Shahid Qadri is not home
Shaheed Quaderi was one of the few notable poets who, besides being a unique personality, animated the literary scene during the 1950s. There are not many poets who have gained a lot of attention on the merit of such a limited gamut of publication. In an interview he said, ‘There is no need to produce extensively because quantity is detrimental to the quality of poetry,’ and he maintained this single-minded approach to the inverse proportion of quality and quantity in poetry. To him poetic excellence was incumbent on quality work; a good poet will have fewer bad verses and a bad poet will compose very few good ones. Therefore, believing in the concept that poetic standard lies not in extensive production but in its literary merit, he abstained from writing copiously. In the seventy four years of his life he published only four collections of poetry, which is quite scanty, and yet he was so widely discussed in his lifetime. This brings us to the question: why was it so? Was it his politics or his poetic sensibility, or was it because of his expatriate life that distanced him from his poetry? This effort is to find answers to these questions.
Shaheed Quaderi was born in pre-Partition India, in Kolkata, on August 14, 1942. Days of the British Raj were numbered and India became independent in 1947, but only after the splitting up of the land along communal lines of Hindu-Muslim identity. From a political perspective, Shaheed Quaderi passed through three different national identities – from an Indian to a Pakistani to a Bangladeshi. The Quaderi family did not choose to come to East Pakistan after the Partition, not even during the carnage of a vicious Hindu–Muslim riot in 1950 when many Muslim families were forced to leave India. It was in 1952 that his family migrated to Bangladesh after his father's death. In an interview with fiction writer Jyoti Prakash Dutta, Quaderi related this experience, ‘I was then twelve or thirteen, maybe even less, when the communal riot of the fifties broke out, and a family arrived next door. They had a son named Khokon, who became a good friend of my elder brother. That family left as early as 1947, and then, after my father's demise, his brother and sister insisted on us coming to Dhaka, and so we were compelled to move, though the relatives from my mother's side, who hailed from Bardhaman did not consider leaving the country a good idea.’
An interesting coincidence was, the Quaderi family arrived in Dhaka exactly when the Language Movement was going on. In1952, through a nationalistic struggle to restore the right to our mother tongue, the Bangla speaking majority came out as victors, which gave birth to the awareness of a linguistic identity, an identity integral to the birth of an independent state. Thus, Shaheed Quaderi and his poetic successors represent the blossoming of a political ambience of linguistic empowerment.
From a very young age, Quaderi displayed his creative flair. His poems were published in the magazine Parikrama (edited by Mahiuddin Ahmed) when he was only eleven and then at the age of fourteen, and subsequently in the famous Kobita edited by Buddhadev Basu. His bohemian, free speaking, vivacious nature and uninhibited interactive skills turned him into a legend and he became a vital force in the poetic gatherings at the favourite hangouts of poets and writers – the Beauty Boarding, Rex, Ray Shaheb Market and the New Market. In 1967, publication of his first collection of poems, Uttaradhikar (Inheritance) became a highly discussed event in literary circles of Dhaka. The other two collections, Tomakey Ovibadon Priyotoma (Greetings to you, Beloved) of 1974 and Kothao Kono Krondon Nei (There's no Crying Anywhere) of 1978 took readers literally off their feet and the interest they piqued continues to this day.
Now, what is the reason behind this sustained interest in his poetry? Language and style – both are significant factors in feeding the fascination with his work. His has been an extension of the established Bangla literary fervour of the post-Tagorean thirties. He did not consciously attempt a shift from the established standard in his poetics. This is because the European modernist awareness and approach introduced by pioneering poets of the thirties, including Buddhadev Basu, acted as pervasive influence on his writing. Apart from this linguistic weakness, conceits that Shaheed Quaderi used in his poems are unique and from this perspective, he is different from the others.
Now, let us specify this difference. There can be various reasons for his poetry to be set apart from the others in circulation. Three of these are going to be discussed here. Firstly, when contemporary poets have been busy searching for the ugliness or beauty of urban life, Quaderi dwelled on the nihilistic human condition of the urban man. This negative voice is presented through the extraordinary image of a life ‘constricted at birth’, expunged as it was from ‘the golden slippery stomach.’ The city which once harboured the rich history of a great land, is now in trauma. The poet's coming of age happened in the darkness of a 'blackout.' The land is his as a territory on the map but he remains alienated from the centre of power. But in his melancholic lyric, he does not lose the artistic grace, rather immerses himself in the awareness of new observation and thought.
Secondly, when contemporary poets were indulging in emotions of love or loss, he spoke of a society that found itself in opposition to the state and he did not rest his case there, he dared to throw his questions at the administrative infrastructure. For him the state was constrained in the imagery of a march past, state meant the gun-wielding army and he protested against its violent means. He wanted the marching army to hold out rosebuds and not guns. Why did he substitute the gun with the rosebud? A liberal state constitutionally ensures freedom of the individual and the lover-poet's expectations are more than just that. So, does he stand for the state or the society? It would not be an exaggeration to visualize the poet as an antithesis of the state and his poetry pointing at his synthesis with society, which in other words presents us with a picture of society pitted against the state. Who else could have presented this contrast between the state and the populace better than Shaheed Quaderi?
Thirdly, as a citizen he felt the need to obliterate the distinction between town and village through his verses, such as ‘Thakurmar Jhuli’ (Grandma's Bag of Stories), ‘Badha Pukur’ (The Pond), Khet Khamar (The Field), Boddi-Buro (The Old Apothecary) etc. The poet, inspired by Marxism, took both urban and rural settings for his material, embraced them freely, treating on equal footing the state and its citizens, including the country folks, and putting them in a milieu where distribution is based on equality. Otherwise how could he have made these utterances: ‘Will the head of the State accept my proposals/ Replace the foreign minister with Love, the minister with the Poet/ The microphone with the intoxicating fragrance of the Bokul?’ or ‘I'll make it so that not for the fear of public anger/ But public kiss/ The killer's dagger will slip off his hand, my beloved.’
After the publication of his third volume of poems, in 1978, Shaheed Quaderi left Bangladesh, emigrating first to Germany and then to the USA where he lived until the end. After a long silence, his fourth collection, Amar Chumbon Pouchhe Diyo (Convey My Kisses) was published in 2009, which falls short of the standard maintained in his earlier works. Though he tried to return to his poetic calling, possibly the muse had felt somewhat homeless. He visited his home once in 1982 and then finally in 2016 when his body, inert and gone, was brought back to Bangladesh. He was not home.
It can be said that the cultural custodians have kept Quaderi behind a veil calling him a recluse. Now how do we define his poetry? His exposure to western thought is what rendered his art a kind of stability. He lifted the individual to a universal plane, criticising the opportunist middle class and creating a new liberal state. Questions that still remain unanswered will be resolved sooner or later by political history, when literary appreciation will have matured enough to appreciate the intricacies of his 'poetical' weaving.
Our boundless love and respect goes to Shaheed Quaderi who will surely exist as long as the state does.
Translated by SITARA JABEEN AHMED