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Dhaka Tribune

Quaderi: Dhaka’s quintessential metropolitan poet

Book review

Update : 13 Apr 2019, 01:51 PM

Shaheed Quaderi had written only three collections of poetry before he left Dhaka for settling in the USA back in the early 1980s. Although he penned one more collection (Amar Chumbongulo Pouchhe Dao/Carry my Kisses to their Destination) in 2009, after a hiatus of 31 years, his fame as a poet did and still does rest on his first three collections. He was not alone there—a poet to have written scantily. Bangladesh has always had countless number of poets who haven’t written prolifically. But no poet with such a small body of work has swayed as much influence on writers and readers as Quaderi. 

One of Shamsur Rahman’s closest allies in shaping modern Bangladeshi poetry, Quaderi was at the center of the famous literary adda held at Beauty Boarding in Old Dhaka. His poetry was unabashedly rooted to metropolitan culture. The way he fitted in his poetic world his powerful imagery and absolute candor about his alienation from nature and the masses, and his observations about political upheavals (most notably the partition of India and the Liberation Movement in 1971), love, life and the dark alleys roamed by street urchins and prostitutes—has turned him into something of a legend in the history of Bangladesh’s poetry. 

Quaderi’s temper is more modern than any of his peers yet his diction flows with intense emotion comparable only to the likes of Abul Hasan, Abid Azad and Nirmalendu Goon. In our divisive literary culture where one coterie often preposterously negates the feats achieved by another, Quaderi commands respect from most coteries even when many of them are at odds with each other. 

Following his death in 2016, several of his poems in English translation were published in the English dailies of Bangladesh. The most notable ones were translated by Shawkat Hussain, Kaiser Haq and Arunava Sinha, among others. Ever since then, expectations grew that a translated collection of Quaderi’s poems would come out and reach poetry lovers all over the world. I personally believe that if translated and circulated properly worldwide, Quaderi’s unique metropolitan sensibility will find admirers on both sides of the Atlantic, and also, in all over South Asia.

In two years, as if answering to our prayers, Kaiser Haq, Bangladesh’s pre-eminent English language poet, put together his translations of Quaderi into a slim collection entitled Selected Poems: Shaheed Quaderi. The book, published by Bengal Lights Books, was launched at the Dhaka Lit Fest 2018. It is a comprehensive look at Quaderi’s work; it contains selections from all of his collections, including 11 poems from Amar Chumbongulo Pouchhe Dao and 14 poems from Godhulir Gaan (Songs at Twilight), published posthumously by Prothoma in 2017. 

Who would have imagined a better fit? Haq is one of the most esteemed and accomplished English language poets in South Asia. His achievement as a translator of both prose fiction and poetry rests on solid foundations. In January this year, he received the Distinguished Achievement Award for Creative Writing from the South Asian Literary Association (SALA). But what makes him the best fit, in my view, is his own association with the Dhaka-based modernist movement in the 1960s. Haq has lived through the rise and growth of modernism in Bangladeshi poetry. He knew many of the modern poets personally and he has been translating many of them for decades now. His translation of Shamsur Rahman’s Selected Poems (Pathak Samabesh), which came out in 2016, has been highly recommended by critics and academics alike. 

Leafing through the pages of this book, I was wondering why it had not come out while the poet was alive, especially since the translator and the poet were known to each other and also, since they belonged to the same generation. I opened at page 27 which contains “Patrimony”, the title poem from his first collection. My aim was to see how Haq tackled the legendary beginning of the poem in translation—that all too powerful imagery of the speaker getting all “shriveled up” after tumbling out of his mother’s womb:

“Debouching from the maternal womb

I shriveled up—as if the slimy golden cervix

had expelled me at the foot of an unlit street light

in a terror-stricken city sunk in darkness,

blindfolded by a black-out.”

Apt indeed! I began with this poem because this one is integral to understanding Quaderi’s alienation which often leads him to despair, a theme that pervades his poetry. As one moves on to the next stanzas, it becomes clear that the darkness, which recurs consistently throughout his first three collections, emanates from his childhood memories of a bloodied partition of India which made him more familiar with death and blood than life and flowers. 

“A boyhood fraught with sudden murders, screams and carnage

Taught me the death spell—how to erase that early lesson?

A radiant bride lay decomposed in a rose garden—

She fell for the wiles of people who were just pawns.”

At a time when there is renewed interest in the history of India’s partition in 1947, Quaderi’s piercing poetic expressions deserve to be seen in a new light. Born in 1942 and brought up in Kolkata till 1951, he experienced how partition made demons out of angels and foes out of friends. A rose garden he saw alright, but there was a “radiant bride” too and the blood spilling out of her wounds and cuts overpowers the red of the roses. And how did she come to this? “She fell for the wiles of people who were just pawns.” Such strong articulations of the naked truths of the riots preceding, during and following the partition are to strike a chord with readers, writers and researchers interested in the poetry of partition.

Lived experiences of a milieu are often intertextual, with certain motifs, ideas and images appearing in writings across various genres and mediums, including historical and anthropological. See how one such motif, perhaps one of the strongest vis-à-vis partition, appears in the following lines:

“In feeble lamplight a dignified old man with a Christ-like face 

Put up with the soldier’s gift of bread and cigarettes

And the involuntary shriek of a ravished teenage daughter.”

Readers of Bangla short stories perhaps will remember Hasan Azizul Haq’s story entitled “Daughter and an Oleander Tree” in which a father, in a slightly different context, puts up with three boys who take turns to have sex with his daughter. Set in post-partition Khulna, Bangladesh, this old man is a Muslim refugee from India with no financial means. So the daughter sells sex to young boys to support the family and the father blabbers on with the two waiting their turns, basically playing the role of a pimp. Readers who follow the younger generations will also remember Prasanta Mridha’s “My Daughter will Survive” which is premised on the same motif in yet another context. 

Readers of Urdu literature will perhaps refer to Sadat Hasaan Manto’s story “Open It.” Manto does not use the same motif as such, but the way he portrays a father finding his “ravished teenage daughter” to be still alive can be seen to underlie the same historical truth Quaderi and Hasan seek to explore in their writing. 

Standing on the ruins of this historical patrimony, Quaderi’s young speaker finds himself walking in the streets of Dhaka by day and sitting in his room or balcony at night. His vision remains bleak.

“Torn fragmentary images emerge 

from a dark secret source,

a drunken stallion rears

up through air into the void,

red as a china rose the moon hangs in the garden.

Your day abruptly becomes a rainbow

and I like a crab

in sterile revelry can only make 

one wound after another.”

(“Tete-e-tete”, Patrimony)

Unlike most of his peers, he fails to respond to the call of the time. When his friends joined the hundreds of thousands of people marching in protest, he walked away and took a walk, maybe, along one or the other shopping center. But no, the glitz that almost blazed his eyes, the explosion of imported clothes and cosmetics, in other words, the unbridled growth of capitalism he thoroughly hated. In many of his poems, as in “I won’t Buy Anything”, he doesn’t spell it all out, he rather takes an ironic route to say: this invitation to consumerism drives him even further away.

“Colorful clothing stores all around,

Designer shirts sweeter than dessert wine,

Vests knit from yarn finer than early morning dreams,

Dozens of brilliant red and blue hankies fluttering on a line,

More restless than a child’s dreaming fingers,

Restaurants sunk in mist wait with open doors—

Blithely, I pass them by

as the Queen of the dark alley squints partridge-like—

I won’t buy anything!”

The most challenging aspect of translating Quaderi is his nuanced poetics, which is different as much from other modern poets as the romantics of his time. In one of his essays, Khandker Ashraf Hossain (1950-2013), a distinguished poet-academic, claims that Quaderi, like Shamsur Rahmand and Syed Shamsul Haq, was so influenced by certain US and English poets that many of his creative exercises lack originality. He supports his claim by citing many English poems and tracing their parallels in Quaderi’s Bangla poems, most notably in “Greetings, Dearest”. Parallels in a few cases are very much possible but jumping to an over-generalized conclusion on that ground leaves us at risk of doing serious injustice to Quaderi’s sheer originality. Taking a good look at his poems, it is not too difficult to see that his mind was more focused on the dark alleys and glitzy avenues of Dhaka than some western theory of poetry. His empathy for the poor and the hapless (such as street prostitutes) has rightly endeared him to many Marxists while his sheer honesty vis-à-vis unthinking nationalistic impulses has distanced him from those who blindly uphold nationalistic ideologies. His alienation continued to deepen but he did grow subtly to pin his hopes on a better future for all humanity. That’s precisely why he wrote so passionately about the Liberation War and the Language Movement as he was sure about their great revolutionary potentials. When the tide of history was turning against West Pakistani military rulers his vision shed the pall of gloom and wore green, as evident in many poems from his subsequent collections. But as echoes of dark times from the past sustained in the present, his poetry kept wavering between high hopes and the nadir of pessimism. In fact, his poetic mind was too honest to give in to any grand ideal, whether western or eastern. His despair was neither imagined nor imposed; it arose out of his memories in Kolkata and Dhaka, which smelled of violence and extreme poverty. His optimism, too, arose out of what he saw in 1969 (the mass uprising) and then in 1971. 

In Kaiser Haq’s translation, Quaderi’s poetry comes fully alive. Haq deftly tackles not only Quaderi’s nuanced poetics but also his power of drawing analogies between two seemingly unrelated things, such as “pockets full of dreams jangling like gold coins,” or “more restless than a child’s dreaming fingers”. Every poem I read from this collection gave me the taste of the original. But when I took a few minutes to think about the most challenging task of presenting the entire trajectory of Quaderi’s poetry to readers, from his first collection to his last, I was impressed to see the outcome: Haq’s translation is impeccable and has scarcely left any pores that you might want to fill in later. 

Haq’s fine translations of Quaderi as well as others go to show that the belief (pervasive mostly among Bangalis) that English translations should only be done by native speakers is hollow; it is, in fact, a reflection on our hegemonic mindset. It is shocking to see that someone as respected as Abdullah Abu Sayeed has stressed at a recent program that the English translations produced by Bangalis will always fail to get us anywhere. He’s recommended seeking out native speakers of English. It is another demonstration of how we Bangladeshis always tend to undermine our own achievements and show a propensity to idealize the standards set by white Europeans/Americans. 

I only hope that this impeccable translation is circulated, first, in all over South Asia and then in other parts of the English-speaking world. 

Echoing one of Quaderi’s most seminal poems, I’d like to conclude by saying, salute to you, Quaderi, and also, salute to you, Kaiser Haq, for such wonderful translations.

Rifat Munim is Literary Editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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