Published:  12:05 AM, 23 July 2022 Last Update: 12:51 AM, 23 July 2022

Birthday Tribute to Our Fakrul Sir!

Birthday Tribute to Our Fakrul Sir! From left: MahabubAlam, Rafsanur Rahman, Dr. FakrulAlam, me (author), Motiur Rahman; Photo credit:Sarjina Hossain Trima

Liton Chakraborty Mithun

People recognize him for the multifaceted being that he is. An internationally acclaimed academic and translator, a prominent author and scholar, a literary maven, an engaging speaker, an accomplished editor, a multiple award-winning intellectual and what not! But, for us students, Dr. FakrulAlam (born 20 July 1951) is first and foremost a teacher, an excellent one for that matter. That he is a teacher of sublime quality and authority is a late realization for me. Initially, I was scared of him for no small measure.

In the second semester of our first year (undergrad) at university, he taught us the course ENG 105 (Introduction to Prose and Drama) along with Prof. Tahmina Ahmed. He dealt with the prose section and taught us such texts as "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell,"Games at Twilight" by Anita Desai and "The Idea of a University" by John Henry Newman.  He brought his scholarship into his eloquent lectures but heavily drew on everyday examples to complement literary interpretations. I could understand some, but let me confess, I failed to make head or tail of much of the thing for no fault of my teacher. For someone like me hailing from a Bangla medium background with little to no emphasis on English other than for the purpose of high grades on the subject, it was a real deal negotiating with the foreign language in the classroom on a daily basis. (Let me add that how much Bangla, let alone English, we can learn from our existing curriculum and educational climate, regardless of medium of instruction, is a burning question.)I can remember I performed poorly in his part of the midterm exam and I requested him to show my script to see where I had gone wrong. To my utter shock, the much dreaded red pen plowing through the script page after page showed me my place. I had to improve a lot, advised Prof. Alam on December 31, 2012. 

In the meantime, Prof. Alam's reputation had gone sky-high with the publication of Bangabandhu's first book titled Unfinished Memoirs in his dexterous translation. So my view of him in those days was one of wonderment. However, the teacher I and many of our friends started admiring genuinely with the fear factor greatly minimized asserted himself in our third year days onwards. He taught us the course "Prose from Bacon to Burke." By that time, I somehow managed to make peace with the English language so to say and the real beauty of Fakrul Sir's teaching became all too obvious. His pleasant demeanor, a characteristic smile, asking questions intermittently, inviting us to join in conversations, and occasional reprimands, all reinforced the topics he was discussing. As mentioned earlier, he banked on quotidian examples and anecdotes to bring life to textual analysis and theoretical interpretation. In a class back in my first year, he referred to one of his former students, then a police officer standing up against demonstrating students as a matter of professional duty on the very campus he once belonged to. Fakrul Sir likened this dilemma of the officer to that of the protagonist from Orwell's story "Shooting an Elephant," who detested executing colonial policy in the then Burma but had to. In another instance, he compared mysterious Swiftian creatures with the troublemakers on the campus. As it happened, he was teaching us Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift in a classroom at Lecture Theater when a group of unruly students were marching outside along the passage nearby and shouting slogans like "Action! Action! Direct Action!" in an awkward accent. This prompted him to say, "The Yahoos are out!" and we understood what he meant. This is how he used to make literature so relevant to our everyday experience.

We were simply elated as he taught us in both semesters of the final year of our undergrad program. The most interesting text he taught us was The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. The juvenile/adolescent novel was so realistic and so relatable for us undergraduates that we fell for it. He discussed the text in a very jovial and animated manner. Like the protagonist Holden Caulfield, many of us were going through an identity crisis, making wrong choices, being wronged by seniors and peers, getting dismayed at people's phoniness, feeling outraged,swearing out loud at the system, trying to make sense of the why of what was happening and trying to navigate the tricky world around us. And FakrulAlam, our Fakrul Sir, employed his teaching mojo to make us feel that Holden is somehow or other "one of us." The impact of the Salinger novel on us was so enormous that some of our friends decided to gift Fakrul Sir a framed painting inspired from The Catcher in the Rye. The event was, of course, a brainchild of NishatAtiaShoilee who is now a faculty member in DU's English Department. After the handover of the gift item, one of our friends, Sabbir Ahmed Dibbo posted a status on Facebook terming Fakrul Sir as the "Catcher in the Rye," who would save us, his students, from falling off the precipice of academic life.

As our four-year undergrad program was drawing to a close, some of our friends decided to do something special for Professor Alam as he happened to have taught us, the batch 6 students, the maximum number of courses by a senior teacher.  Rafsanur Rahman, one of our friends, proposed that I write a poem in our teacher's honor as I used to pose as a poet back then. I was a bit unsure of my ability, but he prodded me into coming up with one. The poem titled "Ode to FakrulAlam" is as follows:

Aureoled in sunbeam of knowledge, you stand
Before us against the dais, with a smile
Perched on your nifty lips, uttering words so grand
And so shiny, oozing a genius versatile.
Angry gesture too rare you do pose
To galvanize us into action proper.
With acute acumen you do compose
An aura of literary temper.
Jolly you look always, but jollier in the class.
About teaching, you hold a Himalayan passion.
Defying the age-manacle you do surpass
The upper limit of our expectation.
You are a monster of a strict examiner!!!
To the errors and mistakes you're never blind.
Reward the good and punish the bad whosoever;
You become so cruel only to be kind.
Friend you are, here and there, inside and out.
Everyone around you feels that Friendship.
One of the last vestiges-there's no doubt--
Of what we call genuine scholarship.
This ode must be odd if we turn complacent
With this panegyric that lacks every merit.
It's at best an arbor of words we present
To you to rest in its shade blessing our spirit.

Rafsan and friends took it upon themselves to hang up a printout of the poem on a corridor column. There were a lot more accessories such as photos, famous poems, quotations decorating the department front all in honor of Fakrul Sir. Later on, Rafsan got a photoprint of the poem-text laminated and framed. On December 23, 2015 a few of us on behalf of the batch presented the photoprint to Dr. FakrulAlam.
Our admiration for Fakrul Sir is not just due to his teaching prowess and scholarship. His simplicity and humbleness- traits pretty uncommon to many famous academics- make him the human being he is. He wanted the best out of us, especially in writing. I've mentioned elsewhere how he appreciated it when he saw some sparks in our writing, not just in exam scripts but also even in social media posts. He was rigorous as a critic and liberal as an admirer while evaluating our writing ability. He encouraged us to take up writing seriously and took delight in our success. I can remember how he eulogized Safi Ullah, our friend, who was working on the manuscript of his debut book titled Sat Number Bus. He also wrote the blurb for the book. Encouraged by this precedent, I have recently requested him to write one for my upcoming book and he readily gave his consent.

He was also very welcoming and gave us almost open access to his office and classroom alike. He generously gave us valuable time in his office whenever we needed some consultation on study-related matters,etc. In my Master's program, he allowed me to participate in the classes of a course on translation, in which I had not enrolled. The only condition was that I could not submit any assignments unlike the course students. However, I could ask questions which was a gift for me. I must admit I drew some critical insights and confidence from the classes, which helped me in my journey as a translator later on.  

His non-communal and liberal bent of mind is manifest as he never missed an opportunity to attend the annual Saraswati Puja program organized, individually, by the Department of English, along with other departments and institutes in the playground of Jagannath Hall. Here, I don't imply by any means that those who don't attend the program are communal or illiberal. What I mean is he took special care in ensuring his presence at our Puja Mandap, a great gesture indeed. He also made a monetary contribution to the Puja Committee as part of his blessing. We wouldn't miss the photo opportunity centring around him and he also shared his multiple Puja memories. I can mention his essay, anthologized in Once More into the Past (2020), on the memory of Durga Puja held on Dhaka's RK Mission premises as a glowing example of his belief in non-communal, peaceful and secular Bangladesh envisioned by Bangabandhu. 

To wrap up, Dr. FakrulAlam is a great human being apart from being anything else. His books, prose pieces, translation works and talks may enthrall you. But, not many of you are as privileged as us, his students, who have discovered the human side of his character. Indeed, his love for his students is the hallmark of his personality and the reason behind his massive popularity. As long as we are alive, we will carry out the myriad memories and legacies of him. On his 71st birthday,I would like to wish him a long, healthy and active life. Please keep us spellbound as always, dear Fakrul Sir!  

The author teaches English at Central Women's University and can be reached at [email protected]

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