Serajul Islam Choudhury: Our first intellectual and writer in Bangladesh

Today, June 23, marks the 87th birthday of Serajul Islam Choudhury. He was my direct teacher in the English department of the University of Dhaka, where I studied as an undergraduate. I also had the privilege of working closely with him in the 1990s when he edited in an exemplary manner a weekly of left-wing views entitled Saptahik Samoy, one with which I too have been associated editorially. I remember with pleasure his remarkable editorial acumen and prowess. And, most importantly, I vividly remember his incomparable classroom lectures on Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad, and DH Lawrence, among others. These lectures – filled with instructive and illuminating insights – were both powerful and beautiful, ones that effortlessly combined his vast scholarship with his passionate commitment to social justice and change. He is by far one of the best teachers I have had in my life.

But, for us, Serajul Islam Choudhury is more than an outstanding lecturer or accomplished scholar as such, although poet-playwright Syed Shamsul Haque memorably described him as “our nation’s teacher”. Literary and cultural critic, historian, daily sociologist, political analyst, essayist, columnist, editor, translator, activist and even organizer, Serajul Islam Choudhury is our first writer in the Bengali language and, of course, our first intellectual in the country – the one who is also our leading anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonial and anti-patriarchal writer – one who speaks truth in power for nearly six decades now, and one who can certainly be placed in the global tradition of such combative intellectuals as Edward Said, Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis, to name a few.

Indeed, Choudhury – internationalist as he is – has so far survived the unprecedented global pandemic that has swept our planet, while already writing about how this same pandemic exposes and even exploits all sorts of inequalities that testify also naked brutalities and explosive contradictions of the existing system that Choudhury continues to name with clarity and conviction: capitalism. Indeed, Choudhury is also our leading socialist writer and intellectual.

The author of countless articles and over a hundred books – including one that has also produced notable works in English – Serajul Islam Choudhury dwells on an extraordinarily wide range of themes and topics, questions and concerns, which I cannot do justice in an extremely short piece like this. Indeed, its thematic concerns span different historical periods of the Indian subcontinent and Bangladesh. One of his major and masterful works entitled Jatiyotabad, Sampradayikata or Janoganer Mukti (2015) is by far the most interdisciplinary and extensive historiographical work produced in Bangladesh.

Certainly, Choudhury’s concerns range from the British colonial and Pakistani neocolonial periods to our national liberation movement of 1971 to the dominant political culture that evolved in Bangladesh, from Marx to Mao, from Rokeya to Pritilata, from Fanon to Somen Chanda , from Vidyasagar to Bhashani, from Sophocles to Shakespeare, from Socrates to Said, or from Beowulf to Virginia Wolf, not to mention his preoccupations with Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Jibanananda Das as well as his preoccupations with the ancient Greek epics and with this what FR Leavis calls the “great tradition”, to name but a few.

But Serajul Islam Choudhury still remains typically critical of the canonical and the dominant and the establishment – remaining committed to the production of demystifying and oppositional knowledge – from the point of view of those who are oppressed, exploited, marginalized, or what the writer Latin American Eduardo Galeano memorably calls “nobodies”. Indeed, in his works, Choudhury remains concerned – to varying degrees – with the workers, peasants, women and minorities of Bangladesh, while remaining constantly critical of our national ruling classes and of Choudhury’s own class – the middle class. Of course, the class itself constitutes its fundamental political concern as well as its horizon of analysis, which nevertheless remains hospitable to a whole series of interconnected economic, social and cultural questions which turn out to be the sites of the class struggles themselves. same.

For Choudhury, criticism is therefore not limited to critical or aesthetic evaluations of individual authors as such. He is the first to have seen the limits of the so-called “new criticism” and aesthetic criticism in Bangladesh. For him, critique is rather a broader intellectual and political practice that pays attention to the unequal power relations and actually existing relations of production that affect the practice of daily life, while also drawing attention to the question of human emancipation itself, which moreover constitutes a constant and dominant theme in almost all of Choudhury’s work ranging from, say, his earlier works Nirasroy Grihee (1977), to Srenee Samay Shahittya (1986) and Swadhinata Spriha Sammyer Bhoy (1988), to Gonotontre Pokkhe Bipokkhe (1990) and Rashtra or Kalpolok (1990), to Rashtrer Malikana (1997) and Uponibesher Sangskriti (1999), to Pitritantrikotar Bipokkhe (2007) and Pa Rakhi Kothay (2018), at Vidyasagar or Koyekti Prosongo (2021).

And, in almost all of the works cited above, Choudhury remains politically and intersectionally alive, as he himself tells us: “It is impossible to discuss culture and society without discussing politics as such”. from mine). In fact, using Gramsci’s assertion that culture itself is politics and that politics has its own culture, one could say that Choudhury deals with the politics of culture and the culture of politics in its various works. And one of Choudhury’s fundamental conceptual contributions – via his first landmark intervention called Unish Shotoker Bangla Goddyer Samajik Byakaron – is his interdisciplinary conception of what he himself calls “the social grammar of literature”, conveyed by politics and politico-economics in the last instance. Indeed, Choudhury is by far the most politically and socially engaged literary and cultural critic in Bangladesh, the one for whom interdisciplinarity itself turns out to be a mode of emancipatory praxis. Of course, Choudhury’s role as a literary and cultural critic can in no way be separated from his role as a socialist intellectual.

Now a few words about the style of Serajul Islam Choudhury. Indeed, among the many contributions he has made, a major contribution is his style itself. And, for him, style is not only an aesthetic question but a political question insofar as it contributes to the power of language which can seize the masses. Chowdhury’s prose is powerful and beautiful in more ways than one; it attracts, moves, stimulates, even provokes, whereas in the first place it is immensely, even infinitely, and pleasantly readable.

Indeed, Serajul Islam Choudhury remained phenomenally productive and active even into the late eighties, as he read, wrote, edited, published tirelessly while giving frequent public lectures. It is not for nothing that – probably thinking of people like him – the great Latin American poet and socialist Pablo Neruda ardently announced in his poem “Ode to Age”: “I don’t believe in age”. . On his 87th birthday, I wish my teacher a more productive life full of love, light and laughter; and, as my teacher well knows, “it’s beautiful to love the world with eyes/ which are not yet/ born”, to use the words of the great Guatemalan poet Otto Rene Castillo.

Doctor Azfar Hussain is currently Emeritus Summer Professor of English and Humanities at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). He is Director of the Graduate Program in Social Innovation and Associate Professor of Integrative, Religious, and Cross-Cultural Studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, USA. He is also Vice President of the US-based Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS).