Professor Kaiser Haq is not only Bangladesh's finest English language poets but one of the country's best translators as well. He translated Shamsur Rahman as early as 1985, when he was in his mid-thirties. Bangladesh's best modernist was very happy with Kaiser Haq's translation of his poems, published by BRAC Printers. I met Rahman, my favourite Bangla poet since Jibanananda Das, quite regularly during the last few years of his life. He considered Kaiser Haq one of our major poets and a poet comparable to the best poets in any language. Kaiser Haq's translation was loved by the readers too – readers at home and abroad – and an eminent publisher, Pathak Samabesh, reprinted the book twice in the recent past.
Since his late teens Kaiser Haq was very close to Shaheed Quaderi and his elder brother Shahed Quaderi. Mrs Neera Quaderi informs me that Shaheed wanted Haq to translate his poems and was very happy with his translations. Sadly the poet passed away and couldn't see the book. It is a wonderful production from Bengal Lights Books. “The Library of Bangladesh” series has been “conceived and created” by Dhaka Translation Center (DTC) at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) to “make works by leading Bangladeshi writers accessible to world audiences in high-quality translations.” Cover design, layout and artwork of the book are by Narottama Dobey. For the cover Dobey used photographs of Beauty Boarding, Flurys and Starbucks Coffee, restaurants associated with the three major cities of the bohemian Quaderi. He would preside over “endless addas,” particularly in Dhaka. The cover will be certainly liked by admirers of Quaderi. The flap rightfully claims that Kaiser Haq is “uniquely qualified to present Quaderi to Anglophone readers interested in world literature.”
The preface of the book is as brilliant as the translated poems. We can consider them as superb essays on Shamsur Rahman and Shaheed Quaderi. And how clinically precise Kaiser Haq is when he says: “Quaderi was the youngest and most modern in sensibility in the group whose doyen was Shamsur Rahman, and that included Al Mahmud and Syed Shamsul Haq.” He is talking about the generation that emerged in the 1950s who went “significantly further” than the modernists of the 1940s – Farrukh Ahmed, Ahsan Habib, Syed Ali Ahsan, Abul Hussain, for example. The five poets of the 1930s (Jibanananda Das to Bishnu Dey) “had ushered modernism into Bengali, and were a seminal influence on Quaderi and his peers in Dhaka, as were the great western modernists: Eliot, Pound, Auden, Baudelaire (mediated by Bose's translations), Rimbaud.” Baudelaire's influence was the most powerful initially. Buddhadev Bose's “Kabita” hosted Quaderi in his precocious teens. After Bose's death in 1974 Shamsur Rahman wrote a poem where he declared that their debt to him was like a janmadaag (a birth mark). Sikander Abu Zafar's “Shamakal” and Abdullah Abu Sayeed's “Kanthaswar” also showcased our modernists.
Shaheed Quaderi: Selected Poems has fifty-five poems in total – ten from Uttaradhikar, thirteen from Tomake Abhibadon, Priyotoma, seven from Kothao Kono Krondon Nei, eleven from Amar Chumbongulo Pouchhe Dao and fourteen – the most – from Godhulir Gaan, Quaderi's posthumous book of poems published in 2017. The selection certainly presents Quaderi at his best and is a representative of his works as well. We get a complete picture of Shaheed Quaderi's poetic development. Kaiser Haq's superior skills as a translator become evident in the translation of the titles even – “Patrimony” for “Uttaradhikar” and “Greetings, Dearest” for “Tomake Abhibadon, Priyotoma.” The poems have been translated, needless to mention, in the best possible manner and you couldn't expect more.
Here is an anecdote from me to make this review interesting and to show how close Shaheed Quaderi was to Kaiser Haq. A year before Quaderi's death I went to the Beauty Boarding with Prof Shawkat Hussain, my teacher and a noted writer, and two friends, one of whom was a poet. Quaderi was curious about our photos put on facebook and Neera asked me, “He wants to know about you. What exactly do I tell him?” I took three seconds to reply and told her, 'Tell him that I have been a student of Prof Shawkat Hussain and Prof Kaiser Haq. He will certainly like this. I am a modest writer and admire your husband since my college days. Also ask him if he remembers the wonderful review of Tomake Abhibadon, Priyotoma by the 24-year-old Kaiser Haq in The Bangladesh Observer way back in 1974.” The ailing poet remembered the review and happily asked me a few questions through Neera! Kaiser Haq had written: “All we may say by way of a tentative summing-up is that with Uttaradhikar he established himself as one of the best poets writing in this country and that with Tomake Abhibadon, Priyatama he has consolidated his position.” He was spot on!
“Janmei kukre gechi matrijorayon theke neme” couldn't be better translated – “Debouching from the maternal womb I shriveled up.” “Amar nishongo totha biporjosto roktomangshe” becomes “in the lonely turmoil of my flesh-and-blood-existence.” “Tobu shey amar chul/Andha/Muuk o bodhir chul mash na jetei/ Ahoto ashwer moto abar lafiye uthche abiram” is rendered thus: “Still, it's my hair:/Blind,/deaf-mute, before the month is out/it rears up again like a wounded stallion!” In “Sangati” the title is kept untranslated. The poem is dedicated to Amiyo Chakraborty and the famous repeating couplet is translated thus: 'Lovers will have their tryst alright/ But never, never, never, find peace …” Brilliant! The right word or phrase comes easily to the gifted poet-translator. He always gives you more than you expect. As the great Picasso had said: “I don't search, I get!”
Shaheed Quaderi's first book was immediately recognized as “an outstanding contribution to modern Bengali poetry.” Professor Munier Chowdhury had mentioned him in his class and announced his brilliant debut! One of the students was Rafiq Azad, who later became Shaheed's capable successor and friend. The Bangla Academy Award came quite early. Tomake Abhibadon, Priyotoma, Quaderi's second volume, deals with 1971 and its horror and pain, and the difficult early years of our independence. Kothao Kono Krondon Nei depicts our world after the cruel assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family, the years of military rule and “an intense awareness of growing hopelessness” (hence the title). The fourth volume was on “the anguish of exile, the worsening global situation, the rise of terrorism, the absence of any inspiring political movements.” The posthumous volume has new poems, uncollected poems penned earlier and translations. Kaiser Haq doesn't fail to capture the quintessential Shaheed Quaderi and trace his development as one of our best modernists.
The only flaw of the volume is perhaps its slimness. It could be thicker than its 127 pages. More translated poems could be included by the brilliant translator. There is an encouraging announcement at the end of the preface, though. There is a plan to bring out an edition of Shaheed Quaderi's complete works – all the poems, translations, essays and interviews. That would be a splendid gift for us. Quaderi did write a few inspiring essays (on Neruda, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Buddhadev Bose and others) and gave a few superb interviews. He translated very well too. Shaheed Quaderi the poet is simply awesome, a word often abused by the present generation.
Junaidul Haque writes fiction and essays in Bangla and English. He has authored two novels, four volumes of stories and two volumes of short essays.