk out to the open verandah and look out at the empty, brightly lit street on the south.
Two lanes yonder is my dear departed teacher's house. On Friday, February 16, on the anniversary of her birth, she will be remembered by all who knew her. I remember her tonight as I write. I remember her passion and devotion to education, to share her love for literature and art and culture. I remember the bright light in her eyes, the fire in her heart, and the resonant rhythm of her voice. I remember the anguish of the artist's soul.
Razia Khan Amin was a chameleon; gifted teacher, novelist, poet, literary critic and short story writer. An accomplished amateur stage and radio actor in both English and Bengali plays, Professor RK Amin was a brilliant interpreter of Shakespeare. Original and insightful, she inspired me to not rely simply on academic research, but utilise knowledge of other cultures and personal life experience to unlock the complexity of Shakespearean verse. In my master's year, her eloquence and vision made me gloriously imbibe the deep mysticism of Walt Whitman—grass, leaves of grass, “the handkerchief of the Lord.”
Tonight, as I write, I wish she was here to inspire the few among the young who delight in knowing and learning. I wish she was here among us to lead and inspire. Yet, sadly, I know that today my university is under siege by forces of such insidious harm that the pillars of tertiary education at this once proud and famed institution are in danger of collapsing. Values of probity and integrity are being systematically denuded just as the tall flowering trees have been systematically ravaged. Soon, the few evergreen trees will be gone, their sprawling branches lopped off. Many of my revered teachers are gone, many of my contemporaries are gone too, many gone to elite institutions here or abroad, where their academic integrity and merit is rewarded with commensurate respect.
Yet, I hope, that a few good ones will carry the legacy, will fight the good fight against corruption and political manipulation that favours the mediocre. I too will soon be gone, at the end of my tenure at the mandatory age of retirement. But, thankfully, like my mentor, if the mind be healthy, I aim to fight the good fight with my words, just as my dear teacher did till her last breath. Tonight, I recall Rabindranath Tagore's lines once more as I see Professor Razia Khan's beautiful, smiling face in my mind's eye: “Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high….”
Razia Khan was an acclaimed poet. She wrote her novels and short stories in Bengali, and translated a few into English herself. As a poet, writing in English, she was critically acclaimed nationally and internationally. Her two volumes of poetry Argus Under Anaesthesia (1976) and Cruel April (1977), long out-of-print, were reprinted in one volume as Collected Poems in 2014. For those too young to have known her, I wish to quote some lines from the poem “Argus under Anaesthesia” in which Razia Khan paints a Guernica-like picture of the genocide carried out in our country against the Bengali people during the War of Liberation in 1971. She records for posterity the horror of our own holocaust perpetrated by the occupying army of General Yahya Khan. It is a warning; history cannot be forgotten, nor can we allow history to repeat itself.
The march of the hunted across a land
No longer their own began
At a haunted dawn…
…scattered ashes enveloped
The moving column
In a thin safety of silence;
The least noise was suicidal;
A mother frenzied by the roar of mortars
Throttled her whining infant….
Corroding thirst dulled
The sense of loss of violated wives, mothers,
Sisters, butchered babies….
Haunting the eyes
Of deserted dogs and cattle; incredible
Whiteness of human flesh, pigment
Peeled off by blind bayonets;
Crouching figures of raped
Infants making the earth red.
Requiescat in pace. February requiem.
Rebecca Haque is Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka.