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     Volume 7 Issue 11 | March 14, 2008 |

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Lifelong Learner

Andrew Morris

Professor Jabbar. Photo:Snigdha Zaman/IKON Photo

It could be a library reading room. Several men, some in suits and ties, poring over texts, heads bowed. Early evening sunlight casting geometric shapes on the walls. Silence, except for the occasional whisper of a turned page, or the harsh cry of a crow on the windowsill.

Your eye travels round the room, taking in these greying, learned readers, many of them retired or senior professors, who have gathered together for a weekend to edit educational texts. And it comes to rest, registering just a faint sense of surprise, on an elderly man sitting in the far corner. Diminutive, bony, long-bearded. He wears a high floppy woolen hat which topples rather comically to one side, and sits, quiet as a shadow, engrossed in his text. At a distance, his eyes appear closed. Perhaps he is actually sleeping gently. And why not? It's been a long day, and the subject of our gaze is after all approaching 80 years.

But if that's what you think, you're underestimating Professor Abdul Jabbar, mistaking his stillness for somnolence. In fact what you are witnessing is a dedication and intensity which have been with him all his life, and remain undiluted to this day.

I've known Professor Jabbar a long time, in his capacity as chair of various education committees, but this is the first time we've travelled together to work on a weekend workshop outside Dhaka.

We are due to pick him up at a central location at 10am. When I wonder whether this will pass off successfully, my two other colleagues look at each other with something approaching awe and state solemnly that Prof Jabbar is known for being always very “timely”. I have to suppress a smile. Perhaps it's only in Bangladesh that someone can become famous for the mysterious and esoteric gift of being punctual.

And sure enough, there he is, at the appointed place and time. He negotiates his way across the busy road, dodging the speeding traffic with sprightly ease, and hops up into the vehicle. He's hardly sat down before remarking on the novel I'm reading, by a contemporary American novelist. What's it about? Who are the protagonists? What else has de Lillo written? Later on that weekend, he chances on me reading something in French, and once again fires off a volley of questions on comparative linguistics, the influence of French on English and a host of related matters. This sense of boundless curiosity seems to inhabit Prof. Jabbar, to drive him on and keep his mind always alert.

The energy Prof. Jabbar exhibits remains with him all weekend, from his early morning walks to when he retires at night. The reading and editing sessions last 8-9 hours, but while certain younger colleagues seem adept at stretching, looking around the room, initiating conversations, he remains there in his strange immobile posture, peering down at the text in front of him, a way of reading he says he's practised all his life.

One evening we are out walking and he tells me of other aspects of his life, not least the 10 children he's fathered, including seven daughters, all of them gone on to higher education, and several of them medical doctors, both here and overseas. The methodical way he lists them from number one through 10 in itself evidence of a mind that still functions like a Swiss clock. He looks at me with great concern when I tell him I decided not to have children, before beginning the usual refrain of “What will happen to the world if people like you don't have children?” I'm able, for once, to counter playfully that as long as people like him are having 10, it sort of lets me off the hook...

But I'm curious to find out more about what makes this man tick, and so I arrange a follow-up visit to his flat in Azimpur in the week following our workshop. The room in which he receives visitors is spartanly furnished: a single camp bed, a child's pencil drawings on the wall, a green reading desk, and a set of bookshelves where hundreds of books are piled in no particular order. Here is a tome on developmental psychology, next to an edition of the Muslim Education Quarterly from 1984. There are reports on Secondary Education from 1992, and open atop one heap of books is yet another weighty report which Prof Jabbar is currently translating from Bangla into English.

Over a mountain of snacks and fruit, he tells me his life story, from his birth in 1930 in Mymensingh. One of very few students from his town to make it all the way to Dhaka University, he studied chemistry. In fact, he flirted in turn with the idea of studying medicine, engineering and law, but was conscious of the costs this would impose on his father. All the time, he also harboured the secret dream of becoming an orator, inspired as he was in those days by Gandhi and Jinnah.

One gets the impression that Prof Jabbar could in fact have followed any of these paths successfully, and that the education world's gain is the legal, medical and political worlds' loss. You can certainly catch hints of a legal mind in the way Prof Jabbar is able to catalogue exact dates and names from several decades past. He tells me, to give just one example, of how he submitted his degree thesis on, (and here he closes his eyes to concentrate), April 20th 1954. He recounts with a certain degree of gleeful assurance how he can recall the names of all 24 of his fellow primary school students, and indeed later in the conversation is able to give me most of their family histories to boot.

In fact, such is the memory of this man, which evokes a powerful telephone exchange with millions of interlocking cables, each buzzing with information and voices, that I have to politely move the conversation on at intervals to the next era, for fear it may actually take us 60 years to describe the last six decades of his life.

He recalls the dedication of his all-night studies and his teachers from those lost decades, all in the kind of fluent English that is a hallmark of scholars of his generation. His academic prowess ensured him a number of scholarships to the US, Canada, UK and the Soviet Union, and led ultimately to a series of senior administrative jobs within the education sector here.

I'm curious though to know what motivates him to keep on studying, when many elderly people are content to put their feet up and enjoy a period of rest after a busy working life? It's a delicate issue to broach, but surely with a whole host of professional children finance is not at the core?

He shakes his head, dismisses the idea, before continuing, “I just want to prove to myself that I'm still of some use to the world”. He also needs, he goes on, to keep himself updated on the subjects which impassion him. On top of this, Prof Jabbar adds wryly that keeping busy in this way also stops him getting under his family's feet, and of course vice versa.

These days most of his time away from academic pursuits and scanning the newspapers, especially the foreign news pages, is spent devoting himself to religious study and practice, a lifelong habit to which he attributes at least in part his good physical and mental health, along with his regimen of daily walks.

But then again everyone has a personal anecdote which proves that longevity has no universal formula. My own favourite is the recent case of the 108-year-old French woman who ascribed her long life to a daily glass of whisky, and the fact that she had given up smoking. At the age of 104.

Prof Jabbar's method has certainly helped him outlive many of his contemporaries, many of whom have passed away, as he recounts, eyes shut once again, recalling faces, families, places, offering up exact names and dates. For his part, Prof Jabbar deserves many more years in which to continue offering his gifts to the educational community, proving (as if proof were further needed) just how useful he is as a resource and, more importantly, an inspiration.

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