Wednesday, 5 October, 2022


‘Once More into the Past’: An Intellectual Pilgrimage

Liton Chakraborty Mithun

Dr. Fakrul Alam is one of those few luminaries I am extremely proud of having as my direct teachers. There are certain teachers whose classes you wish you could join again but that is not to be for practical reasons. However, there is always a way out and in my case, reading the books written by my teachers comes as a handy option in having a simulated experience of being in their classes. This is what motivated me to purchase a copy of Dr. Alam’s latest book Once More into the Past: Essays, Personal, Public, and Literary (2020), a compilation of some exquisitely written essays penned over three decades. Compartmentalized into three sections, these write-ups serve up as a guided tour through a vast territory of culture, academia, politics, plus a few glimpses of the personal life of the author himself. I concur with Rifat Anjum Pia in that those “who read just for the pleasure of reading will find the essays suited to their palate and the ones who read out of intellectual interest in a particular subject will be benefitted by Professor Alam’s scholarly insights.”

The first section containing 10 autobiographical essays transport us to the personal world of Dr. Alam. Characterized by a deep sense of nostalgia and a romantic flight back to a world long lost, the essays present not just the life of a future academic as a young man growing up but the rapidly changing sociopolitical landscape of a country. Most of the essays here depict the childhood and youth of a sensitive individual when life for him was “green and carefree” to use Dylan Thomas’s words. The essay “Growing up with Rabindra Sangeet” tells us how his family ambience reverberated with the tunes of the Bengali maestro shapes his cultural taste and impacts big time his future engagement with the bard’s work. Another write-up “Ah, Nana Bari” packs a powerful punch as the maternal (as well as paternal) grandparents’ place has a great nostalgic value for each and every Bengali as we are temperamentally romantic. Alam’s soulfully worded memoir paints a fond picture of his annual visits to his “nana bari”  in a sleepy sub-divisional town Feni, where he could indulge in sports and juvenile adventures without apprehending parental checks and curbs on his newfound freedom, not adequately available in the city life marked by routine-bound schooling and the drudgery attached to it.

 The essay “Memories of Durga Puja” is a testament to once prevailing communal harmony and amity underpinning much of Bengali culture and nationhood. The young Alam enjoyed to his heart’s content the quintessentially carnivalesque Durga Puja celebrations and festivities on the premises of Ramkrishna Mission along with his friends from both Hindu and Muslim communities. Despite growing up in a devoutly Muslim background, he didn’t face any inhibitions from his guardians to revel in fun-filled activities associated with a different religious order. This masterfully presented piece eulogizing inter-communal camaraderie, a prime aspect of our Bengaliness should qualify as a written record of our glorious cultural past. Another essay titled “The Year of Living Dangerously” truthfully unfolds the horrific experiences of people stranded in an occupied Bangladesh terrorized by the ghastly Pakistan army and their local cohorts.

The essays categorized “Public” focus mainly on subjects pertaining to national interests. Four of the essays deal with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the kingpin in our national liberation movement. These write-ups capture the trajectory of the life of the poet of politics—from his jaunty, youthful political early days to his transformation into the face of Bengali nationhood, then to his writing and eventually, his tragic ending. The English language translator of the books by Bangabandhu, Dr. Alam brings into play his expertise as a literary critic and the experience of living amid some of the critical junctures of national history in scrutinizing the formidable placing of the Sheikh in our collective memory and the tragic fall of a great hero quintessentially moored in the soil and genius of this land.

To wrap up, all the essays in this anthology offer a complete package of Dr. Alam’s diverse literary and academic predilections. They also unpack the different calling cards of the author as a formidable literary critic, a conscientious public intellectual, an enviable translator and above all a sensitive human being. Over the years, he has mastered an electric prose style, which at times exudes poetic fragrance but elevates a reader to a whole new level of intellectuality and sensitivity. If an aspiring writer sincerely commits himself to the craft of prose-writing, he may find in Dr. Fakrul Alam a great role model. As an avid reader and admirer of Dr. Alam’s writing, I look forward to more such books to come out in the near future.


The reviewer teaches English at Central Women’s University, Dhaka and can be reached at [email protected]