Kazi Nazrul Islam needs no introduction to those familiar with Bangla literature. He and his works are, for cogent reasons, less known in other circles. Niaz Zaman, educationist and prolific writer, is an active member of a group known as The Reading Circle, which is involved in matters literary. For one of its monthly meetings it chose to have a reading and discussion on Nazrul's poem "Bidrohi" (The Rebel) in both the original Bangla and its English translations. The group concluded that "the translations could not do justice to the original. (They) are difficult at the best of times, and "Bidrohi," with its declamatory tones, its fast pace, its heady rhythms, makes translation into English close to impossible." Something invariably gets lost in the process of translation, but The Reading Circle decided to go ahead and try to translate some of Nazrul's writings. A few tricky glitches had to be overcome on the way, but, with Niaz Zaman as the able editor, Kazi Nazrul Islam: Selections 1, has seen the light of day. And literature aficionados, particularly those to whom Bangla might as well be some gibberish from outer space, but English understandable, should be the happier for it.
As the title indicates, this is the first volume of a two-part publication. Zaman's hope is that, "the two volumes of Kazi Nazrul Islam: Selections --- the first volume containing poems, songs, and dramatic pieces, the second containing prose writings, fiction and non-fiction --- will finally see the light of day." Amen to that! In the first volume, appropriately containing works that Nazrul is most known for, there are 101 entries that are grouped according to the following wide-ranging categories: Autobiographical Poems, Poems on Equality, Islamic Poems, Hindu Devotional Poems, Love Poems, Political Poems, Poems on Nature, Miscellaneous Poems, Autobiographical Songs, Love Songs, Patriotic Songs, Songs on Nature, Islamic Songs, Hindu Devotional Songs, and Dramatic Poetry.
A fairly lengthy and informative, at times introspective, Introduction lays out different aspects related to the book, besides discussing several of the contents contained within. Some of the pieces are very familiar, others less so, but, nonetheless, carrying the unmistakable stamp of Nazrul's style and genius. Some fiery lines and pieces will fairly leap out of the pages to hit the reader's inner self and the reader, should s/he be familiar with the originals, would acknowledge that their translations were done with feeling and dexterity. The translators form a diverse group --- some rather well-known in reading circles, others less so, but their effort is not lacking. The readers will be the judge of their endeavours, but the person not conversant in Bangla will at least get a fair inkling of what the popularly known "Rebel Poet" is all about. Translators like Sajid Kamal, Niaz Zaman, Fakrul Alam, Kaiser Haq, Ayesha Kabir, Nashid Kamal, Razia Sultana Khan, Haroonuzzaman, Sanjukta Dasgupta, and Jaydeep Sarangi will have seen to that.
The Introduction contains insightful materials and is quite helpful in understanding Nazrul and his endeavours in life. He wrote some fiery pieces, as well as many dealing with love and beauty besides devotional matters, all the while working hard to make ends meet, until he fell silent for a long time before death mercifully relieved him of his agony. For a man of his writing ability, he found it, like a number of other prominent writers, rather tough going. He once said, "A soldier's life is a hard one. But I labour a thousand times more to write." That military life contributed to the heart of several of his poems and prose. "Bandhon Hara," for instance, notes Zaman, "provides a fairly detailed account of what life was like in the Karachi barracks for a Bengali…. Nazrul describes the hardship of army life as well as its camaraderie." She continues, "While Nazrul's life in the army gave him material for his writings --- immediate themes for his short stories but also images, metaphors and emotions that he would use later in his poems and songs --- his experience in Karachi also introduced him to Communism."
All those experiences contributed to the writer and person that Nazrul was to eventually become. His versatility encompassed both his life and works. He wrote many of his pieces spontaneously, and his most famous poem "Bidrohi" (The Rebel) was no different. Zaman elucidates on this poem and the poet this way: "While the title "Bidrohi" means "Rebel" and the poem does talk about shattering all forms of oppression and discrimination --- secular, political, societal, religious --- the poem is also celebratory. It eulogizes man's humanity, his creativity, his ability to withstand pain, as well as his ability to savour the beauty of life and nature." She starts the collection with this poem and as one goes through it (Kaiser Haq's translation), the ferocious words grip the mind as it hears them, and reverberates in the reader in the memorable concluding lines:
I am the eternal rebel hero ---
Alone, my head ever high,
Rising far above Earth.
The second piece is also another of Nazrul's poems that resonates in one's mind: "The Comet." Sutapa Chaudhuri's translation reverberates:
Even today, on the wounded bosom of creation, God trembles in terror,
Lest His Creation became mightier than the Creator and devour Him!
The third selection is another Nazrul classic: "The Ecstasy of Creation," translated by Sajid Kamal:
In the ecstasy of creation
came forth smiles and tears,
freedom and bondage,
words from deep within my heart,
and the joy of bitter pain
On my right is a newborn, on my left a decaying corpse."
"I Sing of Equality" is translated by Sajed Kamal, and is a poem that, like several others, contains very profound thoughts:
Why do you search for God in vain
within the skeletons of dead scriptures
when he smilingly resides in the depths
of your immortal heart?
Fakrul Alam translates another iconic Nazrul piece, "Mankind," which begins with these words of a common humanity:
"Of equality I sing"
Selina Hasib deals with Woman (Nari) that contains these touching lines:
All beauty that lies in flower and fruit
Has been filled by a woman with love
and care and joy.
Man has brought the unbearable heat
of the scorching sun;
Woman has brought peaceful night,
light breeze and gentle rain.
Niaz Zaman translates "Ode to Equality": the poem Equality that ends with these lines:
"Clad though in soiled or dusty garb,
All are happy here."
"Poverty," translated by Fakrul Alam, ends with these seemingly melancholy lines:
Even to this day I hear the shehnai's overture wailing,
Seemingly saying: Nothing, there is nothing!"
There is a plethora of riches in the 101 selections contained in the book. There has been no lack of effort on the part of the translators and the editor. They have seemingly spared no effort to bring some of the works of an iconic Bangali poet to those unable to read or understand Bangla, but who read and understand English. It has been a worthwhile venture and one can only eagerly look forward to Volume 2 of Kazi Nazrul Islam: Selections.
Shahid Alam is a thespian and Professor, Media and Communication department, IUB.