Bengali Poetry of Passion and Rebellion

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Introduction

Bengal, Bangladesh is a marginal region spanning the world’s largest deltaic river basin. The political history of this region was the subject of the rule and exploitation of colonialism and imperialism for centuries. The revolt and protest of the oppressed people warranted attention. Just as these political realities have shaped the people of Bengal to be rebellious and revolutionary, so too have the harsh environment, climate, and terrain made them sentimental and thoughtful. A cocktail of emotion, thoughtfulness, and rebellion is evident in the history of Bengali poetry. Questions of life, philosophies of embodied knowledge, and literal and figurative love can be found in this poetry, from the first known Bengali poems of Charyapada (9thc CE or earlier) to the present day. Simultaneously, protest against exploitation, deprivation, classism, inequalities, and oppression flow through this long history of Bengali poetry. That the history of political poetry in Bengali dates back to ancient times, and that political consciousness is an essential aspect of Bengali poetry are, therefore, clear.

In this issue of Shuddhashar on political poetry, we have translated a few twentieth century Bengali poems into English, to present them to global readers. The poems appearing are: “Bastard, I demand rice” by Rafique Azad; “Beloved” by Sukanta Bhattacharya; “We have not come to shed tears” by Mahbub ul Alam Chowdhury; “The stench of corpses is in the air” by Rudra Mohammad Shahidullah; “Where will we keep this corpse?” by Shamsur Rahman; “Guerilla” by Syed Shamsul Haque; “A conversation in Kurukshetra” by Abul Hasan; and “This valley of death is not my country” by Nabarun Bhattacharya.

Translating poetry is difficult and time-consuming, and as all poets know, some ideas are simply not translatable. We therefore gave priority to the editor and translator’s preferences in selecting the poems. These translations were undertaken with care by writer and Shuddhashar’s editorial board member, Ikhtisad Ahmed.

Just as artistic representations of the Language Movement of 1952, the Liberation War of 1971, and opposition to authoritarianism are present in these poems, so too do they contain the yearning, call, commitment, and dream to build an egalitarian local and global society that will keep alight the eternal flame of humanity. We hope that through these translated poems, poetry enthusiasts around the world shall gain a small insight into the political feeling, passion, and power of Bengali poetry. – Editor

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Bastard, I demand rice Rafiq Azad

Rafiq Azad (February 14, 1941 – March 12, 2016)

 

I am starving: in my belly, my flesh and bones

I feel wave upon wave of insatiable hunger;

As drought sets fire to the grain fields in Chaitra

So, with God’s grace, burns my hunger, burns my flesh;

Two handfuls twice a day is all I ask for,

Mortals ask for and receive multitudinous blessings, they seek:

House, car, fortune – some even lust after fame,

Mine is but a humble request, as the arid desert within burns

I want rice – a direct demand – cold or hot;

It matters not that it may be a small or sizeable ration

Of red rice – I want an earthenware full of rice;

I will cease all other demands if only I get two handfuls twice daily;

Scarcely an unreasonable desire, for there is none carnal,

I asked not for that sari tied under that naval, nor the woman to whom they belong;

Whomsoever desires her can take her; bequeath her unto whomsoever you desire,

Be aware: I have no need for such trivial earthly things.

 

 

Beloved Sukanta Bhattacharya

Suakanta Bhattacharya (August 15, 1926 –May 13, 1947)

 

I am a guard at the border today.

Overcoming many a blood-drenched path

Have I ground to a halt here –

At the frontier of my homeland.

Overcast Tunisia to sunny Italy,

Sunny Italy to revolutionary France I ran,

Destined by the stars,

Seized rifle in hand, indomitable:

France to neighbouring Burma too.

Body clad in soldier’s coarse uniform today,

Indomitable rifle still in hand,

The pride of victory and strength riding wave upon wave of blood,

I am a guard at the border today.

 

The blue sky has sent me an invitation today,

The winds of my homeland have borne a request,

A green letter held open in front of my eyes:

Tell me, how am I to avoid him?

How am I to avoid this coarse uniform?

The war has ended. Peace stretches across the fields,

Its cool air caresses my eyes,

Each passing moment loosens my grip on the rifle,

Desires to peel off my skin this coarse uniform,

The moon rises at night: my eyes know not sleep.

 

How I have thought of you for days,

In the midst of awaiting word of the enemy’s move,

In the midst of exploding shells.

How my mind has strayed, in the midst of winning the war,

How my heart has burned in the embers of remorse,

Thinking of you and yours.

 

I left you in the midst of poverty,

Threw you into the flames of famine,

By storm and flood, by the painful misery of plagues

Your existence was repeatedly endangered.

And I but ran from one battlefield to another.

I know not if you are alive today,

Starved during famine or drowned in the flood

I know not.

 

Yet I write to you today, write with hope undimmed:

The time has come to return home.

I know, not a soul is waiting for me

In garlands and flags, lamps and on Mars;

I know, not a pair of lips will part in welcome

Heroism will not be rewarded by the collective happiness.

Yet, a heart will dance to the beat of my presence,

Your heart.

 

I desire war no more, it has ended;

The mind wants not to venture to Indonesia,

Forward no more,

It is now time to return.

Many a war have I fought for others,

I fight now for you and me.

When asked, “What did you gain from all your wars?” I answer:

In Tunisia I found victory,

In Italy friendship of the citizens,

In France freedom’s incantation,

And in thornless Burma, the urgency to return home.

I am that lamplighter

Who lights lamps on highways and streets at dusk

But has not the ability to light a lamp in his own home;

In my own home unbearable darkness reigns.

 

 

We have not come to shed tears Mahbub ul Alam Chowdhury

 

Mahbubul Alam Chowdhury (November 7, 1927- December 7, 2007)

 

They were forty, perhaps more

Who gave their lives there – under Ramna’s sun-drenched krishnachura

For language, for mother language – for Bengali.

Those who gave their lives there

For the dignity of a nation’s glorious culture,

The heritage of Alaol,

Of Kaykobad, Rabindranath and Nazrul,

For their literature, their poetry.

Those who gave their lives there

For the tome

Of Palashpur’s Mokbul Ahmed –

For the ballad of Ramesh Sheel,

For Jasimuddin’s “Shojon Badiya’s Ghat”.

Those who gave their lives

For Bhatiali, Baul, Kirtan, Gazal,

Nazrul’s, “Purer than pure gold

Is the soil of my homeland.”

For these two lines.

For the soil of their homeland,

On the soil of Ramna Field

Like the countless fallen krishnachura petals

Forty souls, unspoilt, full of vigour,

Within the husk of sprouting seeds

I can see the endless flow of blood from their chests.

The blood from the chests of young Rameswar and Abdus Salam,

The blood from the chests of the university’s very best.

I can see every crimson drop of theirs

On Ramna’s lush green grass

Flaming fire, flaming, flaming.

Each a piece of finely crafted diamond

Forty of the university’s very best gems,

Lived had they, would have become

Pakistan’s most valued treasures

Within whom breathed

Lincoln, Arago, Einstein,

Within whom breathed

This century’s, civilisation’s

Most progressive ideologies.

Where those forty gems gave their lives

We have not come to shed tears.

Those who came here with loaded rifles at the ready,

Those who came with orders to brutally, ruthlessly kill,

To them we have

Come not to plead for our language.

We have come to demand the murderous tyrants be hanged.

 

We know they were killed,

Mercilessly fired upon.

Amongst them was an Osman, like you,

Like your father, one of theirs

Is a clerk, or in one of East Bengal’s

Secluded villages the father

Toils to crop gold from the soil,

Perhaps one father is

A government employee.

Like you or I alive

They too could have been

Today,

Like me, perhaps one

Had his wedding day set,

Like you, perhaps one,

Hoping to read the newly arrived letter from mother,

Had left it on the table to join the protests.

With chests full of boundless hopes and dreams

Those who were butchered by the tyrants’ bullets,

In those martyrs’ names

I demand they be hanged.

 

Those who wanted to exile my mother language

I demand be hanged.

Those whose commands caused these innocent deaths

I demand be hanged.

Those who on these fresh corpses

Have stepped, ascending to power

For those traitors

I demand justice.

At the very place on that open field

My countrymen demand to see

The convicted murderers shot.

 

Pakistan’s first martyrs

Are these forty gems.

The nation’s very best forty boys

With mother, father, new bride, children

In this earth’s bosom each

Dreamt of

Building familial lives,

Those who dreamt of taking

Einstein’s scientific research even further,

Those who dreamt of giving their lives

To the pursuit of using molecular energy

For the good of humanity,

Those who dreamt of composing

A poem more beautiful, more complete

Than Rabindranath’s “Bashiwallah”,

Those martyred brothers of mine

Where you gave your lives

From there, even a thousand years hence,

The blood smears on the soil

Cannot be erased by the march of civilisation.

 

Though countless obscure voices may break the silence

The university bell shall toll

Every day to mark

The hour of your historic martyrdoms.

Though rain and storm may shake

The very foundations of the university

The halo around your martyred names

Shall never be dimmed.

 

The oppressive hand of the murderous tyrants

Can never diminish nor defeat

Your many dreams and hopes;

On the day we emerge victorious from our fight

On the day of justice

O my martyred brothers,

On that day from the depths of silence

Your voices

Shall flow

With the soaring cry of independence;

On that day the citizens of my land

Shall hang, shall hang

The murderous tyrants from the gallows;

Your hopes and dreams like flames shall burn

In the joy of vengeance and victory.

 

 

The stench of corpses in the air Rudra Mohammad Shahidullah

Rudra Muhammad Shahidullah (October 16, 1956 – 21 June 21, 1991)

 

I still smell corpses in the air

I still see death’s naked dance on the earth,

I still hear the anguished wails of the raped in my sleep…

Has this land forgotten that macabre night, that blood-soaked time?

The stench of corpses fills the air

Blood stains the earth.

They who, touching the forehead of this bloodstained earth, once puffed out their chests,

They who find the forbidden darkness in the throes of weary life,

Today, loving the lightless cage, remain awake in the abyss of night.

As if a virgin mother agonised, ashamed at a lost birth,

Independence – will this be a lost birth?

But the fruit of a fatherless mother’s shame?

The vulture of old has sunk its talons into the nation’s flag.

The stench of corpses in the air

Still, neon lit, within the swaying dancer’s body brews a storm of flesh.

Bloodstains on the earth –

Still, the bones of starving people collect in the silos.

Sleep eludes these eyes. Sleep eludes me all night –

In my sleep I hear the tormented wails of the raped,

Rotten corpses float like algae on the river,

The gruesome headless torso of a young girl chewed on by dogs

Appears within my eyes. I cannot sleep, I

Cannot sleep…

Wrapped in a shroud of blood – fed on by dogs, fed on by vultures

He was my brother, she was my mother, he was my beloved father.

Independence, thou are mine – my kin, lost and found again kin –

Independence – the priceless harvest bought with the blood of my dearest.

The sari of my raped sister my blood-soaked nation’s flag.

 

 

Where will we keep this corpse? Shamsur Rahman

Shamsur Rahman (October 23, 1929 – August 17, 2006)

 

Where will we keep this corpse?

Where is a tomb thus worthy?

The earth, the mountains of it formed

Or the truest blue seawater –

None can contain it within their triviality!

Thus I leave not this corpse

On earth, mountain or in the sea,

I have granted it a place in my heart.

 

 

Guerrilla Syed Shamsul Haque

Syed Shamsul Haque (December 27, 1935 –September 27, 2016)

 

Unending

South Vietnam

Cambodia

Bangladesh

In Angola

In Mozambique, you

Through the cosmos

Walk with alert, silent footsteps day and night while the villages

Are deserted, cracked attics and pantheons in fallen leaves

Covered uninterrupted within the sound of breathing

Your motion

As if you are our very own second

Coming of a Rabindranath

Song at the epicentre of everything

Voicing the mountains of sorrow

Of Africa, of Asia

You, a new tree in the cosmos

New tree, new flower

A new mizzen on the horizon

Patriarchy’s penance illustrated

Through exploding napalm

You walk on

Primed, alone

A brilliant cheetah amidst a deserted village.

 

 

A conversation in Kurukshetra Abul Hasan

Abul Hasan (August 4, 1947-November 26, 1975)

 

O Arjun, there is blood on my jowl, I knew

I cannot prevent the killings of children, of maidens!

Foeticide! Worse still, o Arjun, I knew

Humans want not to be born, their death constant, pervasive!

Blood on my navel – I knew, how I knew

I cannot stop this vexation of theirs, this madness

Of theirs I cannot stop.

Prevent famine and revolution I cannot,

Stop the theft of lavish rice from the silo I cannot,

I cannot cover mankind’s decline with relief cloth!

Ripe for marriage, Shefali’s neck calls out for lust’s red and poison,

Of starvation robbed are we of maidens, never maidens made,

O Arjun, I knew.

Brother refusing to go on the run, sister’s longing lost, I knew

The flower will not bloom, will not bloom, will bloom no more, flowers

Will never bloom again.

So will be murdered the singing birds nesting in bullet wood trees,

Throats, wings, of words constructed feathers

Thus shattered, I knew

The children of partridges and eagles alike rendered

Thus mad, begging, insane;

In the Indian festival of war we

But trade in arrows,

I knew, o Arjun – how I knew.

 

 

This valley of death is not my country Nabarun Bhattacharya

Nabarun Bhattacharya (June 23, 1948 –July 31, 2014)

 

The father who is afraid to identify his child’s body

Him I loathe –

The brother who remains shamelessly normal

Him I loathe –

The teacher, intellectual, poet, clerk

Who do not openly demand revenge for this murder

Them I loathe –

Eight corpses

Sprawled across the path of consciousness,

I am losing my mind;

Eight pairs of eyes wide open watch me in my sleep

I wake screaming

They call me to the field at odd hours, at all hours,

I will lose my mind,

Commit suicide,

Do whatever I please.

 

Now is the time to write poetry

In manifestoes, on walls, in stencil,

In a collage with one’s own blood, tears, bones,

Now can poetry be written

In severe pain, with tattered face,

In the face of terror – in the van’s flickering headlight,

Keeping a steady aim

Now can poetry be flung

At ’38 and whichsoever killers there are,

Now can poetry be read, denying everything.

 

The lock-up stone is in the freezer,

The light shaken by the hijacking of the autopsy,

In the courtroom run by the killer

In the school of false illiteracy

In the state apparatus of exploitation and terror

In the bosom of military-civilian authorities

Let the protest of poetry resonate

Let Bangladesh’s poets

Like Lorca be prepared

To be murdered, suffocating body disappeared, stitched together by the Sten gun’s bullet,

Let them be prepared;

With poetry’s countryside

To surround poetry’s city there is an urgent need.

This valley of death is not my country

This altar to executioners is not my country

This vast crematorium is not my country

This blood-drenched slaughterhouse is not my country

I will take, snatch back my country

To my bosom I will draw the fog moistened late afternoon and floating

Fireflies around the body or soaring in the mountains

Countless atoms of the heart, fairy tale, flower, woman, river,

Stars named after each martyr to my heart’s content,

In the shadow of the swaying wind and sun I will call upon the pond shaped like a fish’s eye

Love – from whom separated by lightyears have I been, untouched since birth –

He too shall I call to me on the day of revolution’s saturnalia.

 

Endless interrogation night and day, thousand-watt light shining in eyes

I reject –

Lain on blocks of ice, needles under the nails

I reject –

Hung by tied legs until blood drips from the nose

I reject –

Boot on the lips, body thoroughly wounded by burning spear

I reject –

Sharp whip cracked on back, alcohol poured into the bloodied wounds

I reject –

Electric shock to the naked body, perverted sexual torture

I reject –

Beaten to death, revolver to the skull held and shot

I reject –

Poetry acknowledges no obstacles,

Poetry is armed, poetry is free, poetry is fearless.

 

Look, Mayakovsky, Hikmet, Neruda, Arago, Eluard,

We have not allowed your poetry to be defeated.

Rather, an epic is being composed by the whole country

Every verse is being composed to the guerrilla rhythm.

Let the hordes roar!

Indigenous villages like coral islands

Indigo fields reddened by blood

Titash wounded by the poisonous foam of conch

Toxic, deadly, crushed by thirst,

Arjun’s bow-string sings, the sun is blinded

By sharp arrows fiercely flung –

Bhalla’s halberd by the side

Spears with every blink of the eye, paving the road to occupied chars

Blood-eyed tribal totems springing to the beat of the Madal

Seize gun, sickle and boundless courage:

So much courage that there is fear no more,

And a parade of cranes and toothed bulldozers

Working dynamo, turbine, lead and engine,

Solid diamond eyes in the landslide coaly methane darkness

Surprise steel hammer

Thousands of hands raised to the jute mill furnace’s sky –

No, I am not afraid;

The pale face of fear looks unfamiliar

When I know that death is nothing but love.

If I am murdered

I will spread as the flame of every lamp in Bengal

I cannot be destroyed –

I will return as the green shoots on the ground year after year

I cannot be destroyed –

I will be there in happiness, in sorrow, at child-births, at funerals

For as long as Bangladesh exists

For as long as people exist.

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