'I write on the Self, on the Me inside me ...'
Shihab Sarkar's place in Bengali literature in our times is a reality. It was in the early 1970s that his poetry, as that of many others, took off. Since those heady days of post-liberation Bangladesh, Sarkar has come a long way. On an afternoon dipping into twilight last week, Shihab Sarkar spoke to Star Literature of his dreams and passions, of his fears and his hopes. Here is the report:
Shihab Sarkar rarely, if ever, frowns or gets into a scowl. There is something of a boyhood smile which keeps playing all over his face. It then becomes easy to imagine him as he must have been in his young days. And those were days he spent in Karachi, Pakistan, where his father was in military accounts, and then in what used to East Pakistan. Sarkar has fond memories of Karachi, but of bigger dimension than that reality is the way in which his life has been intertwined with Dhaka. He was born in Azimpur in 1952 and today lives there. It makes things easier for him, says he. The graveyard is close by and it will not be a difficult proposition depositing him there at the end of it all. He laughs, with that tinge of wickedness playing in his eyes. And you laugh with him.
In the landscape of Bangladesh's poetry, Sarkar belongs to the generation of the 1970s. And that was a moment when nationalism and a sense of the revolutionary defined aesthetics in the country. Shihab Sarkar, like millions of other Bengalis, had undergone a transformation in thought in that a greater degree of radicalism had come into his poetry. But where did that urge for poetry, to create it, begin? Sarkar takes a swift journey back to his youth in college. 'I was greatly fascinated by the poetry of Jibanananda Das', he tells you. And that, he says softly, might be considered a beginning. He notes, though, that Tagore and Nazrul did not quite exert on him the kind of appeal that Jibanananda did. You reflect on that. Was that all? Could there have been no other spur to his poetic imagination? Sarkar informs you that Shamsur Rahman too was his point of reference in those days. And then he reveals, whispers almost, that his poetry was the offshoot of his teenage melancholy. He had been in love (infatuation, he corrects you), of the unrequited kind. That failure to connect was to lead to that making of verse. And the young woman who took his fancy? Ah, she went away (they all do), eventually to settle in the West.
So how did he get into Bengali poetry when his education was in English literature at Dhaka University? But that is an irrelevant query, for there have been the many others whose association with English literature did not hold them back from letting their creativity take form and substance in Bengali literature. You move on and learn that besides poetry, Sarkar has been into short stories, translations, book reviews and plays. He has also written fiction and currently is busy giving shape to his first novel in the English language. But he makes it a point to let you know that poetry has consistently been the priority in his career of creativity. He speaks of his friends, fellow poets such as the late Abid Azad. In his days in days at Dhaka College, there were other friends with whom he browsed libraries and read voraciously. The father of one of those friends had a remarkable library, he remembers. 'That was it. I had found a treasure trove.' Those were times when his reading habits and choices were going through rapid expansion. He read Flaubert's Madame Bovary. He devoured other works. The childhood habit of reading, when as a school student he frequented the public library (then behind the Dhaka University library), only intensified through time. It has endured.
The conversation veers round to his days in the English department at Dhaka University. 'I had wanted to study Bengali literature', Sarkar informs you. So what happened? His father was upset, indeed furious. 'Go ahead and do something better', he told his son. 'Study Pali.' The sarcasm was palpable. In the event, it was an uncle who helped him find middle ground. That ground was English literature. Did he ever have any fascination for the civil service? The answer is an emphatic no, though he takes care to let you know that anywhere between ten and twelve of his classmates went into government. They are on the verge of retirement or have gone into retirement already. 'I was a semi-bohemian, staying away from home for long periods,' says the poet. You get the sense that the practicalities of life were what he kept himself aloof from. But surely he could have gone into teaching? Shihab Sarkar laughs, almost apologetically. The only teaching he ever did was to tutor two young women, girls in fact (and siblings), in English for sometime. They are both well-known artistes in Bangladesh today. They are Samina Chowdhury and Fahmida Nabi, daughters of the unforgettable Mahmudunnabi.
For as long as you can recall, Shihab Sarkar has been in journalism, full time. He hastens to let you know that in the early phases of his career, he was with the Banglar Bani, especially with its weekly cine journal Cinema. There was then the Illustrated Weekly of Bangladesh. The path soon led to the New Nation, then a weekly. By the time it became a daily newspaper in 1980, Sarkar had taken charge as its magazine editor. These days, he is with the Independent. 'I have always had this passion for journalism', he makes it clear. There is, of course, that other passion, for poetry, which underlies his thoughts. You want to know from him if poetry ought to have a message, if indeed it should be didactic. He does not think so, though he does acknowledge the possibility of poetry conveying an indirect, a subtle message as it were. Poetry, he believes, is a creation of awareness in the individual. Think of TS Eliot, in whose poetry a keen sense of understanding of the human condition comes through. And yet Eliot is not didactic. And then Sarkar speaks of himself. He does not believe in excessive objectivity in poetry. Being subjective is what he is comfortable with. He explains, 'I write on the Self, on the Me inside me. I am symbolic of the reality around me.'
The conversation goes on, as it must with anyone of Sarkar's generation, and comes to 1971, to the War of Liberation. He was at the Race Course when Bangabandhu electrified the nation on 7 March with his clarion call for freedom. After 25 March, he was in Dhaka till April, when he made an attempt to go to Agartala to link up with the resistance but could not. He spent the days at his grandfather's village in Nabinagar of Brahmanbaria before coming back to Dhaka in July. For the remainder of the war, he and his friends, in clandestine fashion, prepared and distributed cyclostyled copies of the magazine Shwadhinota, disseminating news and stories from the battlefield. It was a risky job, seeing that the Pakistani occupation was in full swing. There was indeed a point where Shihab Sarkar almost got caught by the army. A packet containing copies of the journal in hand, he soon found himself accosted by a soldier on the street. Asked to identify himself, Sarkar told him he was at university. Fortunately for him, the soldier did not ask to see the packet. Sarkar breathed a sigh of relief.
Shihab Sarkar admits to being an introvert. Music fascinates him --- classicals of both eastern and western varieties, folk songs, indeed all songs. But something of melancholy has always defined his being. He calls that being Hamlet-esque. Worries about the future, based on worldly reasons, assail him. Which is when he tells you that he would like to live a long life, with no worries. He has yet a whole lot of work to do. He cannot stay away from writing, for that is a way of asserting his modernity. And how does he assess modernism? He has a simple word for it --- skepticism. He thus falls in line with the tradition of doubt, of inquiry.
And yet the younger generation of writers and poets disappoints him somewhat. He speaks of their shortcomings as he sees them. There is much of the self-centred about the young, a marked presence of snobbery in their attitudes. There is a tendency in them to talk more and do less. These, says he, are a definite risk to the making of poetry. On a broad scale, though, Sarkar remains, as he says, an incorrigible optimist where the matter is one of the future of the country --- because of its rich past. 'We will survive and overcome these crises we go through', he reassures you. 'We might yet go through turmoil, but in the end we will come through.' He has his old principles in place. He makes no compromises about the place of Bangabandhu in history, about the War of Liberation, about the Bengali nationalistic spirit.
Shihab Sarkar regrets the decline of idealism in the country. Or is it its death? The poet gives you a hint. He awoke, at Surya Sen Hall, to the sounds of gunfire on the morning of 15 August 1975. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been murdered. Shihab Sarkar sat in his room, alone, and wept.