To Sir, With Love
Kabir Chowdhury, National professor and professor Emeritus in the English department, made such an impression on me that I've decided to write about him three decades later. I last saw Dr Kabir Chowdhury at Dhaka University in 1978, when he was the Departmental chairman. That particular afternoon I was in a rush and needed him to sign some papers and write me a testimonial, vouching that I was a student in the English department, for my transfer to a U.S. university. Back then, there were no personal secretaries assigned to the chairperson whom I could call ahead to make an appointment. I badly needed those papers signed, as I was due to leave in a few days. I decided to take my chances and walked into the departmental office to find the assistant we called Dadu, who would most definitely help me in locating Dr Chowdhury. I explained to Dadu the nature of my visit. Sure enough, he went to check and told me the Chairman was in his office and I should go in. I felt a little nervous for I had never had a one-on-one encounter with him; seeing how I hesitated, Dadu gave me a reassuring smile. I slowly walked towards his office, my heart racing. I took a deep breath and lifted the heavy moss-green drapes that hung from his door.
That autumn afternoon, he wore a grey cashmere V-neck cardigan. He was at his big desk, engrossed in a book. The late afternoon sun played peek-a-boo on the walls. I stood there looking at him, unable to move or knock, hesitant to interrupt his study. He must have sensed someone at his door, and looked up from his reading. He saw me standing there holding a stack of papers and I am sure he saw a baffled look on my face. He smiled his gracious smile, and with a nod of his head summoned me to come in. As I approached his table he stood up and signaled me to take a seat opposite from him; that is the kind of person he is. With his usual calm, deep, and gentle voice, he asked me what he could do to help. I was in awe as to how he spoke with me. He had utmost respect for all his students and as a payback, all his students respected and loved him dearly. There was never ever any trace of vanity in him.
What I most remember from that brief meeting that afternoon is his laugh, a laugh so electrifying that it made me instantly relaxed and at ease. He asked me all the relevant questions, got out his pen, and signed every single paper with his large steady hand. Then he took out a writing pad from his desk drawer, and in long hand, started to write a testimonial. During that time I just sat and studied his face and looked around his room.
When he was done writing, he asked me to take it to the person who does all the typing in the department. He also reminded me to tell that person to type that letter on a special paper with the departmental logo. Thankful, as I was about to take my leave, he told me to come back with the typed letter for his last signature. About half an hour later I returned with the typed letter in hand and entered his room with one soft knock. Sure enough, he was waiting for me. After he handed me back the letter, I just gave it a quick glance. He must have noted a change in my facial expression and simply said, "Did you want me to write more"? I was taken aback by such a direct question and quickly mumbled "No sir, this looks just fine." He replied, "I think so, too. One thing you should always remember - sometimes less is more." After that I sort of raised my hand to my forehead, saluted him and left his room, more relieved than worried.
Kabir Chowdhury comes from a family of renowned intellectuals in Bangladesh whose fame has spread to the distant lands of this globe. There is no denying that his intellect and literary genius come from a family where art and culture were nurtured and preserved. He did stand alone, though, without the family name and his famous siblings who made great contributions to Bengali literature, art and culture. Then I did not know much about his background. When I met him in the English department he was already in his prime and a well-known literary figure in the sub-continent.
A couple of months ago I was delighted to read a wonderful review of his recent publication in the Daily Star - a collection of essays published by the University Press. The review accompanied a recent photograph of his. I noticed no visible changes from when I saw him last. Another summer is upon me here in Maryland, and I eagerly await my brother's arrival in August when he will bring me Dr Chowdhury's new collection. Those hot days of August will be bearable once I have my hands on his book. So I wait. My hats off to you, Dr Chowdhury.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009