My Lost Teacher
Syed Badrul Ahsan
Suraiya Khanum died in America a few months ago. That was when I first came to know where she had disappeared after the mid-1970s when she was briefly our teacher in the English department of Dhaka University. Some of my classmates and, of course, I always felt that had she stayed on in the department, Suraiya Khanum could have made a big difference for all of us. She was beautiful, she knew her subject in a way not many would know and, best of all, she had a temperament which instantly projected her as a fiery woman. These days, when I read Camille Paglia, indeed read about her, I ask myself if Suraiya Khanum was not unlike her in a number of ways. I never had the opportunity to know my teacher well. There was a reason. On an October day in 1975, she was not in the best of moods and in that frame of mind, in that packed class of first year honours students, asked me how many hours I studied at home. I promptly replied, 'Eight'. She was derisive about my answer and I felt thoroughly humiliated. After that, I did not attend a single class of hers.
But my respect for Suraiya Khanum has never wavered. She had a first rate mind. There was an abundance of beauty in her, which for many of us was a challenge in the poetic sense of the meaning. Some of my friends, boys to be sure, were keen to write poetry on her. They never did, for the time they might have spent composing the poetry was lost in watching her move briskly from her office to the classroom and back. There were times when her students would wait patiently in the classroom for her, before deciding after the lapse of a good number of minutes that she would not turn up. There were also the times when Suraiya Khanum would turn up, stride into the classroom, her hair wafting along in the breeze her own movements had created and her expression revealing traces of the literary aristocracy that sometimes can shine through a man or woman who has studied English literature. It was then, ironically, for her to discover that none of her students was present. That sent her flying into a fury, so much so that she would leave her bag and books on the table, march out of the classroom in search of her fugitive pupils and, finding some of them in the corridor or in the department seminar library, herd them into class. I was one of the few who quietly and unobtrusively escaped detection.
My teacher was a good writer, an equally good poet, indeed an individual for whom the world was perhaps not the right place to be in. But, then, for many of us the world we inhabit is never an easy place to be in. With Suraiya Khanum, there was something of the feeling that she was not being able to demonstrate her intellectual qualities in adequate measure in her interaction with her students. There were all the traces of anger and discontent, which somehow set her apart from many of her colleagues in the department. The English department was not acknowledging her abilities, her contributions to its welfare. That was a common complaint she made in her classes, with the result that the classes often were reduced to exercises in soliloquy. Much as we wished to have a conversation with her, we were afraid of the way she might respond. In us, therefore, were fear and respect combined in a harmony of sorts. Every time some young man or woman failed to come up with a satisfactory response to one of her questions, she would come forth with withering criticism of the student's intellectual prowess, whatever was by then left of it. And then she would remind us, for yet one more time, of the tripos she had acquired at one of the Oxbridge universities. Not many of us knew what a tripos signified, but that Suraiya Khanum had one drew new respect out of us for her.
The heart sometimes cracks, just a little, when you realise how some teachers could have been icons for you to build your aspirations around. The trouble is that those teachers, as you might have discovered one fine morning, moved away and out of your lives for good. Suraiya Khanum was one teacher who should have come back to us. And there was Imtiaz Habib, whose packed classes were indicative of the powerful hold he had on the Metaphysicals of the 17th century. We who entered Dhaka University in September 1975 never did get to draw inspiration from Selim Sarwar, for he had already made his way out of the country.
We do not remember when Suraiya Khanum left the country. We have no idea of the life, academic as well as personal, she led between her arrival in America and her death in that huge, distant land. Perhaps we would not have known of her end had her sister not let us in on the truth that Suraiya Khanum, still young and still beautiful and still bubbling with ideas, had passed into memory.
There is the lost autumn I recall as I remember my teacher. Suraiya Khanum, in rapid movement that bespoke a gale parting the sea into two turbulent hemispheres, striding into a classroom is what I remember. The light of the sun fell on her perfectly chiseled face and a glint was in her eyes. She could have been a figure straight out of a Greek or Roman classic. She could have been a heroine in a Thomas Hardy landscape. Or she might have been the essence of modern Bengali womanhood. Maybe she was all these, at least for some of us.
The writer is Editor Current Affairs, The Daily Star.
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