Humayun Azad: the Giant Among Pygmies 

Taj Hashmi


I am so shocked and sad to hear this extremely bad news about the sudden demise of my very good old friend, Humayun Azad. I just cannot believe it. I am also so sad because despite my trying, I could not meet him last time I went to Dhaka in early May, this year. I was told, he was sleeping. And my dear friend is now sleeping for good.

Humayun Azad was a maverick, a brave honest man with sharp intellect and concern for the fellow human being everywhere. He was a very interesting person, albeit opinionated, passionate about his ideas and thought, principles and policies, and above all, about his strong liking and disliking. As another maverick disciple of the great scholar, social thinker and political activist, the late Ahmed Sharif, my ideas and flippancy often clicked with those of Azad. Consequently during the last few years of my active teaching career at Dhaka University from 1977 (when Azad joined the Bengali Department) to 1981, when I left Bangladesh for higher education, we met almost every weekday during the pre-lunch "adda" at the teachers' lounge of the Arts Building with Ahmed Sharif the Great "in chair". While Ahmed Sharif would be demolishing all the mythical "intellectuals" and politicians of the country giving vivid accounts of their corruption, disintegrity and opportunism; Azad and myself, along with a dozen or so colleagues from various departments, would be active participants-cum-listeners of the Voltaire of Bangladesh, the great Ahmed Sharif.

In the evenings, almost everyday, I would encounter Azad at the Dhaka University Club across the chess board for hours together-most of the time he would be the winner-thanks to his intelligence and my lack of patience and intelligence in comparison to Azad. Actually, I first met him, a young well-dressed (I still remember his shiny pair of Clarke shoes) sharp Azad one evening at the Dhaka University Club, sitting next to me across the chess board. I was playing with another colleague and he was sitting next to us. Then we played a couple of games. And our mutual discoveries and friendship began. We never disrespected each other despite our disagreements. In those days of the late 1970s and early 1980s I used to write Bengali essays in popular journals and magazines while Azad would only write poems and would regard our essays on politics and culture, society and history not that useful. I still remember that big debate we had in presence of Professor Abul Kasem Fazlul Haque of Bangla Department. Then one day, not long after the debate, I wrote a couple of poems and read to him in presence of other colleagues in the Teachers' Lounge. My message was not so subtle and Azad realised it, enjoyed it and our friendship was further cemented.I am so glad that Azad later emerged as one of the most successful poets, essayists and scholars of Bangladesh.

He was a pronounced atheist like our guru Ahmed Sharif, while I have been always a believer with total disdain for mullahs and mullahism. And I found both Ahmed Sharif and Humayun Azad more acceptable and admirable than most believing and practicing Muslims around me.

We had another thing in common. We neither liked the Awami Baksalis nor the newly emerging BNP-Jamaatis among the Dhaka University faculty. Azad was a brave fellow traveler along with a few other colleagues and friends at Dhaka University. With hindsight, it seems he was the bravest among all of us. And possibly the most dangerous to the obscurantist "Islamic" fanatics and criminals. Both Bangladesh and Dhaka University have plenty of them. They are possibly having an orgasmic pleasure at the sad demise of their victim, the bold and brave Humayun Azad.

He will be always missed by me. I am not sure if others will follow him in denouncing obscurantism, superstitions, corruption and anarchy in Bangladesh after the fanatics' success in eliminating this great soul. Finally, I pay my tribute to this great friend of mine with a note of optimism that the younger generation of Bangladesh will finally follow the path of Ahmed Sharif and Humayun Azad with the realisation that we cannot perpetually live by compromising with autocracy and anarchy. Autocrats and anarchists cannot be our friends. Unless we eliminate them with our concerted efforts, there is no shortcut to progress and liberation for the common people. In sum, Azad was "a giant among pygmies". Both Azad and myself used this phrase in our obituaries of Ahmed Sharif (and we did not consult each other). I am using the expression again without consulting anybody as I believe in calling a spade a spade. Long live the memories of Humayun Azad.

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