What struck you at the outset about Shamsur Rahman was his humility. But, then, all poets are supposed to be humble. Not all of them are anyway. But in Shamsur Rahman humility, the principle that greatness was a point where men let go of their ego and of their pretensions, worked rather well. He was every inch a decent man, like so many other decent men we have known, in this country as well as outside it. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela's advisers regularly had a hard time trying to convince him that he did not have to stand up every time a visitor dropped by. They failed to stop him from doing that, which was why there was always an abundance of decency in him.
Much the same was true of Shamsur Rahman. In his dealings with people, men and women he did not know and yet who knew him well through his poetry, he was every inch an emblem of politeness. When I met him, one on one, for the first time at the Bangladesh Festival in London in July 1999, he swiftly put me at ease. On my way to welcome him at Heathrow, where he was arriving with Syed Shamsul Haque and Nirmalendu Goon as part of a team to speak for his country's arts and culture in what was to be a month-long festival, I was not sure if I could demonstrate the kind of etiquette he expected from people like me. But once we met, it was a different story altogether. He was soft-spoken. He had a childlike smile playing on his lips. It was an attitude that opened the floodgates of greater respect for the poet in me.
And respect, layer upon layer of it, is what Shamsur Rahman was the recipient of in his lifetime. In death, that respect has over time truly led to the creation of a legend and will certainly endure. And yet it remains my conviction that in the last few decades before his life came to an end, Shamsur Rahman found himself transformed into a legend not because he wrote poetry but because he showed us all that poetry could turn itself into a vehicle for the expression of social aspirations. He did not go to war in 1971. And yet he waged his own war against the enemy, nestled in the Narsingdi village his ancestors have sprung from.
In the poem Shwadhinota, he sang the song a whole nation could sing along with him. And do not forget that in Asader Shirt, he simply took us by the hand into what would soon become a macrocosm of struggle for us. It would be foolhardy trying to place poets divided by generations on a par. Every poet inhabits his own time and space, and so it has been historically with all of Bengal's poets. Despite such obvious notions of poetry and the place of poets in a historical landscape, there are the moments when we try to link the generations, one to the other. It is from such a perspective that Shamsur Rahman becomes part of a continuity of tradition among Bengalis. If Rabindranath Tagore was, and is, the face of Bengal to the world beyond the frontiers of what is today a divided Bengal; if Nazrul remains the embodiment of protest in the Bengali, Shamsur Rahman serves as the torch-bearer of a new, modern generation of poets in this country.
In Shamsur Rahman subsisted a citizen deeply attached to social causes. Not for him was poetry to be recited in the arcadia of the imagination. It needed to be connected to larger causes, to literature flowing in tune with politics. He thus carried forward a movement that was, in his time, symbolized by Begum Sufia Kamal and Jahanara Imam. In Bangladesh, he reasoned, poetry could serve as a necessary and effective vehicle for the propagation of secular philosophy. Indeed, poetry had to be secular. If it was not, it would not be poetry at all. Rahman's principled notions of life were temptation enough for villainous men to go after him. But he was not one to be deterred by threats.
The passing of Shamsur Rahman was a deepening of intellectual vacuum in this land. In these past many years we have observed Ahmed Sharif, Shaukat Osman, Humayun Azad, Araj Ali Matobbor, Syed Najmuddin Hashim, Abdul Mannan Syed and others transit to the world beyond the banality of our world. Years ago the young Abul Hasan succumbed to mortality. Taslima Nasreen stays away from a country that has all the time for knaves and crooks but none at all for her. And Daud Haider does not come home.
Yet poetry continues to power the engine of our collective imagination. To what extent poetry burnishes our politics and keeps the wolves at bay comes through the outpouring of grief and tribute we showered on Shamsur Rahman when he died eight years ago. In his last few days on earth, he wondered if rains and storms would mar the quality of his dying. Now that he is dead, we recall as we read his poetry all over again the musicality of rain he brought into our lives, the storms he caused to rise in our souls.
The poet is dead. Poetry lives.
(Shamsur Rahman, pre-eminent poet of Bangladesh, was born on 23 October 1929 and died on 17 August 2006.)