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July 4, 2003

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Igniting Children's Imagination

Shamim Ahsan

As the Piper of Hamlin cast a spell on the children and made them follow him with the music of his pipe, Muhammed Zafar Iqbal has kept childrn enchanted with the magic of his pen. He has not only filled in the vaccum of writers in the field of children's literature he also deserves kudos for successfully bearing the legacy of this extremely rich treasure of Bangla literature. He is prolific, powerful, imaginative yet combined with a pragmatism that appeals to the younger generation. He is one of the finest happenings in modern Bangla literature.


He is not sure exactly when he started to write. Writing came too naturally for him to remember the precise timing. Iqbal attributes this knack for writing to his family environment, where 'reading' was very much a part of life and 'writing', a passion every member of the family shared. "In our house all of my brothers (his elder brother Humayun Ahmed and younger brother Ahsan Habib would become reputed writers) and sister used to write, so 'I can write' was hardly a revelation to me," Iqbal explains.

“We, brothers and sister, took to reading since our early childhood. Our house was full of books, in fact, the collection was, 'disproportionately larger', for a middle class family as ours. When a new book arrived, a fierce competition would ensue among us to read it first. There were many books at home which all of us including my father and mother had read and enjoyed," Iqbal reminisces.
However, it was his father who had exerted the greatest influence on him as well as his brothers and sister. To such an extent did the influence work that they discreetly vowed that when they would grow up they would smoke, because they just loved to watch their father smoking, “particularly the way he elevated the task of smoke to an artistic level”. Humayun realised the vow quite early and the younger ones also picked it up in time.

A police officer by profession, his father was a great connoisseur of literature and an avid reader. And, it might take many by surprise, he was also an enthusiastic writer. He used to write short stories, travelogue, essays etc and in fact had a few books published. During the liberation war when their house was looted most of his manuscripts got lost. He spent most of his spare time reading or writing, and sometimes reading to the children who would sit encircling him. "One of my fondest childhood memories is that of my father reading to an eager battalion of audience comprised of all of my brothers and sister," Iqbal recollects. So did their mother. Iqbal's memory of those great moments when his mother used to read to him from Thakurmar Jhuli is still fresh and so are the effects they caused. Young Iqbal's imagination would be greatly stimulated by those fairytales; he would lose sleep at the ill-fortune of the prince who had been transformed into stone; his afternoons became gloomy for the princes who had been kidnapped and imprisoned in the patalpuri by the one-eyed wicked rakkhosh; and in his dream he would undertake deadly missions to rescue the princes from the prison. No doubt, Iqbal had his lessons to fly on the wings of imagination in his early childhood.

Meanwhile Iqbal was writing off and on, more often just for the fun of it and only occasionally in school magazines and other amateur publications. Iqbal was at Dhaka University doing Honours in Physics, when his first story got published in the now-defunct but once the most influential Bangla weekly magazine “Bichitra”. But even before he could savour his achievement, one of his acquaintances accused him of plagiarism. The young writer's pride was greatly offended, but he didn't know what to do to disprove the allegation. “I thought the best way to prove my innocence was to show more evidence that I could write,” and so he started to write with mighty speed. Within a very short time some half-a-dozen new stories were born, and published under one cover. It was Iqbal's first book, Copotronic Sukh Dukkhu. The book was a hit.

The success of his first book not only healed his wounded pride but, more significantly, it gave the aspiring young writer great confidence in his ability. He now sent Haat Kata Robin to the publishers, a novel, which he actually wrote even before Copotronic Sukh. Very soon his second book hit the market and fared even better. Before he left for America for higher studies Iqbal got another of his book published. It was 1976 when Iqbal went to the University of Washington on a scholarship to do PhD. He then went to Caltech University to do post Doctoral. Around 1989 he joined Bell Communications Centre as a Research Scientist where he worked on fibre optics.

He, of course, never stopped writing. Though he had little time after enduring long hours in classrooms and longer hours in the laboratory, he always had time for writing. Writing for him was the greatest refuge to escape from homesickness. The very process of writing gave him the opportunity to recreate the scenes and sound of the homeland; thus enabling him to enjoy the familiar fragrance of the soil, birds flying away along the familiar skyline, rains creating that great familiar symphony and all those simple pleasures of life he had been sorely missing living abroad. But from time to time he used to have a vague feeling, as if something was missing somewhere. Perhaps he was suffering from a lack of motivation, as he couldn't have the first hand knowledge of exactly how his books were faring. Suddenly something significant happened.
It was around 1988. He met writer Jahanara Imam, who was on a visit in America. He introduced himself as the younger brother of Humayun Ahmed, but to his great surprise, she told she knew him very well. She also mentioned she liked his writing very much and went out of her way to find his books and read them. "I was overwhelmed by such compliments from someone of her stature," Iqbal recounts. He felt extremely inspired, the way he never felt before. And suddenly the mystery of his vague feelings was solved. What he was missing was 'inspiration' or 'the feedback of the readers', which Jahanara Imam had just showered on him, unknowingly though. He now started to write with renewed enthusiasm and by the time he came back he had written 27 books.

In 1995, Iqbal finally decided to put an end to his expatriate life, after 18 years. He joined Shahajalal Science and Technology University in Sylhet as a professor. At present he is the Chairman of the Computer Science and Engineering department.
"But why did you come back?"
During the last eight years since his homecoming he has again and again had to face this, what he feels, a rather unsavoury query, from relatives, well-meaning friends and interviewers alike. That he doesn't see reason in such a question is obvious in the way he answers it: "You ought to instead ask why I didn't return after five years, the time I took to accomplish my goal (obtaining PhD)." One reason for his belated return is, he wanted 'to save some money' before coming back. "But somehow my progress remained disappointing on that account," Iqbal recollects.

But what was it that was drawing Iqbal to his motherland with such an irresistible force. Was it 'patriotism'? Iqbal laughs. "It was just that I used to miss Bangladesh badly. I heaved a sigh of relief when I came back. It was as if I was again breathing freely," he tries to explain why he came back. There were other reasons too which, through worldly eyes might seem worthless, but with Iqbal's romantic temperament they were invaluable -- rains and frog's croak. "Every time it rains I cannot help thanking God for I am here, in Bangladesh," Iqbal says.
And, of course, he never regretted his decision. Not even when bombs were being hurled on my house and I had to buy tickets for my family members using fictitious names so that they could board the plane safely,” he says in one breath. Iqbal refers to the brawl centring around the naming of residential halls in the university, where he was targeted for not complying with the illegal demands of Jamaate Islami and other like-minded communal forces.
Back home Iqbal discovers that he enjoys quite a sizeable readership. In a couple of years' time Zafar Iqbal's books were in the short-list of best sellers in the Ekushey Boi Mela. He kept writing on…
Zafar Iqbal has established himself as one of the major writers of contemporary Bangla literature. What earned him the position? His greatest achievement is that he has almost single-handedly borne the legacy of that extremely rich genre of Bangla literature, which we call 'children's literature'. This particular stream in Bangla fiction had had the service of great craftsmen like Dakkhinaranjan Mitra and Sukumar Roy with Thakurmar Jhuli and Abol Tabol or Hojoborolo marking the highest point of that genre. A decade on another master arrived on the scene, Satyajit Roy, the internationally acclaimed Oscar winning filmmaker and an exponent in this genre, pushed the limit of children's literature still further by his detective (Feluda) stories. In comparison the last two decades or so has experienced sort of a lean period, at least when it comes to champions of that stature just mentioned. There have been, to be sure, some powerful, creative practitioners of this form of literature, who might not have surpassed their predecessors but certainly have carried along the legacy of one of our richest treasures of Bangla literature. Muhammed Zafar Iqbal certainly leads the pack. Surely, Iqbal has written for adults, but his recognition and fame rest on his works for children. (Out of some 84 more than 60 books are for children).


Why does he write for children? Iqbal believes it has a lot to do with his own childhood. “Children are naturally very sensitive and impressionable. Every great book I read then had left a permanent impression in my mind. An intense feeling of pleasure remained in the heart for a long time after I finished a book. When I started to write I remembered those feelings of great pleasure and thought what greater achievement a writer can aspire for than invoking those feelings in a child as I had experienced in my childhood?” Iqbal explains. It's very challenging and if popularity can be considered a criterion, Zafar Iqbal certainly has that the gift to handle that challenge very well.
It is almost impossible to read his children's fiction and not wonder how a middle-aged man understands how a child thinks and feels. The way he depicts the child characters and their peculiar way of thinking, manufacture their behavioural pattern go to show his great understanding of child psychology. Perhaps this is what Masheed Ahmad, means when she says. 'While reading his books, it seems the narrator is a child'. Masheed, a 4th year student of Mechanical Engineering Department at BUET and a long-time fan of Zafar Iqbal, doesn't take time to think when asked why she loves his writing -- “I can easily relate these stories to my own childhood experience. The pranks and mischievous acts that he described were so interesting that as kids, we wanted to adopt similar kind of tricks to bunk studies at home.” The animated accounts of school scenes appeared in many of his fictions. Another Zafar fan Subrata Saha, Assistant Manager of Basic Bank remembers from one of his most favourite 'Amar Bandhu Rashed', “Reading Iqbal is like revisiting my sweet school days. The classroom environment has been portrayed so authentically that every time I read the book it seems, I might very well have been one of those child characters. Those universal school-boyish practice of giving names both to classmates and teachers, the hate-at-first-sight for the newcomer gradually transforming into great friendship and the general ill-feeling among average students for the first boy of class so truly reflect my own school days”.

Humour is another aspect of Iqbal's writing his fans love very much. This is one quality common to all the three brothers, (Humayun Ahmed, Zafar himself Ahsan Habib) “Perhaps, this is in my genes,” Iqbal observes half-seriously. And, he hastens to add, we come from an area (Iqbal's home district is Netrakona) where people have a great sense of humour. Be it the regular children's fiction or science fiction, humour abounds in Iqbal's writing. The reader finds it hard not to break into laughter or at least a giggle at regular intervals. The book which is most frequently named in this connection is Bigyani Safdar Alir Moha Moha Abiskar. This is the story of a crazy scientist who spends years to discover the already discovered fact that trees have life; equips his spoons with a tiny fan so that when he injects it into jeelapis they get cooled immediately; gives advertisement in the newspaper looking for a monkey whom he wants to assist him in his research, because a human assistant might collaborate with the FBI and CIA and help them getting hold of his invaluable discoveries. Harun-ur-Rashid, a lecturer at Asian University, likes this character of Safdar Ali very much: “Life wouldn't have become so boring if there were a Safdar Ali around”. Masheed, another admirer of the book, wonders why he doesn't write such fiction any more.


Another branch of Bangla fiction Zafar Iqbal has immensely contributed to is science fiction. He is perhaps the first major author who has so extensively experimented with this form and certainly the one who has popularised science fiction among the mainstream readers.
What makes his science fiction interesting even to those who have no knowledge of science is that he never allows science to get the better of fiction. His focus remains in the story and he exploits science only just to create a certain kind of situation where he wants to stage the original drama. One recurring theme of his science fiction is the encounter between the aliens and humans as well as the consequences they affect. These encounters are imaginative manifestations of the meeting between the present and the future represented by the conflict between man and machine, human values and superior intelligence. At his best he can engage the reader and even make him feel the tension. Though his science fiction is very popular, some of his long-time fans feel that Iqbal is becoming repetitive and sometimes predictable these days.

Besides being a very popular writer Iqbal has also established himself as a popular columnist in the last few years. Iqbal, however, doesn't have great fondness for the columnist title. "It seems to me that the only task of the columnists is to find fault with everybody and everything. They seem to be writing on everything as if they knew everything,' he reasons. "I am not a regular columnist. Sometimes one particular event or another 'disturbs' me and on those occasions I feel like sharing my views with my readers," he explains. At present he is writing on such a topic-- on the controversial question setting in the HSC final where examinees were asked to write a paragraph on Eid-ul Fitr.
At a time when newspaper columns are seen only as another place of mud-slinging among the intellectuals belonging to opposite camps, Zafar Iqbal is one of the very few exceptions, who have managed to save the chastity of his pen and has obstinately continued to express his mind. Neither has he been cowered at the face of continuous overt and covert assaults from the communal might and has relentlessly espoused of liberal thinking and secular beliefs. What distinguishes Iqbal's columns from those of others is his courage to say what he believes in. "Since I don't want to be the VC, I don't have to bother who I am making unhappy as long as I am writing the truth," he says.
The characteristic simplicity of his language and clarity of perception give his columns an easy motion. Like other columnists he never burdens his columns with overdoses of information, neither does the reader lose track in the maze of logic and references. Instead, he brings in personal experiences and interesting anecdotes, which make his writing very easy and enjoyable reading.

Since his return Iqbal has been working for the development of our IT (Information Technology) sector. He had both the experience and expertise in this field and he had before him the encouraging example of India, where IT revolution has changed the lot of thousands, not to mention the huge boost it has had to that country's economy.
Unfortunately things didn't work the way it should have been. Programmers have been created but the opportunity to employ this workforce could not be worked out. "The reason was our failure to create the situation where we could develop software industrially,” Iqbal specifies where we went wrong. The non-resident Bangladeshis didn't do what the non-resident Indians did by 'bringing in orders' from the big clients abroad.

“The communication gap between the client and the producer, that was to be bridged by the expatriate Bangladeshis, never really gave us the chance to develop software industrially," Iqbal points out. The two successive governments since 1991 also did precious little. In the first place they were late to realise that the potential of this sector remained short and even when it did, it continued to act in its own usual wishy washy, visionless way.
In his 25 years writing career he never won an award. He however doesn't have any regret for that: “It also has its advantages, I am often invited to various children's programme and asked to distribute prizes among the winners. On those occasions I can console those who haven't received any prizes, saying that I also never have got any.” He however is always receiving the greatest award a writer can aspire for-- love of his readers. Everyday Iqbal receives numerous letters from his child admirers. In their flawed sentence structure, faulty spelling, immature hand-writing and inarticulate expressions they send lots and lots of love for him.









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