Tuesday, March 11, 2008

From the Frontier of Writing

Selected Poems of Shamsur Rahman
Translated by Kaiser Haq
88pp, Pathak Shamabesh Book, BDT 350

The works of Shamsur Rahman, one of the leading poets of Bangla Literature, can be broadly divided into two parts. In the first we come across the romantic angst of youth, which later he blends with a necessary tincture of existentialism. Rahman’s rebellion, understandably, has been aimed at the establishment, if one must resort to the clich├ęd jargon of the eighties. But, make no mistake; Rahman has never been a political animal. His revolution is essentially poetic in nature, in the sense that his works mark a transition in the history of Bangla Literature, from Jibananda Das’s ‘complex post-Romantic sensibility’-- as Rahman’s translator Kaiser Haq, a poet himself, describes-- to the more urban crises of the Bangali soul in newly independent Pakistan and then Bangladesh. His early poems epitomise the agony of a generation in transition, a society that has been transforming itself fast, and the values-- some of which were peasant-- fighting a losing battle with more modern urban elements of the quasi-feudal society. Rahman started composing when, in the late eighties, the shadow of Das’s Poyaar or Aakhsharbritto (the rhythm style) was huge, overpowering almost. It is interesting to see Rahman quickly breaking away with it; it is his poems written in free verse that stir us the most.

Kaiser Haq, Rahman’s translator, is no stranger to the world of poesy. Haq has been described by the Journal of Commonwealth Literature as ‘Bangladesh’s leading English Language poet’. His translation is smooth; it shows us the depth and play with the language (both original and target) that has been missing from English translation of Bangla literature. Who else but Haq, one wonders, will be able to transform the desolation in Rahman’s work into English? Read:

No footprints on the dirt track
No crow or cowherd in the pastures
The ragged dykes desolate
Roadside trees hushed and all
Around in naked sunlight
Crows flapping wings, crows, only crows.

Though Rahman has never been a political poet, politics, or the cry for equality--both social and political-- is a recurring theme in his work. In ‘Local News’, he declares:

Meanwhile termites have attacked
The disabled freedom fighter’s weathered crutch
And the severed head screaming under his arm
Nawab Sirajuddowla stumbles blindly on the new map of Bangladesh

The tightness and nillness that we experience in these lines are unique to Rahman’s work. It should not be wrong to drop a line or two on Haq’s poems, which are written in a different language. Though Haq writes in English, his poems deal with, in the broadest sense of the word, the crises of modern Bangali man, and so are Rahman’s poems. Kaiser Haq’s translations of Rahman’s 46 poems remind us once again how important it is for a translator to know the work of art he is translating:

How could I make her realize it often happens
Someone takes leave saying, ‘Till we meet again,’
And disappears just like this, leaving behind
A vast emptiness as a gift: we never meet again.

This collection, which has the translations of Rahman’s all major poems, sparkles with brilliance; it is a tribute to a master by another master of modern poetry. A must read!