Bangladesh’s history flows through his verse

Sajjad Sharif | Update:

Bangladesh had just emerged as an independent state. Within about a month and a half, on 29 January, Abu Sayeed Ayub wrote a letter from Kolkata’s Pearl Road to a poet in the war-torn Bangladesh. He was effusive in his praise for a poem written on the tumultuous days of the war.
He wrote, “Ekhane Dorja Chhilo (There was a Door Here) is an amazing poem. I haven’t read such a touching poem in a long time. It is pure poetry, yet loaded with meaning…. I have sent that, along with Samson, to the Desh magazine. I hope it will be published within a week or two. We were rather regretful that your book was published so soon, or else undoubtedly the poems you sent later would have been included and enriched the volume further.”
Abu Sayeed Ayub was non-Bengali scholar in Kolkata, and had even startled Rabindranath himself, writing for the first time in Bangla in the magazine Porichoy. That was in 1934. He had published several other sharp pieces since then. 

Three years before he wrote this letter, he brought out the book Adhunikota O Rabindranath (Modernism and Rabindranath), siding with Rabindranath in a heated debate with modern poets. The poet to whom he had written the letter, was known to the people of West Bengal during the nine months of the 1971 liberation war, as Mazloom Adib. During the entire liberation war, the poet was interned in the country. But even so, the poetry of this poet found a way out. We would write and the young freedom fighters would smuggle these out in a guerilla-like manner to the other side of the border.
In those days of war, the poems managed to make their way to Abu Sayeed Ayub and he arranged for these to be published. To shield him from any possible backlash within the country, Ayub gave the poet a nom de plume - Mazloom Adib. This meant the ‘oppressed writer’. The writer behind this penname who gave words to the aspirations and dreams of freedom of the Bengalis, was Shamsur Rahman. The two last collections of those poems of his were published in Desh almost immediately after the victory of the liberation war, in just a week’s gap, on 18 and 25 December.
Ayub wrote in this letter, “After reading your four poems, many readers were eagerly awaiting the publication of your poetry collection and that is why the publisher printed this so soon.” The book, ‘Bondi Shibir Theke’ (From the Prisoner Camp) published with a cover by Purnendu Patri, echoed the pulse of the Bengali’s liberation war.
Speculations abound concerning Shamsur Rahman and why he didn’t leave the country during the liberation war. Sometimes these speculations are unkind. In the dilemma of whether to stay by the side of his family during the war or to opt for the safe exodus to India, he chose the former. The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre had spoken of a similar situation. During the Second World War when strong resistance was being built up against the occupation by Nazi Germany, a confused youth came to Sartre for advice. The youth wanted to give his life for the country, but his elderly mother had no one but him. Should he say by the side of his helpless mother or sacrifice his life for the country? Sartre said he did not have the answer as to which of the two was a better choice. There may still be debate over the answer to this question. But the poems written by Shamsur Rahman at that time, have preserved his emotions and those of the Bengalis during those days, for all times to come.
Shamsur Rahman emerged as a poet at a time when the Bengalis of East Bengal were searching for their own way forward through the 1952 language movement. His poetry responded actively to the events through which the educated class of this region authored our mainstream history. Hasan Hafizur Rahman selected only a single poem for his historic collection Ekushey February, and that was Shamsur Rahman’s ‘Aar Jeno Na Dekhi ‘ (Let me not see it again). The poem had been written quite some time before the language movement. Hasan selected the poem because he felt it reflected the anxiety, the pride and a premonition long before the incidents of 21 February.
Shamsur Rahman still hadn’t taken a position in the streets of history then. It was the chaotic days of the 1960s that dragged him out of isolation. He underwent a radical change in those fiery political times. The turbulent emotions prior to the liberation war inspired him to write ‘Asader Shirt’ (Asad’s Shirt). Shamsur Rahman’s poetry then opened up a new chapter in history.
Shamsur Rahman’s poems have been entwined with the history of the Bengali nation. There is a saying that if the Irish city Dublin is ever lost, it can be rebuilt all over again from James Joyce’s book, Dubliners. This applies similarly to Shamsur Rahman’s poetry. It is possible to conjure up our nationalist and liberal democratic history from his poems.
Even after independence, Shamsur Rahman committed his poetry to the active struggle of the educated middle class. After the brutal killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, when this country was trampled under the boots of the military, he wrote ‘Electrar Gaan’ (The Song of Electra). Fuelled by petrodollars, when communalism reared its head in this country, he wrote ‘Udbhot Uter Pithe Cholechhe Swadesh’ (Country on the back of an absurd camel). When Nur Hossain was shot dead by the autocratic regime of Ershad, he wrote, ‘Buk Ta Bangladesher Hridoy’ (His Breast is the Heart of Bangladesh). His poems circulated in leaflets among the people. Many of his lines won popularity overnight, appearing in posters, placards and writings on the wall.
It was not just as a poet, but as a man too that Shamsur Rahman exerted himself. He was one of the very few persons who stood firmly against the formation of the one-party BKSAL establishment on 6 June 1975. He was harassed mercilessly during the rule of the Ershad government. Furious at Shamsur Rahman for churning out one caustic poem after the other, the military ruler had his name removed as editor of the weekly Bichitra. He was threatened and he was lured. The poet himself revealed that he was even offered the tempting position of ambassador in Paris. But he was not tempted an iota. In protest against Ershad’s autocracy, he left his job to join the people on the streets.
It is not just here wherein Shamsur Rahman’s historical standing lies. In the early 1950s, as a young poet, he sent in his poem ‘Rupali Snan’ (Bathing in Silver) for publication in the literature page of the daily Sangbad. The literary editor Abdul Ghani Hazari sent for him. Arriving at the newspaper office, Shamsur Rahman saw that some words of his poem had been marked in red ink. The poem would only be printed if the words were changed. He refused and took back his poem.
This small incident marked a new age in Bangla poetry. Shamsur Rahman’s rejection hadn’t been just to one individual. It had been a rejection of a trend in poetry, a closed attitude, an old age.
With the emergence of modernism in the 1930s, Bangla poetry was divided into two clearly separate trends. There was Buddhadeb Basu on one side, lending leadership to the purist school. The poetry of this school was replete with individual personal emotions. It did not reflect the greater life of man that encompassed all around. On the other side there was the progressive school. Individual emotions were drowned out by the loud cries of the people.
Shamsur Rahman quite easily broke this artificial divide. He effortlessly created a flexible language that accommodated both the trends. He did away with the differences that had poets struggling to write in both strains. That day a new chapter of Bangla poetry was inducted among the educated Bengalis in Dhaka city.
His easy effortless flow of language opened up his poetry to all. No one can accuse Shamsur Rahman of the writing incomprehensible modern poetry. In his poetry, the educated middle class found nothing outside of their own life experiences.
Shamsur Rahman created a class of poetry readers among the educated Bengalis. The next history is of his victorious journey. The language of his poems from then on ruled the realm of Bangladesh’s poetry for decade after decade. That almost became the unique language of poetry over here. Shamsur Rahman was recognised as the leading poet of the country.
Had any poet, trying to place a foot in the model of Shamsur Rahman’s poetry, found himself slipping into quicksand? Had any new poet, attempting to write his first poem, sprained his hand in trying to emulate ‘Swadhinara Tumi’? This is how Shamsur Rahman gradually became an embodiment of poetry itself.
Has so much happened in the life of any other poet, in this Bangladesh?
* Sajjad Sharif is a poet and journalist. This piece, published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.

Abu Sayeed Ayub was non-Bengali scholar in Kolkata, and had even startled Rabindranath himself, writing for the first time in Bangla in the magazine Porichoy. That was in 1934. He had published several other sharp pieces since then.
Three years before he wrote this letter, he brought out the book Adhunikota O Rabindranath (Modernism and Rabindranath), siding with Rabindranath in a heated debate with modern poets. The poet to whom he had written the letter, was known to the people of West Bengal during the nine months of the 1971 liberation war, as Mazloom Adib. During the entire liberation war, the poet was interned in the country. But even so, the poetry of this poet found a way out. We would write and the young freedom fighters would smuggle these out in a guerilla-like manner to the other side of the border.
In those days of war, the poems managed to make their way to Abu Sayeed Ayub and he arranged for these to be published. To shield him from any possible backlash within the country, Ayub gave the poet a nom de plume - Mazloom Adib. This meant the ‘oppressed writer’. The writer behind this pen name who gave words to the aspirations and dreams of freedom of the Bengalis, was Shamsur Rahman. The two last collections of those poems of his were published in Desh almost immediately after the victory of the liberation war, in just a week’s gap, on 18 and 25 December. Ayub wrote in this letter, “After reading your four poems, many readers were eagerly awaiting the publication of your poetry collection and that is why the publisher printed this so soon.” The book, ‘Bondi Shibir Theke’ (From the Prisoner Camp) published with a cover by Purnendu Patri, echoed the pulse of the Bengali’s liberation war.
Speculations abound concerning Shamsur Rahman and why he didn’t leave the country during the liberation war. Sometimes these speculations are unkind. In the dilemma of whether to stay by the side of his family during the war or to opt for the safe exodus to India, he chose the former. The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre had spoken of a similar situation. During the Second World War when strong resistance was being built up against the occupation by Nazi Germany, a confused youth came to Sartre for advice. The youth wanted to give his life for the country, but his elderly mother had no one but him. Should he say by the side of his helpless mother or sacrifice his life for the country? Sartre said he did not have the answer as to which of the two was a better choice. There may still be debate over the answer to this question. But the poems written by Shamsur Rahman at that time, have preserved his emotions and those of the Bengalis during those days, for all times to come.
Shamsur Rahman emerged as a poet at a time when the Bengalis of East Bengali were searching for their own way forward through the 1952 language movement. His poetry responded actively to the events through which the educated class of this region authored our mainstream history. Hasan Hafizur Rahman selected only a single poem for his historic collection Ekushey February, and that was Shamsur Rahman’s ‘Aar Jeno Na Dekhi ‘ (Let me not see it again). The poem had been written quite some time before the language movement. Hasan selected the poem because he felt it reflected the anxiety, the pride and a premonition long before the incidents of 21 February.
Shamsur Rahman still hadn’t taken a position in the streets of history then. It was the chaotic days of the 1960’s that dragged him out of isolation. He underwent a radical change in those fiery political times. The turbulent emotions prior to the liberation war inspired him to write ‘Asader Shirt’ (Asad’s Shirt). Shamsur Rahman’s poetry then opened up a new chapter in history.
Shamsur Rahman’s poems have been entwined with the history of the Bengali nation. There is a saying that if the Irish city Dublin is ever lost, it can be rebuilt all over again from James Joyce’s book, Dubliners. This applies similarly to Shamsur Rahman’s poetry. It is possible to conjure up our nationalist and liberal democratic history from his poems.
Even after independence, Shamsur Rahman committed his poetry to the active struggle of the educated middle class. After the brutal killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, when this country was trampled under the boots of the military, he wrote ‘Electrar Gaan’ (The Song of Electra). Fuelled by petrodollars, when communalism reared its head in this country, he wrote ‘Udbhot Uter Pithe Cholechhe Swadesh’ (Country on the back of an absurd camel). When Nur Hossain was shot dead by the autocratic government of Ershad, he wrote, ‘Buk Ta Bangladesher Hridoy’ (His Breast is the Heart of Bangladesh). His poems circulated in leaflets among the people. Many of his lines won popularity overnight, appearing in posters, placards and writings on the wall.
It was not just as a poet, but as a man too that Shamsur Rahman exerted himself. He was one of the very few persons who stood firmly against the formation of the one-party BKSAL establishment on 6 June 1975. He was harassed mercilessly during the rule of the Ershad government. Furious at Shamsur Rahman for churning out one caustic poem after the other, the military ruler had his name removed as editor of the weekly Bichitra. He was threatened and he was lured. The poet himself revealed that he was even offered the tempting position of ambassador in Paris. But he was not tempted an iota. In protest against Ershad’s autocracy, he left his job to join the people on the streets.
It is not just here wherein Shamsur Rahman’s historical standing lies. In the early 1950’s, as a young poet, he sent in his poem ‘Rupali Snan’ (Bathing in Silver) for publication in the literature page of the daily Sangbad. The literary editor Abdul Ghani Hazari sent for him. Arriving at the newspaper office, Shamsur Rahman saw that some words of his poem had been marked in red ink. The poem would only be printed if the words were changed. He refused and took back his poem.
This small incident marked a new age in Bangla poetry. Shamsur Rahman’s rejection hadn’t been just to one individual. It had been a rejection of a trend in poetry, a closed attitude, an old age.
With the emergence of modernism in the 1930’s, Bangla poetry was divided into two clearly separate trends. There was Buddhadeb Basu on one side, lending leadership to the purist school. The poetry of this school was replete with individual personal emotions. It did not reflect the greater life of man that encompassed all around. On the other side there was the progressive school. Individual emotions were drowned out by the loud cries of the people.
Shamsur Rahman quite easily broke this artificial divide. He effortlessly created a flexible language that accommodated both the trends. He did away with the differences that had poets struggling to write in both strains. That day a new chapter of Bangla poetry was inducted among the educated Bengalis in Dhaka city.
His easy effortless flow of language opened up his poetry to all. No one can accuse Shamsur Rahman of the writing incomprehensible modern poetry. In his poetry, the educated middle class found nothing outside of their own life experiences.
Shamsur Rahman created a class of poetry readers among the educated Bengalis. The next history is of his victorious journey. The language of his poems from then on ruled the realm of Bangladesh’s poetry for decade after decade. That almost became the unique language of poetry over here. Shamsur Rahman was recognized as the leading poet of the country.
Had any poet, trying to place a foot in the model of Shamsur Rahman’s poetry, found himself slipping into quicksand? Had any new poet, attempting to write his first poem, sprained his hand in trying to emulate ‘Swadhinara Tumi’? This is how Shamsur Rahman gradually became an embodiment of poetry itself.
Has so much happened in the life of any other poet, in this Bangladesh?
* Sajjad Sharif is a poet and journalist. This piece, published in the Bangla print edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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