Last adieu to the voice of justice
My introduction to the veteran poet Rafiq Azad in mid-2004 was a fortuitous one. I met him for the first time at the office of the preeminent architect and art critic Professor Shamsul Wares. The place once served as the epicenter of Bengali-style adda, group conversations with no particular subject to meditate upon that attracted prominent personalities who came to while away their time.
I remember how those prolonged sessions continued without the participants being aware of time, though most were representative stalwarts from the culture field. Conversations went on while we kept sipping drinks as the clock languorously ticked past mid-night. Rafiq Azad used to be one of the mavericks who came to join, and his enthusiasm to talk was infectious. Physically he already looked frail at that time but he could inject a fair dose of enthusiasm into his companions as he went on speaking about an array of subject matters with passion and articulacy. He was capable of engaging conversations and he also argued his points with a certain conviction. Sometimes we were even lucky to get to hear him recite his newest poems.
As a man Azad was liberal-minded – an amicable secularist. Though a diehard atheist he believed in the rights of believers in all religions. As a poet he was out-spoken, bold and uncompromising in his stance.
From the tenor of his conversation one could clearly comprehend how closely Azad observed the developing literary trends. He was very hopeful about our promising new poets; had high hopes particularly for the experimental trends that emerged during the little-mag (zine) movement – the outcome of the cultural firmament that developed around the 1980s and 1990s as a result of bringing to fruition an alternative cultural vision by the fresh young innovators. Talking to him one always came away with the impression that he was a man who loved life and lived his own in his personal terms. And the love of poetry was ingrained in his personality.
His demise on March 12 has brought an end to one of the last representatives of our own home-grown angst-ridden poetry. Azad had been in a comma for a number of days following his admission to the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University hospital in the city. The poet had been undergoing treatment at the Intensive Care Unit since two months ago after he suffered a brain stroke. He was 73.
One of the most brilliant stars to have emerged in the tumultuous environment of the post-liberation era, Rafiq Azad forged a unique voice. The Liberation War in 1971 remained a focal point for this rebel who never flinched from critiquing the misrules and inhumanities he was witness to. As a voice against injustice his poetics relied on familiar themes echoing a constant craving for a just society while his form was fragmentary and was easily accommodative to invectives. His strong, intense verses often dealt with political, social issues seen through the prism of the personal. A freedom fighter, he developed a signature style, distinguished by simple linguistic constructions where there were no division between high and low art sensibilities.
Azad is most renowned for his poem Bhaat De Haramjada. The inflammable verses of the poem, especially the fiery last line ‘Bhaat Dey Haramjada, Ta Na Hole Maanchitro Khabo’ (Give me food bastard, or, I will gobble up the map!) sparked controversy immediately after it was published in 1974. The insinuation of the poem was that the newly independent country failed to feed its own people and the famine that had struck the Northern region was a man-made one. There were clear hints that the poet responded to pictures of the emaciated Rangpur girl Basanti found wrapped in a fishing-net alongside a hungry beggar eating vomit of an alleged cholera patient, who were all over the media. 'I think the famine was non-natural, it was man-made, and as a poet I could not hold myself back from reacting to the news of such ignominious human conditions,' Azad once said in an interview.
Patriotism was a major theme he often went back to as a poet. But what one must also mention is that he never availed of the opportunity to instrumentalize his position – neither as a poet nor as a freedom fighter. His poetry adequately reflects his experiences during the Liberation War (1971). 'As a freedom fighter who once fought for his people, I have come to realize that the spirit of the Liberation War allows one to explore the inner-self by way of inflecting it with new emerging patterns, fruits of which have left an indelible mark in my poems,' he once said to me. In short, he was a 'romantic spirit' – this helped him make his utterances a proximal address to humanity as a whole. Thus universal love was also a noticeable aspect of his works.
Azad was born on January 20, 1943, in a remote area called Guni, under Tangail district. He completed his primary education under the British-Indian education system from Sadhuty Middle English School. He developed a keen interest in writing poems since his early childhood. On completion of school certificate exam, Azad enrolled at Government Saadat College, Karotia.
'Poetry is my first expression of love,' he once reflected, only to add that Nature is another recurring theme in his poems. 'I have been a keen observer of nature since childhood. Images of seasonal attributes one is able to discern in this part of the world, rivers and sailing boats, vast paddy fields always nourished my soul and inspired me to a considerable extent.'
His first book of poetry Ashombhober Paye was published in 1973. Since that first spark of self-confessional poetics, Azad's style of expression went through changes in the course of the next forty or so years. It became more personal, lyrical and romantic. However, a greater portion of his work depicts poverty, sufferings, injustice, inhumanity, collapsing of urban and rural lives as well as the political turmoil, social and economic crises that rocked the region.
Rafiq has fourty-four publications under his name, including an autobiography. His notable works include Prokriti o Premer Kabita, Shahasra Shundor, Haturir Nichey Jibon, Khub Beshi Dureo Nai, Khama Karo Bahoman Hay Udar Omiyo Batas, Apar Arannya, Karo Ashuro Paat, Moulobir Mon Bhalo Nay and Pagoler Thekay Premikar Chithi.
Azad received Ekushey Padak in 2013 and Bangla Academy Award in 1984 for his outstanding contributions to poetry.