Ten Poems by Shamsur Rahman and An Essay On Shamsur Rahman’s Poetry by William Radice



by Shamsur Rahman
English Translation from Bengali by Kaiser Haq



by William Radice
Shamsur Rahman: Visionary poet of Bangladesh’s freedom struggle without vanity or affection





Father, won’t you return? Will our native full moon
Ever again illumine your face? Why don’t your footfalls
Reach our ears today? Moss-clouds gather on the walls,
In the garden weeds daily grow more oppressive.
Riderless horses doze in the stables,
The dog has lost its bark,
It wanders the terrace sniffing at things.

No mean island, my Ithaca to me
Was a cornucopia. But since the day
You became a wandering exile, Father,
The trees are leafless, Ithaca is like
A faded rose. Standing alone on boyhood’s plain
I saw a grotesque scarecrow and forgot
How to smile. Sometimes a perceptive old courtier
Asks Why is a smile always in doe-like flight
On the horizon of your lips?
Foreigners revel night and day in Ithaca.
Some with great care test the sharpness
Of their spear-heads, some fling away
The colourful empties of wine, throw kicks,
Some again tease the maid-servants, at times
Reach out for my sorrowing mother, who
By day neatly embroiders something on cloth
Only to unravel it at night. Sweet memories
Play with the ball of thread on her lap.
She weeps in secret, her moist eyes gaze
Upon barren sea. At all times loneliness
Like a black cat stretches in her bed

And through all the nerves in her frame.
A stone dropped even in a weed-ifested lake
Makes instant ripples, and even a leafless tree
Answers to the wind’s call, but my face is drawn
With impassive lines. I wander like a fugitive
Lest someone corner me in a crowded city street
And with queries like driven nails make me bleed.
I know this is the time for spontaneous laughter
But it’s hard to make the rose of laughter
Blossom while enemies occupy my home. Various rumours
Are abroad-you are dead;
You are trapped in Circe’s green locks.

Am I like one deserted by hope on a desert isle’?
Returning from my walks I daily pause
At the edge of the house, where the sharp
Creak of stairs tells its age. Like a helpless stranger
I mope in nooks and crannies. It’s as if some people
With loud outcries were relentlessly pushing me
Into the grave; the feet, stuck on the ground,
Are strangely numb, as if they had never learnt to walk.

A crowd of barbarians occupies the house
Because you aren’t here. They kick me about,
Shove me aside with a violent elbow, or
Jeeringly call me a milk-sop, a little girl.
As they run a hand through sleek beards.
Cask after cask of Wine is drained. scores
Of roasted sheep and pigs devoured, the larder
Is short everyday. The whole of Ithaca is like
An overcast sky, the indignant populace
Seeks redress for institutionalized injustice.
I too long for life, I dream of making this
Tottering house stand firm again. Will the task
Of weeding the garden fall on me? Perhaps that’s why
I shore up courage from season to season and hang on
With ten firm fingers to the colourful reins
Of life’s charger. At times slink away to the armoury
And wonder when this horrid carnival of swindlers
And assassins will end. When will the sun emerge
From its eclipse? Like mother I always scan the sea.
Father, as soon as you step ashore in Ithaca.
You will find me holding open the door
In anxious expectation. Won’t the storm-lashed mast
Of your ship heave into sight in the harbor,
Won’t your practised hand take up your armour
And string your bow with a resonant twang?



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


Electra’s Song

Rain clouds crowd the sky,
And weird lightning keeps flashing
No friend or ally close by, no peace of mind;
Cruel memory plays on a thousand human skulls.

Agamemnon, my slain father, sleeps in his grave.

So long since I picked roses in dream forests,
Listened all day to the wild robin call.
The infant Chrysothemis joined me in merry play,
Sometimes playfully tugging at my pig-tail.

Agamemnon, my slain father, sleeps in his grave.

I’ve heard the lays of many minstrels in father’s time,
The lyre’s tunes, exotic, intoxicating,
Echoing in my heart. Many a jester counted himself blessed
To receive largesse here, and left flowers of gratitude in the hall.

Agamemnon, my slain father, sleeps in his grave.

The butterfly of joy has turned fugitive, melancholy
Holds sway; a sinister fog shrouds everything.
The cry of the slain makes me wander distraught,
Tears leave their nightly signature in my bed.

Agamemnon, my slain father, sleeps in his grave.

The day still glows in memory, when the great hero
Returned victorious from a distant land.
There were victory drums and clamouring multitudes,
Songs in his praise in town and country, for he was the apostle of liberty.

Agamemnon, my slain father, sleeps in his grave.

At the tug of inescapable fate the celebrated hero fell
Like a mighty castle undermined. His blood wasn’t shed
On foreign soil; in his own homeland, his own home,
Unarmed, without warning they ran him through.

Agamemnon, my slain father, sleeps in his grave.

I skulk and mutter all to myself, it’s an offence
Even to mourn you in public, my murdered father.
You are even banned from my dreams, father;
What unbearable torment for your daughter!

Agamemnon, my slain father, sleeps in his grave.

Storm clouds race through my mind, I’m alone
In my father’s home, mine alone the duty to mourn.
His assassins are all around, spies have their eyes
Glued to me. I loiter helplessly.

Agamemnon, my slain father, sleeps in his grave.

Sometimes in the middle of the night
I wake to footfalls, the shriek of a horse in the stable.
The hunting dog keeps pawing the door,
Eager to dip nails and teeth in my blood.

Agamemnon, my slain father, sleeps in his grave.

As long as mornings open my eyes, and I can see
The ceaseless play of sunlight and shadow, as long as I’m kissed
By the breeze, as long as I can watch the prancing
Young deer, so long will nurse my grief.

Agamemnon, my slain father, sleeps in his grave.

My brother’s in exile, who can reassure me in this land
Of the blind, where’s the partner to share my loss?

Under whose roof does my brother break bread?
On which alien plain does Orestes horse kick up dust?

Agamemnon, my slain father, sleeps in his grave.

I prick my ears for a vibrant voice, but can the call
Of the eagle come from the nest of a crow? Chrysothemis
Keeps aloof, an immature maiden, her nubile body
Alive with the music of a lyre’s string.

Agamemnon, my slain father, sleeps in his grave.

I am like a doe roasted alive in a forest fire;
I look for a funeral procession all day, hide my face
In darkness. Roses wither in my grasp, the jasmine drops
From my grip, like a flaming Chinarose vengeance burns
in my breast.

Agamemnon, my slain father, sleeps in his grave.

I’ll never be able to wield an angry sword,
Though in my heart there’s anger, the mantra of revenge.
My attempts at self-purification suffer setback
If my eyes light on a pair of storks
Flying happily across the river at sunset.

Agamemnon, my slain father, sleeps in his grave.

Am I a flute on which anyone can play any tune
Anytime, any way they wish? I walk alone
On a blood-thirsty thorn-strewn path;
The future breathes in my throat, in my voice.

Agamemnon, my slain father, sleeps in his grave.


Canine News

Competition between dogs and men
Having lately grown inordinately fierce
Some of us bark a good deal
More than stray dogs, charge
With jaws snapping, make a mess
About the house. When it comes
To tail-wagging and boot-licking
Dogs lag way behind–put to shame
They stop halfway and strike
Up a hymn in praise of mankind.

Dogs are famed in all creation
For devotion to the master:
To save his life they’d sacrifice
Their own without batting an eyelid.
But men are servile only as long
As the master is powerful and strong,
Eagerly lending a hand to stash away
Gold and whatnot; but when the master’s
Neck is severed, the dead
Body quietly abandoned,
They sneak out the back door.


Good Morning, Bangladesh

Good morning, Bangladesh, good morning,
how are you doing?
Good morning Saatrowza, Mahouttuly. Nawabpur,
Bangabandhu Avenue, Purana Paltan;
Good morning Bagerhat, Mahasthangarh, Mainamati,
Good morning Palashtali, Pahartali.
Good morning Cox’s Bazaar, Himchhari;
Good morning Adiabad Canal, and every Variety of palm,
Nitai the fisherman’s net, boatman Kassim’s dinghy,
gooseberry blossoms, Kamala’s earrings,
Good morning Barisal, Sunamganj, Terulia, Teknaf
Good morning Buriganga, Dhaleswari, Padma, Meghna,
Surma, Karmaphuli.
Good morning Bangladesh, good morning,
how are you?
Bangladesh sometimes you’re busy husking rice
in a cheap striped sari, sometimes
in jeans you go wild
in the discotheque.
At times you carry a pitcher on your hip
to fetch water, fall to chatting
at the ghat, sway on waves of joy
at the sight of a beautiful bird,
fan your fifth child to sleep
at siesta time in hot summer;
offer paan and areca nut to a guest,
cook a delicious fish curry;
stay up alone on winter nights
embroidering a quilt. Such sights charm my eyes.

Bangladesh, those who pinch the bottom
of your culture, rub in poison ivy –
may Allah grant them long life.

Those who remove your armlet from your arm,
your nose-pin from your nose,
your necklace from your neck,
your girdle from your waist,
and smuggle them out of the land –
may Allah grant them long life,
and all those opportunist cheats who spit lies –
may Allah grant them long life.

Listen Bangladesh, your eyes haven’t been so blinded
by the froth of dreams that you can’t see
the flocks of vultures with claws like fish-hooks
rip open the sky’s belly, drag out the clouds entrails;
the Parliament snoring away,
politicians removed from the life of the people
and on a long picnic; the constitution adrift
in air like a kite with snapped string,
development experts devouring the Five-Year plan
like industrious worms.

Can’t you see how owls and bats are shitting
with boundless enthusiasm on the heads of dissipated intellectuals,
can’t you see, great goddess with thoughts garnered
from seven different sources,
seven crows are stealing the rice from your child’s platter?

Good morning, Bangladesh, good morning,
how’re you doing?
At the sight of a rich and ruddy foreigner in a suit
will you instantly spread open your thighs?
Like Hamlet I’m averting my fiery eyes for now,
O my ravished land, but can I always
restrain my pugnacious limbs?


Lines to a Young Poet

In the long run patience pays
And even if it doesn’t, what matter?
Stay bowed over your writing desk,
Steady of purpose as the fasting Siddharta.
With your vision fixed on distant azure
Never allow the motion of your pen to let up.
If you surrender too easily to the merciless words,
If you fail to wrest new nuances of feeling
And bind them to your metres, the discerning
Reader will dismiss you as pusillanimous.

Never complain you have got nowhere in the world.
You know very well, my friend, glittering flocks
Of fashionable ladies never–not even by mistake –
Followed Jibanananda, nor did any magnifico make
The lonely poet the heavenly gift of his mansion.
And so I say: wipe away all resentment.


O Lord

O Lord, if you had to send this wretch to this wretched world.
Why didn’t you create him a parrot?
I’d have sat in the doorway
Sagely bobbing the tail
And with sharp beak peck lovingly at the rationed grain.
Sitting in the cage I could have garnered all the clichés:
I’d be spared the bother of saying things of my own.



I love the venomous snake hidden in the green
Because it is not more malignant than a deceiving friend.
I love the blind vampire bat
Because it is a great deal more compassionate than the critic.
The angry scorpion’s bite is dear to me
Because its agony is sweeter
Than the red-lipped kiss of a faithless sweetheart.
I love the graceful tiger in the dark forest
Because the dictator’s
Calculated all-consuming viciousness is alien to it.



I See a young woman walking alone at midday
through the alley’s sun-drenched silence.
Standing with a hand on the window grill
I wonder where she will go.
A complete stranger,
yet for an unknown reason
a shadow of affection for her,
redolent of the scent of rain on dry earth
descends on my soul.
I wonder if she will walk like this
One day and enter a slimy darkness,
or if unfathomable moonlight
will rain on her the rich pollen
of passionate love?
Bur let her rest
for the moment
in the serai of these lines.


Stray Dog

He’s just a stray dog
Rushing about crazily all day,
Sometimes he roots through garbage for scraps,
At times he capers to entertain his lady-love
Or squats, bone in mouth, in the shade of a tree,
Wags his tail and rolls in the dust
On a carefree afternoon.
Sometimes he decks the emptiness with a cry.
A prisoner in my own room
I listen to my breathing, it’s so quiet.
A few living creatures, we’ve been sitting still
For so long: I, a terrified man,
She, a frightened woman,
They, a few mute boys and girls–
We sit in funereal silence,
Not stirring at all.
When a lizard on the wall clicks its tongue
We wish we could choke it
Lest someone hear and come barging in
Splintering our middle class security!
Soldiers patrol the entire city,
Shoot haywire, fire artillery shells,
Drive tanks any which way,
People dead on streets, landings,
In their houses,
Like rats killed by the plague,
We are just a few breathing creatures
Sitting still since God knows when.
Suddenly sharp barks reach our ears.
Shadow-like I steal over to the window.
It’s that stray dog, charging repeatedly
At an olive-green jeep filled with armed soldiers.
I wish I were at least that stray dog.

Translator: Kaiser Haq

Kaiser Haq was born in Dhaka and educated at the universities of Dhaka (MA) and Warwick (PhD), Where he was a Commonwealth Scholar. He was a Senior Fulbright Scholar and Vilas Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and held a fellowship from the Royal Literary Fund at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He is currently professor of English at Dhaka University and Adjunct Professor at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). Described by the Journal of Commonwealth Literature as “Bangladesh’s leading English-language poet,” he has published seven collections of his own poetry, most recently published in the Streets of Dhaka: Collected Poems (Dhaka: UPL). He has translated Rabindranath Tagore’s Chaturanga as Quartet (Heinemann and Penguin India), the 18th century travel memoir The Wonders of Vilayet (Leeds: Peepal Tree, Delhi: Chronicle Books and Dhaka: Writers.ink), Nasreen Jahan’s Urukkoo as The Woman Who Flew (Penguin India), and Anis Choudhury’s The Perfect Model and Other Stories (Dhaka: Writers.ink). He has edited Contemporary Indian Poetry (Ohio State University Press), and Padma Meghna Jamuna: Modern Poetry from Bangladesh (Delhi: SAARC Foundation). His prose retelling of the Manasa legends, The Triumph of the Snake Goddess has been published by Harvard University Press. Selections of Haq’s poetry have been translated into French (Combien de Bouddhas, Traductions par Olivier Litvine, Editions Caracteres, Paris) and Oriya (translated by Sangram Jena). Had has won the Bangla Academy Award for Translation.



Shamsur Rahman: Visionary poet of Bangladesh’s freedom struggle without vanity or affection

by William Radice


Shamsur Rahman, the greatest Bengali poet of his generation, who has died aged 76, was a man of paradoxes. The author of more than 60 books of poems and many prose works, he gave in his writing an impression of effortless eloquence. Yet in speech he was hesitant, with a slight impediment.

Although always willing to appear on public platforms and speak up for any number of progressive, secular, liberal and democratic causes, he never seemed fully at ease in that role. His poetry was frequently political, yet he was not by nature a political animal. He was international in his vision and range of poetic allusions, but rarely travelled outside Bangladesh and made no bid for publicity abroad.

No poet has been more closely associated with the painful birth and perilous maturing of Bangladesh, the former East Pakistan, yet he resisted the mantle of ‘national poet’. Unlike the majestic figure of Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), he was without vanity or affectation.

Rahman was born in Dhaka, a city he loved and was always reluctant to leave. The fourth of 13 children, he gained an English degree from Dhaka University in 1953. From 1957 he made his living as a journalist in print and on Radio Pakistan, becoming editor of the government owned daily newspaper Dainik Bangla (1977-87).

Rahman often clashed with reactionary, undemocratic, or religious forces. Some of his most famous poems were powerful contributions to the campaign that began with the Bengali language movement of the 1950s, resisting the adoption of Urdu as the national language of East as well as West Pakistan, and culminated in Bangladesh’s 1971 war of liberation from Pakistan.

‘Asad’s Shirt’ turns the tattered, blood-spattered shirt of a young demonstrator killed by the police into a banner of the freedom struggle.

In ‘Alphabet, My Sorrowful Alphabet’ his love for his mother tongue reaches even to its letters, implying passionate rejection of the suggestion–by the Hamoodur Rahman commission in the mid-1960s – that Bengali would only be ‘integrated’ into the Pakistani nation if it was written in Roman or Arabic script.

But the break-up of Pakistan meant no respite in Bangladesh from the struggle for democracy, secularism and the rule of law, and Rahman never ceased to take part, supporting it with a stream of uncompromising poems. Risking his job as editor of Dainik Bangla, he joined protest rallies against President Hussain Muhammad Ershad in the 1980s, and characterised the corruption and misrule of that era in one poem as ‘the country riding a peculiar camel.’ The growth of Islamist extremism in Bangladesh in the 1990s almost cost him his life.

As a poet, Rahman expressed an infinite variety of moods. He could turn out a perfect sonnet, but he preferred a freedom and flexibility of form that never, however, seemed uncontrolled. His vast vocabulary incorporated the Perso-Arabic influenced dialect of Old Dhaka as well as the Sanskrit tradition. His images could be fanciful, even surreal. He could be noble and classical in poems such as ‘Telemachus’ or ‘Electra’s Song’, erotic, as in ‘Odalisque’, or touchingly domestic, as in ‘Some Lines on a Cat’. The secular, often witty romanticism with which he began as a poet in the 1950s – and which at the time was not common among Muslim Bengali poets – never left him.

Freedom of language and freedom of poetry are at the heart of everything he wrote. In ‘Swadhinata Tumi’ (You, Freedom), written during the liberation war, he defines freedom in a series of images ranging from the heroic and political to the rural and intimate, ending with “You are a garden room, the koel-bird’s songs the old banyan tree’s gleaming leaves/ my notebook of poems written just as I please.”

Rahman’s death has produced an outpouring of tributes even from his ideological enemies. ‘A poet has no religion,’ he said in a 1993 interview with the Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) Statesman. “His religion is to protest against anti-human activities. I believe in democracy.” His balanced, rational, yet mercurial vision will itself spare him from being turned into an icon. His great poem ‘Mask’ translated by Kaiser Haq, ends with a plea against that. “Look! The old mask/ under whose pressure/ I passed my whole life,/ a wearisome handmaiden of anxiety, has peeled off at last,/ For God’s sake don’t/ fix on me another oppressive mask.” His wife, two daughters and one son survive him. Another son predeceased him.

Osman Jamal writes: I first met Shamsur Rahman in 1949, the year that he joined the Progressive Writers and Artists Association. Loosely linked to the recently outlawed Communist party, the small group of youthful PWAA members usually held their literary meetings in the relative freedom of ‘Madhu’s Canteen’ at Dhaka University. This teashop in a corrugated tin shed, supported on timber and bamboo pillars and open on three sides, lay abandoned on Sundays. There, Rahman read his first efforts to a fraternal but critical audience. He would have known some Eliot and Yeats by that point, but his first volume of poems, Prothom Gan Ditio Mirittur Age (First Song, Before the Second Death), eventually published in 1960, owes more to a schooling in the poetry of the first generation of Kolkata-centred modern Bengali poets of the 1930s.

Though PWAA did not survive long into the 1950s, Rahman carried its spirit of enlightenment and modernity to the end of his life. Years later, he wrote a poem, ‘Hasan and the Winged Horse’, addressing a close friend from those times, the poet and essayist Hasan Hafizur Rahman, who had recently died. It looked back to, among other things, the language movement protest in Dhaka in 1952, when four students were killed on February 21. “Do you remember today / the trumpet of an irate goddess called politics? Remember sitting up all night / Reading countless underground tracts? Remember the impatient kiss / On 52’s red lily of terrible beauty. Alone you Went/ To the dark press to light up forbidden lamps/ And at the alleyway’s head looking bright-eyed for a winged horse,/ I spent my evenings and so many midnights.”

Shamsur Rahman, poet, born October 24, 1929; died August 17 2006

[Courtesy: The Guardian, daily newspapers, September 15, 2006]

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