Poet-professor-translator Kaiser Haq is the most thorough man I have ever come across. Taking things with a grain of salt is not his style. His casual, albeit western, demeanor, may suggest otherwise and even hide the seriousness of purpose with which he approaches life as well as his creative works.
To give an example, he once walked into our departmental lunch adda when we were having beef choi-jhal. I casually mentioned it to him that this herbal condiment helped someone I know recover from a serious bout of depression. The next day Kaiser Sir announced that he had been confirmed by his biochemist friend about piper chaba’s antioxidant properties responsible for mood swings. Thereby, for the next few days, choi-jhal became the “stable” lunch diet until we realized that the hot spice was swinging our other unsavory organs.
As you can tell, Kaiser Sir is the livewire of the Department of English and Humanities (DEH) at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). The official designation of Dean is too limiting a term to contain the greatness of this charismatic man (who has been dubbed by his student and our visiting fellow, Dr. Azfar Hussain) as a “matchless genius” and “genuine polymath”. The last thing that you expect Kaiser Sir to be is to act like an administrator. When his turn to become the Chair of the English Department of Dhaka University came, he simply turned it down. He later graciously declined an offer to become vice chancellor of another university. It is no surprise then that in many of his poems, civil service receives the brunt of his jokes.
Before you jump to conclusion that he is not cut out for any leadership role, listen to this: he is one of the 60 trained commanders of the Bangladesh Liberation Force. He fought valiantly in Sector 7, where in one instance, he shot down a sniper with his LMG in order to save an injured comrade in the middle of a paddy-field. But you will hardly hear him talk about his War involvement for drawing attention to himself or currying favour.
In his poem “Bangladesh 71,” written in 1972, he queried, “Smoky dusk falls like fear/Over stone and human heart,/How, and with what, shall one create art?/ Flames, death, then ash consumes the fire” (Published In the Streets of Dhaka, 2012, 123). In an interview, he confessed that the “rhetorical smokescreen” that generated following the Liberation War troubled him. The memory of WW1 poets that he studied as a scholar also overwhelmed him. He would rather enjoy his private space where he is happy to teach the young minds, enthrall his readers with poetry, and liven up the lives of the people he touches.
As Bangladesh’s leading English-language poet, Kaiser Haq has found his niche in many world-renowned anthologies, handbooks and encyclopaedias. His poetry is taught in many universities abroad. He is the epicenter of English writing in Bangladesh—a fast growing literary sector where Haq is commandeering a new battle. Today, you cannot discuss South Asian literature without referring to Kaiser Haq. For the last fifty years, he has been a cultural ambassador of Bangladesh who is straddling boundaries; he has been busy giving expressions not only to his own creative voices or impulses but also to others whose works he felt need translating or retelling.
He has tailored post-colonialism to suit his purpose. In his now famous “Ode on the Lungi,” the self-proclaimed “lungi activist” “wears” back to the empire to engage with Walt Whitman, to say: “Grandpa Walt, I celebrate my lungi/and sing my lungi/and what I wear/you shall wear” (PISD, p.39). In The Triumph of the Snake Goddess (Harvard University Press, 2015), he retells the Manasa lore to bring out the lighter side of several divine deities. Anyone who knows Kaiser Haq in person will recognise how much of the translator himself is present in the playful portrayal of Shiva as a prankster in this version.
In his translation of ABM Habibullah’s Vilayetnama, Haq sheds light on Mirza I’tesamuddin’s 1765 voyage to England. In Haq’s rendition, Mirza appears to be a man with deep admiration for British culture who regrets his diminishing role in a new fiefdom that has replaced the Muslim rule. The broad category of race has persisted in the subcontinent for centuries, and Kaiser Haq credits Mirza for being an ardent observer and able narrator of an alien culture, while being peculiarly aware of his oxymoronic pivotal peripheral role. Mirza, for him, “belongs to a culture with the longest prejudice …none is more aware of subtle differences of shade than the Indian” (The Wonders of Vilayet, 2002). Haq, it seems, is drawn to characters who are seeped in such irony.
In his translation, Tagore’s Four Quartet finds a contemporary fluency. Shamsur Rahman or Shaheed Quaderi too comes alive for an international audience. Haq is an “infidel” translator; his creative accent often overpowers the original and mingles with the lines the he conjures or presents in English. If anyone is looking for pedantic, literal or pedestrian translation, they should probably consult Google, and evade Haq!
After retiring from his long professorial career at Dhaka University, Kaiser Sir has chosen ULAB, our DEH-ville in the coinage of our other stellar colleague Syed Manzoorul Islam, for a fresh start.
At 70, he is the youngest of us all—always joking, hugging, or spreading positive energy. He is never tired of trying out something new: Tango, martial arts, wrestling, palmistry, French, intermittent fasting—you name it, he is up for it. He’d never miss his walk by the Dhanmondi lake, and his fitness would put us all who are pushing forties or fifties to shame. And if you happen to cough or sneeze around him, you are sure to get a medicinal prescription. And if you say something remarkably silly or significant while in his radius, you may even find your lines or phrases appear in one of his poems. Such is his alertness to life. Even a teenager freshman student would say he is the most updated faculty member of all.
For those of us who move within Kaiser Sir’s orbit knows that the idea that he has used to describe his father in a memoir, “an Anglophile to boot – but this he combined with nationalist fervor,” is also applicable to him. His preferred language for creative expression, English, is often frowned upon by our local intellectual circuit. The nationalistic zeal with which Bangla was embraced in the post-liberation era made writing in English a near crime. But for Haq, English is his natural language that he picked up at school. He is one of those who went to missionary English medium schools in the fifties, only to find himself becoming a pariah in his own society. His collection of poems Pariah and Other Poems (2013) reveals his frustration through a mad alter ego who was his interim imam. Haq’s handling of the issue involves, what Khuswant Singh writes in his book blurb, “a macabre sense of humour.”
At St. Gregory’s School, his teacher Brother Hobart spotted Haq’s special way with words. Under his tutelage, Haq learnt the musicality of free verse (e.g. as found in DH Lawrence’s ‘Snake’) to respond to the world. His poetic passion was further nurtured while in Faujdarhat Cadet College, and eventually at the English Department of the University of Dhaka. It is while as an undergraduate student at DU, he joined the liberation war. He later went to Warwick University to earn his PhD on the modernist tradition. Admittedly, his poetry is deeply influenced by the Beat generation and the Movement poets. So is his personality.
Haq has a playful mind. A decade back, when he reached sixty, he wrote, “Sixty’s the new forty… wouldn’t it be lovely/living this exceptional life/over and over/all eternity … (“Senior Citizen”). I guess the same is true as he reaches seventy. On his birthday, I wish him a lovely exceptional life.
Happy 70th (or should I say 50th) birthday, my fellow Capricorn, colleague and mentor! Let’s celebrate our half century together!
Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English, University of Dhaka. Currently on leave, he is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.