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In Conversation with Bangladeshi Poet, Kaiser Haq

There are more than a dozen languages spoken in Bangladesh. English is a presence, a second language, in which poets such as Haq can be found.

Nancy Mitford may have thought Paris was the only place on Earth where you could be the most happy and also the most unhappy, but I doubt she was ever in South Asia. Bangladesh has the strangest emotional landscape. Of a morning the fading moon and the rising run will be visible at opposing points in the sky, and all will be at peace as the call to prayer rumbles from each neighbourhood mosque. Then, in the space of hours, a cyclone will move across the country faster than fear, with such rapidity that the people whom it will affect the most, those who can afford devastation the least, will feel numbness and resignation before despair.

On the 15th of November, Cyclone Sidr hit Hiron Point on the southern coast of Bangladesh and ravaged the Sundabarns mangrove forest and countless coastal villages. The calculating mind can spin through the numbers of the dead, the homeless, the speed of the wind and the height of the subsequent tidal wave. The emotional mind can only ache broadly at the thought of so many people, who had nothing to begin with, having to rebuild their lives from the less than nothing left to them.

At such moments action and imagination are required. Following Sidr, relief work has commenced in earnest, with a few creative minds surmounting the difficulties of dispatching aid to areas in need. Writers, too, are providers of action and imagination, and are needed to record, acknowledge, reinterpret and encode the real world, or to distract from it. In Bangladesh, even in retrospect or at another distance, writers illuminate the way the country is and the way it should be -- the world of idealism above, the material world below, and the emotional world floating between both.

In recent context, the work of Bangladeshi writers like Kaiser Haq, a poet, translator, essayist, editor and professor of English at Dhaka University, seems ever more significant. Haq’s latest collection of poetry, Published in the Streets of Dhaka: Collected Poems 1966-2006, impresses with its insight and quirkiness, fluidity and eroticism, evoking Bangladesh as he knows, remembers and imagines it. Haq writes with the fondness and deprecation of the insider; if anything can be clearly discerned from the complexity of his verse (including the sometimes lofty obscurity of his allusions), it is his sense of belonging to Bangladesh, even as he appears to stand apart from it in an intriguing way -- through language.

In recent biographical and critical pieces, Haq is invariably described as Bangladesh’s only or leading English language poet. Haq himself begins his Apology for Bangladeshi Poetry in English by alluding to his early and class-based acquaintance with the language -- “I do not think I would have tried creative writing in English if I weren’t an English-medium [school] boy” -- and finishes by defining “trying to write in English” as an exercise in fusing the disparate (romantic and rational) parts of his Bengali psyche.

Yet set against Bangladesh’s fervent pride in its mother tongue, it seems Haq is called upon to defend a deformity rather than an intellectual preference. Upon meeting Haq, my first question to him had more to do with the weariness I detected in his writing about writing in English, rather than the act itself. But he has been schooled by too many of the same questions, and responded:

“It’s a question for interviewers. It’s not true [that I am Bangladesh’s leading poet], there have been others when you place it in the context of previous generations. I have a friend who made a promising start -- consider Shamsur Rahman, a leading poet. What it really means is that I’ve kept on writing from the time I was in my late teens. I really am the most enduring, but I don’t class myself in that way -- it’s up to my reviewers and critics and friends.”

With my help, Haq was made to explain his deformity yet again. Asked if writing in English was a natural or self-conscious choice after his medium-school days, he patiently replied:

“My literary language had become English. It would have been a conscious choice to switch to Bengali. I did read some Bengali [as a teenager] but it fed into my writing in English. They were kindred spirits -- the language didn’t matter. In the tradition of Bengali poetry, all modern poets read mostly modern literature. After Rabindranath Tagore…modernism came to Bengal in late 1920s. The time reflected universal themes.

There are more than a dozen languages in Bangladesh -- each ethnic community has its own language, literature and myths. English is a presence and a part of Bangladesh’s culture. It’s a second language.

In terms of the use of English there is quite a range. Indo-Anglian, Indian English and subcontinental English are not the same things. There are varieties of sub-continental English that are very fluent, not accurate, but expressive -- like the overuse of the present continuous tense. [These varieties are] ad hoc, people use them to describe phenomena evolving all the time.”

With all the questions flung at him regarding his language of choice, Haq is well aware of the view that “poetry should not be written in a language other than one’s mother tongue,” but that a strange thing occurred in a Bangladesh free of British rule -- more people began writing in English. Haq’s choice to write, either in Bengali or English, is a matter of necessity. “I have to defend my position,” he said. “When I write I’m not worried about it. Post-colonial literature in every third world society is limited in space…Someone writing in a remote corner of India has a small, global audience. The internet is going to play an important role. There is a lot of poetry on the Net that readers respond to, whereas it is difficult to distribute in print, it doesn’t really travel well.”

In verse, Haq’s defence of the “local branch” of the Homo Scriptor is good-humoured but fervent:

What are we do to, Mr Vidal?

Stop writing, and if we do, not publish?

Join an immigration queue, hoping

To head for the Disapora dead-end,

Exhibit in alien multicultural museums?

No way. Here I’ll stay, plumb in the centre

Of monsoon-mad Bengal, watching

Jackfruit leaves drift earthward

In the early morning breeze

Like a famous predecessor used to

It seems inevitable, rather like it was excerpted from a novel on the life of a poet, that Haq declares himself in writing to “proud to be/Published once again in the streets of Dhaka,” and also fought in Bangladesh’s Liberation War:

“I was a second year undergraduate and fought in ’71. When the army cracked down, we were faced with a choice, either lie low or resist. I didn’t belong to any political party, although my friends were Maoists and I rather sympathised with them. The Maoists found themselves in a bit of a bind -- class questions became less important than national questions. Some participated, some didn’t.

It was an existential choice: do you accept a situation where you can be picked up and bumped off and there’s nothing you can do for it? We walked across to India and were selected for officer training. I trained for six weeks and became a second lieutenant, commissioned by Bangladesh government in exile, trained by India. A lot of those who joined were villagers who became frustrated with the situation when they were sent back to the villages after the war.”

Yet if war seems to be a fruitful time for poets, it proved rather the opposite for Haq. Does he think his writing would have been different if he did just lie low?

“I’m sure -- I might have written more war poetry. There are a lot of Bangladeshi poets who write war poetry about lying low in trepidation.” Haq explains his poem, "Bangladesh 71", which begins, “Venturing at last to go out/ I blink at the guilt in the eye…” and ends with “Dawn stirs like a mouse; whose knock is it on the door?” as his imagined feelings of those who remained inside.

Trepidation has prevented Haq from writing broadly about his experiences. “I always thought, ‘Don’t expect heaven to come to earth.’ When we got rid of occupying forces, ‘I thought don’t be starry eyed about it.’ There will follow a lot of political and economic problems. I was more clear-headed. There was no coordination between political leadership and fighting forces…[it was] a ‘bungled job’. A Golden Age [by Tahmima Anam] is starry-eyed, optimistic. All complications are left out. That’s something I could never write about…short pieces, essays, are all I have attempted.”

In the end, it is also inevitable that the reality behind war is proved to be not so glorious, and that even for a poet-in-a-novel type of character, some things are better left unwritten. “My sub-sector commander was disowned after the war. He had been in the army, then had joined the Liberation forces as a captain. These decisions show a lack of coordination, a lack of shared vision. He rubbed against the political leaders the wrong way. They gave him a medal and sent him hone. The boys who fought under me were given fifty taka and sent home -- abandoned. It’s very painful to write about.”

I guessed it might also be painful to talk about, and moved on, and back, it seems, in a circle. I don’t know what I asked that prompted Haq to say that most of his poems are written in Bangladesh, but I did ask why. “Maybe I look at the world though my city, as it were. It’s interesting how some writers adapt to each other and some can’t, or some change. It’s about finding your spiritual home. Most modernists wrote in exile. Ezra Pound, Joyce…affirm civil, rather than national identity.”

Kaiser Haq

“It’s another thing when you go and identify with other civilizations -- the Beat Generation, Western poets going to India. For someone from the third world, leaving one’s country means going to the West. And in the West, multiculturalism is a big industry. Even western society tries to promote non-western writers and artists who have settled there. How would I fit into that? Certain things would be important, valuable in that context. The negative impact of multiculturalism is most prevalent in America, where non-native writers and artists turn into mouthpieces for American civilisation. Being here helps you retain your own country’s voice.”

Accha (so then)! Kaiser Haq is a translator, essayist, editor and professor of English at Dhaka University, a survivor of the Liberation War, a controversial writer of Bangladeshi in English, one who distracts from and reflects his country’s emotions and a national poet, besides?

“No! I don’t care for the ‘national’ association. I think I can be more of an individual. Because one’s national identity is a given, but as an individual there are many things to explore.”

Websites of interest:

Paribrajok.com

The Daily Star.net

Mikey Leung.ca

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