Despite controversy, he remained one of the most loved and towering figures in poetry in both Bangladesh and West Bengal.
I had been working on a collection of the legendary Bangladeshi poet Al Mahmud’s poems in English translation. After securing his verbal consent through a friend who visited him once a month, I was focused on the poems, rereading them, rediscovering them, finding myself in awe of his poetry once again.
The deeper I went into his poems, the more resistant I grew to the idea of meeting him. But no matter whatever psychoanalytic interpretation there may be of my procrastination, the news of his death left me almost crippled – because it actually put an abrupt end to my hopes of seeing him in person, of telling him something he knew already, that he had enriched the range and vocabulary of Bangla poetry in ways that no one else ever could.
When Al Mahmud was admitted to a hospital in Dhaka on February 9, we were still hoping he would make it. But in the span of less than a week, he was gone, dying on a Friday at the age of 82. Younger generations of poets who had been working on evaluations and translations of his poetry and fiction were caught unawares. They had all but expected him to go on forever.
No poet courted controversy as much as Al Mahmud had. Yet he remained one of the most loved and towering figures in poetry in both Bangladesh and in West Bengal in India, the two homes of the Bengali language. Beginning in the 1960s with two collections in what was then known as East Pakistan (later Bangladesh): Lok-Lokantor (From Time Past and Present to Eternity, 1963) and Kaler Kolosh (The Pitcher of Time, 1966), he became something of a phenomenon in poetry circles, especially in left-leaning ones.
His magnum opus, Sonali Kabin (The Golden Dowry) was published in 1973. He had already earned himself the epithet of an “emerging poet” when, earlier in the 1950s, several of his poems were picked up by acclaimed literary journals, especially Krittibas and Kobita in Kolkata, and Samakal in the former East Pakistan. Edited by Buddhadeva Bose, Kobita has arguably been the most prestigious literary journal in Bangla till now.
The 1960s was a tumultuous decade, when ideas of a socialist revolution swept through both West Bengal and erstwhile East Pakistan. In the post-Tagorean era, after the modernist spell cast by Buddhadeva Bose and Sudhin Dutta had ended, Subhash Mukhopadhyay, Sankha Ghose, Nirendranath Chakraborty, Shakti Chattopadhyay and several other poets from the 1950s and 1960s banished the mantras of alienation from poetry altogether and instead responded to the social, political and even personal crises of their time with new idioms and expressions influenced to some extent by Marxist theories of society and literature.
In East Pakistan, too, a new band of talented poets – Mohammad Rafiq, Nirmalendu Goon and Rafiq Azad, among others – responded to the same Marxist ideas of social revolution, Al Mahmud being one of the most prominent among them. In his first two collections, he made it clear that the rivers and rice fields and the thick walls of trees amidst which he grew up would constitute the setting for his poetry. But the material he blended with this setting carried a combination that surprises many to this day: modernist expressions with powerful imagery, sometimes robust and sometimes intellectual, raw emotions, a highly artistic form of standard Bengali imbued with carefully chosen words and phrases, and impeccable use of form in terms of meter and rhyme.
In “Pipashar Mukh” (“The Face of Thirst”), he lays it all out:
“When through the gaps of trees in a forest the pain of a dejected breeze
Breathes out sadness, I am the magician of that sound.
When in the last phase of its growing weariness, a spotted deer
Lowers its muzzle gently to a fountain and drinks from it –
I am the hunter of that very sound!”
In several poems from the first three collections – such as “Pherar Pipasha” (“The Thirst For Return”) from Kaler Kolosh and “Khorer Gambuj” (“The Minaret of Straw”) from Sonali Kabin, he gives in to nostalgia for his childhood and adolescent days in a village where Muslim farmers were the majority and where the Titas, the river that nurtured him, flowed gently by. Constructing the village and its people against the city, these poems describe rice fields, rivers, farmers, bauls and housewives in soothing cadences.
Such fluid descriptions of village life using modern poetic expressions and meter are indeed rare – the only other Bengali poet who accomplished such feats was Mohammad Rafique. Except for the poem “Noukoi” (“On a Boat”), there is a sense of loss in these verses that inform them with poignance and longing. Consider his “Khorer Gambuj” (“The Minaret of Straw”):
The minaret of straw
Who knows why he’s returned,
the farmers are surprised to see him there.
Hurriedly removing piles of hay stalks with a hoe
The crop artists settle themselves on the isle
And prepare strong tobacco for a smoke.
Spreading straws over the soil someone calls his name
And says with affection, “Come sit, son.
Why feel shy when this is where you belong!
You are one of us, no? Hearing your father sing
Tunes of Marfati song, even the wind fainted.
When stories of those good old days
Come up in verandah gatherings
The whole village still listens in pin-drop silence.”
He tries to sit on the golden stack of straws –
the man who’s returned.
But what a nuisance!
His neatly ironed city clothes claw at the knees.
From the lower thigh all the way up to his waist,
The young man, as though
Shackled by a tight, merciless stitch at the seam.
Which holds him down;
Which does not let him sit on the very soil of his own land,
Which does not let him enjoy the company of his own people.
But you have to sit right here,
In this cool wind blown over the rice fields.
Taking a long, happy puff of that hookah
Held out to you with love and care
You have to tell them how far you went
Following the tunes of that singing bird,
Past the betel leaf vines.
Where are the birds now?— Translated by Rifat Munim
You alone keep saying “birds, birds”
And exactly like those birds
You have lost the stem from your beak
Somewhere in the boulevard. But all in vain!
You haven’t attained anything at all –
Neither shadow nor the fragrance of leaves.
You have only seen the ones in the guise of cuckoos,
Playing beneath the symbol of leaves
On cover images painted by Qayyum,
Flying with their dirty wings over the corporation’s big dumping ground,
From this particular strain have come some of his best poems, with which he also enriched his project of making Arabic and Persian words integral to his poems without making them appear imposed.
But the richest strain of his poetry, by my evaluation, is the one that transports readers to an entirely different world, somewhat surreal, built with imagination potent enough to traverse territories and zones in the past, the present and the future at the same time. It is in this strain that he constantly plays with many dialectics (between innocence and bestiality, the current time set against the ancient or a timeless future, village and city, all-encompassing darkness set against a revolution) to achieve a unique synthesis. Thus he uniquely fits modern motifs, such as an intellectual orientation or the libido, in a highly imaginative world, the construction of which is undoubtedly inspired by Marxist ideals.
Just as Baudelaire found his poignant yet timeless metaphor for a poet in an albatross in flight, Mahmud finds his in a sailor whose life is “tied to the music of the sea”, not to the ease and comfort of the shores. But in Baudelaire’s case, the albatross is shot down on the deck of a ship, and can only flap its wings but cannot take flight. For Mahmud, conversely, the poet must dive deep into the bottomless sea and discover the prized stones and gems which hold immense potential for a future both boundless and bright. The tone of resignation is not only overcome with a graceful vibrancy of rhythm and rhyme – for instance, in “Samudra Nishad”, or The Pirate’s Song – but taken to a height that defies despair even when pitted against the darkest hours.
Talking about a mysterious bird that he likens to his consciousness, this is how Mahmud ends the title poem of Lok-Lokantor:
From time past and present to eternity
My consciousness is like a bird, real and white
Perching on a chandan branch in a forest green;
Sway betel creepers in the rhythm of a breeze
blowing through a forest of groves while its bill
is smeared with fragrant pollen. In the socket of its eyes
glows the color of shredded areca nuts, feet green, nails dark red
As if the chandan branch is full to the brim with its mantras
My eyes can barely take in this sight anymore.
I cannot bear to look, as if its sight is fearsome— Translated by Rifat Munim
Whenever brightens the gem of my consciousness,
All my ties, it seems, will be torn apart:
Family society religion are nothing but trifling matters – this whole life.
From this time to the one before and ahead of us I listen, dazed,
To the song of a wounded poet – the impending victory of poetry indeed.
Much like Jibanananda Das, Mahmud takes a walk back in time, as in “Archaeology”, and keeps going until he finds the civilizations of Mahenjodaro and Harappa and the earthenware collected from their ruins, which, to him, are as prized as the gems from the briny sea. While Das expands his journey into history from the whole of South Asia to the civilizations of Persia and Egypt to make his extraordinary post-colonial case, Mahmud narrows his journey down to the ancient cities of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, and always takes along a non-Aryan woman with whom he explores the thousand-year-old non-Aryan history of his ancestors to carve out a revolutionary route to the future.
But he cannot start out on the journey ahead without his love for the non-Aryan woman remaining unconsummated. Libido comes up in his poetry in many forms, sometimes as idealized as it was in Bose’s works, sometimes as an individual’s ultimate expression of love, but in the poems where he traverses the past, the present and the future, his robust expression of sexual union is often the gateway to a future where farmers rule the roost.
Bones culled after digging a mountain of stones— Translated by Rifat Munim
With exploded eyes I behold the rusty skull of my kin;
A feeling of affection grows in me, so I shake the dust off it
And take it in my hands – archetypal blood, as if, throbs through us.
Sometimes the tip of a spear while some other times an arrow made of stone
Jewellery used by women from a time when humans hunted and gathered –
You can contemplate as much as you want while you are standing here
You can dig up how deep history courses through your blood.
Down the contours of his face walks the cold of solemnity
While you and I, standing beside the sculpture of Buddha, gaze unblinkingly into each other –
A sense of placidity is ingrained deep in our blood.
Only we are speechless, with the primitive scattered hesitatingly around us.
On the earthen pots from Mahenjodaro are written so many different names
Yet we didn’t realize how far we had walked.
Love is deeply ingrained in sexual desire for Mahmud in whose poetry, unlike Shaheed Quaderi’s, for whom love is always vanquished, it attains fulfillment
only through consummation. His ideas of love and revolution and history and time find the most artistic, mature and balanced expression in Sonali Kabin. He has written numerous formidable sonnets following the Shakespearean model but the fourteen sonnets presented under the rubric of the titular “Sonali Kabin” mark on the one hand the apotheosis of a structurally impeccable sonnet and, on the other, one of the highest points that Marxist poetics can achieve in poetry.
From his fifth collection – Adristobadider Rannabanna, (How Fatalists Cook) – onwards, however, Al Mahmud changed his tack drastically. What previously was a perfect combination of references to both Hindu and Islamic folk and religious material was now replaced primarily by the latter, and the Marxist ideology, by a religious grounding, as clearly articulated in his sixth collection, Bakhtiarer Ghora (Bakhtiar’s Horse). While his religious poetics was neither like Farrukh Ahmad’s conservative vision of an Islamic revival, nor like Farhad Mazhar’s divisive mission of purging Bengali of Sanskritised words, he lost the glitter and the vastness so evident in his previous work. He failed to use religion as a means in his art to further enrich and diversify his writing, like Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam had.
When Mahmud criticized the Awami League government for some of their actions in post-independence Bangladesh, he faced incarceration and immense political pressure. Many in Bangladesh believed that his response to the Awami League went hand in hand with his tectonic ideological shift. The controversy had started when he had gone so far as to endorse the brutal assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, but it knew no bounds when he attended receptions accorded to him by the Jamaat-e-Islami, the party that had killed thousands of freedom fighters and Hindus in 1971.
Ever since then, many poetry and literature lovers had something of a tense relationship with Al Mahmud. Needless to say, I was one of them. Of course, Mahmud’s ideological shift has pleased those associated with religious political parties or those who masquerade as modern but do not believe in the separation of state affairs from religion.
But for those of us who work in the field of literature for the love of it, this resulted in an ambivalence that perhaps explains my procrastination about meeting Mahmud. Be that as it may, few can deny that the poems he wrote up to and including his book Mayabi Porda Dule Utho (The Swinging of an Elusive Veil, 1976), are among the best in modern Bangla literature. There were also numerous excellent poems among the ones that came after this book.
The pirate’s song
A girl quite strange once said with a smile:
“Give me your heart, sailor
Please don’t drift away in the pirate’s ship.
Come step on the land and
Embrace me in your salted arms instead.
“Come let us build a home on these corals,
Loving the smell of the soil
Leave the waters, I beseech
Come let us build a home on this land instead.
“Don’t drift far apart, I beseech
To collect the prized stones!
Leave your dress so blue!
Your eyes are fraught with bubbles of the sea.
Is your heart colored as deeply as the skies?
Your heart is like those seagulls
Spreading wings over the waves!
(A giant palm tree from some remote mountain
Swayed its leaves and whispered right into my ear:
“Your heart is like those seagulls
Don’t you ever fold your wings!
Don’t you ever write your name on the sands of this shore!”)
I called the girl who came as in a dream
“Listen girl, drifting far away off the shore
I will touch the bottom of the sea!
Why do you care so much about the sand on these shores?
Come dive into the waters instead!
Together we’ll swim and
Together we’ll collect the prized stones!
“This heart, if you must know, is— Translated by Rifat Munim
Given to the music of the sea!
Typhoons we saw and countless storms we survived
Deep into the sea!
Those pirates will curse me for sure
Can’t you at all fathom my heart?
I am, after all, a pirate by birth!”
An assessment of Mahmud’s work is incomplete without considering his fiction and nonfiction. He wrote not a few formidable short stories. All the stories from Pankourir Rakto (The Cormorant’s Blood, 1975) and Gandhobanik (The Perfume Merchant, 1988) are works of a master storyteller. His novel Upomahadesh (The Subcontinent) is also highly regarded by critics.
Despite the restrictive shift that his writing took later in life, Mahmud’s achievements in both poetry and fiction are unlikely to dim. Based on the tributes pouring in incessantly since the news of his death came in, it is only fair to say he will continue to live through the body of his work.
Rifat Munim is literary editor, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.
This article was first published in Scroll.in