Sunday, October 12, 2008

Memories Of A Teacher


By Ismaa Saadat

Raffat Karim stood and listened for a long time. Then once more he climbed up the hall with tired steps and left the class, as if Hamlet was exiting the stage.

The news of Professor Raffat Karim’s death took me back to 1997: the quiet, slow-paced gait of Raffat Karim carrying his diminutive and graceful figure through the crowded corridors of the Department of English in Karachi University, while walking to his room every morning, discussing a variety of subjects with his students.

Nasty and naughty as we were in those days, and condoned for being so by our generous teachers, one day we spread the news of the mix

‘n match socks Mr Karim was wearing.

Raffat Karim received the largest number of students in his office that day as everybody was keen to have a good laugh at the professor’s tiny mistake.

He very well knew what had massively transpired in the students’ body and allowed laughter at his own expense with a wistful smile. All along we thought he was unaware of our nastiness.

During the subsequent Students’ Week celebrations, Raffat Karim made it a point to attend all the events and visit stalls of all students in the department and pass tiny, encouraging remarks, sometimes in English and sometimes in his Luckhnavi Urdu.

Then there was Raffat Karim inside the Karachi University lecture hall: occasionally attempting to elicit a romantic response from students to the events in the massively unconvenentional love-tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. At other times he would be himself, engrossed in the case of the bartered soul of Dr Faustus. But one piece of literature that he was obsessed with was Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark.

Hamlet had somehow become synonymous with Raffat Karim. Some people say that he had announced that if anybody else was allowed to teach Hamlet as long as he was in the department, he would resign. The choice was between Raffat Karim and Hamlet.

And now the quiet corridors of the Department of English mourn his death.

As alumni of the department, I see the “banquet hall deserted”. The death of Dr Kaleemur Rahman Khan, followed by the departure of Professor Naushaba Moosvi and now Raffat Karim’s has left a huge vacuum.

Raffat Karim practised tolerance and sagacity during the many teaching sessions we had with him. Now nearly a decade later, a teacher myself, I can fully appreciate the intellectual magnanimity of the person.

Many a time it happened that an impatient student attempted to reach outrageous conclusions about a particular play or pass hasty judgments on a character under discussion. But Raffat Karim would respond with his trademark wistful smile and forgive the offender.

I remember even today the very last session we had on Hamlet with Raffat Karim. There was a general panic as we were to go off for our first semester exam preparation break and a sizeable part of the play was yet to be taught.

Raffat Karim arranged a two-hour plus session after 2pm in the lecture hall. He climbed down the stairs and very calmly took up one act after another and tackled one scene after another.

The entire class was engrossed in the last days of Hamlet’s life and his feigned madness. Raffat Karim had infused a strange passion into the whole class and yet remained ruthlessly detached himself, thoroughly enjoying the magic of the tragedy.

And suddenly, snap! It was over. The class was done and dusted. Raffat Karim now hurled a question at the students, “Of all the plays of Shakespeare why has Hamlet enjoyed continuous popularity and withstood onslaughts of time, boundaries, religion, culture and individuals?” One student said, “Because each one of us can relate to the character of Hamlet.” The response was followed by a series of many more responses from the group.

Raffat Karim stood and listened for a long time. Then once more he climbed up the hall with tired steps and left the class, as if Hamlet was exiting the stage.

The great teacher will be sorely missed.

(This wonderful piece was emailed by Professor M. L. Raina)

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