lamenting his death, one of Humayun Azad's illustrious classmates
wrote, "His death is a reminder of the tragedy of the
Greek god Icarus." On a poetic plateau, this may be one
way of expressing Humayun Azad's rise to fame and his sudden
demise. However, we do not live in myths or epics, let alone
be affected by their magic or overwhelming sense of fatality.
As humans we tread on the treacherous ground of reality, where
our own sets of interests and aspirations are constantly being
challenged by those of others'. Writer, poet, academic Dr
Humayun Azad had to deal with real enmity in all its sinister
implications. Although, Azad was a poet himself, for him,
there was no room for poetic gesture to characterise his own
plight that befell him since the machete attack on February
Azad came back apparently fully recovered and showing clear
signs of rejuvenation, the last three months of his life was
like living under the shadow of death. Anonymous callers kept
threatening him and his family. Even an abduction attempt
on his son was made on July 5. What was termed by his well-wishers
as "a triumphal return" was soon marred by despotic
efforts allegedly by Islamic extremist elements to thwart
his intellectual pursuits and mar his family's peace.
before the attempt on his life, Azad was constantly being
intimidated by this quarter. He was dubbed a murtad
(apostate) by the religious zealots long before the attempt
on his life. Since the day his first novel, Chhappanno
Hajar Borgomile became a runaway success in 1994, the
fear of that same quarter magnified in the face of the power
of his sharp and witty tongue and his prolific pen. They marked
him out as an "enemy of Islam". The last 10 years
of his life can only be summed up as one man's struggle against
the escalating domination of the religious right.
a left-of-the-field thinker? Was he a politically correct
voice in a politically corrupt nation? In fact, these are
the characteristics Azad religiously avoided, or so it seemed
from the stream of writings and commentaries that he produced
during the last decade of his life. Being a freethinker, he
often acted like a rebel, perhaps to defy labeling, or to
vent his disenchantment over the deteriorating scenario of
his beloved motherland. He was, in fact, a maverick among
the academics of Dhaka University, where he used to teach
in the Department of Bangla.
a writer, Azad was critically engaged with his surroundings.
Publicly known for his passionate and opinionated temperament,
Azad had a mellow private side to his character that many
may not have known before his death. He was a family man with
a strong attachment to his children and wife. In his professional
life, during many an academic procedure, while making crucial
official decisions along with his colleagues, Azad used to
concede his position to respect the other person's opinion.
Azad was born on April 28, 1947 in the village of Rarikhal
of Bikrampur district. The village was already famous for
being the birth place of Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, a scientist
of international repute. In 1962, Azad completed his ISC (equivalent
to HSC) from the school that takes after the scientist's name
-- Sir JC Bose Institution. As he secured a position in the
merit list his future course led him to the highest seat of
learning, Dhaka University. He completed his BA in Bangla
in 1967 and MA in the same subject the next year.
one of his fellow students in the department of Bangla, Dhaka
University, remembers Azad as the student who used to don
"a Bonde Ali Miah-like hair-do" and "whose
reticence belied his intelligence and his goonpona (creativity)".
And he went on to add that Azad used to befriend only the
meritorious students of his class and had little time to waste
in idle chit chat.
were politically active and were attached to different student
organisations. However, Azad stayed away from the hubbub of
real polity," wrote Kaisar in a recently published article.
But Azad first became famous for a political poem he wrote
during his student life. "Blood Bank" was the poem
that made a ripple in the campus. It even went beyond that
when people started to consider it a testimony to the political
climate of the '60s, which was severely subjugated to the
military rule. The poem was published in Kolkata in the weekly
"Desh" and the "Amrito".
Haq, editor of the Observer Magazine and a classmate of Azad
remembers him as a brilliant student "who came from a
science background and switched to Bangla and turned out to
be the best in his class." "He was also impulsive
in nature, and it was evident at an early stage that he was
destined to become a rebellious voice," he adds. Haq
considers him a voice against those who use religion as a
Kohinoor, who later became the wife of Azad, and her numerous
friends were virtually in awe of Azad's intellectual capacity
to comment on every other subject. It was poetry and letter
that brought the couple together; till this day Latifa considers
Azad her favourite poet.
couple got married on October 12, 1975 and they " lived
in Scotland for one year". Right after Azad came back
from his study in Edinburgh, where he completed his PHD in
1996, they started their lives in a joint family.
was a responsible father. When the children were born, it
was Azad who used to take care of them most of the time as
my job kept me away from home from nine in the morning till
five in the afternoon," Latifa remembers. For a man of
letter, he was too anchored in the peace and quiet of family
life. His two daughters and only son constituted the centre
of his life.
his professional life as a teacher in Chittagong College.
After a brief stint at that college he joined Chittagong University.
Later he joined as a teaching staff of Jahangirnagar University,
where he taught Bangla from 1976 to 1977 before finally joining
Dhaka University in 1978 as an Associate Professor. It was
not until 1986 that he was made a Professor where he remained
so till his sad demise.
1973, while he was still a teacher at Chittagong University,
Azad got a scholarship at Edinburgh University. It was here
that he, with his grounding in Bangla literature, got the
opportunity to delve into linguistics. During his three year
study he produced his first thesis on language, which was
his PhD paper: "Pronominalisation in Bangla".
he made his name as a poet while he was still a student, his
essays were revered by many from the beginning. The novelist
Azad first emerged in the pages of a literary supplement of
the Daily Ajker Kagoj with his Chhappanno Hajar
Borgomile. It was 1993, and the novel was well received
by the readers. They recognised in it a genre of its own kind.
In fact, through this first novel he started enjoying a wide
readership for the first time. The serially published novel
was later reintroduced in book form. It came out during the
Bangla Academy 'Book Fair' in 1994 and it was one of the much-sought-after
books of that year that saw its third edition during the month-long
fair. Azad's wife Latifa Kohinoor remembers the time as one
of the most crucial landmarks in their lives. Azad not only
became a popular writer, he soon positioned himself as a popular
spokesman in his community, and it was from this point on
that his ideas started to receive flak from a certain quarter
steeped in despotic religious beliefs.
was a scholar set out to explore the world of linguistics.
There was no financial reward for what he was doing, so it
was I who kind of challenged him by asking, 'will you be able
to write novels?'" recalls Latifa Kohinoor. Azad's answer
was unmistakably bold. "He said, 'I could and my first
novel will be a hit'," remembers Kohinoor. This was a
display of his characteristic confidence .
Sharif, a poet and one of the Deputy Editors of the Daily
Prothom Alo, believes that Azad's most important contribution
was in linguistics. "He had a lot to contribute in Bangla
language in its grammar. After all these years we still do
not have our own grammar. Humayun Azad understood the mutating
nature of grammar and realised the importance of liberating
it from its present English and Sanskrit foundation,"
Sharif adds. "Azad came up with an original idea to write
Bangla grammar. He submitted his plan to the Bangla Academy.
It was written in an essay form and was published in a journal,"
continues Sharif, who thinks the Academy failed to understand
the depth and breadth of his proposal.
believes that the most important works of Azad are the two
hefty volumes of his compiled works on Bangla language where
the best write-ups of the last one and half hundred years
are compiled. "He wrote elaborate and lengthy prefaces
that undoubtedly brought out the best in him," Sharif
contends. "While in Kolkata I heard people wondering
about Azad's ability to bring out two huge tomes and write
such wonderful essays to go with them at a young age,"
a writer who produced 70 books, Azad's acknowledgement mostly
came from his readers. He was one of the writers whose collections
of essays could become best sellers. “Nari
is one of his best books," believes Sajjad Sharif, who
also considers his Lal Neel Dipaboli and Koto
Nodi Shorobor, written for children, as two of his most
important works. For his contribution to literature he received
the Bangla Academy award in 1987.
Mehdi Momin, a journalist of The Independent, writes in an
article that Azad never wanted to associate himself with the
culture of sycophancy which he was surrounded by. He himself
was a man who never swerved from what he felt like saying.
Even "his literal handshake with death could not subdue
his spirit," Momin wrote.
few days before he left for Germany on another scholarship
from PEN (an international organisation of poets, essayists
and novelists), Azad, as usual, lambasted the religious right,
yet he ended his speech on a positive note. He said that the
"future of Bangladesh is not that bleak". With this
last note of optimism he left the country for Munich, Germany.
Azad was never a person who craved to retreat from his own
land; escape was the last thing on his mind. Although he was
known to many as being confrontational in nature, Azad was
a patriot with a deep sense of belonging to his own land.
"He used to become restless in Dhaka and needed to retreat
to his own village once every month. Rarikhal, his home village,
was a life saver to him," asserts Latifa.
went abroad for two years, and this was a man who could not
live in America for more than two months. We thought, in the
face of all the hostility, it would be wise to leave the country,"
exclaims Latifa. His near ones as well as his string of well-wishers
never thought that it would be his last farewell. In the end
what is left is the saga of a man who started out as a brilliant
essayist and later decided on a mode of expression, which
was a novel and that brought him popularity as well as the
wrath of a vested quarter. What more is to be found is his
imprint in all the outpourings of his creativity.
the evening of that fateful Friday, Humayun Azad, in jeans
and fatua, was sitting at the stall of Agami Prokashani at
the Amar Ekushey Book Fair. "Azad left the fair at around
8:45 in the evening telling me he would go home," says
Osman Gani, owner of the publishing house. When he reached
the pavement outside the Bangla Academy, a young man approached
him for an autograph; Dr Azad obliged and crossed the road
for a rickshaw. And then two unknown assailants, armed with
chopping knives, hacked the 56-year-old writer several times
on the jaw, lower part of the neck and hands.
but profusely bleeding, Dr Azad was taken to the nearby Dhaka
Medical College Hospital (DMCH). According to newspaper reports
, no doctor was available at the emergency unit of the DMCH;
Azad was later sent to the Combined Military Hospital(CMH).
Azad had been fearing for his life ever since excerpts of
his new novel, Pak Sar Zamin Shaad Baad (Pakistan's
national anthem; Blessed be the Sacred Land) was first published
in the Daily Ittefaq's Eid supplement in 2003. In
an email to Muktomona, an independent website, Azad wrote,
"The Ittefaq published a novel by me named Pak Sar
Zamin Shaad Baad in its Eid issue in December 3. It deals
with the condition of Bangladesh for the last two years. Now
the (religious) fundamentalists are bringing out regular processions
against me, demanding exemplary punishment. The attached two
files with this letter will help you understand." Dr
Azad sent two photographs along with the mail.
Azad's assailants, in fact, might have come right out of the
very book, which had put his life under increasing threat.
It depicts the story of a zealot who wants to establish a
"Taliban-styled distorted Pakistan" in Bangladesh.
"We aren't alone, our brothers all over the world are
doing their work. If they fly an aeroplane into a building
somewhere, if cars crash into a hospital or a hotel, or if
a bomb blast kills 300 people in some recreational centre,
then we know it's the work of our brothers; in other words
it is our work, it is Jihad," the protagonist of the
book, a member of Jama-e-Jihad-e-Islami Party, says in a monologue.
name Jama-e-Jihad-e-Islami is believed to be an allegory to
the Jammat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JI), one of the major partners
in the ruling four-party coalition government. In fact, Karim
Ali Islampuri, another character of the book says, "We
must seize power. Right now, we are with the power and the
main party. At some point, power will come to us; we will
become the main party. We are entering everywhere-- Islam
will be established; (another) Pakistan will be created. There
won't be any infidels, Malauns (Hindus); there won't be any
Hindu or Jew in guise of Muslims."
in its response, took the content of the Pak Saar Zamin
Shaad Baad quite seriously. On January 25, Maulana Delwar
Hossain Sayeedi, a JI MP demanded the introduction of the
Blasphemy Act to block the publication of "such books".
Besides Sayeedi, many bigots declared the famous writer a
murtad (apostate). Momtazi, emir of Hifazate Khatm-e-Nabuat
Movement and Imam of Rahim Metal Mosque demanded the professor's
arrest and trial on December 12, only months before the attack.
The BNP-led four-party alliance did nothing to nab those who
were issuing death warrants to one of the most eminent linguists
of the country.
government however, finally took the matter seriously. Dr
Azad was sent to Bumrungrad Hospital in Thailand; and the
maverick writer was, slowly but steadily, recovering. "You
don't know how happy I was then," says Latifa.
not last long; the whole situation changed for the worse as
soon as the Azad was back home. "The zealots were back
too and they started threatening us on the phone," Latifa
says. In the last six months the family has been through extreme
insecurity. "Then they threatened to bomb our house on
Fuller road," Latifa says.
systematic persecution, actually, reached its zenith at the
time when Dr Azad decided to give his research project on
German poet Heinrich Heine a second thought. "Azad had
wanted to do research on Heine long before the attack; He
had even prepared all his notes by the end of December,"
says Latifa Kohinoor. The writer, however, did not get any
response from the PEN; and when it came about two months after
the attack, Latifa felt uneasy.
Dr Azad, too, had second thoughts before he boarded the plane
for Munich. "Azad talked with almost everyone he knew
about the scholarship," Latifa recalls. She was against
the idea of her husband leaving the country as she thought
it would separate the family and he would not eat properly
which would affect his health. "He was a very bad cook,"
Latifa smiles shyly. But Azad's wife withdrew whatever reservations
she had when their only son Anonno was kidnapped days before
the writer's planned departure.
bearded men frisked Anonno away while he was returning from
school. They took him to an abandoned house near the SM Hall
and asked him about Azad's fellowship," Latifa says.
Two of them were tightly holding Anonno's hands while the
other was asking him when his father would leave the country,
she says. As one of the kidnappers whispered something in
the other's ear; Anonno broke free from their grasp and ran
Azad, however, reacted to his son's kidnapping with uncharacteristic
calmness; "as if he knew this would happen," Latifa
shudders while describing the event. But the writer, who was
drafting his new novel titled Mrityur Ek Second Durey
(A Second Away From Death), could not escape death in Munich.
Dr Humayun Azad was found dead in his Munich apartment by
a fellow PEN member.
ran amok when the news of Dr Azad's death broke out. His family
still believes the fundamentalists could not kill him here,
so they followed through with their plan in the German city.
"How is it possible that the person we saw alive and
well here in Dhaka a few days ago, all of a sudden fell sick
and died of a heart attack?" Latifa asks. "He called
home only two days before they poisoned him to death. In this
era of modern science you will never be able to find out the
truth," she says.
however did not leave Dr Azad, arguably the last outspoken
Bangali writer, even after his death. "The fundamentalists
are still threatening us on the phone. Someone called yesterday
and told me 'Humayun Azad could not escape from our grasp;
we hunted him down in Germany. Now it is your turn',"
says Latifa. "I do not know what we have done to them
to deserve this," she continues; "What problem can
they have with a dead writer's family?" Latifa Kohinoor
(R) thedailystar.net 2004