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     Volume 4 Issue 8 | August 13, 2004 |

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Recreting Yeats

Parvez Khan

It's been pouring non-stop for the last two days. They say Monrovia gets its heaviest rainfall in August. They did not exaggerate. You don't see people walking briskly from one office to the other in the UN compound; it's like a day off. Do my colleagues enjoy the sound of raindrops? I do. And with rain falling, the view of the waves of the Atlantic Ocean through my window is just breathtaking.

My mind today is travelling back eighteen years. Nostalgia for a rainy day? Could be. Here he enters into our poetry class, immaculately dressed, and almost immediately one feels a classic aura that surrounds him. He said he was going to teach us Yeats, and recited in a perfect English accent:

In a field by the river my love and I did stand
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.

An instant hit. As time went by, I came to respect him as a gem in the English faculty and a fine gentleman. My memories with Professor Khan Sarwar Murshid, both in and outside Dhaka University, grew richer.

His teaching style was distinct, delivery cultivated, and we would even try to imitate his measured pause between sentences. I did not have much liking for Yeats, but Professor Murshid's passionate renderings of his poems and search for inner meanings took me to a different sphere. I guess he inspired a romantic spell in the class and I was its fortunate and willing victim! I wrote and dedicated a poem to the most beautiful girl on earth (and I truly believe so) which Professor Murshid published in his journal. Her response was, to me, divine. Ill-lucked Yeats' craving for Maud Gonne was not something I was to replicate: Professor Murshid blessed our knot.

I was one of the students who were assigned to Professor Murshid's tutorial group. A few among us were not comfortable, as he was not known for inflated grading and academic flattery. For me, it was a blessing. I did not have special talent for copying Ramji Lal and thought, rightly or wrongly, I had a voice of my own. And that is exactly what Professor Murshid wanted to hear -- our own voice. Like an Oxford don, he would engage me in discussions that would widen my literary understanding; like a generous scholar he would admire my own understanding of Hamlet rather than force me to subscribe to his. It was fascinating, and truly rewarding.

Once he called a few of us to his office. He wanted to find out why attendance in his class was thinning. What he did in our next class startled us: clad in traditional kurta-pyjama, like a zamindar resurrected from a near-distant era, he explained Yeats in Bangla without using a single English word! It was an event I won't forget -- those loitering in the corridor promptly poured into the classroom to hear KSM's (as he was fondly known) Bangla. It turned out, however, that even his Bangla was too much for many of my fellow mates who were of the expert opinion that English literature would be better appreciated if it was explained in the mother tongue!

My wish to tread corridors of Dhaka University would not have come true had not Professor Murshid intervened. Following my undergraduate studies at a university abroad, I applied for a placement in the English Master's class and pending formal admission and upon advice by the administration, started attending class. To my horror, my application was rejected after I had already completed more than two third of my courses. The ground was absurd, that the academic year to which I applied (and was attending) was composed of students two years senior to me, courtesy of 'session jam'. What an irony! Instead of rewarding, the university was penalizing me for not putting on age! I went to Professor Murshid's residence and after hearing my plight he called the Vice Chancellor right away. He was visibly angry, and his words were not very kind. The next day, he led a delegation of faculty members, among whom were Professors Sirajul Islam Chowdhury, Ahsanul Haq, Syed Manjurul Islam, and Imtiaz Habib, to the VC's residence and got him to reverse his decision about my admission. I am grateful to Professor Murshid and those who thought it right to take it that far on my behalf.

My fondest memory of Professor Murshid was when he visited us in the United States. He arrived at New York Port Authority terminus from Maryland by Greyhound. It was just great to receive him there. He stayed with us in our New Jersey apartment for five days. We were honoured. Like her parents, my little daughter would also call him 'Sir' and grew fond of him. He worked on a project at the New York Public Library. We dashed in and out of book stores and his knowledge of art even impressed museum curators. My wife and I will always cherish those few days with him.

It's been pouring still in Monrovia. I don't know why I have been remembering Professor Murshid so much today. Getting old and nostalgic? I don't know. I only wish I had his telephone number. I just wanted to tell him, "Sir, you have enriched my life, and you are one of the few I will never forget."

*Parvez Khan, UN Mission in Liberia Civil Affairs Coordinator to the Ministry of State for Presidential Affairs, Monrovia.

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