Poet, fiction writer, and academic Kashinath Roy (1948‒2021) passed away on January 17
It was in a literary magazine called “Nirontor” that I had first read Kashinath Roy’s poems, sometime in the spring of 2010. All the articles, stories, and poems in that fat issue of the magazine were excellent yet now that I try to recall them, I only have faint memories of two fictional pieces: Hasan Azizul Haq’a “Bidhobader Kotha” (The tale of the widows) and Shahidul Zahir’s “Indur Bilai Khela” (The Game of the Rat and Cat); and clusters of poems by two poets: Mohammad Rafiq and Kashinath Roy. Is there anything new to say about the literary achievements of Hasan, Zahir, and Rafiq? They have written stories, novels, and poems that transcend the barriers of time and space. I had already been familiar with their work and they never failed to impress me with their writing. But I was way more surprised than impressed when I read Kashinath Roy’s poems.
Kashinath has published only two collections of poetry: “Jibanananda Dekhun” (Jibanananda, Please See) and “Ami jaha Dite Pari” (What I can Give). In them he deals with a variety of subjects, ranging from love to history. He strikes the reader with an outpouring of his thoughts and feelings, and he achieves this through his very own poetic language with which he is capable of getting the reader's full attention. What I find truly surprising about his poetry is the question why such a fine poet would publish only two collections of poems and remain out of public view for most of his life!
The sharp, contradictory imagery in Abdul mannan Syed’s poetry or, say, the laments of the vanquished, alienated modern man in Shaheed Quaderi’s, are very powerful. Or consider the poor men and women who, in Mohammad Rafiq’s poetry, whirl around in an enchanting atmosphere built around rivers, trees, and forests. All three of them build such a world with the controlled use of metaphors, similes, and symbols that the reader feels ever attracted to their poetry. They are vastly different from each other. Yet one could say with some degree of certainty that their poetic language exudes not only sparks of brilliance but also deep marks of perseverance and effort.
That’s where Kashinath Roy stands out as an entirely different poet. There are no marks of perseverance in his poetry; nor is there any intricate combination of metaphor, allegory, and natural atmosphere. His poetry pours out of the deep recesses of his heart about moments of historical crisis or potential. Emanating, as if, from a waterfall born of emotional realisation of breathtaking height, his spontaneous poetry runs like a narrow canal at a simple pace; it doesn’t take any complex turn; at the arrival of rhythm and rhyme, his canal at times throbs like raindrops with pure delight; from a narrow canal it grows to be a placid tributary which, at different turns of history, swells occasionally in an authentic combination of love, sorrow, trauma, and self-realisation; it even expands its interpretive possibilities, yet it does not inundate you with flooding, it just shakes the deepest core of your consciousness, and always touches your heart.
The turns of history have left him more wounded than optimistic, especially whenever the peace-loving people of this country faced violence against different historical backdrops. Beginning from the middle of the 1960s to the end of the first decade of the 21st century, whenever there was an incident of violence caused by historical turbulence, the wounds of Kashinath’s heart have shed not only blood but also poetry. Revolving around one or the other historical moment, whether of disaster or revolution, most of the poems in his two collections articulate the speaker’s desire for love, which, often assuming symbolic proportions, turns out to be a freedom-loving, peace-loving people’s thirst for a society based on justice and equality.
Written in the first person, emotive poetry surrounding an objective subject matter is not rare at all in the history of Bengali poetry. It is, in fact, one of the strongest romantic strains of Bangladeshi poetry which has been made ever richer by the emergence of Rafiq Azad, Nirmalendu Goon, Abul Hasan, Mahadev Saha, Rudro Mohammad Shahidullah and so many new voices after them. Yet with sparks of imagination or streaks of irony, keeping history always at the centre while also cooling the tone with a dip in his spontaneous yet placid tributary, the poetic language that Kashinath has perfected is indeed rare.
Also noticeable is how economical he is in his use of metaphors. Yet the result, in most cases, is the creation of metaphors which, though sparse, are exquisite. That’s precisely why ambiguity can never cast a pall over his poems. The only conscious effort he puts in is evidently the tendency to shun ambiguity. A poet or critic too immersed in the spirit of this time and age might want to identify this tendency as “postmodern”, especially as Kashinath’s poetry is altogether stripped of the prominent modernist tropes including portrayal of city life, abstraction, ambiguity, emphasis on what is unsaid, and terseness of expression. Further, even though he spent the better part of his life teaching English Literature at the University of Dhaka, the realm of his poetry is made up of indigenous elements and myths, unlike many modern poets whose poems are crammed with references and allusions to European myths, literature, and history.
This tendency to eschew his poems from modernist symptoms is not postmodern at all. It is rather a distinct Marxist model perfected by a poet whose sensibility is steeped in nature and society in equal measure. Secularism is integrated into the foundation of his poetic ideology, yet the use of Arabic and Persian words in his poems is not driven so much by secular spirits as by spontaneity. We are living in an age when imposing Arabic, Persian words on the body of a poem as embellishment is regarded in many literary circles as an act of revolution. If you impose words derived from foreign languages, whether of Middle Eastern or European origin, in the name of a cultural or literary movement, you may no doubt fulfil your modernist or postmodernist goal but question remains if such a practice achieves any literary beauty of significance. In this context, I believe Kashinath Roy’s poetry will immensely inspire his successors because there is no sign of artificially imposing Arabic and Persian words on his language yet he never holds back from using them when necessary. His stance on this subject becomes clear only with a little bit of scrutiny: There are certain foreign cultural traits that have become our own and if you practice or articulate them spontaneously you not only make an aesthetic statement but also leave an imprint which, illuminated by history, is alive with the ethos of unity, as opposed to division.
A poet like Kashinath Roy seemed rather content with not stealing the poetic spotlight. Ensconced in a world populated more with books and ideas than with people, he had enjoyed the companionship of many brilliant writers, many of whom were his colleagues, students, and friends. The last issue of Kheya, a literary magazine, bears witness to the kind of enlightened following he had and illuminating associations he made. Yet it hurts to see that in this time and age when the cacophonies pervading the social networking sites increasingly rule the roost, when even mediocre poets can become famous with their non-literary skills, a poet who always avoided the crowd will be buried in oblivion sooner than we expect.
Is that all there is to it? Wandering through the riches of poetry and fiction across the world, what one learns tells a different story though: poets and lovers of literature, in time, will crowd along the bank of his placid tributary, and upon cleansing themselves with its clear water, they will rightly carve out directions for a new history.
[This piece is a translation of an essay originally published in Bengali in the Kashinath Roy issue of Kheya, published in July 2020]
Rifat Munim is Literary Editor, Dhaka Tribune.