How did the topography of southern Bangladesh enter the pages of Bengali literature? By topography I mean depiction of the region’s geography by invoking images of its most defining physical features: Rivers, trees, rice fields, the Bay of Bengal and the Sundarbans.
In fiction, short stories by Sushanto Majumdar and Prasanta Mridha give us a rich window on the region. So do a bunch of stories by Hasan Azizul Haq and Abubakar Siddique. As regards the terrifying cyclone of the south, Siddique’s novel, Jalarakshas
(The Water Demon), is a trusted companion. Harishankar Jaldas’s Dahankal
(A Time of Suffering) also deserves mention as it guides readers truthfully through huts, houses and canals to a Hindu coastal village in Patenga. But a holistic image of the region has yet to come in either fiction or creative non-fiction.
the south is no lacklustre spot on your map to begin with
This aspect has always seemed to me an important one because the south is no lacklustre spot on your map to begin with. The biggest mangrove forest in the whole world sprawls across its heart, and on its edge lies the vast waters of the Bay with the longest sea beach, again, in the whole world. It has more rivers than any other region in the country, some of which are very wide and restless, criss-crossing one another to form a veritable watery labyrinth. These resources come as a boon for the people, but they do have their dark side. Cyclones and floods, when they strike, assume the shape of a demon that washes everything away with the surging waves. Just like the floods leave the earth fertile, cyclones have left the people sturdy and resilient, bracing themselves for the worst but always ready to fight back.
But our southern poets, I dare say, have done their bit rather sufficiently. They have woven image after image of its physical features in their poems that can easily be conceived of as worthy attempts at a whole picture of the region, its people included.
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Jibanananda Das is the first poet with whose verses came floating into the terrain of Bengali literature images from the south’s rivers, trees, birds and rice fields. The picture he’s presented us with is impeccable. If not for him, birds like the owl, trees like debdaru and jarul, fruits like cane fruits, bushes like shotibon (a kind of undergrowth), and flowers like grass flowers would have to wait several decades to claim their place.
The second poet who has taken it to an entirely new height is Mohammad Rafiq. Most of his poems are either set in the south or they evoke images that are markedly southern in nature. Rafiq’s prosody is solid and depiction formidably accurate. But his engagement with the people marks a departure from Jibanananda’s, in fact, from all the modern poets of the 1930s. The city is banished and so are its people. Personal emotions of love and frustration soon merge with the collective, with common village people to be precise, and find articulation in their voices.
Jibanananda adored the farmers and have constructed them in various ways as the people who would spur us on to climb up the ladder of progress. This construction in itself was a huge leap in the realm of poetry as most of his modern contemporaries were busy exploring either the dark or the philosophical side of human existence. Even so, Jibanananda could never feel at one with the farmers; his modern sensibility did not allow it. Farmers could enter only through his alienated imagination. Rafiq, on the other hand, is at one with them and their hunger, their struggle against nature and deprivation. Al Mahmud’s poetic approach, too, shares this departure from the modern tradition.
Rudro Mohammad Shahidullah is the third and perhaps the last poet in the group. Rivers, rice fields and the sea dominate his imagery. He absorbed both Jibanananda and Rafiq but maintained distance from them at the same time. All three of them display a strong sense of history; all of them share a spirit of the collective by repetitively referring to their ancestors invoking thousands of years of human civilisation. Yet each has his own unique way of achieving poetic goals.
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Like every poet in the 1950s and 60s, Rudro was heavily influenced by Jibanananda both in terms of language and themes. As in Jibanananda, streaks of pessimism are pervasive in Rudro as he often curses his existence. But he makes it abundantly clear that his pessimism derives mostly from the killings, rapes, loots and corruption, and also from the military rule of Ershad. From the very first collection (Upodruto Upokul
, Flood-affected Coast) on, his pessimist streaks are always overpowered by an optimism that ends with notes of high hopes in a bright future. On this front he has rather sided with Rafique, seeing things through the starved looks of wretched farmers, becoming one of them.
Rudro’s temper is more robust and uncompromising, and his prosody is wobbly, faltering at times, but the power of his fluid free verse is undeniable. “Batashe lasher gandha” (Smell of corpse in the air), “Swajoner shubhro har”(White bones of the dear ones) “Pother prithibi” (The world on the streets), “Nirapad deshlai” (Safe matchbox), “Klanto itihash” (A weary history), “Panjore pushper ghran” (Scent of flowers in the ribs) are a few among a number of poems that contain some of his strongest, most forceful articulations of his commitment to the cause of poor farmers and the coastal people.
After the first collection, seven more followed till he died in 1991. Phire Chai Swarnogram
(I Want the Golden Village Back), Manusher Manchitro
(A Map of Humans), Chhobol
(Stories), Diyechhile Sakol Akash
(Provided with all the Skies), Moulik Mukhosh
(Fundamental Mask) and Ek Glass Ondhokar
(A Glass of Darkness). One could easily trace out signs of growth in them, his prosody maturing, though slowly, his free-flowing verse becoming more temperate, more controlled, more artistically appealing. Despite his poise and maturity, he is never as subtle as Rafiq, never as multi-layered. Rafiq seems reluctant to compromise his art for a greater cause while Rudro is too boisterous to denote anything beyond the literal.
Rafiq is one of our biggest poets, who has secured a permanent place in the pantheon of Bengali poets. The way he has filtered the southern people's life and geography through a unique and cultivated poetic lens has no parallel in Bengali literature.
But Rudro should not be relegated to a lesser status on account of a choice he made on political grounds: To foreground the hungry cries of farmers, or fishermen, and to push all other aspects to the background in the process.
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Poetry for Rudro was a vehicle for voicing people's thoughts and tribulations. On top of Jibanananda and Rafiq, Rudro also absorbed Kazi Nazrul Islam, Subhash Mukhopadhyay and Al Mahmud. Just like Nazrul and Mukhopadhyay, he flew into a rage whenever innocent men and women were killed, or tortured by the powerful or the government. His utterances seethe with rage. Like Mukhopadhyay, he announces that he is not a poet who'd offer hollow aesthetic pleasure; he’s rather a worker whose consciousness is often invaded by the bones of his ancestors, by the cries of the have-nots. There was barely any historical or social upheaval in his time that he didn’t respond to. The dream of realising a classless, repression-free society for men and women lie at the core of his praxis and he chooses not to mask it with rhetoric of any kind.
One could positively argue that this sensitivity towards the social and political unrest of one’s time is not unique to Rudro. One might as well say this is a trait visible among many poets of his generation, such as Nirmalendu Goon, Abul Hasan, Asim Saha and Mahadeb Saha. Poets from the earlier generation i.e. Rafique Azad, also demonstrated this awareness. Rudro can nonetheless be regarded as the most zealous of them all, most consistently nurturing his commitment to the cause of the underprivileged -- be they farmers or women or workers.
Not only those from the southern region, but the country's entire population has found in Rudro's poetry an outlet for their frustrations, struggles, hopes and dreams. In his prosodic poems, he attempts to take poetry closer to the masses, playing with rhythm and rhyme to make it easily accessible to common people. In his free verses, however, we see a more sophisticated Rudro, playing out the same subject of breaking down the existing society for a new one, but with far more ease and artistic success. It is perhaps in Manusher Manchitro
that he combines the two styles into one and what we get is a collection that can stand on an equal footing with Sonali Kabin
(The Golden Dowry) and Poraner Gohin Bhitor
(Deep beneath the Heart).
Shahidullah died quite young, aged 35. He continues to be one of Bangladesh's most loved poets, and it is to him that we greatly owe the once-strong bridge between poetry and mass people. His creations, in all likelihood, will continue to inspire poets and activists from later generations as he himself was by Nazrul, Jibanananda, Rafiq, Mukhopadhyay and Al Mahmud.
We hope the southern legacy in Bengali poetry would not end with Rudro. We hope emerging poets would enrich the tradition by incorporating the south’s changing topographical features, especially the exacerbating situation of salinity in the waters of the region that has kept on seeping deeper into the soil, thus affecting the mode of production, largely replacing crop cultivation with fish farming. We also hope fiction writers from the region would join hands and explore the vast, seamless terrain of land and water and people in the literary map of Bengali fiction like the north was explored by Akhteruzzaman Elias and Hasan Azizul Haq.
Rifat Munim is literary editor, Dhaka Tribune.