A poet's late appearance | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 02, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 02, 2010


A poet's late appearance

I find it remarkable that one other leading light of the English Department of Dhaka University has made an appearance as a poet. In Bangladesh, Prof. Ahsanul Haque could long ago compose poetry with his individual stamp. One may feel deprived, quite rightly, for the lately-appeared poet's not making it regular or quicker; but never will the poems be found to be a sign of mere self-gratification on Haque's part.
What we are given on the flap of the book confirms the idea that humanistic zeal is what has found manifestation in all of Prof. Haque's multifarious activities, which is of course truer of his generation than of people of later times. I would like to go more by that flap, and point out the very big range of his activism. In the seventy-seven years of his life, he has taught at different levels for more than fifty, and then inclusively completed one additional MA from Bristol University and one doctoral research from Dhaka University. Both the dissertations have been published by Dhaka University Press, and these books are world class. He has taken active part in politics, served prison terms for activities connected with the Language Movement and the War of Liberation. Twice he got elected as general secretary and twice as vice president of the Dhaka University Teachers' Association (DUTA). It is amazing that he even went into building up a tree plantation movement that has finally culminated in a countrywide tree plantation fare now organized annually by the government.
How many intellectuals are of this devotion, are possessed of such a and down-to-earth mindset in such matters? We generally finish by turning into careerists and paying lip service to public causes. Not so Prof. Haque, who looks like belonging to the school of Rabindranath and Nazrul, men who did not get blocked by their scholarship or creativity in moving across the country and taking part in all sorts of arduous activities. And then, for the last few years, Prof. Haque has been promoting a mass literacy campaign. With this end in view, he has developed a set of modules for imparting Bangla literacy. This has proved very effective, and he has now embarked on a mission of looking for ways of making Bangladesh one hundred per cent literate with the help of his books. One feels dumbfounded at his tenacious activism!
And now Ahsanul Haque has placed his poetry before us. Once his student and now his colleague at Bangladesh People's University, Asifur Rahman, says Haque, took an insistent initiative in making these see the light of day. Others also were surely insistent. His poems, whose dates of composition are very purposefully given, finally throw light on yet another case of a poet of unexplored potential. I would place some stanzas in part or full in my translation, so that readers get a taste of his creativity. My main contention is that Ahsanul Haque's poems contain ideas and messages of the progressive stream, and his language or technique belongs to the post-Rabindra-Nazrul era. It appears that had he concentrated on poetry, he would have carved a niche as a prominent poet. Translation is never adequate in conveying the essence of poetry. And yet let me place some lines of some poems in English transliteration here. I shall add translation to that.
Let us begin with the title poem of the book, Ratribahini Padma, which, translated, may read as The Padma Carrying the Night. In transliteration, the opening lines are:
Ksheeno ratri. Mlan chand, chhnedakhnoda
ekhane okhane megh lagolago,
majhkhane dhoante akash.
Achchhanno tarar dal.
Nimilito alo andhare bishmrito praya.

My translation goes as follows:
Slender-looking night. The dim moon is there,
Shreds of cloud here and there almost close up,
smoggy sky hangs in between,
number of stars look sullen.
In hushed-up light and darkness they are mostly forgotten.

Readers will find this to be rich, modern and smart poetry, by any standard. Let me then give the closing stanza of this poem to show the stark spell it evokes:
The Padma flows, in a comparable stream; what a distant
purpose she maintains concealed.
In the hushed-up iridescence, her sandy waist
flashes like a scimitar.

The poems are well opened and well closed, leaving behind a deep impact of ideas or/and feelings, and sometimes the two remain in a mysterious blend. The measurement or balance is fine and tight. Those are simple scenes or episodes, as in Frost's poems, but the impact is reversely poignant. Students may remember the classroom lectures by Ahsanul Haque, smooth and simple flow of words there, apt anecdotes interspersed, and the lucid and total communication that resulted, instead of separate ideas or messages. Poetry also was there. Observe this short poem, Inside All Hearts:
It's a swabbed graveyard inside every heart
Fenced up with bamboo slips of ribs, covered up with
taut muscles.
A lot of silence, innumerable sighs
are pent up there.
There blows the air
of a lot of rending cries.
Only in seamless darkness appears sometimes
one person to light the lamp of affection.

Poetry is wonderful understanding achieved in trance, and communicated easily, mysteriously. I think it is here in this poem. Depth in such understanding Ahsanul Haque has achieved in age-old ways of mostly down-to-earth observations of broad and vast life. A sense of wonder and fun are included among them. Let us take some instances of these.
In Fire Is Aflame in Every House, the household item of fire gains unexpectedly in meaning and significance when, in the penultimate stanza, Ahsanul Haque apparently goes for only a slight shift of context:
Fire is ablaze in every house / flickeringly / flamingly / Or in ghastly burning / Fire of husks / coal, oil or electricity / Unless in raging sweeps all on a sudden / It burns down the whole household
The final multiplicity, range and depth of meaning is unimaginable even in the middle of the quite small poem. It is suddenly there, as a result of a few closing words, in the way a painter does it on the canvass, with a few finishing strokes. And the resultant extension or expansion in meaning is what leads to the creation of the allegory or symbol, of which Ahsanul Haque's poems are full. And those are so often dialectical frames, of contraries, in those poems. For Ahsanul Haque perhaps knows that life consists mostly of these, creating materials for painting, poems, etc. About another situation, for example, he finds that “As art of the artist has passed the test of time, /equally memorable is the uncouth person's/ heightened veins in his neck, his stuck-up jaws.” The small but very much meaningful situations conveying positive and vital messages are almost innumerable in the poems. Let us take as an example another small poem Under a Statement:
When I proceeded to underline a statement / it got curved / at a touch from the hand of / the small girl / All the times I turn over that page / fickleness sticks to that trembled line / though the words have turned much old and stale
It appears that in some poems, Ahsanul Haque tries to question and demolish some idea-frames going strong in society. It's difficult and challenging to do that, but Haque gives it a try, nevertheless. Conventionally, a musician enjoys an image of high esteem and reverence; but there may be a big gap between illusion and reality. Music may sometimes be a matter of performance and formal skill only with some singers. The same artiste may not be at all elevated in thoughts and aspirations; but rather a listener of such music may be exactly so. It is how reality has so many deceptive corners. In a very short poem, Right When Music Comes to an End, Ahsanul Haque places rather a counter-discourse to the traditionally bright image of a singer:
Right when music comes to an end, it's musician's taking seat on the chair / /Sitting gives stasis, rights, resource and wealth / But one who receives the music / Day and night, so often / Inaudible takes the place of audible music and goes on endlessly! /The listener doesn't get any / seat ever / stasis, rights, resource and wealth.
These are indescribably rich and complex ideas in this small poem, true of the non-musical areas of life as well. The continuum between artists and art recipients is a complex web, and one cannot conclude in favour of or against any part. What is no doubt true is the arrogance that develops in a human against any performance in any art. The deep look or insight that Ahsanul Haque's eyes can thus execute is amazing. The fun and humor are sometimes Chaucerian, and one may trace that to Ahsanul Haque's brilliant lectures on Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Excess following from success or winning is the truth of human behavior that one finds in Hers for Ever. In the poem, the exquisitely beautiful girl has spoilt her appearance, “the way a small boy spoils his painting/ by going to add a little more colour.”
Ahsanul Haque has sometimes brilliantly played with some Bengali words. In Leaves, for example, his final and serious theme is damage done to nature or the environment. But to convey that idea, he has taken recourse to pun vis-a-vis the word 'leaves'--leaves of trees which we damage and turn into leaves or pages of books and yet we do not stop. We place on leaves or pages of books ideas of “deadly destruction”, “sick, evil, torn thoughts/ messages of deceitful death.”
In a number of poems, Ahsanul Haque has raised issues of poverty, hunger and the like which still comprise the bigger realities for Bangladesh. He has critiqued the role of religion. He has not left out the question of genesis or evolution. Proof of his opposition to imperialism is there. Lamentably, these topics have now fallen out of favour, because of both conservatism and post-modernism. But modernity and modernism appear to compose his school of thought and poetry his grain. I would like to take cue from what he told me on hearing a Rabindra-sangeet that I most amateurishly sang in his honor at the farewell accorded to him by the Department of English, University of Dhaka. He was pleased and rather went on telling me, time and again, that I could still begin learning how to sing Rabindrasangeet, hinting that I would make a good singer. In my teacher's case, I would request him to go on doing it actuallywriting and publishing them, poems, more and more. Both his art and ideas demonstrate quality and potential.

Kajal Bandyopadhyay, an academic, teaches English literature at Dhaka University

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