It's 3 in the morning. I went to bed at 9 last night just to wake up early in order to meet the deadline for my piece on the first death anniversary of my mentor Prof Zillur Rahman Siddiqui. Now, why do I feel like someone who has an exam? The one-page bio of my professor seems like a syllabus that cannot be reviewed in one sitting, especially when the course involves someone as eminent as ZRS. He always had this effect on me, his aura of greatness forcing me to resort to a reverent silence.
His reputation as a reserved man preceded him. Soon after I joined Jahangirnagar University as a student, ZRS joined the first caretaker government as an Education Advisor. We would hear stories of his calm composure that added to the myth of ZRS being a reserved man. We were too young to understand the subtlety of his wit. In one of his classes, a student pronounced Chaucer as 'Saucer.' ZRS simply looked out through the window, and said, “I don't see any!” I am sure the mortified student wished at that moment that a flying saucer would indeed come and take him away.
After ZRS resumed his professorial post, at a university that he served as VC for two successive terms, I began to realise what a wonderful teacher he was. He would normally sit on this wooden chair, lean forward and read out from his copy of a book that was marred by personal inscriptions and annotations. He would enunciate each word so distinctly that it would dance before your eyes. I still remember the way he explained the words 'chiaroscuro' and 'gossamer' while transporting us to the world of Tennyson's The Lotos-Eaters or the way he voiced out “Oh my prophetic soul” while teaching us Hamlet. His description of the debate of the fallen angels in the pandemonium or Satan travelling through Chaos made Milton come alive. Well we also learned about the 'pins and needles' that were bothering our professor in the English department.
“Make a habit of spending at least 4 hours for a one-hour lecture, and retain all your notes.” He advised after I had joined JU as a lecturer in 1994. ZRS was working on a Ford Foundation project on Higher Education at that time. He asked me to become his research assistant. I jumped at the opportunity. While working with him, I got to know the 'man' behind the 'name' ZRS. He would tell me about his Rajshahi, Oxford, and of course Jahangirnagar days.
He told me how his professor at DU, the then Chair of the English Department, Ms A.G. Stock, recommended him to do a second BA leading to an MA in Oxford. He recalled his encounter with the curator of the cricket ground of Worcester College. As ZRS appreciated the green turf, the curator curtly replied: '300 years in the making!' He would tell me about the Oxford tutorial system, high table and low table, the boat race and so on. Little did he know that he was instilling a desire in me to pursue research in the UK. This small talk took place normally during our lunch break.
He would tell me about his decision of joining Rajshahi University, leaving the job at Dhaka College. His challenge of building a new university at Jahangirnagar; his constant meetings with architect Muzharul Islam in finalising the architectural design of Jahangirnagar campus: the unique butterfly shaped Mir Mosharraf Hossain Hall, the library building at the heart of the 740-acre campus, or the amphitheatre.
Some of these accounts are recorded in his autobiography, Amar Cholar Pothe, where he graciously mentioned me. He retired from Jahangirnagar in 1996. His farewell was arranged on a lakeside lawn under some tall palm trees arranged in a circular pattern. The pro-VC Prof Tajul Islam speaking at the occasion reminisced how ZRS made them plant those palms. The lush green campus that JU boasts owes a great deal to this visionary man. His love for JU was immense. He made a special arrangement with the library to avail its service even after his retirement. He had a plot of land in JU Housing Society, and whenever he would come to Savar, he would visit the library. There is hardly any book in JU library that does not have ZRS's initial on the issue card. Such was his passion for books.
ZRS grew up in an academic milieu. He was born in Jhenaidah in 1928. His father was the headmaster of Jessore Zilla School. He went to Presidency College before joining DU soon after the partition.
He became the VC of Gono Biswasbidyalaya after his retirement from JU, but the daily journey proved too much for him. He left that job in 2003, and focused mainly on writing. The Bangla Academy English-Bengali Dictionary is one of his greatest achievements. He was a translator par excellence. His lucid translations of Milton's Areopagitica and Shakespeare's Sonnets retain the flavour of the original. This was possible because he himself was a creative writer. He has nearly 40 books to his credit, ranging from travelogues to poetry. Bangla Academy Award and Swadhinota Puroshkar for Education are two laurels of many in his wreath.
He wrote regularly for The Daily Star, Prothom Alo and Samakal. He started writing the DS column, “No Time for Trumpet,” at the request of his friend S.M. Ali. There was something unique about his generation. Prof Siddiqui belonged to the class of 1950. All his friends are immensely successful in their respective fields. He would tell me about the debate that they used to hold in the dorm and how the English professors would pick on them for their wrong choice of definite articles. I noticed a strange mutual admiration and possessiveness among this generation. He would never mention his closest friends without an epithet: “Amar bandhu Habibur Rahman Shelly,” or “Amar bandhu Shamsur Rahman.” Yet he would always use apni to address them. ZRS once sent me to poet Shamsur Rahman's house in Shyamoli to pick up a book; he too said, “Amar bandhu Zillur tomake pathiyeche?”
ZRS was an extremely measured and composed man. There was nothing excessive about him, yet he exuded extraordinariness. A year back, on November 11, Prof Zillur Rahman Siddiqui left us. He was 86, the newspaper read the following day. Well, he is a much greater figure than these figures would suggest. I salute my professor and wish him eternal peace.
The writer is Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka.