Syed Shamsul Haq was “the Tagore of this age,” says Murtaza Bashir, his friend, foremost painter and once a very good writer of fiction. One cannot but agree with him. Syed Shamsul Haq rivals Rabindranath Tagore and Buddhadev Bose as a literary all-rounder of outstanding merit.
He has kept me spellbound for fifty years! From 1968 to 2017 – from my thirteenth year to my sixty second. Otherwise I could not read fifty of his books, some of them big volumes, in the year after his death! Most of them I re-read. I started to admire him when his books were communicated to me before they were understood! As a mature man I loved him even more. He was “Amader aponjon” (title of Serajul Islam Choudhury’s wonderful essay written after his death) and “amar aponjon.” He wrote what I loved to read! He never bored me, never failed to enlighten me, excite me and thrill me! After his death I felt that very few creative men understood the many layers of East Bengal life as superbly as he did. Perhaps Shamsur Rahman or Syed Waliullah did. I loved his excellent prose, his superb poems. His plays? Nuroldiner Sarajibon
is his masterpiece. Payer Awaz Pawa Jay
is superb. Isn’t he our best playwright? His literary columns? He was unrivalled there. Even at eighty he never failed to excite us, he never bored us. A world class genius who deserved a Nobel Prize. He deserved to live for a hundred years, which he wished to. On his eightieth birth anniversary he had mentioned Lalon Shah’s life of one hundred and eighteen years. He had announced that he still had so much to write! And yes! He was young even at eighty.
The 1950s generation brought modernism to our art, to our literature. As mentioned in his brilliant autobiography Tin Poysar Jyosna, Syed Haq’s generation saved our poetry from the Kaikobads, prose from the Najibar Rahmans and plays from the Ibrahim Khans
The 1950s generation brought modernism to our art, to our literature. As mentioned in his brilliant autobiography Tin Poysar Jyosna
, Syed Haq’s generation saved our poetry from the Kaikobads, prose from the Najibar Rahmans and plays from the Ibrahim Khans. Shamsur Rahman, Syed Shamsul Haq, Al Mahmud and a very young Shaheed Quaderi began writing in the 1950s. Came our brilliant painters. Zainul Abedin and Qamrul Hasan were already brilliantly active. Came Mohammad Kibria, Aminul Islam, Murtaza Bashir and Qaiyum Chowdhury. Our art and literature got connected with world art and literature. Buddhadev Bose, master poet, novelist, aesthete and editor, encouraged the young Rahman, Haq, Mahmud and Quaderi. The 1952 language movement served as great inspiration to them and their friends.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was becoming a great people’s hero. Came our 1969 movement for democracy. Came our incomparable fight for freedom in 1971. Rahman and Haq rose to the occasion and voiced our emotions. Came independence, ecstasy and later conflict fanned by nations who did not want us to be free. Came martial law, which robbed us of our youth, a precious chunk of our life, as Syed Haq time and again said. Then came democracy and later re-discovery of 1952, 1969 and, more importantly, 1971.
Syed Shamsul Haq brilliantly explores our thousand years of history, our myth, our modern history with deep insight and great mastery, in his poems, fiction and plays. He had to discover Jaleshwari, an imaginary town in Rangpur, representing Bangladesh with all her pain and pathos. He had to resort to magic realism like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and friends. He had to go to Nuroldin, a nineteenth century leader of the people, to portray our modern fight. Nuroldiner Sarajibon
is perhaps his finest creation. Our language movement turned him into a writer (he would call him and his friends “ekusher santan”). Our independence gave him the freedom to write as he wished. When our history went backward, as in 1975 to 1990, he resorted to magic realism, to Jaleshwari and Nuroldin, to inspire us, to make us dream and to take us forward.
An author of nearly two hundred books, he was born in Kurigram on December 27, 1935. The sensitive boy, who tried his hand in composing rhymes, was schooled in Kurigram. The first rhyme came at twelve. “How did you start writing?” Ahmad Mostofa Kamal had asked him in an interview. He replied that he had started like a murderer, committed the murder and then realised that he had done it! He wrote and then realised, “Arey ami likhe felechi.” Later, while in class ten, Haq moved to Dhaka’s Collegiate School, no wonder the school of Buddhadev Bose, who inspired him, and Prof Munier Chowdhury, who loved and inspired him, too. Then he went to Jagannath College and studied for a couple of years in the Department of English, University of Dhaka. He had a verbal fight with a reactionary senior Professor and left DU for good. The whole world was there to learn from!
He was first and foremost a poet. An outstanding poet who drew his inspiration not from Europe but from our own glorious past. He explored, he discovered and he created – he loved Bangladesh and her people. He had a powerful diction and a great mastery over metre.
Yes, he did flee to the then Bombay in 1951, while in college. He had a lot of exciting experience there. He worked as a junior assistant to Kamal Amrohi and earned innocent affection from the teenaged younger sister of actress Madhubala. He did other odd jobs too and once had to flee the house of his master, when his daughter had caught him reading Dickens! When he had learned from Indian newspapers about our language movement, about our students laying down their lives for our mother tongue, he decided to come back to Bangladesh and become a writer.
Then came the 1950s, the golden decade for our politics, music, painting and literature. Syed Haq wrote, grew up, lived in and loved old Dhaka. They had adda side by side writing – marathon sessions of adda. Adda enriched them, encouraged them to write. He wrote at home and at some of the restaurants where they sat for adda. What a life they lived! “Didn’t know even our siblings, knew our friends only!” He and Shaheed Quaderi remembered those days fifty years later. History had thrust upon the very young shoulders of Haq and friends the daunting task of carrying our literature and culture forward.
He was first and foremost a poet. An outstanding poet who drew his inspiration not from Europe but from our own glorious past. He explored, he discovered and he created – he loved Bangladesh and her people. He had a powerful diction and a great mastery over metre. From Baishakhe Rachito Pangktimala
and Poraner Gohin Bhitor
to his latest poems, he discovered Bangladesh’s heart. He is a poet in his plays, in his fiction and even in his essays. He is a poet in his translation too! Janapad (human habitation) was his favourite word and he loved “Banglar Janapad."
He was a brilliant craftsman, both in poetry and prose. Always experimented, always welcomed the new. He was not only our best living writer of fiction but our best writer of 1971 novels. No writer explored 1971 more deeply, more beautifully and more lovingly than him. He simply had no rival there. From Antargoto
, his novel in poetry, to his Jaleshwari
masterpieces, from Nishiddha Loban
and Dwitio Diner Kahini
to Brishti O Bidrohigon
and Ek Mutho Janmabhumi
, he is a lonely climber at the top of the mountain. Excellent craftsmanship – magic realism, surrealism, exploring our deepest sorrow and diving deep into our past. Stories like "Prachin Bangsher Nishwa Santan," "Buker Madhye Ashabriksha," and "Nepen Darogar Daybhag" are stuff we have never read before! He knew our people and our land like the palm of his hand. I simply adore his fiction!
His plays are the very best produced from this part of Bengal. Nuroldiner Sarajibon
is for the freedom-loving people of the whole world. It simply swept our people off their feet! They simply loved it. They loved his 1971 play Payer Awaz Pawa Jay too. His translation of Shakespeare added a new dimension to this genre. He translated Hamlet while battling cancer. Both as an outstanding playwright and a brilliant translator, he is unfailingly a poet. As a young man he translated Keraya, an amazing story by Syed Waliullah.
As a literary columnist he was incomparable. Hritkolomer Taane
and Banglar Mukh
kept millions like me spellbound. What insight, what prose, what love for literature, what love for our people! I would often weep after reading a touching column of his. His Margin e Mantabya
and Kotha Samanyai
were like Bible to all young writers. He had an apparently tough exterior but deep inside he was an affectionate and kind man. Wasn’t he the great writer who often made us shed tears?
He was not only a friend of our best painters but also a painter himself. He was a sculptor too. Left a few remarkable paintings and sculptures for us. He loved music. Wrote the best screen-plays and songs for Bangla movies as a young man. Popular film-star Razzak called him “our hero.” Loving wife Anwara Syed Haq is a very good writer herself. She is a noted psychiatrist as well. Her inspiration gave him the freedom to be a full-time writer since his forties. Son Ditio Syed Haq is a bilingual writer and a musician. Daughter Bidita Syed Haq teaches English at a college in England.
I had a gut feeling that he was somewhere like his Nuroldin. A Nuroldin in the world of literature. He was a man of courage, who could fight all odds. From teenage to his last days, his courage never left him. He wrote such a lot as an aged cancer patient! I guess he never got old. Wrote with a young man’s energy and an old man’s wisdom from late teenage to his eightieth year. Literature to him was the ultimate! Culture, philosophy, politics, music and painting came with it. Writing was like saying prayers to him. It was his life.
Amar aponjon (my own man), your magnificent oeuvre will keep you alive in our hearts for many, many years. You suffered on our behalf and gave your best to make us happy!
Hats off, maestro!
Junaidul Haque is a bilingual writer of fiction and essays. Born in 1955, he did his MA in English Literature from the University of Dhaka. He has published two novels (Asambhaber Paye and Bishader Tarunya), four volumes of stories and two volumes of short essays. Pathak Samabesh is the publisher of his Nirbachito Galpa.