Poetry penned in captive land
IT was in Rangoon in March 1981 that I had an unusual experience. My shy and retiring son of sixteen, who more than justified his nickname, which means 'one lost in reverie,' suddenly broke his silence to demand that I publish my scribblings done over the previous three decades. It was exceedingly strange and not a little gratifying that what was always in the nature of a monologue was sought to be given the stamp of irrevocable finality. It was a rare pleasure to find that one so young had been delving into the meaning of things and, out of filial loyalty perhaps, ascribed some merit to ancient and yellowed manuscripts.
His younger brother, whose name stands for 'cool as dewdrops and peaceful as moonlight,' belies his name. With brutal originality he tells his indigent father, "Don't pick your kitchen legumes too soon, lest we have to pay your bills after you've gone." At twelve, he was already on the way to becoming a creative writer. As such he did not stand in need of the reassurance of a father's writings penned in the idle moments of a storm-tossed life.
I remember that I had dedicated these pieces to 'Moana of the Seven Moons, who came but stayed not.' It was not any particular woman but a composite of many, perhaps of all women of all time. The scribblings were occasions for viewing the recurring personal crises against the backdrop of a crumbling world of broken columns, where the centre will not hold, where we are dismembered into myriad broken shadows. Wars, famines, pestilence, inequity, exploitation and civil strife, disintegrating values have all made of our world, to misquote Mallarme, 'the horror of the forest or the silent thunder diffused in the leaves.' It is the mounting but often futile anger, the sense of unbearable anguish and crippling fatigue stemming from our inadequacy, the death wish of the ineffectual intellectual suddenly made aware of the futility of history that informs all my work, perhaps lends to it some ephemeral significance.
Although each jotting, made in the agonising darkness of the long and unending nights, is strictly personal in origin, the dimensions of our anguish are never strictly or entirely personal. My life and the life of my entire generation is tinged and overshadowed by the tragedy of our time. A sense of participation in contemporary history is a prerequisite to comprehension of work shrouded in such seeming obscurity. You would have to know the murky inter-war years of international conspiracy and paralysis of will exemplified in appeasement, culminating in the Munich Pact, the cruelty and savagery of the dress rehearsal of the Spanish Civil War with Picasso's Guernica as the tragic and everlasting symbol and the impassioned cry, 'No passaran' (They Shall Not Pass) as the death-rattle of an embattled and betrayed Republic, the lynchings of the Deep South, the Biblical Diaspora culminating in the attempted 'Final Solution' of the Nazi death camps, to fully understand why personal love never stood a chance in the diabolical unfolding of the events of our time, when tinpot gods in the chancelleries of the world killed and crippled us for their profit, if not for their sport.
Twenty-five years later, The Pomegranate Tree, penned in 1977 in Dhaka, the capital city of a new nation, has the same sense of futility of individual endeavour facing the daunting facts of history, the same sense of fellow feeling for those engaged in an unequal battle, for the innocent victims of organised genocide and incarceration in distant prison camps. A few years hence, who will remember the background of this piece? Who will recall a state nurtured by its international patrons into a veritable prison-house of nations, its paranoid and humourless succession of rulers? Who will take the trouble of finding out how a fledgling democracy was strangled in infancy, how untold atrocities were perpetrated against rebellious subject peoples, how the much vaunted sword-arm of a so-called martial race was blunted and broken by a ragtag band of freedom lovers? Will history have the integrity to record how such a regime was cynically supported and sustained by Grand Masters of the international power game and their servitor ideologues?
A scribbler of my captive generation in a captive land could not, therefore, sing of his lonely passion from an ivory tower. His individual alienation was overwhelmed by a quarter century of neo-colonialist humiliation of his people. The sense of outrage inevitably echoed in my words, as in the work of others. Witness my Ramadan and Eid-ul Fitr. They were written on two successive days in 1970, against the backdrop of a tragedy of colossal and classical proportions, when a tidal wave left some half a million dead, a world catastrophe reported faithfully by the international press and media but ignored and denied by our overlords. A bereaved people sustained and nurtured by charitable men and women of goodwill all around the world finally shed its illusions under Nature's merciless assaults and man's studied apathy. The ground had been prepared for the War of Independence that was to start in a matter of months. Significantly enough, these two pieces were published, under a pseudonym, of course, in a journal edited by the poet-author-film-maker-freedom fighter Zahir Raihan. He, along with the elder brother, author and journalist Shahidullah Kaiser, was butchered in cold blood along with scores of other intellectuals, under a plan to behead the emergent Bengali nation, which could no longer be held in thralldom.
Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr are companion pieces of The White Shirt of Shamsur Rahman, the doyen of Bengali poets. All three poems clearly foretell the end of the myth, purveyed by patent violators of the Islamic code of a life of human dignity and justice to hold the Bengali nation in bondage for a quarter of a century. They anticipate Maulana Bhashani's ironic farewell greeting to the ruling class: 'Assalamu Alakum.' Together with Sikandar Abu Jafar's Quit Bengal, they are a paean to my enslaved people, battered but unbowed, who within a year waded through a sea of blood to proclaim to a largely apathetic and hostile world that they had finally decided to take control of their own destiny, which for long had been usurped by alien hands. Sikander's ultimatum sums up the situation: 'Remove your black shadow from my skies and fields.'
The tendency to relate the personal to the universal dilemma is, however, not always shared by my compeers, who favour a more direct and unambiguous utterance. In much of my work also it runs like a red thread. I can only explain it in terms of John Maynard Keynes' perceptive comment: 'Emotions of the moment had left behind a permanent furrow.' Looking back, I find that in '50, '51 and '52 some current national or international occurrences evoked direct and bald comment. (One such comment) was a rather long piece called A Strange Tale, of November 1951, commemorating the triumph of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, which traverses the tangled history of the subcontinent, drawing hope 'because a Chinese peddler knocked at my door,' a rather futile hope as it turned out during later years of infantile cultural disorder and our experience of an unrecognised liberation movement and the Chilean people's experience of eager recognition for a counter revolution. It is ironic that the poem carries visible traces of the Chilean Pablo Neruda's 'Let the rail-splitters awake.' Then there was The Plot, which was the immediate reaction to the dramatic disclosure of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case involving the cream of the officer corps of the Pakistan army and the doyen of Urdu poetry, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and which seemed to me to carry fateful echoes of the Reichstag fire which burnt down both the German parliament house and in effect sealed the fate of the Weimar Republic. The parallelism of the rise of Hitler and a succession of petty overweening dictators in our domestic scene did not, at the time, appear to me to be either forced or fortuitous. Then there was Will McGee, mourning the judicial murder of a young American black on patently trumped-up charges of rape. This was not one of my best efforts, although it was a favourite reading of my friend Ibne Insha, now dead, whose Urdu poems on China, including A Night in Shanghai, were presented to Chairman Mao.
Between 1959 and 1964, 1 seem to have been returning home, culturally speaking, because in (my) works of this period are discernible influences of Rabindranath Tagore, from whom no Bengali can ever escape since he has been our shield and our spear in every movement of asserting our identity, of the poets Sudhin Dutta and Jibananda Das, of John Donne, TS Eliot and of the Old Testament. A distinct influence is exerted during this period by the tropical jungles of Bengal and the forests of the foothills of the Himalayas where I spent many happy days of my adolescence. And a recurring theme is the sea and the flowing rivers which have gone to the making of the Bengali psyche.
Between Only a Few Years and The Pomegranate Tree, a span of some twenty-five years, the human condition in our part of the world has hardly changed, except for the worse and except for our signal achievement of political freedom. Hence our response to it has also not undergone any sea change. We still suffer from disaffection with our inadequacy, anger at human perfidy, nostalgic yearning for our lost innocence and desperate urge to join the forces of social change, with no real confidence in their efficacy, strength or ultimate success. A very poor material for a versifier, I agree. Yet to attempt anything more would be less than honest.