The first ekushey poem | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 21, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, March 08, 2015

The first ekushey poem

The first ekushey poem

Poet Mahbub Ul Alam Chowdhury with family members.
Poet Mahbub Ul Alam Chowdhury with family members.

In mid-2012, the poet Kazi Rozy stood on the witness stand at the International Crimes Tribunal, and declaimed, “Kandte ashini – phanshir dabi niye eshechhi.” I have not come to weep, but to demand they be hanged. These were not her own words; she was quoting from the first poem written on February 21, 1952. She quoted them because they expressed her own anguish and anger at the torture and death of her friend the poet Meherunissa – just as the poem had originally expressed the feelings of its young poet at the snuffing out of young lives. The language movement has often been linked with the nationalist movement and, in quoting Mahbub Ul Alam Chowdhury's lines, Kazi Rozy too was making a connection between 1952 and 1971.
The verses generally associated with Ekushey February are those of the dirge “Amar Bhaiyer Rokto Rangano Ekushey February.” But the first literary outpouring was that of a young poet and political activist in Chittagong.
In 1952, Mahbub Ul Alam Chowdhury was the convener of the All Party Rastra Bhasha Sangram Parishad in Chittagong. In February he fell seriously ill. He heard about the police firing in Dhaka. Rumours were rife that forty or more students had been killed. He felt both helpless and angry that he could do nothing in his condition. So he did the only thing he could do -- pour out his grief and anger in a poem:  “Kandte ashini – phanshir dabi niye eshechhi.” As he composed the poem, a number of his friends wrote down the lines. The poem was taken to Kohinoor Electric Press to be printed and circulated.

5000 copies of the poem were printed but immediately banned. All copies that were found were seized. Warrants of arrests were issued for the writer, for Harunur Rasheed who had recited the poem at a meeting at Laldighi Maidan on February 22, and for Kamaluddin Ahmed who had taken the paper needed for printing to the press.  Police were posted at Mahbub Ul Alam's house, but the young poet was able to slip away, disguised in a burqa.
For many years, the poem seemed to be lost. But there was a secret, handwritten copy. During a raid on S. M. Hall, one of the halls of residence of Dhaka University, a police officer named Mir Ashraful Hoque had seized a copy of the poem. He gave it to his daughter, Manzura Begum, to copy into her diary and then, as a loyal police officer, he destroyed the copy he had. Several years after the independence of Bangladesh, Mofidul Hoque, Mir Ashraful Hoque's son, revealed that his aunt had copied the poem in her diary.
However, this came to light many years later. Meanwhile, the first Ekushey poem was lost, remembered in fragments by those who had heard it, those who had recited it, and even by the poet who had composed it.  
 In 1974, Mahbub Ul Alam Chowdhury and his wife, Jowshan Ara Rahman, moved to Dhaka where they continued to reside until the poet's death in 2007. In 1987, Mahbub Ul Alam had to shift with his family to the home of Dr Rafiqul Islam – now Professor Emeritus University of Liberal Arts – who was married to Jowshan Ara's younger sister. Dr Islam requested Mahbub Ul Alam to recite the lines that he remembered.  The poet did so. In 1988, the opening lines of the poem from memory were written on the wall opposite the Shaheed Minar, along with the names of the language martyrs and quotations from other significant Bangla texts.
In 1983, Bangla Academy published Poems on 21st. Mahbub Ul Alam Chowdhury's poem was not included here because it was lost. However, in 1992, Bangla Academy republished Poems on 21st.  This time Mahbub Ul Alam Chowdhury's poem was included, along with an English translation – as in the case of the other poems. The opening lines of the poem as it appears in this edition are similar to the poem quoted from memory. They are, however, different from those of the poem that was recovered from Manzura Begum's diary and the original poem, discovered several years later fortuitously.  
In Prosongo: Ekusher Prothom Kabita (2002), Choudhury Zahurul Huq, a professor of Bangla at Chittagong University, describes how he was able to get hold of a copy of the poem as it was published by Kohinoor Electric Press. Abu Mohammad Tabibul Alam, who was working at the Kohinoor Electric Press in 1952 had managed to get a copy of the pamphlet from the compositor, M.N. Zaman Patowary. After the poem was banned, Patowary wrote the word “Cancelled”  across the front. When Patowary gave the copy to Tabibul Alam,  he signed his name on it along with the name and address of the press. Tabibul Alam and Mahbub Ul Alam Chowdhury signed their names subsequently. Zahurul Huq prints a facsimile of the pamphlet in Prosongo. Anyone interested in knowing the fascinating tale of how the first Ekushey poem was composed, printed, lost and found should read the detailed account in Choudhury Zahurul Huq's book and compare the different versions.  
But the question still remains: Which version is the version we should read or treat as the poet's final intent? The poem that was published in 1952 or that which appeared in 1992, forty years later? They are different as a comparison of the opening lines reveals.
In the 1992 version, as translated by Kabir Chowdhury, the opening lines read:
I have not come, where they laid down their lives
Under the upward looking krishnachura trees, to shed tears.
I have not come, where endless patches of blood
Glow like so many fiery flowers, to weep.
Today I am not overwhelmed by grief,
Today I am not maddened by anger,
Today I am only unflinching in my determination . . . .
The demand that those who perpetrated the crime be hanged comes several lines later in this version.

It was rumoured that forty students had been killed.
And the opening lines of the original poem contain this number. To understand the full impact of the original, one must read the title as part of the poem itself.  In my translation, the opening lines of the original poem are as follows:
I have not come to weep,
But to demand they be hanged
For those forty or more who laid down their lives
Under the sun-scorched krishnachura trees of Ramna,
For their language, for their mother tongue – for Bangla;
For those who laid down their lives
For the dignity of a country's great culture;
For the cultural heritage of Alaol,
For the literary heritage of Kaikobad, Rabindranath and Nazrul;
For those who laid down their lives
For the punthi of Maqbul Ahmed of Palashpur;
For the gantha of Ramesh Shil;
For the “Sojan Badiyar Ghat” of Jasimuddin;
For those who laid down their lives
For bhatiali, baul, kirtan, ghazal;
For those who laid down their lives
For these two lines of Nazrul's:
“The soil of my native land is purer
Than the purest gold”;
For those who laid down their lives
For their native land. . . .
In an interview given to New Age on February 21, 2004, Mahbub Ul Alam almost seemed to regret the fame of his poem. “It was both a blessing and a curse,” he said. None of his other writings, he felt, approached the quality of this poem. Not only does this poem express both the poet's sorrow and anger, it also vividly describes the rich non-communal heritage of this land.   

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The writer, who retired a few years ago from the University of Dhaka, continues to teach occasionally while pursuing her literary interests.

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