12:15 AM, August 30, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 10:53 PM, August 30, 2013

Cover Story


As a student of English literature at Dhaka University, Syed Shamsul Haq was once asked to write a paper on Milton's Paradise Lost. He wrote it without using any references or quotes. His professor did not like it and scolded him for not following the rules. He responded by leaving the class and the University for good saying, “University cannot teach me anything.” Today he is the polymath whose equal Bengali literature has not seen in ages. His work is taught at schools, colleges and universities. He writes magical verse plays, straight-from-the-heart poems and novels and stories with a deepened awareness of time in the depiction of the human condition. With words he can take the dark out of the night as well as paint the daytime black. He has been analysed, categorised, defined, dissected, detected, inspected, and rejected by a few, but never completely figured out. He has written about love and honour, pity and pride, compassion and sacrifice and peace and war. At 78, he has won every major award there is in the field of literature in the country.

A Polymath Of Our Time

"I write poetry, stories, novels, plays and essays. I do not consider them separate mediums. They all accomplish the same thing—expression through language. They all stem from the same source—language which is the only material I have like a painter with his colour,” says Syed Haq sitting in a room full of portraits, paintings and statues. He lives in a house with green all around with Anwara Syed Haq, his wife, also a brilliant writer and a much sought after psychiatrist.
He writes about things that everyone knows but does not know they know. Or, he creates out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. To explore this creativity, and to watch it grow, is a pleasure; the world he creates is at once familiar and miraculous.  When he  shuts himself up in his study  to hone his craft – to create a new world – if he uses his inner conflicts as his starting point, he is, whether he knows it or not, putting a great faith in humanity.

“If I don't write, I don't feel well,” says Syed Haq. “If I don't write, I don't feel well,” says Syed Haq.

Despite all the accolades he is quite unmoved by the fanfare. “What difference would it make if newspapers stopped publishing poetry for six months? Will people march to the streets and demand the return of poetry?” he asks casually, drinking a cup of coffee.

Why then should we read poetry? What would happen if we didn't?

At this point Anwara Syed Haq enters the room with some snacks. “Please have some, son,” she says with the affection of the eternal mother.
“Once in Chandrima Uddyan I saw a boy reciting from a book of my poems, lying down under the shade of a tree while a girl sat transfixed listening to him,” he says.  “So it's very useful then.  It is uniting two people, which is not an easy task.”
Just when I start wondering if that's all there is to poetry, he roars like thunder, “'Bolo Bir/ Bolo Unnoto Momo Shir/Shir Nehari Amari Notoshir Oi Shikhor Himadrir.' If we listen to this poem by Nazrul, we cannot but stand up if we are sitting. Poetry has this power.  Or, when Tagore says, 'Mrityur Mukhe Daraye Bolibo Tumi Acho Ami Achi', he is offering a promissory note—even if Death comes, we will defy Death, our love will defy Death.”
He continues, “I would like to believe each one of us at some point of our life has experienced love. But for most of us the experience is like a fog. It has no shape. When you read or listen to a poem on love, that fog turns into a concrete shape. That's what poetry does—giving shape to your experience and unformulated words. It gives you wings to fly. You understand yourself and the world a little better. Or, you get another perspective of looking at things.”

When he is not writing or thinking about writing something, he likes to paint. When he is not writing or thinking about writing something, he likes to paint.

Listening to him one is reminded of French novelist Proust who in Against Sainte-Beuve wrote, "The beautiful things we shall write if we have talent are inside us, indistinct, like the memory of a melody which delights us though we are unable to recapture its outline…”
George Orwell in his 1946 essay Why I Write identified four explicit motives for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose.  “If I don't write to empty my mind, I go mad,” Lord Byron once confessed.   Ernest Hemingway said, “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.” Somerset Maugham called writing 'the supreme solace'.

So why does Syed Shamsul Haq write?

“This morning I woke up at 5 am and started working on a sonnet in my head.  I felt one with the morning light, the birds singing and the dancing of the leaves of the trees with the wind. I felt a joy in my heart. I felt better,” says Syed Haq. “Many years ago I wrote my first couplet seeing a red bird on a tree. I was ecstatic just to be able to express my experience in words. When my first book got published, I thought what an inspiration!  A bound book with my name on it! I have more than two hundred books now. I get honorarium which is nice but I get used to it. ”
Why then he keeps on writing?

“I write for myself,” he utters with a deep, smoky voice. “Now I will give you the answer you were expecting or not expecting.  I have things to say. I respond to my surroundings and my time. I respond to my people, to whatever direction the nation and the world is going through. Words come to me. They come to me in the form of a poem, a story, a play or a novel.  I want to share it with all. If I don't, I feel ill. If you like it, keep it in your heart. If you don't, forgive me. But I will still go on.” There is hardly any time when he is not thinking about writing something. He says, “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night realising that I was trying to rhyme two lines in a poem in my sleep. If I am writing a novel, the characters come alive in my head even when I am sleeping. They wait for my next move.”

Bengali literature has not seen a polymath of his equal in ages. Bengali literature has not seen a polymath of his equal in ages.

Does he know how his stories, novels or plays will end?

“Always. Until I have a general idea about the whole thing, I cannot begin to write. Some writers have a different style—they begin and figure out as they go on,” says Syed Haq.

In 1951 he went to Bombay to work as an assistant to film director Kamal Amrohi while he was making his famous Mahal. But writing was his true calling and he left Bollywood the next year.  His father, a doctor did not like the idea of him becoming a writer.  “But if you must write, do it with the most expensive pen and on the most expensive paper. And always be dressed up when you write,” he quotes his father as if his father's voice still resonates after all these years. Since then, he cannot write in shabby clothes. After a shower by 8:30, he is dressed up like he has to go out even if he doesn't. On this particular morning he is wearing his signature jeans shirt.
Throughout the conversation he makes known his deepest respect for his late father. He also acknowledges his wife for her companionship.  He says with a sense of gratitude and thankfulness, “Had she not been there in my life, I would not become who I am today. She has been a shelter, a provider and a comforter. I am grateful for her.”

His wife Syed Anwara Haq is a prominent writer and a renowned psychiatrist. His wife Syed Anwara Haq is a prominent writer and a renowned psychiatrist.

Once his father shared with him what he learned in the first class of his medical school, “If you want to become a doctor you must have three things—an eagle's eyes, a lion's heart and a lady's fingers.” Many years later he woke up one night thinking how true his father's words rang as far as writing was concerned.  A writer must have sharp eyes to pick up details and see everything. He must have a lion's heart meaning he must not be afraid of telling the truth. And he must have the hand of a mother so he can treat the subject of his writing with great gentleness.  “Shakespeare created Macbeth, a killer with great compassion, understanding and care,” says Syed Haq.  “In Payer Awaj Paoa Jai I created with this compassion the character of the Matbor (village leader) who was a razakar. We shall condemn him but we must do it with the drop of a tear. We must know why his character became like this.”

Why did his character become like this?

His mother holding her new born granddaughter. His mother holding her new born granddaughter.

He answers, “In every war and every revolution we see collaborators who take the side of the oppressors.  However, we are setting a very dark example by still arguing about things like whether the liberation war was a good idea. I have written plays on these issues. They reappear in my novels time and again.  But I know that people will choose the right path once again. I say this with a conviction that comes not from my imagination but from history.”
There was a time when poets and writers in this country were in the front line of protests against social injustice.  Now it may seem that they have fallen silent.

Does he think poets are becoming silent?

“Not I,” he says with an unswerving tone. “Some people including writers and poets do things for material gains. And sometimes they are afraid to tell the truth.  But overall, going back to your question, I do not think so. One example is the national poetry festival where poets share their political opinions and views loudly denying the softness and sensitive nature that is often labeled to them, Poets have always been in the centre stage in Africa and Latin America.   And it is very much true in Bangladesh. Now you can say that a great voice in poetry is not emerging. You cannot order a great poet from a tailor shop. You have to wait.”
He is known for his lyrical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that force entry into oppression's closed rooms. His plays and novels about the liberation war delve into the psychological state of the people and their inner conflicts in a war torn country.  Payer Awaj Paoa Jai (1976) which aptly articulates ignorance and misuse of religion is even more relevant today. His poems reveal a deep inspiration and in a mysterious way appeal to the reader's own feelings and stimulate their imagination. His prose is   rich and intensive and with compassion forms a challenging vision of man's vulnerability. In Pronito jibon, he talks about how from a very religious but progressive family he became what he is today. “I wanted to portray the transformation of the modern Muslim,” says Syed Haq. His   plays Nuruldiner Shara Jibon (The entire life of Nurul Din), Judhha ebong Judhha (War and war), Ekhane Ekhon (Here, now) and novels Neel Dangshon (The Blue Sting, 1981), Smritimedh (Massacre of Memory, 1986), Ek Mutho Janmabhumi (A Fistful of Motherland), Megh O Machine (Cloud and Machine, 1991) among others have inspired generations. He has won the highest literary awards of the country including the Bangla Academy Award (1966), Ekushey Padak (1984), Independence Day Award (2000), National Poetry Award (1997) and National Poetry Honour (2001).
A voracious reader of linguistics and colonial history of Bengal, he reads detective stories to let off steam when he feels like his brain is clogged up with complex plots.  “I also regularly read the work of new writers.  I like to know what they are thinking and writing about.” He loves to paint if he has time. He likes to listen to western classical music, Nazrul Geeti and Rabindra Sangeet. Bob Dylan's poetry and songs inspire him.
Syed Haq, despite his busy schedule has been very patient for the last couple of hours.  It is now time to leave.  The couple stands up graciously to say goodbye.
I point out to a 2008 concert in Brady Theatre, Tulsa, USA where Bob Dylan said, “Songs cannot change the world. I have seen all that.”  Anwara Syed Haq quickly assures me that it must have been out of momentary frustration. He nods in affirmative.
Syed Shamsul Haq leaves no room in his heart for anything but the old verities of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any work of art is ephemeral and doomed. Until a writer does so, he is wasting everyone's time.  He writes about lust, not love; victory that has no hope and defeats in which no one loses anything that matters.

Syed Haq says that he could not become who is today without her support and companionship.  Syed Haq says that he could not become who is today without her support and companionship.


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