I had first read about him in the literature page of a Bangla national daily. The article, I remember to this day, had a photo of him sitting alone on a park bench in New York, throwing a look away from the camera, a grave but gloomy look. A college -going HSC student in the late 1990s Bagerhat, I was surprised to learn he was in a self-imposed exile in the US for decades then. That article goaded me into flipping through the books on the poetry shelf at the district public library. None of his poetry volumes were there but several anthologies had three or four of his poems. I sat down with one and started reading “Bristi, bristi” (Rain, rain). I found it a bit too difficult to relate to, and why not? I was still a stranger to the pangs of alienation and the naked truths of existential crises that stare you in the face in big cities.
I grew up in the verdant greenery of the country’s southern region, blessed as it is with rivers and numerous tributaries and hundreds of villages lining their banks. A thin stream of Bhairab flows by my house as silently as a cat. This rich natural setting gave Jibananda, to my teenage consciousness, something of a godly stature. Then there came this early affiliation with leftist student politics which did the rest by sweeping my sensibility with grand ideals. Through this romantic mould could enter Al Mahmud, Rafique Azad, Nirmalendu Goon, Rudro Mohammad Shahidullah, and to some extent, Mohammad Rafique. All of them could be said to have combined nature and the revolutionary or romantic zeal in their poetry. But Quaderi? No, he couldn’t enter until Sumon Chattopadhyay turned his “Tomake Obhibadon, Priyotoma” (Greetings to you, my beloved) into a song. Humming this song was all the rage in the leftist circles.
I picked up the book at the library and read this poem over and over again. It aroused in me a pleasure that I was too ill-equipped then as well as now to express in words. He is reassuring his beloved that he’ll bring about a change when the soldiers will march past holding in their hands bouquets of flowers instead of guns; when the state bank will return cheques and receive flowers; when you will get no less than four lakh if you just present them with, say, a rose, or a chandramallika; when there will be only one kind of inflation and that will come incessantly in the form of artistically successful poems; when the leader of the opposition will be a lover, not a politician. I fell in love with this poem, right on. It was the title poem of the book, published in 1974, his second collection.
Then I collected his first volume, Uttaradhikar (Inheritance), published in 1967, and his third, Kothao kono krondon nei(There’s no cry anywhere), published in 1978, thinking there must be more of this kind. I scanned the indexes and found one called “Love” in the third volume.
“No, love is not some slender boat/whose eyes, face, nose will be eaten away/ by shoals of sword-like fish ... no, love is not some slender boat/it is not the floating decks of some wrecked ship in sea/nor the Daruchini Island, nor a swim by some strong biceps/straws? no, it is not even that” (my translation)
Then what is it? It is, he goes on to tell us, “Vanquished, always, everywhere.” (my translation)
When he says love, he means it in both personal and collective terms. Love does surface but except in two or three poems, it is love vanquished or unfulfilled and it is inevitably so. What he says in the poem, ‘Songoti’ (Consistency), dedicated to Amiya Chakravarty, has become a saying among forlorn lovers, “The lover will be united with his beloved alright/But will get no peace, no peace, no peace.” This picture of love fits in the dark, bleak world that he makes of the capital city, the place where most of his poems are set. There are flowers and trees aplenty; there are those wild gusts of wind that drag you out of your four walls; there is, even, a full moon overhead. But the wind, the shalik birds, even the thin river (in ‘Aaj Saradin’) fail to give him the resolve to knock on his beloved’s door, leaving him all befuddled, making him feel like a homeless person. The moon in ‘Naswar Jotsnyay’ (In transient full moon) comes as his muse but can cast a light over values which he’s abandoned. There are roses in ‘Protyoher Kalo Ronangone’ (In the dark battle field every day), but they come into his hands after crossing thousands of dead bodies, barbed wires on borders, gutted villages, pools of blood etc. So the petals are pale and withered.
His diction and articulation seemed more urban than Rahman and more emotionally imbued than Abul Hasan, a combination which is very rare. Though the power of the language took me in, the optimist in me resisted this prophet of despair from entering my world. Hastily I got back to Mahmud, Azad and Goon to suture my troubled mind.
Then I went to university and saw up close how competitiveness, envy, hypocrisy and compromise work among friends in particular and among adults in general. The image of the silent river was pushed to the furthest edge of the background while the foreground was occupied by tension and anger. Then the time came to settle in Quaderi’s city to make a living. Now with every passing year, it seems, he is sinking deeper in me like no one has. When I read his poems now, I see a poet whose whole being, childhood included, was hopelessly rooted in urban culture; I see a poet who has loved his city like a boy or girl loves their doll, so much so that they put it in a keepsake box and carry it with them till the last days of their life, regarding it their most valued possession.
Now that I know more about this city and its political context in the late 1960s and 70s, I can see why in Inheritance his city was covered mostly in dirt, blood and darkness. The politics of killing initiated by then Pakistani government spawned in him this depression that overshadowed everything else. Then after independence, in Greetings to you, my beloved, the country was lifted high in the spirit of starting from the scratch, and so was Quaderi. The second collection too had poems darker in tone than the first, like “Schizophrenia”, but it also had such wonderful ones as “Nishiddho Journal Theke” (From the banned journal), “Blackout-e Purnima” (Full moon in blackout) and “Ekusher Shikarokti” (Confession of Ekush). Now I could see the full moon could as well be an intimation of freedom, or it could be the psychological food that the homeless people roaming in the parks or streets feed on. His empathy for the poor and the street prostitutes is as genuine as Saadat Hasan Manto’s. But his response to nature and social issues is markedly different from his peers. He responds, almost invariably, as an alienated individual who finds it difficult or impossible to be at one with the collective. In the poem, ‘Nishorger noon’ (The salt of nature), he explains his own alienated position vis-a-vis other poets i.e Azad (it is dedicated to Azad), Rahman, Mahmud, Chakravarty and Tagore. The candour that he brings in to portray his city and his own person or his failure to follow the tide of the time is nowhere to be seen in the poetry of Bangladesh.
When the news of his death spread on August 28, that grave but gloomy look came back to me. Always separated from the herd, true, but what he saw and how he saw it never failed to sweep us with the best urban poetry of love, of alienation, of social dreams unfulfilled, of the pathetic presence of the have-nots. Every time there is a heavy shower now in this city, preceded by bolts of lightning, I’m invariably reminded of his “Rain, rain”. His was a rain that sends all the profit-mongers, hypocrites and people of dubious intentions away into hiding and brings out the poor and the sad on the streets.
Salute to you, Quaderi, not just greetings. Now I know, whether I live in a city or a town or a village, you will continue to sink deeper and deeper in me as long as I am sane and alive.
Rifat Munim is Editor, Arts & Letters.