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|Volume 12 |Issue 01| January 04, 2013 ||
My Teacher Garib Nawaz Khan
Syed Badrul Ahsan
My teacher Garib Nawaz Khan died a few months ago. And I came to know about his passing through an obituary note in the newspapers. That he had been ill, that he would not live long are realities that I had never thought of. The saddest part, in all this remembrance of my revered teacher, is that there was no one who could tell me where he lived, the place where I could visit and pay my respects to his family. Professor Garib Nawaz Khan deserved much more than a demonstration of perfunctory respect or conventional adulation. There was a true scholar residing in him, a teacher who through the passion of his classroom lectures took you on a long journey through the landscape of Bengali literature. Through his diction, through his understanding of aesthetics in this part of the world, he made ignorant individuals like me realise the huge degree of catching up we needed to do if we meant to remain true to our nationalistic, patriotic moorings.
This morning, it is with a huge sense of pain as also a feeling of deep contrition that I recall Professor Garib Nawaz Khan. The pain is in knowing that he lived in this very city where he imparted some of the best gems of academic excellence into my consciousness and yet I did not keep in touch with him. And the contrition comes through knowing that he had, before he passed on to the other world, written about me in an article for a journal published by Notre Dame College. I am yet to peruse what he says about me, seeing that I am away from the country. But I am told that in his piece, he mentions my writings, expresses his appreciation for my style, notes that he has not seen me for ages but prays that wherever I am I shall keep doing good and go ahead in life. If Garib Nawaz Sir were around, I would rush to him, to say sorry at not having kept any links with him since leaving college, as his student and then as his colleague, and then touch his feet in reverence. His prayers for me mean much more than all the beauty I have experienced in watching the clouds go by day after long day.
And yet there is a truth that must be told. It is that I have never forgotten my teachers, for the simple reason that what I am today is what they made of me through their instruction in school, college and university. When I took admission at Notre Dame College in 1973, I knew not a bit of Bengali, be it reading it or writing it. Yes, I did speak the language at home. But having spent all my school years in distant Pakistan, where Urdu was the second language, after English, given to me to study, my own Bengali simply did not have a chance. During the admission process at Notre Dame, I approached Father Benjamin, the goal being to ask him to give me alternative English in place of Bengali. He would not agree. My next question related to whether I could have easy Bengali. He dismissed that suggestion as well and insisted that as a Bengali I take up the normal syllabus being taught in class. And that was it. I was convinced that I was doomed never to graduate from college and go on to university, because the atrocious state of my Bengali would defeat me.
In the end, I won that war. There were people who helped me cross the hurdles that came up before me. My parents helped me out, through getting me to read and write Bengali at home. At Notre Dame College, it was my teachers — Hamid Sir, Abul Hossain Sir, Manik Gomes Sir and Garib Nawaz Sir — who instilled confidence in me about the language. Without these illustrious individuals, I do not think I would have qualified in my final examinations in Bengali and therefore I would not be where I am today. Professor Garib Nawaz Khan was a particular inspiration, not just for his erudition but for the human touch he brought into his classroom teaching. He would ask us to close our eyes and imagine the scene he was describing in his narration of an episode from Bengali literature. We did as asked. And we lost ourselves in the past. With Garib Nawaz Sir, there was no aloofness, nothing of the forbidding sort which often creates an invisible boundary between a curious pupil and a somber-looking teacher. Even when classes were over, I would, in something of trepidation, go over to him and ask him for an explanation of something that he had already gone over in class. He would smile, take no offence at all, and give me an explanation all over again.
I do not think I can ever forget the day, in December 1973, when I spoke at the annual English debate at Notre Dame College. All my teachers and the entire students' faculty were present. Every debater went up and spoke rather well. One of my batch mates, in the science group, did well but in the process of his speech he strutted up and down the stage, obviously to bring something of dramatic note into his delivery. As for myself, I stood behind the lectern, tried not to feel nervous and delivered my speech without making any gaffes or stuttering or forgetting a point. I was awarded the second prize, the first having gone to my dramatic friend. As we came down the stage, Garib Nawaz Sir came up to me, shook hands with me and told me he thought I deserved the first prize. That was Professor Garib Nawaz Khan — inspirational, liberal and a voice of truth.
Garib Nawaz Khan was still my teacher, in that very broad sense of the meaning, when I became his colleague in the early 1980s. Today, as he lies in his grave, somewhere in my soul a little voice would like to whisper something in his ears: “Sir, here I am all of me a being you shaped through the fervour of your intellect, through the urgency of your passion for literature.”
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.