Late Syed Mujtoba Ali: A Remembrance
Sarwat Chowdhury

There are only a few humorist writers in the world who have the courage to belittle themselves while creating humor, and Syed Mujtoba Ali was one of those rare pundits, writes Sarwat Chowdhury.

THE tragic events of September 11, 2001 have stirred the thought processes of almost everyone in the world, least to say New Yorkers themselves. Couple of months after the event, I was back in NY and remained glued to the TV for follow up stories on what the American media now calls the events of 911. Besides CNN, it was interesting to watch local TV stations like ABC, CBS and even NY One's reporting on Afghanistan. Ironically, the distressing events of September seem to have given rise to some instant "Afghan experts" who gave their opinion on the history, way of life in Kabul and elsewhere what is known as Afghanistan. At some point, I got a bit tired of all the repackaging of similar stories and took refuge in one of my favorite Bengali books "Deshe Bideshe (I had it brought it along with me this time from Dhaka).

Dr. Syed Mujtoba Ali is the author of "Deshe Bideshe" first published as a serial in the "Desh" magazine in 1948. In my early teens, this famous travelogue had first introduced me to the lives of the people in Afghanistan. Once again, as I reread the book, I could not help but be dazzled by the brilliant writing of Dr. Ali. February 11th marks the 28th death anniversary of this literary giant of Bengali literature.

Syed Mujtoba Ali was born in 1904 in the Karimganj town of the then Sylhet district. He was the third son of Khan Bahadur Syed Sikander Ali. His family was well-known for its deep interest in religion and spirituality. One of Dr. Ali's nephews (from his eldest brother) would later grow up to be an internationally reputed journalist and the founding editor of the Daily Star, late S.M. Ali.

As a youngster, Mujtoba was very attractive, extremely bright, and courageous. In 1921, during the time of non-cooperation Mujtoba was a student of class nine, and "first boy" in his class at the Sylhet Government High School. As part of school protest, he also abstained from going to school. Later on, he went instead to study in Shanti Niketon. Actually, there is a little story behind that move. Two year earlier, 14 year old Mujtoba was present as audience at a speech given by Rabindranath Tagore in Sylhet. The topic of the speech was "ambition". After hearing Tagore's talk, young Mujtoba wrote to Tagore asking him what to do if you wanted to aim high. Mujtoba's parents were amazed to find that a letter (in reply) had come from Tagore himself to their son! From his childhood, Mujtoba Ali was known to surprise his family by taking brave initiatives, through which his marks of genius was already shining through. He convinced his parents to send him to Shanti Niketon. He was in school there for six months. After that, the Vishya Bharati College was established and he enrolled in college.

After five years of study, in 1926, Mujtoba Ali (along with Bachu Bhai Shukla) became the first ever graduate of Vishya Bharati. At Vishya Bharati, he had the opportunity to study Gora, Balaka, Shelly, and Keats under Tagore himself.

It is interesting to note that though Dr. Syed Mujtoba Ali wrote at least 28 books in Bengali and has only one publication in English, he was a gifted polyglot. By the time he reached adulthood, he was accomplished in at least 15 languages: Bengali, English, Urdu, Hindi, Sanskrit, Farsee (Persian), Arabic, Pashtu, Gujrati, Marathi, French, German, and Italian. His Ph.D. thesis "The Origin of Khojas and their Religious Life Today" was published in 1936 from Germany.

After Vishya Bharati, Syed Mujtoba Ali went to study in Aligarh. Meanwhile, he did his matriculation from Calcutta University. Mujtaba had been a favorite student of Professors Benoit and Bodganev (at Shanti Niketon). The latter two by that time had joined the Education Ministry in Afghanistan, and recommended Mujtoba for a job at the Department of Education there. So, by 1927, 23 year old Syed Mujtoba Ali was teaching English and German languages at College of Agriculture Sciences in Kabul. His book "Deshe-Bideshe" provides an extraordinary glimpse of life in Kabul those days. He taught in Kabul for two years. Unfortunately, civil war broke out in Afghanistan, and Kabul's progressive minded Ameer Amanullah Khan was deposed. Ali returned home. It became known that the then Foreign Secretary of the Indian Government Sir Denis Clay himself had requested the British representative in Kabul, Sir Francis Humphrey, for arranging a safe passage of Syed Mujtoba Ali.

In 1929, Mujtoba Ali sailed from Bombay for higher education in Europe. His book "Jale Dangai" (On Land & Water) gives a unique account of that travel. In the winter term of 1929, Ali studied at Berlin University of the then undivided Berlin. Those days Einstein was still teaching there!

By 1930, Mujtaba moved on to the quieter campus of University of Bonn, and began his research work in comparative religion. His Ph.D. thesis (mentioned earlier) was dedicated to his father. In 1932, the 28 year old Syed Mujtoba Ali already had a doctorate degree, and returned home. Two year later, he went back to Europe and visited Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Italy and other places for linguistic work. On his way back, this time Ali went to study at Al Azhar University (1934-35) in Cairo. During that time, at Al Azhar, Ali was only student from this sub-continent! From Cairo, he was offered the position of professor in Comparative Religion at the then Baroda state of India. He taught there for eight years.

Mujtoba Ali was not only a brilliant writer and academic, he was well known for his oratory which was mingled with his sense of humor. While in Baroda, he gave a talk at a Tagore Society meeting. The meeting was presided over by Sarojini Naido, who greatly appreciated the talk. By the 1940s, Dr. Ali began writing more regularly. At first, he used pen names and wrote for "Anandya Bazar", "Basumati", "Hindustan Standard" etc. Around 1948, he gave a talk to the students of Bogra College in the then East Pakistan. The impressed students lobbied very hard for him to come to Bogra. He joined the position of Principal of Bogra College in 1949. It is said that the out-going Principal Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah had also recommended Dr. Ali for that job. While in Bogra in 1949, he wrote about the need for a separate state language in the then East Pakistan -- well ahead of the Language Movement of 1952.

Through the late 1950s and 1960s, Dr. Ali wrote prolifically. His books became very popular among the younger generation those days. Among his avid readers was my mother who was also Dr. Ali's niece (from his sister's side). She fondly called him "huru mamu" (youngest uncle) and named her first daughter Shabnam after another of Dr. Ali's famous book based on Afghanistan. "Shabnam" was published in 1960.

Dr. Ali went back to Germany in 1970 for the last time. He had been in Germany during Hitler's rise and went back several times after Hitler's fall. He wrote one book on Hitler, but did not have time to write more as he passed away after a sudden stroke in 1974.

Syed Mujtaba Ali was married to Rabeya Ali -- herself an accomplished educator, who got her BT degree and higher training from England prior to 1947! Late Rabeya Ali retired from the post of Assistant Director of Public Instructions in 1972.

From what I gather from various publications on and by Dr. Syed Mujtoba Ali, and by talking to those who had the opportunity to know him -- it is clear that his distinctive talent simply radiated from his personality. People who once met him never forgot his charm. His "adda" was famous and coveted not only because of his wit, but also because of the knowledge that somehow rubbed off to others. His brilliant mind was complemented by his excellent memory. Mujtaba Ali had the uncanny ability to pick up new languages, and then utilize them in his writing. Like Nazrul Islam, and Sattendranath Datt, he introduced many Arabic and Farsee words in Bengali and thus enriched our mother tongue.

These days, a lot of young men and women are traveling from Bangladesh for higher studies abroad. But, it is quite incredible to imagine how a young Muslim boy in the 1920s found the courage to leave home by himself for higher studies abroad. In his life time, he traveled to many places and gave accounts of his visits in his various books. I think it is also admirable that he always returned home from his various visits, and finally returned to his homeland to spend his last few years in Dhaka.

Dr. Ali had a luminous mind, and until his death he enriched it by continuous reading and writing. He knew how to laugh, and also how to make others laugh. He set a new standard for writing humor in Bengali which still remains unparalleled. His sense of humor in his writing is very enjoyable, but he was also an expert in making us cry through his writing (for example, in "Shabnam"). During his lifetime, he was internationally renowned for his expertise in comparative religion; some claim that still there is no other "pundit" in the subject from the subcontinent to reach the stature of Dr. Ali.

Syed Mujtoba Ali never went after cheap popularity; and perhaps that's why he is yet to be given the recognition he so highly deserves. His open-minded endeared him to his well-wishers, friends, and strangers from various countries. I understand that people have done Ph.Ds on Dr. Ali, but he hardly got any formal recognition for his contribution to Bengali literature.

In May 2000, I had the opportunity participate from Dhaka at a workshop of European Network of Bangladesh Studies at the University of Oslo, Norway. There I met a senior German scholar who had met Dr. Ali during one of his visits to Europe. He said, there are only a few humorist writers in the world who have the courage to belittle themselves while creating humor, and Dr. Ali was one of those rare pundits. Perhaps Dr. Syed Mujtoba Ali's confidence came from his own inner knowledge of his greatness!


Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, February 2, 2002


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