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Vigilant Skepticism: The Poetry of Humayun Azad
When we speak of postcolonial literature, we rarely think of contemporary writing from Bangladesh. Because when we speak of postcolonial literature, we really wish to, while soliciting the idea of freedom, but literature in a sort of box. Thus India, in seeming “Asian” with respect to Britain, Pakistan, in seeming “Muslim” with respect to the West, can seem conveniently othered, eroticized. Bangladesh, although equally colonized by the British with the other pars of South Asia, won its freedom struggle not from non-Asians or non-Muslims, but from Pakistan itself. Moreover, the leading writers of Bangladesh have been skeptical and anti-fundamentalist, and have not incarnated the naïve challenge to Western values that many would, out of a mixture of motives, like to see from the Muslim world.
One of the most vigilantly skeptical of these writers is the late Humayun Azad. It is all too sorrowful that Azad, whose most poignant poem began “I Probably Will Die For A Little Thing,” died for a big thing: he was assailed by fundamentalist terrorists in 2004 and died of his wounds shortly thereafter. Yet Azad’s personal courage and suffering threatens to take the spotlight away from his poetry, as did his copious production as an essayist and scholar. Hassanal Abdullah, who has virtually singlehandedly made the poetry of contemporary Bangladesh visible in the United States, here provides a copious selection of Azad's poetry in English translation, providing a volume of so much richness and depth it is impossible to fully celebrate it in this limited space.
One can think of no more iconic a name than “Humayun Azad”: Azad meaning freedom, Humayun one of the most famous of Mughal emperors. But Azad was aware of the double-sidedness of ambition, especially poetic ambition.
In “Epitaph” he describes a poet being both loved and hated by wives, concubines, and lovers, in what is a gem of not only considerable humor but piercing insight: the things that makes us potentially great also make us potentially intolerable. Azad did not throw his weight around as either lyric poet or public intellectual; there is a self-deprecation and vulnerability in his work which is both open and charming. This capacity for self-effacement, though, is not mere passivity, but enables Azad to approach grim matters with withering irony. In “Time To Stay Quiet” Azad mordantly observes that we must be silent because “we have to observe/the killer’s artwork.” This sense that the political oppressor demands not only public obedience but aesthetic admiration, that killing is not just a matter of force but of bad art that demands we pretend it is good art, resounds with a bleak, pained wit reminiscent of the Chile-set novels of Roberto Bolaño. Making us pretend that killing is art is the ultimate seal of the passivity and moral collapse oppression requires of its victims, and to which Azad, with his sharp-edged humor, will not succumb.
Nor is Azad a Bengali nationalist in a reductive way. Too often, postcolonial literature has to be a success story, if not the literally financial one of Mohsin Hamid’s How To Make It Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, at least a social success story, of happiness achieved whether in successful nation-building or in prosperous and fulfilled diaspora. But Azad, although a fierce Bangladeshi patriot and freedom fighter, understood that his nation’s story was nowhere near to having a happy ending. “My Halfway Done Home” uses the disillusionment in the aftermath of the assassination of Mujibur Rahman. While recognizing the swift pace of historical change—that Bangladesh has been through “four different calendars” and that its independence helped nudge the Untied States and mainland China into “a new friendship” the speaker acknowledges his nation, like a birds; nest whose maker ran out of hay, is only halfway done, Independent Bangladesh is an unfinished project, and Azad's critical eye is there to prevent us from falling into complacency and unwonted cheer, that will provide us wit only a false synthesis.
Yet Azad is often a totally lyrical poet, as in the wonderful “Farewell”:
Take care, falcon, bluest sky, take care.
Take care, leaves, morning dew,
Take care, water, river banks,
Take care, tree, fish of the pond, take care.
This litany of natural objects for which the poet shows concern and solicitude is an ecstasy of pure lyric address; we learn what it is to experience the world and to think it matters, which for Azad is a process far supervening the political. For this capacity to love the world, reductive ideologies such as religious fundamentalism are an affront. In “Hoses of God” the speaker resents a mosque looming over the area where he used to paly as a boy, and sees another mosque built by Saudi Arabia near where he had been to university. Hindu and Christian equivalents seen in India and Scotland are added, to make clear that this is not a matter of Islamophobia but of waning against the resurgence of religion in areas where it had been pleasurably experienced as absent. This poem's specific objections to duress and coercion are rendered more abstractly in “I Lived In other People’s Time”:
I lived in otherpeople’s time.
Their fingerprints were on my food,
Their germs were in my drinks,
And their pollution was in my faith.
The individual is all too often compelled to live in other people’s time, pulled into external networks that try to tell us what the meaning and nature of the times we live in should be. The individual tries to sing in his own tune, but the “shallow modes” of what Theodor Adorno called “the culture industry”—in Azad’s case, the fundamentalist culture industry—keep on impinging. At times, Azad seems inconsolably angry about this. In “Everything Will Go Into The Thugs’ Hands” he is Juvenalian in his total scorn and utter pessimism as to the fate of our lives:
I know, everything will go into the thugs’ hands,
The clear sunny day and the light of the full moon,
The villagers’ hay towers that could seduce the river,
And the rain of the fall will be possessed by the thugs.
Abdullah’s translation, with its emphasis on clear, stark diction and vivid imagery, solicits the lone solace the poem provides us that the alert obduracy of the poet will bear witness against the thugs, that the “everything” that will go into their hands has one exception: the voice of the poet himself.
Azad reminds us that this witness bearing is not just to a specific event or constellation, but to imperfections in human nature that have always been there. In “Five Strategies To Break Martial Law” he notes that martial law, or its equivalents, “was there in the 12th century” and “will be there in the following centuries.” The only way to break marital law is ultimately love, and the poem is a long paean to the capacity of Venus to combat Mars, of Eros to prevail over terror.
Though Azad is not primarily a love poet, his political passion is often informed by eroticism. “Fire” reminds us of Robert Frost in its juxtaposition of fire and ice, “When I touch a piece of ice/It sparks a sudden fire.” An erotic fire, but also one, that in a sort of righteous indignation, can potentially root out the impurities of a flawed universe. Azad's satiric and caustic impulses are always bound up in a larger sense of rage at an imperfect world, desire for a world that though it will never be nonetheless should be, that is meaningfully possible even if inevitably never actual. But Azad never lets this anger swell up his sense of his own importance as an individual. In “My Neighbours” he pictures a tree, a butterfly, a cobra talking to him, not trying to conjure up an expansive pantheism but to acknowledge that these plants and creatures, too, share his world, that he is not the sole owner of his own experience. If he were of Christian background, one might say Azad has an Augustinian pessimism compounded by a Franciscan humility. In other words, he is not proud, of himself or of his world.
At times, Azad even seems too pessimistic about himself and about the potential agency of the self. In “Father’s Epitaph” he describes his deceased parent as “a failure like me” atomized into a total vacuum, less significant than the beasts that prowl around the grave. But he is wrong here: Humayun Azad, dead tenyears, had a vision and a commitment that resonates now more fiercely than ever.
Azad was not only a great man but a great poet. But the question remains: why is poetry in Bengali after Tagore so little known? And why does the contemporary literature of Bangladesh not have the canonicity possessed by that of India and Pakistan? A certain model of what South Asian literature is has captured the world’s imagination, and regions deemed peripheral—Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the non-English languages and less populous or centrally located states of India—are sidestepped by the West because they do not fit in with that vision. Yet there is another reason: Western intellectuals have long looked to non-Western nations to make themselves feel good politically, and Bangladesh to say the least does not provide this. India and Pakistan at least have thrown up the illusory phantasms of the Nehru/Gandhi and Bhutto families for the West to hold up as ideals against a vaguely execrated extremism, and India has been laden with the quasi-mythical image of sudden capitalist prosperity; Bangladesh has not even that. There have been as few happy endings there as in Azad’s own life. Yet nowhere else in the world has the spirit of poetry, its unwillingness to submit to the idiotic slogans of the day, been more robust. Azad’s skeptical hope for the future should be a guide and an example for all people.
The Bengali language has long had the sort of spirited public debate about literature, anchored in a generally educated, middle class public, that Westerners often wrongly see as exclusive to the West. There was no figure of our time who more embodied this role of imaginative literature in the public sphere than Humayun Azad.
Selected Poems, Humayun Azad, Tr. Hassanal Abdullah, Edited by Stanley H. Barkan, Bivas, Dhaka, February 2014
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