Avijit Roy - A Life Well Lived (1972 - 2015)

Published on Friday, 20 March 2015

During the last two years, Avijit Roy wrote at a furious pace. It was as if he sensed his time was limited on this earth. He also traveled. Along with his wife and daughter, he took a trip to the Grand Canyon, stopped at CERN in Geneva to satisfy his curiosity about the Higg's Boson, went to the fabled Incan ruins of Machu Pichu in Peru, visited the house of the Argentinian writer Victoria Ocampo near Buenos Aires. Within six months of his sojourn to Argentina, he produced a volume detailing the friendship between Ocampo and Rabindranath Tagore, where he meticulously translated 50 letters between these two writers in Bengali.

This subject is favorite among the Bengali literati and only to be approached by established university scholars. But Avijit was unfazed. The product that came out of his keypad provided a fresh look at the complicated friendship and the mutual influence of these two world-class personalities.

At first glance, it would seem the book on Tagore and Ocampo does not connect to Avijit's life's quest for rationality. But in an interview to Dhaka's The Daily Star newspaper in 2007, he stated that the goal of Mukto-Mona, the blogsite he established, was to build a society which would not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authorities, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy. Avijit went on to say that he dreamed of a society that is based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality and science. The book on Ocampo does not espouse equality or science, but it fits within his overall goal of compassion and humanity.

At the same time, when he was deciphering the relation between Tagore and Ocampo, he was giving finishing touches to a book that dealt with a profound theme: can this universe be built from nothing? The coauthor of this book was a well-known Bangladeshi-Canadian mathematician - Professor Mizan Rahman. As an avowed rationalist, Avijit was constructing a world that's existence could be as natural as possible. In his quest, Avijit was influenced by physicists Prof. Victor Stenger of the University of Hawaii and Prof. Lawrence Krauss of the University of Arizona. He communicated regularly with Prof. Stenger about the origin and nature of the universe until Stenger passed away last year.

I had the privilege of discussing the science and style of this book with Avijit through email. We differed on the nature of nothingness, but it was a heroic effort on Avijit's part to provide a Bengali narration on a difficult cosmology topic. Avijit had a great heart which was not bound by egotistical tendencies of many intellectuals, he did not forget to mention our discussion in the preface to this book.

Professor Mizan Rahman passed away last year. And now Avijit is gone. We might say both writers of "The Universe out of Nothing" might have passed into nothingness. Will it be possible for us to keep our candles alive in the face of such universal nothingness? I pose this question many times to myself.

But Avijit has done one more thing that transcends death, he donated his body for the greater good, medical students will benefit from dissecting his body. His killers wanted to kill his soul, but his soul has migrated to us to claim an eternal life within this nothingness.

Avijit has been portrayed as a blogger rationalist and avowed atheist. But these are not his identities. He was a human being just like us, aspired for knowledge, love and a comfortable life. But there was a difference. He loved life and embraced this world with zest. He wrote books on cosmology, atheism, homosexuality, Rabindranath, and search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He wrote science fiction stories where worm-holes appeared in physics classrooms of Dhaka University. He engaged in discussions about movies like Avatar. He liked to travel. He nurtured writers, begged them to submit articles, inspired them to invent words. Not everybody has the capability of creating new writers and sustaining them. He also wrote lovingly about his daughter and his father.

His wife, Bannya Ahmed, who survived the horrific attack on that fateful night, is an accomplished science writer. I believe Bannya and Avijit complimented each other in their persuasion of understanding the knots that make this world click.

Avijit wrote furiously, but I believe his best writings were yet to come. He was experimenting with this world, trying to find his niche where he could leave a lasting legacy. But his aspirations were cut short by ignorant men.There was a saying about the beheading of the famed chemist - the father of modern chemistry - Antoine Lavosier, by the French revolutionaries in 1794: "It took them only an instant to cut off his head, and one hundred years might not suffice to produce its like." Lavoisier was only 50. Avijit was 42.

But Avijit did leave a legacy. He initiated a discourse that was necessary. But it was a discourse replete with dangerous ideas. These ideas are as bright as the sun. But we are afraid to let our mind and body open up to the sunlight. We are afraid. We want to hide from these ideas. Even the Government in Dhaka is afraid. They have yet to issue an emphatic statement denouncing the heinous murder of Avijit Roy.

But Avijit was not afraid.

Now he is dead and we are running scared lest we meet the same fate. In this flight of fear, we give up the mantle to the zealots.

There is a common refrain which states that only a few people in Bangladesh are engaged in extremist activities. That might be true. But they could never do what they are doing if there was not an unspoken widespread support for their activities. I was absolutely flabbergasted to see the un-moderated comments on the Facebook that ranged from utter joy in the death of an atheist to his vilification as an American agent.

I despair. if you want to construct a world out of scientific principles, if you question the religious orthodoxy, you can expect zero protection from the authorities or from the bigger society within which you live.

On 13th February evening, prior to my departure to the USA from Dhaka, I went to visit Prof. Ajoy Roy, Avijit's father. During the conversation I said, "Avijit is an intelligent fellow, but he needs to be careful." I took pictures with Prof. Ajoy and sent them to Avijit - he was then on his way to Dhaka. He received those pictures and thanked me. That was the last living connection with Avijit.

I now look back at his emails from two years ago. He mentioned the threats that he was receiving and if anything could be done about it. I could not help and it seemed the threat levels were toned down over the last year. But it was a chronicle of a death foretold. Apparently, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did not believe that any Bengali would be capable of killing him. Similarly, Avijit did not believe people - however deranged they might be - could actually kill him for the words that he wrote, especially in his own city.

Avijit is gone too early. There are things that are left unfinished. Avijit is the name of a bright star in the firmament, known in English as Vega. As an individual thinking human being, he had a right to this life, he had the right to enjoy it, to find meaning in it. Only humans, not versed in the meaning of life, would try to extinguish such a star.

The French philosopher's Voltaire's (1694 - 1778) biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall paraphrased Voltaire's attitude to free speech with the following sentence: "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." In a perverse way, we can think that Avijit died defending the right of the extremists. Even with all the candle lights lit in this gathering I despair that unless we strive to understand the root cause, the idea of free speech will soon be passe, out of fashion. Avijit's death will be in vain. I hope I will be proven wrong and the future generations will be able to evaluate his legacy in a new light.

Based on a presentation at the Candlelight Vigil in honor of Avijit Roy's memory and protest his murder, Fremont, California, March 7, 2015 (Organized by the Bay Area Bangladeshi Community).