All those men and our heritage . . . | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 07, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, April 07, 2012

Two reviews from Syed Badrul Ahsan

All those men and our heritage . . .

Abdul Matin's interest in Bangladesh's politics, indeed its overall historical legacy, has endured despite his being away from the country for more than half a century. His links with Bangladesh and its people remain as strong as they were when he made his move to Britain in 1960. Unlike so many others, his curiosity about the country has been a constant, a truth which manifested itself especially well during the War of Liberation in 1971 when he threw himself wholesale into garnering foreign support for the Bengali cause.
In more ways than one, therefore, Matin has been a repository of national history, a fact borne out by the regularity with which he has written on Bangladesh over the years. His respect for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has never wavered. Neither has his commitment to democracy and secularism been anything less than powerfully pronounced. His books, beginning with such works as Geneva-e Bangabandhu and moving on to well-researched documents pertaining to the role of Bengalis during the war as also his analyses of politics in post-1975 Bangladesh, have in them all the hallmarks of rich, sustained scholarship.
It is just this kind of the scholarly which he brings into Jibonsmrity: Ekti Bishesh Oddhaye. But let no one be lulled into the false belief that the work is a mere enumeration of the little details relating to Matin's life. Of course it is about him, but in a way which places the focus on the men who have over the decades carved out definitive intellectual swathes of territory across Bangladesh's aesthetic landscape. They are all contemporaries of Matin, individuals with whom his links have naturally become loosened owing to his being abroad. And yet Matin, being the fairly regular visitor to Bangladesh he has always been, has kept in touch with them. Some have passed on, beyond the temporal world. These are individuals whose contributions to the growth of a distinctive secular Bengali identity have kept Bangladesh moored to its heritage.
Observe the list of these illustrious men. There are twenty one of them, beginning with Syed Nuruddin, Sardar Fazlul Karim, Sanaul Haq and going all the way down to Debesh Das and Santosh Gupta. Abdul Matin's interaction with them has been intense, one reason being the common philosophy of life and politics that they have all pursued in the course of their varied careers. One who is familiar with Matin's scholarly pursuits over the years will certainly recall the diligence with which he has maintained the record of a generation which truly brought about a revolutionary change in Bengali life through the secular democratic movements of the 1960s and the War of Liberation in 1971. The generation is Matin's, and of those on whom he dwells in this work. Over the years, Matin has written pretty extensively on such personalities as Syed Waliullah, Shamsuddin Abul Kalam, Shaukat Osman and others. He now brings all these men, and a lot more besides, into the framework of the present work, which is not bad at all.
No, it is not bad. It is actually a brilliant idea to have brought together, within the ambit of his own memories as a Bengali and as part of a trail-blazing generation of Bengalis, some of the figures who have continued to inspire people in Bangladesh. A sure strand of the literary seems to bind these individuals together. In a number of refreshing instances, Matin lets you in on the thought that it was a love of reading --- and the subjects ranged from literature to history to politics --- which drew him to these men. And let it not be forgotten, though, that a young Matin made his way into the intellectual world of the Bengali fundamentally through literature, through writing short stories as it were. Those were good times, in the early 1940s when there were yet no ominous signs of India being sliced into to on grounds of communalism.
Jibonsmriti is, in that wider sense of the meaning, a compendium of ideas as they have flowed from some of the individuals who can truly be referred to as makers of our history. And while we are on the subject of history, do not forget that Abdul Matin includes in the work a good number of essays on a diversity of social and political issues which have exercised public minds in Bangladesh over the past few decades.
To the student of Bangladesh's history, Matin's new endeavour should be a joy to read. The writer's heart and soul --- and there lies the beauty of the tale --- have remained in the homeland he thought he had left behind all those years ago. There is little sign of the expatriate in him.

. . . the perennial power of poetry

Helal Hafiz is a formidable presence in Bengali literature. And Poems Seventy One remains proof of it. You could quite properly ask why the poet needed to come forth with an English language version of Kobita Ekattor. You could even suggest the old yarn about ideas and essence getting lost in translation. And that would not be out of place. But there is too, here in this thought-provoking collection of Hafiz's poetry, a gentle, almost soothing feeling of the poems having been handled rather competently by Jubak Anarjo. The translator has in a number of instances clearly kept himself at a safe remove from the usual malady, that of reducing the original into a poor replica of it.
Turning to the question of Helal Hafiz's place in modern Bengali poetry, there is always his Nishiddho Shompadokio to recall --- ekhon joubon jaar michhile jabar tar sreshto shomoy / ekhon joubon jaar juddhe jabar tar sreshto shomoy. The lines, sometimes the entirety of the poem, have been quoted by the young over the years. That old radicalism, reminiscent as it is of the rebellious Bengali vis-à-vis 1971, is even today a stark call to action. Which is just as well, for the rebellious streak in the Bengali has always sustained him in his struggle for a better, more purposeful existence. Note Anarjo's translation: Now who is in youth / it is the best time for him to go to the procession / Now who is in youth / it is the best time for him to go to the war..
You get that somewhat queasy feeling that the translation could have been better, could indeed have been a little more of an approximation of the original in terms of poetic sensibilities. But if you are disappointed here, there is something of consolation in the translation of the poem Agnyutshob. The poet and his translator call it Festival of Fire, which seems rather apt:
That was a festival of fire, on that day / I kept my whole heart on the auto fire-arm / I staked by the name of love / the homeland was born indebted to blood / my eyes were not to you / the homeland then was your co-wife . . .
There is that dichotomy of love of land and devotion to the lover here. But, then, Hafiz does find a way toward a compromise, in the manner of the lover-patriot he projects himself to be:
Rather today let us like the songs of Jahidur / Summon boshekh from the heart, bring in both lives / Do you know, Helen . . .
An acute sense of romance works in Helal Hafiz, love which goes unrequited and yet which must not die. The end of love is but a symbolism of the pointless, even if love has left one in desperate circumstances:
You know, the neighbours know I did not get you / but you are in the pleasure and sacrifice of this ascetic-poet.
Move on, and stop at this celebration of love:
Touch me, woman, touch me close / Nothing miraculous / you are extreme, the owner of humane magic / my rescue is only with your soft touch.
The mind in Helal Hafiz is in swift motion. It moves from the relationship between man and woman to the obscenity of civilisational decline:
You can understand neutron bomb / but not man!
In Helal Hafiz resides a comprehensive poetic soul. The range in him is wide, encompassing within it a diversity of subjects and themes that only modern man lives through and, in a sense, appreciates.
Let the last word be his:
Perhaps I have defeated you / or I have been defeated / let the classic obscurity be / who left whom.

Syed Badrul Ahsan edits Star Books Review and Star Literature.

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