Kazi in Nomansland
Expurgated text written as part of his installation for Sharjah Biennial, 2011
The essay is all about Pakistani stamps. It seems there were 328 stamps Pakistan issued from 1947 until the 1971 liberation of Bangladesh (or 'breakup of Pakistan,' depending on your perspective). Only one of these featured a Bengali, poet Kazi Nazrul Islam.
Nazrul ended up spanning all three countries. After Partition, he refused to leave India for Pakistan. Or to be precise, his family made the decision for him as by then, he had lost the ability to speak. The mysterious disease that enveloped him was already in its second year. In this manner he became an uneasy new icon: the Muslim poet who refused Pakistan, or rather resisted the way territory was being redrawn. India embraced this decision, and structured a moral around it: Muslims have a home in India after all. Perhaps Maulana Azad served the same function as well within the new Indian state? All the token Muslim refuseniks!
At midnight hour, the partition of India began. As new flags went up, familiar modes of belonging were broken and reborn. The geographical impossibility, that is the new country of Pakistan: 'two Wings a thousand miles apart, that fantastic bird of a place, two Wings without a body, sundered by the land-mass of its greatest foe, joined by nothing but God' [Salman Rushdie, Shame, 1983].
Yes, the two Pakistans were 'united' by religion but divided by language, culture and everything else that really matters. In 1952, the central state's clumsy attempt to impose Urdu as an all-Pakistan language went very badly. Language riots, bloodbaths, and the birth of a Bengali nationalist movement had all that cost the Eastern half. By the 1960s, Pakistan was increasingly concerned about 'losing' the restless Eastern province. The language riots killed one idea, but a newer one took its place–culture as cohesion. Bengali culture was appropriately modified and “Islamized,” as the scaffolding for “national unification.”
Two Koreas, two Germanys, and finally, now, a line was drawn. Here, 'we' won't allow two Pakistans. Nazrul was thus brought into the Pakistan project, passing onto the national stamp, to be used on letters or postcards, perhaps even some to be mailed to our lost families across the border. Reading parts of his story, a friend tells me of an appropriate Derrida quote, 'No, the stamp is not a metaphor, on the contrary, metaphor is a stamp.'
Slowly, steadily, Nazrul was rebranded as an exclusively Muslim poet, to be used as a counterpoint to the dominance of Bengali literary lion and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore being a 'Hindu,' the cultural fascination with his songs must be wiped out at all costs. (Tagore has the last laugh, his songs ended up as the national anthem for two countries: India, and later Bangladesh)
Finally, after 1971, when Pakistan is broken and Bangladesh emerges, Nazrul became a third token, a symbol of independent Bangladesh. But how willing are all these transfers? More on that later…
In 2008, I wanted to build little stamp towers out of the Nazrul stamps. A tower for each country, each having a different height. But glue curls and moisture modified those plans and reduced my ambition (thankfully). The Dhaka General Post Office had exactly 19,538 of the 1977 Nazrul commemoratives in stock. With the clockwork efficiency of an automaton inside a bad bureaucracy, the kerani informed me of this number after consulting his book. I noticed, however, that he did not correct the number after I was finished with my purchase.
In one week, I bought 3,000 of these stamps. Now collectors were wondering what was going on.
The Indian and Pakistani Nazrul stamps are harder to get and more expensive. Fifteen times face value, or even more. When I explain my idea, the philatelist I approached offered an alternative. For the Indian stamps, the base can be made out of a 1977 birth control commemorative. Same dimensions and same amount of dirt on serrated edges, no one will be able to tell the difference. I pause while I think through the ethics of the wall labels. But for Pakistani he offered a clincher. The only Pakistani stamp that fits in size with Nazrul was the multi-hued generics of his theoretical nemesis: Pakistan's founder Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah. Only stamps of Iqbal could have topped this juxtaposition. Nazrul would appreciate this little irony–on par with everything else in his life.
In the list of reasons why Sarzamin broke apart into Pakistan and Bangladesh, there are multitudes of economic and cultural statistics. Stamp politics is only a small 'p' in that schema.
Nazrul's poetry is innovative, flowing and a new ferocious form in Bengali language. A decisive break with the genteel parlour modes and bucolic imagery of imagined village idylls of previous generations, especially the Hindu bhodrolok litterateur. But his writing was not yet fully directed at the British. The experience of being a temporary loyalist, a soldier in the 49th Bengal Regiment of the British Indian Army, pushed things towards a decisive break. His poetry and songs accelerate, becoming more radical and confrontational, bleeding out faster and faster after his demobilization. In civilian life he found the metre of rebellion.
Nazrul's essays and poems landed him on repeated police watch. Essays like 'Muhajirin hatyar janya dayi ke? (Who is responsible for killing refugees?)' resulted in the confiscation of the publishing magazine. Repeated police interventions lead to his arrest, trial and finally incarceration by 1922. While in prison, he launches a hunger strike, compelling the intervention of his admirer Rabindranath Tagore. In a telegram sent to jail, Tagore wrote: 'Give up hunger-strike, our literature claims you.' Out of this experience came Nazrul's iconic jail anthems. Things rise to fever pitch, birthing songs of a pure violence of form and fervour.
Destroy those iron gates of prison,
Demolish the blood stained stony altars
Of chain worshipping!
O youthful Israfil,
Blow your horn of universal cataclysm!
Let the flag of destruction
Rise amidst the rubble of prison walls
Of the East!!
Play the music of the festival of Shiva!
Who's the master? Who's the king?
Who is it that gives punishment?
Having snatched away the truth, free and open?
Ha! Ha! Ha! It's a laugh–
God is to be hanged?
Who gives this nasty lesson?
['Karar Oi Louho Kopat (Those Iron Gates of Prison)']1
The damages of the Great War of European nations fatally weakened the British Raj. Their grip on India loosened and decolonization was increasingly seen as inevitable. Different strands grabbed control of the liberation battle. Nazrul watched in horror as the independence movement he supported abandoned the idea of a secular, united country. Anti-British fervour metastasized into intense Hindu-Muslim riots and the seemingly inevitable drums of Partition. In 1941, he publicly wrote against the idea of Pakistan, dismaying his Muslim supporters. His onetime mentor Fazlul Huq abruptly fired him from the newspaper where he was employed.
Two flowers on same stem, Hindu-Musalman
Musalman the centred eye, Hindu the soul
At night now, we chase and slaughter you, my new enemy
But with dawn, brothers will know what they did to each other
We will embrace and cry, and ask forgiveness again.
In 1942, soon after witnessing the carnage of communal riots, Nazrul contracted a mysterious disease. At an astonishing speed, over a period of a few months, he began losing his memory and speech. Already abandoned by Huq, Nazrul's family approached another Bengali Muslim politician, Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy. And from here onwards, Nazrul began his travels in no-man's land. Huq had already ejected his ward for anti-partition views, Suhrawardy rejected him because he worked for his archrival Huq, and the Congress abandoned him because a Muslim who opposes Pakistan is a danger to the Hindu groups also pushing for partition.
His vegetative state increased, and continued for another three decades. His wife died in this period, which lead to one theory that the disease was syphilis. Later Pick's Disease was argued as the more likely diagnosis. A mute Nazrul stayed on in India after 1947, voting with his body against Pakistan. On the Indian side, he was now presented as a syncretic Muslim who imbibed Hindu culture; the dark Cassandra of songs about both religious syncretism and divisions was forgotten.
Along with Syed Mujtaba Ali, he became one of the Bengali Muslims distancing themselves from Pakistan–Nazrul through physical presence in India and Mujtaba through his essay against Urdu as state language. But in Pakistan, the state was bent on crushing 'Hindu tendencies' in Bengali culture and music, so they re-imagine this same Nazrul as a Muslim poet. Facts that don't fit are ignored–personal (his Hindu wife who did not convert, his children who had “Hindu” names), political and in poetry.
The Pakistani state tried to present Nazrul as Muslim above all else, even re-writing some lines of his poems. In his anti-British marching song 'Chal Chal Chal (March March March),' the stanza 'shajib koribo moha-shoshan' (we will rejuvenate the cremation ground) is changed to “shajib koribo gorosthan” (we will rejuvenate the graveyard). His 'Kandari Hushiyar (Boatman Beware)' has two stanzas deleted ('Who dares ask if they be Hindu or Muslim / Boatman, tell them it is man who drowns, children of our mother') as well as the line 'India will rise again.' In other textbook reprints, words like Sanskritized bhagavan are replaced with the Arabicized rohoman.
Nazrul was of course not the only subject of culture wars. There were others; some became willing participants in “unity” literature projects, while others like Shawkat Osman sabotaged the process through novels like Kritodash'er Hashi (Slaves' Laugh). The coded messages embedded in this new Bengali literature of discontent remained completely opaque to the Urdu speaking elite in Karachi and Islamabad. The final years of the 1960s saw Pakistan in continuing turmoil, with language the Achilles heel of the unity project: simultaneously a weapon for transmission, organizing and protest in East Pakistan.
All efforts at “united nation” fell apart by 1971, when the Pakistan project collapsed. Now, in a foretold tryst moment, an independence war, and a new country: Bangladesh. Finally, India flies Nazrul to Bangladesh as a goodwill gesture towards the new President, Sheikh Mujib. A temporary visit became a new home.
Four years later, Mujib is killed in a military coup. The new army government moved Nazrul out of the state-provided guesthouse into virtual house arrest at PG Hospital.
When he died a year later, the military government of General Ziaur Rahman refused the family's demand to bury him in India. Instead his funeral in Dhaka was used to cement the military government's hold on the nationalist narrative. By the time family members managed to bypass the Bangladesh government's bureaucratic manoeuvring and landed in Dhaka, the funeral was over. Nazrul, who fought against Partition, now became embedded in the new pseudo-narrative being constructed by a cosmetic Islamization project in Bangladesh.
- Translated by Sajed Kamal
- This and all subsequent poems translated by Naeem Mohaiemen
NAEEM MOHAIEMEN is an artist and writer working in Dhaka and New York.