These days people ask me about him and I tell them, “What should I say?” I repeat his words, “What should I say?” Well, I find myself recalling the exact words he used often when we saw him first as our lecturer in first year honours. He was one of those promising lecturers during that period — Syed Manzoorul Islam, Fakrul Alam, Kaiser Haq, Niaz Zaman, Nizamul Haque, Syed Anwarul Haque, Suraiya Khanum, Sadrul Amin…
While thinking of the right thing to say his common expression was – “What should I say?” And it slowed down the flow and tempo of his lecture and it used to distract our rapt attention somewhat.
In our first year honours class in the English Department of Dacca (the old spelling comes with nostalgia!) University, he enlightened us on the late 18th century and early 19th century English poet William Blake, who was also famous as a painter and engraver. His Songs of Innocence and Experience was most familiar to us and its catchy expression was so handy that even during our honours final exam, while returning from the exam hall, we ( Rafique, former national cricketer and selector , Ilahi Dad Khan, in Food Directorate, Mamun in Canada and I ) used to greatly enjoy smoking cigarettes as a relief ( no less than tragic relief!) and chanting Blake –
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
In second year honours, Ashraf sir was our tutorial teacher. In our group the other classmates were the talented television actress Mita Chowdhury, Yasmeen and June. I still remember vividly the remark he wrote – ‘Cogently written’- as he gave me an A in one tutorial assignment. Since then I have fancied the word cogently very much and have used it aptly!
One day in his class he was drawing an analogy among some remarkable poets. While talking about Lorca, he asked if anyone in the class knew of him. There was silence. Then I raised my hand and gave the answer – “Yes, Federico García Lorca is the notable Spanish poet and dramatist of the twentieth century…” Sir was happy and wanted to know my name. Then the whole class turned to look at me!
Nearly ten years ago, Badrul Bhai (columnist Syed Badrul Ahsan), fiction writer Junaidul Haque — both senior to me in the English Department — and I took Ashraf sir to a sumptuous dinner at Pan Pacific Sonargaon. Dinner over, while departing Sir whispered to me, “Just for curiosity, how much did it cost…I mean the bill?” His innocence was remarkable.
After that I rarely had communication with Ashraf sir. But to my sheer surprise I suddenly received a phone call at midnight from him a few months ago. He had come across news reports that he was to be appointed Vice Chancellor of Jatiyo Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam University, and people of his acquaintance had already begun asking him about his appointment. He was meek and shy as was his wont. He always used the term apni instead of the usual tumi when addressing his students. Even after thirty seven years he continued to address me as tumi. I told him, “Sir, still you are addressing me as apni.!’ His response was, “Okay, from now on I will address you by that …kintu tumi additional secretary of the education ministry ebong amake VC-er post e appointment debar summary tomar through te hochche eta bhabtei abar ‘apni’ address chole aashe!” He broke into laughter over the phone.
When we see some of the appointed and aspiring VCs around us, any former university student will frown in amazement at their calibre and other essential traits an educator and administrator should be endowed with. Ashraf sir was different. He was ahead of many others quality-wise. JKKNI University can truly feel proud of him. And it makes us feel good that we could rightly select a professor of our own choice without much interference.
He soon ran out of luck, unfortunately. He was appointed vice chancellor for four years. He was very happy, raring to get into his new work. Destiny allowed him to serve for a month and ten days only and yet he had won the hearts of faculty and staff there and become instantly popular. Indeed he was missed and will be remembered by them and the next generation as they will look at his face among other photographs of past VCs that are famed on the wall.
As a poet Khondakar Ashraf Hossain was underrated. Ashraf sir was one of the very few in our country who was well acquainted with both English and Bengali literature, especially poetry, and had remarkable command over it. Being a professor of poetry he knew all about literary techniques and had vast knowledge of Bengali literature, besides his own area of English literature. We see people around us write poems profusely without requisite knowledge of it. If only they knew what poetry is, they would never dare to try it! We have seen Prof Kabir Chowdhury, Prof Serajul Islam Choudhury, Prof Syed Manzoorul Islam) and Prof Fakrul Alam standing out as foremost among writers who are equally outstanding in English and Bengali. Since the first publication of his collection of poems ‘Tin Ramanir Qasida’ in 1984, Khondakar Ashraf rose to prominence as a powerful and serious poet and assiduous prose writer in our literary circles.
His use of simple diction, his intellectual bent of mind, evocative imagery as well as integration of mythology and national legacy in his understanding and belief marked his approach to literature. Being a realist and philosophy–conscious, his observations represent a socio-political portrayal of Bangladesh that shows his soul is nourished by the alluvial soil and moisture of riverine Bangladesh. Thus he rightly chose his doctoral thesis, Modernism and Beyond: Western Influence on Bangladeshi Poetry. Along with his essays and poetry there came his translation works from Bengali to English, from German and English to Bengali as well. It is heartening to note that his poems also got translated into English, French,German, Hindi,Telegu. Being a selective writer he had eight books of poetry, seven collections of essays, one prose, ten translation works and three anthologies to his credit.
I wrote in The Daily Star in tribute to my teacher Razia Khan Amin last December as she was the last to join a number of professors of our English Department whom we have lost over the years and who were all my direct teachers – Prof Kabir Chowdhury, Prof Shamsuddoha, Prof Khondoker Rezaur Rahman, Prof Suraiya Khanam and Prof Nadera Begum. But who could guess that Prof Ashraf was already in the queue to join them so soon? In his early 60s he looked the same – with the same figure and expression even after thirty-seven years. It is hard to believe he will be seen no more!
Well, it was mostly due to my university teachers who surely played a formative influence in shaping my career and intrinsic worth that led me to where I stand at this stage of life. I know there are so many things I would have done. But clouds at times get in one’s way, blocking the sun. They rain and snow on everyone. Yet isn’t one like me lucky and rich enough to be taught by teachers like them?
Ashraf sir had many ideas and plans to do some genuine work for JKKNIU in order to justify his posting and making it a distinctive educational institution. Indeed it is our loss in the true sense, not in an exaggerated or hyperbolic expression commonly used for others, that he has gone to the great beyond.
Salahuddin Akbar is a senior civil servant