This lecture was delivered by the poet at IOWA University during a residential fellowship there in 1996
I have never put this question to myself. If I had, perhaps I would have stopped writing. Even so, sometimes you need to look into a mirror to find yourself. You need to take stock of your resources, which may be meagre. Are they enough to get you through the winter? Even if you are not good at weighing and measuring, and even if your eyes are too dim to see clearly through the smog, you still need to take stock.
I was born four years before the demise of the British empire in my part of the world. True, the British Raj did finally breathe its last — the impossible did become a reality. But left in its wake was a country torn into two crumpled pieces: India and Pakistan. Unfortunately, I discovered myself blinking my eyes in the bright sunlight and gazing at the wonders of the cosmos, while wallowing among the huts and bushes, and blankets in the Eastern part of Pakistan, which was then known as East Bengal.
Democracy was unable to toddle across the threshold of infancy in Pakistan. One military tughlak followed another in quick succession. I can still see clearly the image of a pair of military boots poised over every month, over stifled cries and laughter. My own first breaths of joy, astonishment, and freedom were threatened by machine guns.
We are all more or less aware of the nature of colonial rule. In order to make their domination secure, the Britishers in our part of the world used communal suspicion and religious intolerance as their most effective weapon. But it would be wrong to cast blame on the foreign rulers alone. They did whatever best suited their own interests, while our national heroes, with their tunnel-vision and thinly disguised religious fervour, were immature and irresponsible. The British played the game well. I won’t try to estimate how much loot they had escaped with, but in exchange they inspired some enterprises that can be viewed as compensation for the blight of industrialisation. Except for some heroic but futile attempts by J C Bose and PC Roy, the world of science remained a sort of fairy tale droned night after night by a great-grandmother to lull the young ones to sleep. The scientific imagination was never ignited in my people. We in the eastern part of Pakistan shared this tarnished inheritance with the rest of the subcontinent. As time went on, conditions only became worse as the Pakistani military, costume-clad firishtahs, and cultural mullahs began to feel insecure and threatened. Political blackmail, brazen censorship, imprisonment, and merciless oppression failed to secure a safe haven for them.
The voice of the people began to be heard. Out of the blood and mire, Bengali was established as one of the two national languages. Yet decades of nightmare followed. In 1971 we fought our national war of independence, and Bangladesh emerged as an independent country on the map of the world.
I was in school during the early and late 1950s and began publishing in the mid-1960s. In my teens, I fell desperately in love with a Hindu girl from my village. The relationship was doomed from the very beginning because of our religious differences. I knew it; perhaps she did too. I have had to bear such a sense of national or religious guilt — of so many kinds and for so many things so many times over — that by now I have grown almost immune to it. But that gnawing awareness I experienced when I was still not much more than a kid played a decisive role in moulding my psyche. In the 1960s I was in and out of jail for political reasons and was barred for a long period by the government from enrolling in university studies. Even then, compared to the lot of ordinary people in my country, I had the fate of the blessed.
Nature was no kinder. Floods, typhoons, and tornadoes washed away or swallowed up homes at their will. Vultures and hawks swooped down on infants from all directions. Our sky, which looks so benevolent, is deceptive. Its play of colours and forms can change unexpectedly into fire and deluge.
English was introduced as a medium of instruction in the 1830s. The British did this not to make us civilized but rather to foster an English-speaking “babu” class, which would work as their henchmen, directly or indirectly serving their purposes. Most of the pioneers of Bengali literature were from this well-groomed “babu” class. In order to conform to the so-called “civilised” and predominantly European-mode of creation, they built their novels, poems, and plays on imported structures, neglecting the rhythm and language of our folk and fairy tales, with their vast and vibrating indigenous patterns of expression and their pulsating human emotions. In literature, all kinds of cross-fertilisation occur, which is healthy and welcome. But some grafts fail, and then the plant withers. In addition, not all the flora and fauna of a country can be transplanted. Yet we are grateful for the influence of other traditions. One Vidyasagar, one Bankim, one Mir Mosharraf, one Madhusudan could revitalise the Bengali language. In many parts of the colonised world, the colonisers succeeded in making the colonised completely forget their own culture and language. Thanks to the makers of our literature, we were not completely reduced to the position of Caliban.
Consciousness can never be completely killed or suppressed. It grows, dies, and then regenerates itself on so many levels, on so many horizons. Water has flowed through the Ganges, the Padma, the Kirtonkhola – sometimes muddy, sometimes swirling, sometimes blood-dimmed – into the sea for ages. Expectations and aspirations grow with the people, through the long-drawn sighs of their broken ribs.
Bangladesh became totally independent in 1971. Genocide, massacres, and rape on a massive scale had failed to reduce us to dust.
Things seemed so rosy then; hope glimmered on every horizon, under every sky, as if we could wash ourselves by the waters of the furthest Neptune or keep the sun glowing in our slow-beating hearts. History is neither linear nor horizontal. Perhaps it is circular. The rise of fundamentalism, the threat of an impending military coup, the muzzling of free minds, are again trying to break us down. Communal riots and racial hatred are raging across the plains of Bengal, making the rivers turbid, snatching infants from their innocent slumber, ripping the hymens of virgins, pulling the eyes of the aged from their sockets. We have rowed across the River Styx and have drunk the waters of Lethe in so many ages, for so many times. It has become our destiny – or our struggle.
I know history can be oppressive, a decomposing dead weight. You cannot make poetry out of it. You must forget it in order to live it in your verse. But for us it is a scathing tension, a burning facade. On the streets of Dhaka, you cannot take ten steps without falling into or breaking through the shoulders of surging people. Eyes, only eyes, you meet only eyes, looking vacantly into others’ eyes, glaring and burnt-out. For us, the past, the present, and the future are dried up logs on a pyre, a chita, that has suddenly caught fire. Now only the flickers of dying embers can be deciphered in the dim western sky at sunset. Will the day dawn tomorrow, however placid, misty, and common it may be?
I was born in a village near a river, among poor huts and decaying thatched roofs. I played among, quarreled with, and got beaten by street urchins who always went naked and were never looked after by their parents. Sometimes I had my revenge. The people who nursed and nurtured me, who helped my muscles grow and made my blood simmer, can no longer be found mowing or tilling the earth. They have long been either shadows among shadows or lying cold and safe in graves protected by damp earth. Trampled and battered, they have become earth in the house of dust. Legislation, government, executives, slogans for and against democracy, the rights of the people – these things had nothing to do with them; they simply spat them out.
These shadows float down the mire and blood of a poet’s veins. The corpses stubbornly refuse to decompose or melt away gently. This is the wound I must always bear.
I was born on a flowing river, the Daratana. My sweet river, on your gently flowing water I dreamt of getting lost with my fairy bride, under a full moon of pouring rains in a boat made of peacock feathers. But alas, the river is filling with silt, the bitter shallow water, full of garbage and waste, is getting thicker and thicker. Perhaps out of sheer spite and boredom the river overruns its banks, corroding both the land and homes with anger and filth. In revenge, the tilted banks sadly crumble into stagnant pools. But the memories — all the currents of politics and culture, of nature and cosmos — prevail. All the cravings of earth and heaven, the forebodings of Mohuya, Behula, Mallika, Nader chand, and Bhiku-into what new current do they flow? Or will they only keep sighing, heavy and monstrous in verse, carved of local wood, made of folk rhythms, formed out of spoken words, polished and chiseled, not forgetting the highest achievements of masters at home and abroad.
One river flows into another, oceans seek the shore of other lands, a man is born for another, the moon lives for the sun, and the sun for the moon. Let the poetry of one language, one country, be the meeting point, the place for giving and receiving, culminating in a single flow. We are of one flesh, we live on the same planet, only we write and talk in different languages. Let our poets be one voice in different tongues.
Rabindranath Tagore, Jibanananda Das, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Cesar Vallejo, and Pablo Neruda are my poetic mentors. A poetic bridge reaches from Bhola, an outlying island of Bangladesh, to Temuco, the furthest point of the Latin world. The sufferings of a Bengali peasant are consumed in the love and defiance of a Latin revolutionary. The harmonious flowing sound of Krishna’s bamboo flute is mingled with the muscular wild frenzy of an African drum.
You till earth, I write poetry
You sow seeds, I play with words
You cook, I give the flora and fauna their names
You give birth, I am born in my rhythms and incantations
Let my poetry be your muscle, strong and taut,
maybe doomed, decaying, maybe apprehensive,
but let it be fearless, a burning bush.
Really, what am I? A Puck! A Prospero! A Falstaff! A Macbeth! An Iago! An Othello! A Sade! A Ranikrishna! A Durjadhan! An Arjuna! A Ram! A Ravana! A classicist! A romantic! A premodern! A modern! A postmodern! Maybe all at once, when I get down to writing.
Maybe a protean fish caught in shallow but enchanting streams or a genie out of the Arabian nights, now a slave to one Aladdin of arid but volatile imagination.
I detest all these broken pieces strewn ominously along my path. I would like to put every piece in its proper place so as to make things complete and shapely.
So many voices, mangled,
So many memories, bloodstricken, fated,
So many faces, blighted,
So many heads, chopped off, mutilated,
So many currents converge, dirty but flowing in and outside me.
This is what I am.
For me, writing poetry is both a cultural and a political act It is the aesthetics of Being.
Let us be reborn in life, in poetry.
Let humanity unite.
Let my poetry be the voice of my people in a world torn by dark forces but illuminated by the hope of the astronauts’ journey through space.
My signature is my love.
I move naked and fierce
naked to the bone
I write with my blood, fierce but charred.
I have to search hard for an answer-what does it mean to be a Bengali from Bangladesh in the modern world?
This is why I write what I write.
About the Author:
Mohammad Rafique is one of Bangladesh’s most renowned poets. His poetry collections include Baishakhi Purnima, Mati Kisku, Gaodia, Duti Ganthakabya and Manab Padabali. A collection of his selected poems in English translation is forthcoming from Bengal Lights Books.