Vol. 5 Num 81 Mon. August 16, 2004  

An elegy for Humayun Azad

Our friend Humayun Azad has gone to a place where he could have a serene sleeping. He does not have to worry about the constant barrage of threatening and menacing phone calls from the few of his countrymen who never saw flowers in his writings; only the thorns that adorned his creative works bothered them immensely.

Early in the morning on Friday, August 13, 2004, Jahed Ahmed, an activist from Atlantic City, New Jersey, woke me up. His grave voice in the telephone gave me a chill. He told me that Prof. Humayun Azad of Dhaka University had passed away. "Where? When?" I asked impatiently. A nervous Jahed Ahmed told me that the writer had gone to the other world in his sleep in a dormitory room in Munich, Germany.

I was privileged to know that Professor Azad was heading to Germany anytime soon. He badly wanted this. For him, life in Bangladesh was synonymous to living in Hell thanks to some of the menacing Islamic extremists who were hell-bent on killing him on the charge of being an apostate.

Unlike all of us who have to die once in their lifetime, Professor Azad died twice. On February 27, 2004, as he exited the Book Fair from Bangla Academy premises, a bunch of religious extremists jumped on him, and tried to decapitate the pedagogue. The sustained injury put him into a death-like condition for over four-five days. He was in a coma. He came out of his transient death and went on to live for an extra 166 days. The army doctors in CMH gave him the critical care in the wake of his deadly attack. Then he was sent to Bangkok by the government for additional medical treatment. Among other medical treatment, he needed extensive plastic surgery to erase the signs of the brutal attack. Prof. Azad returned to Dhaka triumphantly after a month-long treatment abroad. And we wishfully thought his trouble with Islamists was over. But how wrong we were in our simple assumption!

No sooner Professor Azad could rehabilitate to his normal life, a fusillade of threatening phone calls started coming to him and his family members. In July 2004, his only son, Anonnya, had a run-in with some virulent Islamists as he was returning from school. They tried to abduct him. However, due to Anonnya's presence of mind, he foiled the Islamists' attack. Another tragedy was averted. However, that incident gave Professor Azad a jolt. In the fag end of July 2004, out of sheer desperation Prof. Azad took up the pen to write one of the most heart-wrenching articles in Bangla. He was bitter about the way life was treating him. Islamists who hated him for his writings were constantly threatening him over the phone. He became virtually a prisoner in his own home. As a last ditch effort he penned a short article in which he beseeched the prime minister, the main opposition leader, and his compatriots. He wanted to live amidst his loving and caring family members and be productive. But the extremists had other sneaky ideas. They unleashed their barrage of threatening phone calls. They even said they would plant a bomb in Professor Azad's flat.

Dhaka's vernacular newspaper Janakantha published Professor Azad's moving article. A copy was rushed to us for translating it to English. It was an emotional write-up. The translated copy was rushed electronically to Professor Azad for his approval, as he was getting ready to visit Germany. He however took time out to read our translation of his swan song. He approved it for publication. That was the last I heard of our professor friend. We knew that he was heading for Germany. We, his well wishers, heaved a great sigh of relief knowing that he would be far from harm's way in Germany where he could devote his time to passion, i.e., writing. But little did we know what was in store for him. Death's cold hand had touched him so abruptly.

Now we are grieving his untimely death.

Professor Azad and I were born in the same year. Therefore, his death has special meaning to me. The very impermanence of life must have bothered every one of us. His premature death is a poignant reminder that life is short but art is long. Professor Azad belonged to a rare literati class of Bangladesh whose number is diminishing by the day. His family members, colleagues, students, freethinkers, and well-wishers will sorely miss him.

Professor Azad was a lifelong fighter whose only weapon was his pen. He was a rare breed of freethinker in Dhaka. I consider him a true iconoclast for his writings were directed against traditional or popular ideas and institutions.

This is time for grieving and not pointing fingers at those who are responsible for his premature death. With saddened heart, I am reminded of this short poem written by American poet Emily Dickinson perhaps directed to our fallen angel, Humayun Azad:

To fight aloud is very brave,
But gallanter, I know,
Who charge within the bosom,
The cavalry of woe.

Who win, and nations do not see,
Who fall, and none observe,
Whose dying eyes no country
Regards with patriot love.

We trust, in plumed procession,
For such the angels go,
Rank after rank, with even feet
And uniforms of snow.

AH Jaffor Ullah, a researcher, writes from New Orleans, USA.