A few personal words on Professor Sibnarayan Ray

Faizul Latif Chowdhury

Published on March 07, 2008


I came to learn about the death of Professor Sibnarayan Ray Wednesday evening from a reference in a post-editorial piece written by poet Al Mahmud. I could not believe that Professor Ray was gone and the news was not covered in the media of Bangladesh . I made a Google and Yahoo search and to my utter surprise, nothing was turned up. I looked at the archives of The Statesman, The Hindustan Times and The Telegraph. No reference. Last night Syed Tosarraf Ali's obituary on late Professor Ray gave me the date of his last breathing. Taking cue from that I gathered from the AnandaBazar of 27 February some details of the circumstances relating to the expiry of this great Bengali pundit.

When I was living in the Mohsin Hall, Serajul Islam Quadir, who lived in an opposite room to that of mine, would sometimes show me letters from Sibnarayan Ray, then living in Melbourne. Later, one day, I found a book in Nilkhte Bazar titled "Kabir Nirbashan O Onanyana Bhawna". It was a collection of essays by Professor Ray published in 1973. The second hand book cost me Taka 10 only. I am grateful to the person who considered that great book not worth preserving and disposed it off, presumably through a "Shishi-bottle- Kagoj-wala". I was ushered into a height of Bengali mind which is a rarity.

I had a chance of meeting Professor Ray in Dhaka in 1989, when he had come to deliver a lecture on a literary occasion. A thin upright person, simply dressed in pyjama-punjabi. He was humble in his voice. He was firm in his conviction. He was logical, analytical and consistent. He had no bias except that for logic. I still remember one of his finishing sentences: "If Bengali as a language has an opportunity to flourish, that will be in Bangladesh and not in West Bengal." On later occasions, when Sunil and Shrishendu visited Dhaka, they often echoed Professor Ray's belief. In a very humble way I belong to the genre of writers and has been publishing since 1973. But I can claim that I was most gratified when Professor Ray published two of my articles in the Jijnasa of 1998-1999. It is deplorable that Jijnansa no longer is a regular quarterly.

With the risk of exaggeration I would like to say that within my gamut of reading, I found Professor Sibnarayan Ray the only Bengali whose way of thinking and writing gave out the flavour of, I do not know how to phrase it, internationalism. While studying in Melbourne I had occasions to meet two of his PhD students: Marian Madderna dn Elizabeth Bachkovsky. The amount of respect these two ladies showed for Professor Ray, his personality and talent, was simply un- Western.

One of initial essays was on the paintings of Rabindranath Thakur published in as back as 1946. That promised a great mind in the making. We should remain indebted to late poet Abid Azad who published an anthology of essays of Professor Ray in 1990s from his Shilpataru Prokashoni. I saw him at his house in Calcutta early last year. He was still working on the 4th volume of complete works of Manabendranath Roy. His comments on the poetry of Jibanananda Das were not very not very enthusiastic. He pointed out the limitations of JD. This year, on the occasion of Ekushey Boi Mela, I produced an anthology of 100 poems of Jibanananda Das in English translation. Somoy Prokashon has published it under the title "Beyond Land and Time". The back cover contains a long quotation of Professor Ray on Jibanananda. I have learnt three things from Professor Ray. One, Bengali language needs to be strengthened with new words, terms and novel syntactical patterns to be able to express intricate thoughts. Second, in writing critical essays, one must take into consideration the international perspective on the issue. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, knowledge is essentially a multi-disciplinary exercise. Otherwise it remains half-knowledge or mere analyzed information. May his soul rest in peace.