It was around a quarter to six in the afternoon on Tuesday. We were busy giving the final touch to the day’s business. I was engrossed with the pagination, weighed down under a deadline that was closing in on me. It was right then someone said, “Syed Shamsul Haq died!” For me the day’s business stopped right there.
It wasn’t even one month since we heard that doctors in England had refused to give him any false hope about the disease that had planted itself invincibly in his body. Cancer, that is. Since then literary editors around the town were looking for an opportunity to meet him, if only for the last time, to hear him talk about literature, culture. Some were chalking out plans to go for an evaluation of his work. I was one of them, no doubt. But none of us, perhaps, had any idea that he’d leave us so early as this.
As for myself, I was laying out an elaborate plan to assess his oeuvre. I was stunned soon enough to realise it was a herculean task, the accomplishment of which is no easy feat, and above all, it demands a substantial amount of time and a whole lot of scholarly articles from a whole lot of writers.
Haq’s oeuvre is not like a river that you can sail along or across, thereby collecting the materials in one sweep to gauge his depth and width. Because his is a confluence, not a river, and in that confluence has met several rivers to form what is perhaps the richest body of work left by any Bangladeshi author. He has written wonderful poetry; his novels number in dozens many of which have found a lasting place in Bangla fiction; his short stories are formidable; his nearly two dozen plays have imbued our theatre with a national character; his nonfiction and essays are written in a language that flits between poetry and prose ever so often. He was a translator too and his Bangla translations are graceful, to say the least. His body of work is vast, which, in terms of diversity, could arguably be compared to Buddhadeb Bose’s. His achievement in every genre is unquestionable. He’s written song lyrics and even tried his hand at painting and sculpting, which garnered praise from many. How can you possibly do justice, in the form of a holistic assessment, to such an oeuvre in the matter of two, or say, three weeks?
He has written a whole lot of modern poetry, and very successfully so, giving a shape to our secular collective consciousness, much like Shamsur Rahman. But he has done a lot more than that in poetry. At the risk of making a sweeping comment, I’d dare say his book of sonnet, Poraner Goheen Bhitor (Deep inside the heart), is his magnum opus in poetry. The only book that can be compared to its artistic success is that by Al Mahmud, Sonali Kabin (Golden Dowry). Both are equally successful in giving the sonnet form a much-needed modern dimension; both display a historical consciousness, siding unequivocally with the lower classes or castes; both evoke a strong sense of heritage which manifests itself in their careful choice of words from the oral traditions of rural Bangla.
But there are differences too and the starkest of them lies in their diction: while Mahmud writes in standard Bangla, Haq picks up a dialect, or several of them to be precise, and applies them successfully in the prosodic structure of sonnet, and what he retains is as much formal as informal, as much standard as vernacular. He is speaking not entirely in a dialect as his verbs at times waver between the sadhu variety of standard Bangla and the vernacular. That’s precisely where Haq’s excellence lies because he has taken up that vernacular form of lyrical narration which is still used in our punthi literature and many other forms of folk tales or ballads. But while the most common prosodic form in punthi is poyar, Haq has elevated it to Okkhorabritto, which is more sophisticated and definitely modern. If you brush aside all these formal aspects and focus only on the appeal it makes to readers, on that front too, this book is one of a piece, the taste of which stays on years after you have finished reading it.
What he has achieved in the realm of play is no less towering. The mastery with which he laid the foundation of modern poetic plays in this country is enough to etch his name on that particular plaque that never decays but glows steadily forever. It was he who, spending months in a library in England, had dug out the story of Nuraldin and the rest is history: his lyrical play on Nuraldin’s struggle and resistance against the zamindars and the Easdt India Company has become one of our most precious literary gems.
His novels are usually slim; at least none of them can be said to be spread over a vast canvas, cutting across several generations. They rather deal with a particular time in history, or a particular aspect of society, or a particular type of individuals. Unlike writers from his earlier generation i.e. Zahir Raihan, Alauddin Al Azad, Shawkat Osman, he chose his characters mostly from the middle class. Despite all of these limitations, some of our most powerful indictments of the Pakistan army’s genocide campaign in 1971 come from him: Neel Dangshan (Blue Venom), Nishiddho Loban (Forbidden Incense), Bristi O Bidrohigon (Rain and the Rebels). His Khelaram Khele Ja (Keep Playing, Khelaram) brings us to a different plain, not so well lit, beyond all the city glitz and glamour. A man in his late thirties goes to extra lengths to consummate his many relationships with women, one after another, and the spaces in between are filled with his philosophical digressions into the meaning of life, from the primacy of sexual fulfilment to the ultimate meaninglessness of life. First you’re inclined to believe it is modern, in the very sense Buddhadeb would consider it so, but as you inch towards the end, you begin to realise it is actually a ruthless critique of a profit-driven, capitalist society where the meaning of life, for those in positions of power, has been reduced to non-committal sexual fulfilment.
When it comes to translation of his work, his case is not unlike his peers. But he is still luckier than most. As part of a series of translation called Library of Bangladesh, two of his novels, Dangshan and Loban, have been recently translated into English and put into a sleek paperback by Bengal Lights. The books have been translated by Saugata Ghosh with the series being edited by Arunava Sinha. The translation is commendable and the selection, no doubt, superb. Sonia Nishat Amin has rendered into English his selected poems and Poraner Gohin Bhitor. Afsan Chowdhury has translated his Boishake Rochito Pongktimala (Verses Composed in Boishakh) and Radha Chakravarty his novella Gupto Jibon, Prakashyo Mrittu. Besides, I saw one of his stories translated by Clinton B Seely, anthologised in a book of Bangla short stories by UPL. These are all quality translations.
Apart from these, I’m sure there are other instances of translation of his work but I believe they are scattered here and there, and are yet to be put together in one or several books.
All in all, translation of his work is meagre compared to the vast body of his fiction, poetry and plays. So a lot more needs to be done on this front. The English book publication scene is visibly growing in Bangladesh and we believe more and more good publishers will come forward to make sure all of Haq’s seminal works see the light of quality translation.
First published in Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune, as a tribute to Syed Shamsul Haq, after he died on September 27 in 2016