Time is a fluke, it is and it sometimes cracks, in a manner of speaking that is. It’s only a little short of ten years now since October 2006, when Shamsur Rahman, ‘unquestionably the foremost poet’ of the new nation in Bangladesh breathed his last. He already seems to be half-forgotten, or even worse, is only recalled to ditch in the bins, however. How quiet! In March 2001, a sub-continental writer’s conference in Dhaka recognized him in right earnest for a lifetime achievement and as a festschrift that followed the event two years later put it Shamsur Rahman happened to be ‘a witness of his times’. No less or no more, that is.
In 1947 Shamsur Rahman was barely eighteen. ‘In his adolescence,’ as Sourin Bhattacharya writes, ‘he had already experienced ‘bitter communal tensions and open riots between the two communities’. Bhattacharya means the Hindu and Muslim communities. After what Bhattacharya calls a ‘short-lived sense of national relief’, or to put it the other way, following ‘the attempted imperious imposition of Urdu as the national language’ the poet’s youthful days was flowering in the continent of a new nationalism and the fledgling growth of a new middle class in its climes. (Bhattacharya 2004: 188)
‘Broadly speaking,’ an able translator has aptly claimed, ‘the development of Rahman’s poetry, from a languorous dreamy verse to a more vigorous exercise in poetic exploration, has parallel in Yeats.’ I am drawn however to a rather a homely variant. His development better mirrors, I submit, the development of a Muslim middle class in East Bengal. ‘Though at the beginning Rahman was through and through a ‘private’ poet and his audience was a coterie,’ our translator has also admitted, ‘his position in the broader cultural context was significant.’ Shamsur Rahman surfaced, eventually, as the primus of an avant-garde pioneering a ‘modern trend’ in Bengali poetry through the 1960s. The trend, sometimes also dubbed ‘modernist’, consisted in creating in effect what Kaiser Haq has called ‘a counterculture vis-à-vis the policies directed from Karachi, Pindi and Islamabad’. ‘As opposed to poets like Farrukh Ahmed and Golam Mostafa, who were blinkered in their vision by the ideology of Pakistan, the self-conscious modernism of these poets,’ for Haq, ‘was accompanied by a liberal, secular outlook.’ (Rahman/Haq 1985: iv)
By 1971 Shamsur Rahman reached his early forties and climbed to his own Himalayan heights. He was prolific in the production of poetry so much so that an inane citation could go as far as proclaiming this: ‘To know Shamsur Rahman is to know his people and the struggle for his people,’ or even worse: ‘To read Shamsur Rahman is to read Bangladesh.’ I must confess that I, for one, do not enjoy such a ride on this highway. It will however be absolutely wrong to forget Shamsur Rahman, for he is an important ‘witness of his times’. I think Kaiser Haq got it a whiff better. I would rather concur with him.
The import of a neo-modern trend in Bengali poetry of the 1960s and its characteristic “ liberal, secular outlook”, according to Haq, ‘became obvious later, because the work of a poet like Rahman paralleled on the cultural plane, and at one point merged with, the economic and political struggle that culminated in the liberation war.’ ‘As Rahman responded more and more explicitly to the changing socio-political scene,’ Haq writes right, ‘his poetry became more “public”, more direct in its technique, yet without sacrificing his personal tone. The sheaf of poems he wrote as “an exile at home” during the liberation war is a case in point.’ (Rahman/Haq 1985: iv)
‘When Dacca (spelt ‘Dhaka’ now) was under the occupation of the Pakistani forces, one day two young freedom fighters from Bangladesh came to Calcutta (now ‘Kolkata’) with a manuscript,’ Pritish Nandy, not-so-unknown an Indian, told us early in 1972. It was right after the freedom of Bangladesh became a fact. He was in fact talking about ‘[a] manuscript of poems by Shamsur Rahman, one of the finest and most popular poets of East Bengal.’ About his security, as Nandy was saying, many in Calcutta ‘were then concerned.’ Some of those poems appeared in journals there and the slight manuscript itself, quite aptly called ‘Bandishibir Theke’ [‘Out of a concentration camp’] also attracted a publisher’s attention. It was printed as ‘a slim booklet’. After the liberation of the country from the invaders, the poet sent another bunch written during the period of occupation.
Pritish Nandy translated into English quite a handful of poems from both sets and chose to call them ‘A Word called Freedom. ‘Reading them,’ said Nandy, ‘one sensed the inevitability of freedom.’ ‘Freedom,’ he added, ‘was a word the poems centred around.’ ‘The poems,’ as Nandy informed us, ‘were new, written since the army crackdown in March 1971, and spoke of the anguish and the suffering of an oppressed nation. They described the brutal and senseless murder of an unarmed people; they spoke of the fear and uncertainty that tracked the spirit of a nation fighting for survival and freedom.’
What made them more urgent was a further fact. ‘In December 1971,’ Pritish Nandy duly noted, ‘only two days before the Pakistani army surrendered to the allied forces and Dacca was liberated several hundred writers and intellectuals were slaughtered within 24 hours in one of the most gruesome massacres in history. Shamsur Rahman, fortunately, was one of the few who survived.’ (Rahman/Nandy 1971: 4)
Beginning in March and foraging on throughout the nine months of occupation the Pakistan forces did not relent in their killing spree. They killed indiscriminately. As the war drew to a close they resorted to what we cited above as ‘one of the gruesome massacres of history.’ Shamsur Rahman, at 42, after a six week flight from the metropolis found his reason to return. He reported back to his job as a newsman and decided to stay put till late. However, fortunately, he found himself among the survivors. Taken in context these texts from a concentration camp rather look like acts of courage. Their worth as testimony is invaluable.
A culture of denial, long fostered in both Pakistan and the United States, has lately reached India too. Some journalists writing for Indian press, in recent years, have used the phrase ‘civil war’ in describing the events of 1971 in an attempt ostensibly to provide ‘an impartial account’ of the Bangladesh war of liberation but what they in fact achieved is a contribution to deflecting attention from the fact of genocide, rape and other forms of crimes against humanity. (Bose 2005)
The fact of genocide and related crimes committed in Bangladesh in 1971 remains unacknowledged by the state of Pakistan to this day. US support for Pakistan, its cold war ally, in 1971 perhaps explains the persistence of denial in the ambits of the Empire. (Mookherjee 2006: 3901))
Poems written in 1971 or immediately after thus assume a renewed significance in the current conjuncture. Didn’t even Sarmila Bose herself, perhaps in a bid for reconciliation, cite Faiz Ahmed Faiz? Faiz as everyone knows is a liberal poet, well-known for his dissident voice, who broke the culture of silence In Pakistan in his celebrated ‘On returning from Dhaka’, conceived in the aftermath of ‘Operation Searchlight’ 1971. Wasn’t he too being diffident in calling the racist genocide it by its proper name, and wasn’t he too hiding his own blinkers under heaps of shards and rubbles of metaphor? Faiz did write, didn’t he?
We have become strangers after so much expression of affection
How many meetings will it take before we become friends again?
When shall we be able to see the beauty of unblemished green?
How many monsoons will it take to wash away its patches of blood?
(Quoted in Bose 2005: 4463)
Shamsur Rahman’s was, however, a dire different predicament. His war poems, as Pritish Nandy admitted, are pretty different from even poems his own early works. Nandy was much apprehensive if such war poems as Rahman’s will survive the horrors of war for he knows, one, poetry of this type is ‘often short-lived’ and, two, public memory forgets horrors of war ‘rather easily’. In the end, on the eve of Bangladesh’s forty-fifth anniversary, I find myself in agreement with Pritish Nandy. ‘But for us who have witnessed the birth of this new nation from such close quarters, who have watched history being made next door,’ he wrote, ‘these poems will often remind us of what war means. To the people of a country. To its poets, writers, thinkers.’ (Rahman/Nandy 1971: 4)
To that sheaf of poems belongs this one, named ‘Crows,’ a monologue composed in just four solitary lines perhaps chained in an unconscious metonymy to the infamous crows of the great Bengal famine of 1943. In my own improvisation it thus reads here:
Gone are footprints on the rugged rural track. Not a cow
In the cowshed, cowherds too have fled; dry, strait
are dividers afield, roadside trees hushed; and
naked sunlight around, none but flapping crows, crows just.
(Rahman 1985: 27)
Each of them, these poems included in Bandishibir Theke, make an integral whole, and despite their repetitive motifs comes off rather well together and severally stand witness to a desolate city after a distater. I will limit my discussion to only two more, ‘Refugees’ and ‘Antigone’.
‘Refugees’ is a prose poem in three strophes, flowing in a thematic structure of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. I propose to loan Kaiser Haq’s good translation to serve my work here. The first strophe asks two questions: one, ‘[who] could have guessed/the familiar sights of this city/would disappear so fast/and my head turn all silver overnight?’ and, two, ‘[how] fast I have changed, without my own knowledge!’ In the second strophe, then, poet moves on as in a mise-en scène to dreg in image after images, first of things then of men: ‘[b]uildings crumble all around me,/walls in front and at my back topple in quick succession/as if with an expert flick/a drunken gambler/was scattering his hand./I walk through ruins in blinding daylight,/the few people about are like pearls/scattered from a broken necklace.’ ‘The whole city,’ the poem goes on citing, ‘is a terrifying morgue./I keep breathing somehow/in this suffocating room./ There are no more gossipy gatherings,/ the restaurants are deserted./I can’t put my mind to books: knowledge/seems redundant at present, I am scared/to step out. Whichever way you go,/right or left, foreigners swagger/in this sorrowing land. In restaurants, parks,/lanes and suburbs one hears a foreign tongue.’
In not so unexpected a denouement, Rahman now speaks of murder in the city: ‘In this sad city,/ city filled with murder,/ foreigners outnumber natives./Stripped of my civil rights/I walk with bowed neck,/not quite sure/if there’s a head at its end.’ He adds, then: ‘Administrators and assassins/have full rights over it/but not I.’ Thus concludes the poet, “an exile at home”: ‘Though not in exile/I am a refugee./In my weary mind decay/sets in; worms eat away.” ( Rahman/Haq 1985: 26-27)
The best crop of this condensed sheaf is a verse titled ‘Antigone’. Before I indulge in further remarks let me note that one sign of the ‘modernist trend’ we talked of earlier is in Rahman’s manifest ease in drawing on classical tropes in a contemporary text. As Kaiser Haq, among others, has noted, while remaining firmly rooted in his Dhakla milieu, ‘his sensibility is at the same time cosmopolitan; it can draw upon his native tradition as well as upon diverse foreign sources—classical Europe, Biblical lore, modern Western art, etc.’ In Antigone he obviously draws on one of these.
‘Antigone’ is a short poem in ten stanzas of four lines each, in ‘moric’ (matrabritto) form following a traditional Bengali scheme where the second and the fourth lines rhyme. In invoking Antigone’s splendor our poet goes beyond Antigone, he recalls a city in desolation and in despair. He in fact gives a shrill wake up call to the world at large and in truth raises the question of both affect and ethics in the same breath. I provide here a rough rendering of the last two stanzas where the poet sees specters of unburied corpse down and out everywhere.
Antigone, look out, won’t you?
Not just one or two corpse,
Thousands are out there
Rolling in dirty dirt, or else.
Blood clots dry up in sun
Carnivores tear apart flesh,
Who is there to bury the dead?
You alone are missing, free woman!
(Rahman 1885: 51)
The question Antigone ultimately raises is a question of our desire. It indicates a limit point or point of no return to the symbolic order. Antigone, in Greek myth, is able to invoke two questions at the same time, namely those of desire and betrayal. First, let’s take up the question of desire. Desire, as the French analyst Jacques Lacan formulates it, is that what you cannot give ground relative to your desire without at the same time being guilty of betraying your being. Secondly, the hero/heroine is the one who may be betrayed by everyone with impunity. Antigone is one such heroine, for she is, of course, deserted by almost everyone. Third, this is something that not everyone can achieve. The ordinary human being always betrays her/his truth for the service of some good, real or assumed whatsoever. This constitutes, according to the French analyst, the fundamental difference between a hero/heroine and an ordinary human being. Finally, the price everyone must pay for access to her/his desire is the ‘crime’ of being a human being itself—given that desire is understood as the metonymy of our being.
Shamsur Rahman, it seems, is invariably attracted to Greek heroes and heroines to give vent to crises of our being. It is the twin theme of betrayal and desire that the Greek heroine invoked in her splendor. She is betrayed, because she never yielded in her desire to die. Greek heroes, as a matter of fact, are all betrayed. Other betrayals include Moses, Socrates and Christ. Moses had to die before getting to the Promised Land so-called; Socrates had to pick up his carafe of hemlock and Jesus had died on the cross to be resurrected later. In the case of Bangladesh liberation war we too needed heroes/heroines to give us a measure for ordinary men/women, inasmuch as these heroes/heroines remind us of how much we have compromised and yielded in our own desire, all for the sake of ‘goods’ and services, also known as commodities. (Lacan 1992)
- Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis: the Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII, edited by Jacques Alain-Miller, translated by Dennis Porter (New York: Norton, 1992).
- Shamsur Rahman/Kaiser Haq, Selected Poems of Shamsur Rahman: a bilingual edition, translated by Kaiser Haq (Dhaka: BRAC Prokashona, 1985).
- Shamsur Rahman, Bondishibir Theke, 2nd, (Chittagong: Boighar, 1985).
- Shamsur Rahman/Pritish Nandy, ‘A Word called Freedom: Poems of Shamsur Rahman’, trans., Pritish Nandy in Indian Literature, 14:4 (December 1971), pp. 1-38.
- Sourin Bhattacharya, ‘Review of Shamsur Rahman: A Witness of His Times’, Indian Literature, 48:1 (January-February 2004), pp. 187-191.
- Sarmila Bose, ‘Anatomy of Violence: Analysis of Civil War in East Pakistan in 1971,’ Economic and Political Weekly, 40:41 (October 8-14, 2005), pp. 4463-4471.
- Nayanika Mookherjee, ‘A Prescription for Reconciliation?’ Economic and Political Weekly, 41: 36 (September 9-15, 2006), pp. 3901-3903.
first published by New Age on March 26, 2016.