Humayun Azad

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While lamenting his death, one of Humayun Azad's illustrious classmates wrote, "His death is a reminder of the tragedy of the Greek god Icarus." On a poetic plateau, this may be one way of expressing Humayun Azad's rise to fame and his sudden demise. However, we do not live in myths or epics, let alone be affected by their magic or overwhelming sense of fatality. As humans we tread on the treacherous ground of reality, where our own sets of interests and aspirations are constantly being challenged by those of others'. Writer, poet, academic Dr Humayun Azad had to deal with real enmity in all its sinister implications. Although, Azad was a poet himself, for him, there was no room for poetic gesture to characterise his own plight that befell him since the machete attack on February 27, 2004.

Dr Azad had been fearing for his life ever since excerpts of his new novel, Pak Sar Zamin Shaad Baad (Pakistan's national anthem; Blessed be the Sacred Land) was first published in the Daily Ittefaq's Eid supplement in 2003. In an email to Mukto-mona, an independent website, Azad wrote, "The Ittefaq published a novel by me named Pak Sar Zamin Shaad Baad in its Eid issue in December 3. It deals with the condition of Bangladesh for the last two years. Now the (religious) fundamentalists are bringing out regular processions against me, demanding exemplary punishment. The attached two files with this letter will help you understand." Dr Azad sent two photographs along with the mail....


Although Azad came back apparently fully recovered and showing clear signs of rejuvenation, the last three months of his life was like living under the shadow of death. Anonymous callers kept threatening him and his family. Even an abduction attempt on his son was made on July 5. What was termed by his well-wishers as "a triumphal return" was soon marred by despotic efforts allegedly by Islamic extremist elements to thwart his intellectual pursuits and mar his family's peace.

Even before the attempt on his life, Azad was constantly being intimidated by this quarter. He was dubbed a murtad (apostate) by the religious zealots long before the attempt on his life. Since the day his first novel, Chhappanno Hajar Borgomile became a runaway success in 1994, the fear of that same quarter magnified in the face of the power of his sharp and witty tongue and his prolific pen. They marked him out as an "enemy of Islam". The last 10 years of his life can only be summed up as one man's struggle against the escalating domination of the religious right.

Was Azad a left-of-the-field thinker? Was he a politically correct voice in a politically corrupt nation? In fact, these are the characteristics Azad religiously avoided, or so it seemed from the stream of writings and commentaries that he produced during the last decade of his life. Being a freethinker, he often acted like a rebel, perhaps to defy labeling, or to vent his disenchantment over the deteriorating scenario of his beloved motherland. He was, in fact, a maverick among the academics of Dhaka University, where he used to teach in the Department of Bangla.

As a writer, Azad was critically engaged with his surroundings. Publicly known for his passionate and opinionated temperament, Azad had a mellow private side to his character that many may not have known before his death. He was a family man with a strong attachment to his children and wife. In his professional life, during many an academic procedure, while making crucial official decisions along with his colleagues, Azad used to concede his position to respect the other person's opinion.

Humayun Azad was born on April 28, 1947 in the village of Rarikhal of Bikrampur district. The village was already famous for being the birth place of Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, a scientist of international repute. In 1962, Azad completed his ISC (equivalent to HSC) from the school that takes after the scientist's name -- Sir JC Bose Institution. As he secured a position in the merit list his future course led him to the highest seat of learning, Dhaka University. He completed his BA in Bangla in 1967 and MA in the same subject the next year.

Abu Kaiser, one of his fellow students in the department of Bangla, Dhaka University, remembers Azad as the student who used to don "a Bonde Ali Miah-like hair-do" and "whose reticence belied his intelligence and his goonpona (creativity)". And he went on to add that Azad used to befriend only the meritorious students of his class and had little time to waste in idle chit chat.

"We were politically active and were attached to different student organisations. However, Azad stayed away from the hubbub of real polity," wrote Kaisar in a recently published article. But Azad first became famous for a political poem he wrote during his student life. "Blood Bank" was the poem that made a ripple in the campus. It even went beyond that when people started to consider it a testimony to the political climate of the '60s, which was severely subjugated to the military rule. The poem was published in Kolkata in the weekly "Desh" and the "Amrito".

Mashukul Haq, editor of the Observer Magazine and a classmate of Azad remembers him as a brilliant student "who came from a science background and switched to Bangla and turned out to be the best in his class." "He was also impulsive in nature, and it was evident at an early stage that he was destined to become a rebellious voice," he adds. Haq considers him a voice against those who use religion as a political tool.

Latifa Kohinoor, who later became the wife of Azad, and her numerous friends were virtually in awe of Azad's intellectual capacity to comment on every other subject. It was poetry and letter that brought the couple together; till this day Latifa considers Azad her favourite poet.

The couple got married on October 12, 1975 and they " lived in Scotland for one year". Right after Azad came back from his study in Edinburgh, where he completed his PHD in 1996, they started their lives in a joint family.

"He was a responsible father. When the children were born, it was Azad who used to take care of them most of the time as my job kept me away from home from nine in the morning till five in the afternoon," Latifa remembers. For a man of letter, he was too anchored in the peace and quiet of family life. His two daughters and only son constituted the centre of his life.

Azad started his professional life as a teacher in Chittagong College. After a brief stint at that college he joined Chittagong University. Later he joined as a teaching staff of Jahangirnagar University, where he taught Bangla from 1976 to 1977 before finally joining Dhaka University in 1978 as an Associate Professor. It was not until 1986 that he was made a Professor where he remained so till his sad demise.

In 1973, while he was still a teacher at Chittagong University, Azad got a scholarship at Edinburgh University. It was here that he, with his grounding in Bangla literature, got the opportunity to delve into linguistics. During his three year study he produced his first thesis on language, which was his PhD paper: "Pronominalisation in Bangla".

Although he made his name as a poet while he was still a student, his essays were revered by many from the beginning. The novelist Azad first emerged in the pages of a literary supplement of the Daily Ajker Kagoj with his Chhappanno Hajar Borgomile. It was 1993, and the novel was well received by the readers. They recognised in it a genre of its own kind. In fact, through this first novel he started enjoying a wide readership for the first time. The serially published novel was later reintroduced in book form. It came out during the Bangla Academy 'Book Fair' in 1994 and it was one of the much-sought-after books of that year that saw its third edition during the month-long fair. Azad's wife Latifa Kohinoor remembers the time as one of the most crucial landmarks in their lives. Azad not only became a popular writer, he soon positioned himself as a popular spokesman in his community, and it was from this point on that his ideas started to receive flak from a certain quarter steeped in despotic religious beliefs.

"He was a scholar set out to explore the world of linguistics. There was no financial reward for what he was doing, so it was I who kind of challenged him by asking, 'will you be able to write novels?'" recalls Latifa Kohinoor. Azad's answer was unmistakably bold. "He said, 'I could and my first novel will be a hit'," remembers Kohinoor. This was a display of his characteristic confidence .

Sajjad Sharif, a poet and one of the Deputy Editors of the Daily Prothom Alo, believes that Azad's most important contribution was in linguistics. "He had a lot to contribute in Bangla language in its grammar. After all these years we still do not have our own grammar. Humayun Azad understood the mutating nature of grammar and realised the importance of liberating it from its present English and Sanskrit foundation," Sharif adds. "Azad came up with an original idea to write Bangla grammar. He submitted his plan to the Bangla Academy. It was written in an essay form and was published in a journal," continues Sharif, who thinks the Academy failed to understand the depth and breadth of his proposal.

Sharif believes that the most important works of Azad are the two hefty volumes of his compiled works on Bangla language where the best write-ups of the last one and half hundred years are compiled. "He wrote elaborate and lengthy prefaces that undoubtedly brought out the best in him," Sharif contends. "While in Kolkata I heard people wondering about Azad's ability to bring out two huge tomes and write such wonderful essays to go with them at a young age," exclaims Latifa.

As a writer who produced 70 books, Azad's acknowledgement mostly came from his readers. He was one of the writers whose collections of essays could become best sellers. ´┐ŻNari is one of his best books," believes Sajjad Sharif, who also considers his Lal Neel Dipaboli and Koto Nodi Shorobor, written for children, as two of his most important works. For his contribution to literature he received the Bangla Academy award in 1987.

Syed Mehdi Momin, a journalist of The Independent, writes in an article that Azad never wanted to associate himself with the culture of sycophancy which he was surrounded by. He himself was a man who never swerved from what he felt like saying. Even "his literal handshake with death could not subdue his spirit," Momin wrote.

A few days before he left for Germany on another scholarship from PEN (an international organisation of poets, essayists and novelists), Azad, as usual, lambasted the religious right, yet he ended his speech on a positive note. He said that the "future of Bangladesh is not that bleak". With this last note of optimism he left the country for Munich, Germany. Azad was never a person who craved to retreat from his own land; escape was the last thing on his mind. Although he was known to many as being confrontational in nature, Azad was a patriot with a deep sense of belonging to his own land. "He used to become restless in Dhaka and needed to retreat to his own village once every month. Rarikhal, his home village, was a life saver to him," asserts Latifa.

"He went abroad for two years, and this was a man who could not live in America for more than two months. We thought, in the face of all the hostility, it would be wise to leave the country," exclaims Latifa. His near ones as well as his string of well-wishers never thought that it would be his last farewell. In the end what is left is the saga of a man who started out as a brilliant essayist and later decided on a mode of expression, which was a novel and that brought him popularity as well as the wrath of a vested quarter. What more is to be found is his imprint in all the outpourings of his creativity.

On the evening of that fateful Friday, Humayun Azad, in jeans and fatua, was sitting at the stall of Agami Prokashani at the Amar Ekushey Book Fair. "Azad left the fair at around 8:45 in the evening telling me he would go home," says Osman Gani, owner of the publishing house. When he reached the pavement outside the Bangla Academy, a young man approached him for an autograph; Dr Azad obliged and crossed the road for a rickshaw. And then two unknown assailants, armed with chopping knives, hacked the 56-year-old writer several times on the jaw, lower part of the neck and hands.

Conscious but profusely bleeding, Dr Azad was taken to the nearby Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH). According to newspaper reports , no doctor was available at the emergency unit of the DMCH; Azad was later sent to the Combined Military Hospital(CMH).

Dr Azad had been fearing for his life ever since excerpts of his new novel, Pak Sar Zamin Shaad Baad (Pakistan's national anthem; Blessed be the Sacred Land) was first published in the Daily Ittefaq's Eid supplement in 2003. In an email to Mukto-mona, an independent website, Azad wrote, "The Ittefaq published a novel by me named Pak Sar Zamin Shaad Baad in its Eid issue in December 3. It deals with the condition of Bangladesh for the last two years. Now the (religious) fundamentalists are bringing out regular processions against me, demanding exemplary punishment. The attached two files with this letter will help you understand." Dr Azad sent two photographs along with the mail.

Dr Azad's assailants, in fact, might have come right out of the very book, which had put his life under increasing threat. It depicts the story of a zealot who wants to establish a "Taliban-styled distorted Pakistan" in Bangladesh. "We aren't alone, our brothers all over the world are doing their work. If they fly an aeroplane into a building somewhere, if cars crash into a hospital or a hotel, or if a bomb blast kills 300 people in some recreational centre, then we know it's the work of our brothers; in other words it is our work, it is Jihad," the protagonist of the book, a member of Jama-e-Jihad-e-Islami Party, says in a monologue.

The name Jama-e-Jihad-e-Islami is believed to be an allegory to the Jammat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JI), one of the major partners in the ruling four-party coalition government. In fact, Karim Ali Islampuri, another character of the book says, "We must seize power. Right now, we are with the power and the main party. At some point, power will come to us; we will become the main party. We are entering everywhere-- Islam will be established; (another) Pakistan will be created. There won't be any infidels, Malauns (Hindus); there won't be any Hindu or Jew in guise of Muslims."

JI, in its response, took the content of the Pak Saar Zamin Shaad Baad quite seriously. On January 25, Maulana Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a JI MP demanded the introduction of the Blasphemy Act to block the publication of "such books". Besides Sayeedi, many bigots declared the famous writer a murtad (apostate). Momtazi, emir of Hifazate Khatm-e-Nabuat Movement and Imam of Rahim Metal Mosque demanded the professor's arrest and trial on December 12, only months before the attack. The BNP-led four-party alliance did nothing to nab those who were issuing death warrants to one of the most eminent linguists of the country.

The government however, finally took the matter seriously. Dr Azad was sent to Bumrungrad Hospital in Thailand; and the maverick writer was, slowly but steadily, recovering. "You don't know how happy I was then," says Latifa.

That did not last long; the whole situation changed for the worse as soon as the Azad was back home. "The zealots were back too and they started threatening us on the phone," Latifa says. In the last six months the family has been through extreme insecurity. "Then they threatened to bomb our house on Fuller road," Latifa says.

The systematic persecution, actually, reached its zenith at the time when Dr Azad decided to give his research project on German poet Heinrich Heine a second thought. "Azad had wanted to do research on Heine long before the attack; He had even prepared all his notes by the end of December," says Latifa Kohinoor. The writer, however, did not get any response from the PEN; and when it came about two months after the attack, Latifa felt uneasy.

Dr Azad, too, had second thoughts before he boarded the plane for Munich. "Azad talked with almost everyone he knew about the scholarship," Latifa recalls. She was against the idea of her husband leaving the country as she thought it would separate the family and he would not eat properly which would affect his health. "He was a very bad cook," Latifa smiles shyly. But Azad's wife withdrew whatever reservations she had when their only son Anonno was kidnapped days before the writer's planned departure.

"Three bearded men frisked Anonno away while he was returning from school. They took him to an abandoned house near the SM Hall and asked him about Azad's fellowship," Latifa says. Two of them were tightly holding Anonno's hands while the other was asking him when his father would leave the country, she says. As one of the kidnappers whispered something in the other's ear; Anonno broke free from their grasp and ran home.

Dr Azad, however, reacted to his son's kidnapping with uncharacteristic calmness; "as if he knew this would happen," Latifa shudders while describing the event. But the writer, who was drafting his new novel titled Mrityur Ek Second Durey (A Second Away From Death), could not escape death in Munich. Dr Humayun Azad was found dead in his Munich apartment by a fellow PEN member.

Rumours ran amok when the news of Dr Azad's death broke out. His family still believes the fundamentalists could not kill him here, so they followed through with their plan in the German city. "How is it possible that the person we saw alive and well here in Dhaka a few days ago, all of a sudden fell sick and died of a heart attack?" Latifa asks. "He called home only two days before they poisoned him to death. In this era of modern science you will never be able to find out the truth," she says.

Controversy however did not leave Dr Azad, arguably the last outspoken Bangali writer, even after his death. "The fundamentalists are still threatening us on the phone. Someone called yesterday and told me 'Humayun Azad could not escape from our grasp; we hunted him down in Germany. Now it is your turn'," says Latifa. "I do not know what we have done to them to deserve this," she continues; "What problem can they have with a dead writer's family?" Latifa Kohinoor asks.

The article was originally published in Daily Star Magazine (Volume 4 Issue 11 | September 1, 2004)

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