Ginsberg, Dylan, Bhowmik’s anti-war pleas still relevant today
Fifty-one years ago, in this very month of September, an American visited the Jessore Road. The roads were flooded with torrential rain and hordes of refugees who were fleeing for their lives.
The American man set out on a boat, taking in the scenes of starving women, dying children and destitute men, despite being unnerved by all that was going on around him.
He learnt about the cholera endemic and how food was handed out only once a week in the refugee camps. The American also found out about the crises between the refugee and the local population, and that many of these refugees would not survive the journey to the destination, dying just like their relatives had in their homes.
The American man in question was poet and activist Allen Ginsberg. Upon his return to America, he would write one of the best pieces of anti-war art, the poem "September on Jessore Road", which would later be published with music composed by Bob Dylan. It let the world know about the plights of Bangladeshi refugees and was monumental in shifting the opinions of Americans to oppose the war.
The United States of America had been supporting the very regime which put these people through such miseries. Ginsberg had previously visited India, and knew the regional politics well. He knew how the Pakistani forces received military support from the US and fearlessly listed other similar transgressions the administration was involved in.
During the tumultuous times of the 70's, the US had been actively involved in the cold war. Through his art, Ginsberg questioned everything known to be magnificent about the US, questioning whether it was worth the taxpayer's money to fund armed forces which essentially killed babies.
Ginsberg's poem also questioned whether the forces do anything other than destroying Vietnam or Laos—countries which had already been victims of the cold war. At a time when support for the cold war was viewed as synonymous to patriotism, this poem captured the essence of the universalist and humanist philosophies that Ginsberg held.
The guilt and shame that Ginsberg felt during his visit to Jessore Road are very palpable in this poem. It asks the readers what could be done to the children, and if turning a blind eye is the only way out. The poet did a brilliant job of invoking anger and activism, asking the American audiences to not be blinded by the country's proclaimed grandeur and to keep questioning the authorities.
"September on Jessore Road" makes our hearts bleed and blood boil at the same time. Ginsberg uses images of bony skulls, skeletal structures, and empty eyes to ask the readers why would anyone tolerate such cruelty being inflicted on other humans. It does not attempt to hide the gore, instead describing in great detail the vomit, mud and faeces common in refugee camps. He tried to unabashedly convey the inhumane conditions these people were put through.
In Bangladesh, the musical rendition of "September in Jessore Road" is sung in Bangla by Moushumi Bhowmik. Even after all these years, the song takes us back to the uncertain journey that millions of Bangladeshi refugees had embarked upon. It reminds us of the cost we paid for our liberation. The cost in human lives. It reminds us that these were real, ordinary people, who deserved neither the starvation nor the homelessness.
Tolstoy believed that art is a means of progress towards perfection. In the words of Allen Ginsberg, the tunes of Bob Dylan, and in the voice of Moushumi Bhowmik, the cries of anti-war sentiment in "September on Jessore Road" attempt to use art to steer people in the right direction.