Hayat Saif lived in the days of Mohammad Rafiq, Abdul Mannan Syed, Rafiq Azad and Asad Chowdhury—in that defining generation of modern Bangla poets that gave a spur to literature in our part of the world in the 1960s of the last century. Saif was not a lesser poet but probably, he was, among his celebrity contemporaries, a lesser sung poet. His introvert characteristic may have something to do with it. In what would be a rough translation of one of his verses, Saif says:
“Never aspired to become famous,
There was no time for that;
I would rather bask in the beauty of
A setting sun in the autumn sky.”
Poet Hayat Saif, who bade farewell to this earthly world on May 13 at the age of 76, never hankered after fame; he rather lived life full-throttle, wearing many successful hats: a poet par excellence, a World Scout Movement forerunner and a second-generation civil servant with formidable repute. For over five decades, Saif served the world of Bangla poems most passionately by well dividing his time between literature, job and the Scout Movement. In the process, accolades did finally come his way in every possible way—he retired as a top bureaucrat serving with good repute, received Bangladesh’s prestigious Ekushey Padak a year before his death for his contribution to language and literature, as well as bagging the Bronze Wolf, a top accolade in international Scout Movement.
In one of his translated verses in English (Someone Exists), Saif says:
“Someone exists on the other end of this silence.
There exists someone beyond this immediate existence.
May be he is not exactly within sight.
Or maybe not even far away,
Remaining pretty close,
Throbbing near the throat's vein.
This is how one keeps on living, the heart,
Remaining in the depth of soul, unknown to others
Remains true to one's nature.”
Saif was, indeed, a strong poet with a soft heart. He would mix with all and sundry, cutting across age barriers, rising above generation gaps. In his time even when he was at the peak of his repute as a prominent poet, Saif would keep track on budding poets, would always refer to them, read them and encourage them in every possible way.
In another verse he says:
“I don’t think of dying yet,
Many good feelings keep popping up all the while.”
But then again he says:
“If I ever have to depart
Let me read no more writings on the wall,
No more of these leaflets, rumours;
Let me have a small patch of land
Under the shades of mango, berry, neem and jackfruit trees.”
Saif had always yearnings for times in the past and all his fond memories. He’d like reminiscing someone casting a magical spell on him at a Shanghai restaurant 12 years ago or a beauty he saw long ago somewhere in the Philippines. One may find it a bit intriguing but in Saif’s words:
“I’ve heard that love is gained
In exchange of love and hatred brings hatred,
Later, I also found out—
Love can give you neglect as well
But then again neglect can provide you some solace too.”
Saif’s crucial writings and the translations of his work in foreign languages are a testament to the depth which has consistently underpinned his creativity. His death marks the fall of yet another bright star from our intellectual firmament. Like all men of deep imagination and conviction, Hayat Saif was consistently focused on the cultural heritage of the society he sought to bring alive in his literary compositions. He had an artist’s soul that would always make him restless—even in the midst of all the workloads that a seasoned bureaucrat has to go through, he not only ventured in composing newer verses and giving time in the Scout movement, he also tried his hand in oil paintings, writing essays and doing literary translations.
Born as Saiful Islam Khan on December 16, 1942 in Dhaka to Moslem Uddin Khan and Begum Sufia Khan, he assumed the pen name Hayat Saif in 1961 when contributing to literary journals. He has been translated into English and Spanish, and in Bangladesh, is generally acclaimed as an intellectual interpreter of contemporary life and culture. After graduation, he taught in colleges for about three years and then joined the Pakistan Superior Service in the Finance cadre in 1968. He was involved in the revenue administration and tax policy making for more than three decades.
In early 1960s, still a student, he worked as a casual announcer and newscaster in the Dhaka center of the then Radio Pakistan and later in Pakistan Television at Lahore Center. He later continued his activities in broadcasting and telecasting, and anchored literary programs and talk shows. Much of his youth passed in Rajshahi where his father had served at Rajshahi University till the later part of the sixties. Saif started to scribble rather early. His first published poems appeared in Samokal, in 1962. When his poems began to appear in prestigious literary journals like Samokal, edited by Sikandar Abu Zafar, and Purbamegha, edited jointly by Zillur Rahman Siddiqi and Mustafa Nur-Ul Islam, his emergence as a modern poet was confirmed.
At some point, in the beginning, he was considerably influenced by Sudhin Dutta, one of our main poets in the 1930s. He admired Jibanananda Das, too. His publications in Bengali include eight collections of poems, two collections of essays and a huge number of poems and articles published in various periodicals. His first book Santrashey Shahobaash (To live in violence) came out in 1984.His latest collection of poems include Prodhanoto Smritiebong Manusher Pathchola (Mainly memories and man's path-walking) published in 2008 and Rashunbunar Ithikotha in 2010.
There are two collections of his prominent poems in English rendition. One of them is Voice of Hayat Saif edited by Faizul Latif Chowdhury, and published by Dibya Prakash in 1998. It contains forty-five poems translated by different hands. The volume titled Hayat Saif: Selected Poems was edited by poet Sudeep Sen and published by Pathak Samabesh, Dhaka, in 2001.
Reaz Ahmad is Executive Editor, Dhaka Tribune.