On April 23, 2016 my wife received a facebook message from my nephew at Rajshahi University, saying that Professor Rezaul Karim Siddiquee was killed. On learning this saddest news of my life, I re-activated my facebook account to protest the gruesome killing of such a nice soul whom we lovingly referred to as RKS (an acronym so popular with the English students at RU). Living a few continents away from Bangladesh, that is the only thing I could do. On the wake of his death, there have been unfortunate attempts to label him as an atheist, putting him on the platform of atheist bloggers and online activist. He was neither. In this article I, as one of his long time students, would like to tell the world a snapshot of what he was.
He was first and foremost an English professor and a very successful one too. RKS loved to teach literature critically. Be it Jonathan Swift’s satiric novel Gulliver’s Travels or Keats’ Odes, he took sometimes inordinate number of classes to finish the text because he liked to encourage students to think critically about areas of life as it is portrayed in literary pieces. Limits and shortcomings of human life, inconsistencies in society and contradictions in politics formed the bulk of his discussion points. He is an epitome of English professors teaching critical faculty to the students to make them informed citizens.
One of his many impressive qualities was his tendency to test the students’ devotion to English studies when he first met them in the first year classes. Citing many examples of students who tried to get to medical colleges or engineering universities but ended up being in the English department and struggled, he confronted the newcomers with the challenges of English studies at RU, even encouraging or goading them on to switch their disciplines because, unlike in US universities, it is rather impossible to change your major midway through your undergraduate years. He almost always threatened them with the possibility of getting a third class ruining their career. However disappointing may it sound to many students or teachers, the sheer honesty in it helped the students make the right and an informed choice before it is too late.
RKS would repeatedly challenge students’ academic abilities if it so appears that they cannot make meanings out of a lecture he delivered or a text he so meticulously taught. Still he loved to help them on a 1-on-1 basis in a way that many other public university professors would not do. Once I met him personally for additional help in understanding the text of “Gone-fishing syndromes”, he was so furious because he took great pains to explain every bit and piece of the text in class, saying “You’ll get a third class.” I still remember this sentence as it provoked me intellectually to reconsider my attempt at developing academic skills. He helped me, nonetheless, and I ended up being the top scorer in the final exam on that course. I still think I could not have been as successful as I am now if he had not used that two-way approach to me: criticising and helping at the same time.
He was a revolutionary in his approach to assessment of students’ writing in English literature class. Nowadays in U.S. universities, instructors provide detailed feedback on students’ writing and get them through the entire writing process to show them where things are going wrong for them. The evaluation system in public universities of Bangladesh, according to my best understanding, is still very colonial with no sense of accountability to students. Students write essays in the final exams at the end of one long year and get a grade or a percentage of marks without having any feedback on the quality of their writing or without knowing why he/she is being downgraded. He was one of the very teachers who came out of their comfort zones by carefully looking over the exams, then meticulously copying the problems aspects of writing (as the scripts are considered very confidential in the evaluation process), and showed them to the students so that they can identity their areas of weakness and can write better next time.
Nowadays, English professors from public universities are highly sought after professionals in the booming private universities in the country. He could have earned a million by serving those private educational institutions. He tried by teaching one course or two, but I observed his inability to continue it because many of the practices at private universities came in conflict with the type of a person he is. It is very difficult to find a professional with such a strong sense of commitment and integrity.
RKS was a humanist per excellence with a specific interest in humanism of Robert Browning on whom he did his PhD at Rajshahi University. This informed his pedagogy in every detail. To the displeasure of many, he at times appeared very pessimistic just as Jonathan Swift was in all his works. He absorbed his corrosive satire in describing human life, but he also appreciated the gentle humour of Chaucer. The manner in which he has been killed has proved he was not wrong in being what you may call a cynic and a pessimist as a pedagogue, as a person and as a professional.
He was a human after all, with his fair share of idiosyncrasies one of which is his outspoken nature. He was possibly more outspoken that the word could possibly mean. He did not shed his outspoken manner even in situations that are very formal. However, he never meant to hurt anyone and never harboured any ill feeling towards any one. He would never sit idle on a chair designated for professors in class; rather the table in the middle provided him much more comfort. Maybe his years of teaching Coverley Papers infected him with Roger de Coverley’s idiosyncratic styles which we loved so much.
He was a constant cameraman with a never ending desire for video or photography. It was his what I would say next most significant hobby after music. With his silver camera, he was an ever present figure in all events – cultural, sports, picnic related or whatever – many of which he himself used to organise. It is largely thanks to him that we still have access to the wide variety of pictures and videos documenting the extra or co-curricular activities in the Department of English (e.g. the picture below).
Professor RKS (in the middle) behind his only son among his students with the writer (sitting leftmost) in a picnic in Paksi, Ishwardi in 2002.
RKS was a passionate lover of music in the true sense of the term. I myself not being a music lover still had the pleasure of him talking about classical music and the myth or not of Tansen. Many have attributed his death to his love of music and the establishing of a music school in a rural area which was under the influence of the extremists. How could that be? He did not practice any music that would require any indecent physical gesture of posture. His sitar, and the preference of the traditional songs by Rabindranath and Nazrul were a matter of pure aesthetic pleasure. Maybe there are people who do not like this aesthetics too.
His teaching made us good citizens, his critical nature informed us, his idiosyncrasy entertained us, his love of music impressed us, his camera constantly flashed at us, but his killing devastated us in a manner that is beyond recovery. His body fell, he is dead physically, but the spirit he embodied will reverberate for a long time to come. RKS is dead! Long live RKS!
On a final note, RKS used to ask lots of questions to students in class, and when they came up with the right kind of answers, he characteristically pronounced “That’s it. That’s it” as a seal of his judgement. It was a kind of formal approval of a good deed, albeit academically. This time his killing has thrown a very big question to us, to the country and to the world. Can the government and the law enforcing agencies take the right action to identify the mindless killers and bring them to justice so that every one of us can sing in chorus “That’s it. That’s it”?
The writer is a Graduate Teaching Assistant and Doctoral Student in English Studies at Illinois State University in the US. Email: [email protected]