Jamal Nazrul Islam: The Passionate Learner – Ahmed Shafee (The only son of Prof. Abdus Salam)

Last year when my university was looking for a convocation speaker, I suggested the name of Jamal Nazrul Islam, but learnt immediately that he had already been one. It occurred to me then that indeed if one had to choose 12 (the number of convocations we have had) most intellectually impressive persons in Bangladesh, J.N. Islam could not be kept out of the list.

I had heard about J.N. Islam since I was a sophomore at Curzon Hall, because his nephew was my classmate, and always spoke with great awe and pride about his bright uncle at Cambridge, even though he had not yet completed his Ph.D. I had a look at his work and, since I could not understand even a single sentence, was filled with awe too, and began to fear that such abstract intellectual pursuit was probably beyond my ability and temperament. But when the time came to apply abroad for graduate studies, I could not resist the temptation of contacting Cambridge, which meant J.N. Islam, as I did not know anybody else. His nephew must have passed on some good words about me and J.N. Islam made my admission a certainty.

I had always been a parasite in my family, all the time depending on others for everything non-academic, and my parents were uncertain if I could manage on my own. I assured them that I knew somebody there whose letters were so nice, I felt I could count on his help if any emergency arose. Indeed when I arrived at Cambridge and began to feel a bit uneasy in a small English town where everybody spoke with a strange East Anglian accent unfamiliar to me, I went straight to his house instead of my college hostel. He and his wife Mrs. Suraya Islam received me with such warmth that I immediately felt relieved.

Later I realized what a great host this family was and how they really enjoyed making nostalgic Bangladeshi students feel at home. We spent many weekend afternoons at their place, gossiping in the typical Bangladeshi fashion, but the Islams never made any negative remarks about anybody. It was the epitome of a genteel family.

Though J.N. Islam was working with the famous sci-fi writer and astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, having switched to astrophysics, which remained his life-long passion, he did become a victim of Cambridge University politics and had to find a job in London. Those were hard days, commuting daily by train. They loved their home in a peaceful suburb of Cambridge and did not want to leave it. Eventually, however, he decided to come back to a free Bangladesh, and became a Professor at Chittagong University which he preferred to Dhaka, as their huge family home complex was atop a series of hills at the heart of Chittagong.

downloadWith some help from colleague Prof. A.M. Harun ar Rashid and bureaucrat-cum-science writer Abdullah al-Muti Sharfuddin, and also Professor Salam in Trieste, he was able to establish the most prestigious research institute in Chittagong — the Research Center for Mathematical and Physical Sciences. J.N. Islam organized regularly many international conferences here, with top specialists from all parts of the world. I contributed my insignificant incomplete works to many of these conferences, because it was impossible to ignore his requests, and I always enjoyed meeting him. However, contrary to his hopes, no expatriate Bangladeshi scientist wanted to join his venture in an out of the way institution. J.N. Islam was indomitable. He began to give dozens of graduate courses and supervise a large number of M.Phil. and Ph.D. theses in mathematics, physics, economics, logic, philosophy and everything that interested him, learning the subjects along with his students as he taught them. Indeed it was this characteristic in him, being always a curious student, that I always found most endearing and impressive. I suppose it made him feel younger though his body began to fail at a fairly early age. I always agreed to be an examiner of any thesis supervised by him — his enthusiasm for learning something new every day must have been infectious.

J.N. Islam’s works have been translated into dozens of languages. Some of his books, including the much cited “The Ultimate Fate of the Universe”, are used as texts in very respectable institutions. His list of publications may be one of the most varied in the world. But he had curious idiosyncrasies. He always worked out all long calculations by hand and disliked using even a simple calculator. He never converted his car to CNG and did not mind paying the high octane prices, which he could ill afford. We sometimes joked about these preferences, but he only smiled.

Though, like the rest of his family, he too probably used Urdu more frequently at home, at least during his childhood, as most aristocratic Muslim families with West Bengal connections did in those days, he was an ardent Tagore fan and spoke Bangla with a perfect accent. Bangla Academy has published some of his popular science books and they were bestsellers. He had great respect for basic Islamic values, though he was also one of the most secular persons I have seen.

Jamal Nazrul Islam was a great scientist, a fantastic teacher, but an even greater human being. His death is a huge loss to the nation, and to me personally.