Julius Lipner: Portrait of Generosity

Mohibul Aziz
Julius Lipner

Julius Lipner

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As ridiculous as it may sound, it is true that I first saw Julius Lipner in the basement room of Cambridge University Clare Hall. That room was not for anyone to live in. There was a telephone stand in that room. There was no mobile then. We used coins and cards to talk to relatives and friends from that telephone stand and Cambridge University had its own network. At low cost we could talk to friends inside the university.

That day was Saturday, the first day of the weekend. My wife and I were talking to my parents in the country. It would take a long time to talk to many people.

Suddenly I noticed a gentleman standing a little behind us. I thought he might use the telephone. Fair, tall, white, he looked like a European. So I said softly to my wife, someone is probably waiting in the queue, let's finish. But then I was so surprised that I wouldn't be so surprised if it started to rain that winter morning.

The man who seemed to be European in my eyes started saying in pure Bengali, that is, in our mother tongue, in a smiling voice: No problem, I will start when you are finished. Then my wife and I said to him, please, now your turn, we're done. He told us to wait a while.

He took exactly one minute. He told someone to come to the department on Monday then put down the phone and looked at us and said, Hello! This time he did the greeting in English. But again he said in Bengali, did you come from Bangladesh? In response to his question we said, yes. Then we climbed the stairs. Turning left was the lobby of Clare Hall's cafe.

The lobby was empty because of the holidays. The gentleman said, I am Julius Lipner, Fellow of the College and Student-Secretary. He said he heard that a married couple from Bangladesh had come to the Keyneside House. He was happy to be with us. My wife and I were also very happy to talk to him.

That was the beginning. Then gradually I got a chance to know more about him. Since we were in college-accommodation, we would meet him from time to time. The atmosphere inside Clare Hall was very homely. It was as if we were living in a house. To the right of the college's porters' room was Julius Lipner's room. A little further on, there was a small gallery in Clare Hall. In fact, it was like a narrow passage. But the conscious authorities at Clare Hall turned it into a small painting gallery. They used the walls on both sides to hang the paintings. I enjoyed paintings of different countries and continents of the world in this small gallery in Clare Hall.

We would talk to Julius Lipner, perhaps in the lobby, or in the courtyard. Thus one day he became ‘Lipnerda’ to us meaning brother Lipner (Liper+Dada). I saw that he was very close not only to us but also to the Indian, Bengalis of Cambridge.

Christmas was an occasion to rejoice in the cold winter. At that time, all the foreign students who were European or Canadian or American would go home. But we Asians in particular stayed in college. A few days after Christmas and Boxing Day, Julius Lipner invited us to his home. It’s been the memories of a long time ago. I remember, Shamita and Debashish from West Bengal were with us at Lipner's house on that post-Christmas occasion. Clare Hall Fellow Sugata was also present. Maybe there was Abhijit Mukherjee of Physics and his wife Sima too.

We were introduced to Anindita Lipner, the wife of Julius Lipner. Seeing Anindita Baudi, a pure Bengali woman wearing sari, it seemed that she was the woman next door to us. Lipnerda, however, had earlier said that his wife was Bengali. Lipner himself is of Czech descent but was born and raised in Kolkata. He studied in Pune and Jadavpur and received his PhD in 1974 from King's College London. He joined the University of Birmingham in the same year and moved to Cambridge the following year. Since then he has been a teacher at Cambridge University. He is Professor of Hinduism and the Comparative Study of Religion.

At first glance, Divinity Religion Hinduism seemed to suggest that Julius Lipner would be a conservative, somewhat reserved type of person. But talking to him and Anindita Baudi and hearing the story of their family, those ideas disappeared from me. In fact, I actually saw Lipnerda as a person of a completely different nature.

On the contrary, knowing that I am a man of literature, he joined me in discussing literature. I saw that he read all the classical books of Bengali literature. He read many important and great works of world literature. I was talking to him about the three famous Banerjees of Bengali literature. He said that his favorite novelist was Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. I am also an avid reader of Bibhuti. I asked Lipner about Manik Bandopadhyay. Manik's novels in particular were like an explosion in Bengali literature at one time. Lipnerda also endorsed that the novels 'Ahimsa', 'Padmanadir Majhi', 'Putulnacher Itikatha' are always memorable. He also told me that in the same year that Hemingway's novel 'Old Man and the Sea' won the Nobel in 1949, Manik's 'Padmanadir Majhi', translated by Hirendranath Dutt, also gained fame.

But Lipner liked Bibhuti's novels because of their strange serenity and a deep sense of life. I then remembered the American novelist David Thoreau. One such peaceful deep life is found in his novel Walden. Lipnerda said he was working on a translation and introduction to Bibhuti's novel 'Pather Panchali', which was to be published by Heinemann, a British publishing house.

We talked a lot more about literature and other topics that evening. As we were talking, I could see the books written by him on his bookshelf. Lipner was originally a scholar of Vedas, Upanishads, nineteenth century Bengal, but his knowledge of literature and society was no less. I picked up his book, 'The Face of Truth', published in 1986. Its subject is the analysis of Ramanuja's philosophy in the light of Vedic theology. The title of his book, published in the joint authority in 1989, is also excellent: Hindu Ethics: Purity, Abortion and Euthanasia.

Interestingly, he was also working on Bankimchandra's novel 'Anandamath' which was also expected to be published in the future. Since Bankimchandra is also one of my favorite novelists, I said, the language, prose and character construction of Bankim's novels are of extraordinary level. Moreover, in his novels he did not preach, but what he did was an expression of his fascination with ancient India. His grief is because it was later lost. He expressed his displeasure against Muslim and British colonialism because of his original grievances. Lipnerda agreed with me. I told him that Bankim's ability to make my Bengali language stand at that time was undoubtedly commendable. Moreover, Bankim showed that it is possible to create excellent novels in a language of peasants and ordinary people, keeping in view the structure of Sir Walter Scott's novel. That is no less important.

Apart from fish, the favorite food of Bengalis, Anindita Baudi cooked meat, vegetables and many other dishes for dinner that night. The dessert was rice-pudding. I also tasted one or two pieces of Lipnerda's favorite thin mint chocolate. Our conversation ended at midnight. Anindita Baudi said to Lipnerda, you rest I am giving them a lift. Cooking all day, then having dinner with us and doing all the chores: after doing so much, giving us a lift to Clare Hall again, Baudi's sincerity was truly incomparable. In the middle of the night and in the cold, under the huge English sky, we were returning home speaking our Bengali language. That experience was unique.

Even after that I talked to Julius Lipner many times in the lobby of Clare Hall or in the courtyard adjacent to the college. Donald Anthony Low, president of Clare Hall, was a great man. I also remember his wife Bell. When seen, she would say in a loving voice: how are you dear? Bell was once a nurse in her career. Seeing her reminded me of 'Florence Nightingale'. Florence may have had such a loving voice.

Some days I met Donald and Lipner together in the lobby. They are like that, if they had time, they would not forget to speak sincerely. Donald Low's presidency ended in 1994. We foreign students said goodbye to him. Julius Lipner was also there. Donald was actually Australian by birth. However, due to his expertise in Commonwealth history and Indian history, the Indian context would come up whenever I sat down to talk to him.

Donald Low's successor was Jillian Beer. Jillian's subject is English literature. Her husband, John Beer, is also a well-known critic of English literature. Jillian's book, 'Darwin's Plot', was published in 1973. In addition, her book on Virginia Woolf was published in 1996. I also met Jillian Beer in the lobby of Clare Hall. One of his favorite writers was the British novelist Doris Lessing. Jillian later presided over the Booker Prize in 1997 when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize. Julius Lipner also had a good relationship with Jillian Beer. At Christmas 1995, Jillian hosted a Christmas party in honor of the foreign students who did not go home. We had a wonderful time with both John and Jillian.

I remember an incident in 1993. It was May and quite a nice summer in England. That month, the famous Nigerian novelist Chinua Achibi came to give ‘Tanner and Ashby Lecture’ at Clare Hall. His theme was 'Education of a British Protected Child'. Led by President Donald Low, many of us gathered in the auditorium of Robinson College for that evening's event. Clare Hall did not have a large hall of its own, so they rented either the auditorium of Trinity or the auditorium of Robinson College. Robinson College was on Herschel Road, across the street. Chinua introduced the speech with a lot of fun. He was saying: One day I wanted to be admitted to Trinity College in Cambridge University but could not. Today I came to Cambridge as a speaker. There was a burst of laughter in the audience. Chinua was beautifully talking about his own experience on the one hand and Nigerian life developed under the British on the other. With that came the Nigerian civil war. He was talking about how the country was torn apart by the tug of war between the three tribes. These three tribes are: Gikuyu, Euroba and Hoxafulani. Julius Lipner was sitting next to me in the audience.

Chinua also spoke about the language and sense of life in his novels. His first novel, 'Things Fall Apart', was published in 1958 from Heinemann, England. He also gave some details of that memory. He said that the language of his novel cannot be called pure English. Again, the life inside his novel is also Nigerian. So this is the third thing in the combination of British and Nigerian. We met for a tea party after the ceremony. I talked with Chinua for about an hour and a half later. Other writings on that subject will surely be written. Lipnerda thanked Chinua for his excellent speech

In that brief conversation, the story of Indian novelist R K Narayan came up. In response to Julius Lipner's remarks, Chinua said that he personally liked both Narayan and his novels. Interestingly, in his shoulder bag was a novel written by Narayan, 'Malgudi Days' and a book of essays written by him, 'My Dateless Diary'. Two days later, he would have to go to Channel Four to talk about R K Narayan's novels. Lipnerda and I both were amused to know that. I myself am a fan of Narayan, especially a few days ago I read the book 'Waiting for Mahatma' written by Narayan in the Cambridge Library.

Dr. Dilip Chakraborty was another friend of ours in Cambridge. He is a teacher in the department of Archeology in Cambridge Univerity. I used to call him Dilipada too. When the Department of Archeology was opened at Jahangirnagar University, he was the founding visiting professor there. His student was Sufi Mustafizur Rahman who is memorable for ‘Wari-Bateshwar’. An entire book can be written about Dilip Chakraborty, his wife Sima and their daughter Nayana. Lipnerda was also mentioned when I was talking to Dilipada. In particular, we knew that although religion and divinity were his subjects, in fact, a lot of knowledge was gathered in his character. In a real sense, such people are rare in today's world.

Julius Lipner is currently an Emeritus Professor at Cambridge University. But I am sure that in spite of such a high position, no sense of ego will arise in him. He will say in a humble voice just like before, you must have come from Bangladesh!

September 2021

Dr. Mohibul Aziz, Dean and Professor, Chittagong University.