He had been ailing for long and his death came as no sudden or painful surprise. Yet his passing away of who is to many one of the greatest poets of his time, perhaps all-time says much about the complexity of life and death in this society. He was formally shunned and no public mourning was as is usually the case. He was the greatest living Bengali poet of his time and a cultural icon greater than all others but he went largely unsung.
The political death of a public poet
It’s a fact that there may be bigger gatherings at another’s death at the same venue but there is no greater creative artist of the language he served. However, what stood between universal mourning and tribute was his political link with the paper Sangram, the mouthpiece of the Jamaat islami. His life and its meaning had been overtaken by political realities of Bangladesh.
The regime is also not Jamaat friendly and had the poet died under a BNP regime, the situation would have been quite different. Then there would be a national mourning and n all the political and cultural luminaries would be riding high in praising and grieving. Nobody would have thought that this is what he was going to receive in his final public act. But then, the final day is decided by history and not by any other puppet master.
Al-Mahmud according to many is a treasure that transcends all barriers but reality suggests otherwise. What ultimately decides in the public and official space about who is great and who is not is political perception. AL-mahmud had become associated with the wrong political train and so was dropped off to the ground. It was not his poetry that mattered but his politics. In Bangladesh, being politically correct is more important than literary excellence. Certainly, when it comes to receiving recognition from the official world and its political followers. That is universal everywhere. In Bangladesh, its more so as rewards and punishment are distributed accordingly.
This is different in case of Al-mahmud because no one doubts his literary greatness. He has been the reigning monarch for decades and his literary star will never fade. But his politics of late is another matter.
In fact, that conflict between approved politics and approved literary greatness has caused more than a degree of embarrassment to many. After all, how do you respond to the death of the greatest poet of he belongs to the enemy camp. ? The reality is Bangladesh is divided and his soul is too. Hatred and disapproval is perhaps so high because of that very reason. For many, being unable to cheer for him is a pain but in this small minded Bangladeshi world, one is relieved that he is disapproved politically, so praising him is not mandatory.
Such a long journey
I had known him for long from the days as a young literary activist in the late 60s. He was just beginning to make his strong claim as one of the all-time greats. But In Bangladesh he was still not the figure that he became literary wise after 1971. He went to India in that years and was exposed to and the Kolkata poets to him. It was Kolkata’s approval of his greatness that many in Bangladesh followed.
Lacking the cultural confidence any subservient- somewhat willingly- society has, the bangus of Bangladesh had grown up believing in the supremacy of their babu homeland. To be approved by Kolkata meant they would not make any error in judgment which could be disputed by the motherland. Mecca said “yes” and Al-Mahmud’s star rose.
Al-mahmud differed fundamentally in idiom and inspiration from his fellow poets like Shamsur Rahman, Hasan Hafizur Rahman, Shahid Quaderi, Syed Shamsul haq and others. These were those who belonged to the Buddhadev Bose school- a poet of perhaps not major achievements but bridged the bangus and babus to the western world and its culture. By translating major western poets into Bengali, he made it possible for non-English familiar locals to at least become familiar with that culture they looked towards.
This response of sorts was a kind of infantile imitation of the lifestyle of the 19th century poets of Europe. Out of print poets and poems became inspiration to commit drinking and whoring as a hallmark of affinity. “I drink and whore so I am a poet”. This spirit lasted for long and began to die out only in the 80s as translations became less available and English language skills of the local poets just wouldn’t improve.
Al-Mahmud’s source of imagination
But if Al-mahmud was not the ersatz Western sensibility driven poet, what was his basic inspiration? He was in fact the first post-colonial poet of Bangladesh, one who drew his inspiration from the rural world he came from. He was unabashedly and unapologetically sylvan and the life he described was both familiar and distant at the same time to his readers. It is the world they also shared but were embarrassed to acknowledge.
It was a world expressed through such lucid beauty that they felt proud. Even though they would have much rather have preferred their whiskey sodden wailing in flawed English, his peers too had to acknowledge the fact of perfect poetry. That what came from the simple mind, simpler imageries was poetry perfected with craftsmanship. He was more authentic and closer to his roots than all others. Unlike the middle class poets of the vernacular variety, he was rural and very comfortable with it. That may well have been why he was so great. He was not a fake and fellow poets accepted that.
Post 1971 world and the turmoil of politics
Post 1971 Bangladesh caused him much woe. Soon after liberation, he was made the Editor of Gonokantho by the group which had gained prominence and power in 1971 as BLF activists and later as founder of the first Opposition party JSD. Suddenly his anonymous life as a senior desk hand at Ittefaq ended and he was thrust into the front page and sold to the readers as a fiery Editor fighting for socialism. He was not but that became his brand and when the Government of Sk. Mujib clamped down after the truly silly misadventure by JSD when they tried to encircle the residence of the Home Minister Mansur Ali, he was taken to jail along with others.
He was later released and as he told me by the personal intervention of Sk. Mujib himself who liked him and knew he had no politics in him. This was in the mid-70s and for the first time in life, he got a decent job as a small time executive in the Shilpakala Academy.
For a period he devoted himself to poetry but as politics changed he also shifted with the crowd looking for recognition. He was always religious in his deeply social not theological way. His attitude with the babu Hindu community, was the same as an East Bengali Muslim peasant. He and Indian poet once Sunil argued over the word “pani” (water) about its source. One insisted on Sanskrit roots and the other on Persian ones. It was not a learned debate but showed the cultural differences but also the difference in sensibilities without losing mutual respect. Al-Mahmud was a Bangal from the margins.
But why Jamaat?
But the troubling part is about his connection with Sangram and by extension Jamaat. It grew and I have no explanation for this except that something deep did happen to alienate him from a large part of his own history. It was to the point that he sought the company of those who had fought the birth of Bangladesh, whom he had fought. I will never do it but he did. And I am not him but the reasons must have been compelling, personal etc. but to me unacceptable.
Religion can’t be the cause as many religious people consider Jamaat as anti-Islamic and he was not a religious radical ever but somewhere the bells had tinkled and he felt left out or rejected or expelled or whatever… the man who left his country and go to exile to fight for its freedom from exile had walked into the space controlled by the very people who had fought against its birth.
This happened at a time when political partisanship and exclusion were reaching extreme levels and had begun to replace religion in some ways. Those not following the certified party BNP, AL, JI – etc. were traitors and had to be vilified. And so a generation, more partisan than literary attacked him. It was not just a reason to attack the enemy but also probably use this as a tool to deny his poetic greatness. The young haters took a lead in this, many who could not match him. But if his flaws were not poetic, it was political and he had deeply erred there so he was shunned, disregarded and ignored even by writers. He was remembered to be abused though once in a while, his poems would pop up which would also show how shallow were the literary products of his abusers.
The puzzle, the farewell and the need to be “free”
In his younger days, when his best poems were written he was not in disgrace but his later years were plagued by it. It was a disgrace brought by his own decision. Whatever maybe the cause, they were his own and he must and did bear the cost of it. But it is worth finding out by someone why he did so because it would perhaps show what compulsions drove him to such extremes. But there is no doubt he himself suffered most though he knew he had written the better poems and not his detractors, many half literary and some half literate.
The episode also showed that the poet, the writer, the intellectual has to be independent of politics if is to survive for his work and not much else. If he seeks rewards, he will have to toe the party line and have no shame. If he wants to avoid glamour and glory, he has to pay a price too of being ignored. But any step that can be interpreted politically means he has to pay a price. In a way he is being told that partisanship has both price and cost and is not for all.
The truly great like Al-mahmud should have avoided politics it even if it is for the sake of his poetry. Because he will always be read now with some degree of questions about his identity. Who is he anyway, his readers will ask even as they wonder at his greatness. Many will not read him because of his political mark. And some will abuse him as that’s what they are only capable of. None of that should be happening but it will.
For some reason I don’t understand, the poet sought a political blanket in a weather he may not have felt warm. Or it may have been unneeded. But in a culture of narrow mindedness that we have now, he is now condemned to have only blind followers and vilifiers. It’s a destiny he didn’t deserve, but for which he was certainly guilty. At a wrong time , in a wrong place, a man never known for his political convictions and took a step to be close to the very party he may have hated most one, a party of war criminals. That damaged the appreciation of some of his greatest poems, that are some of the greatest treasures of the literary world.
Good Al-mahmud bhai, it is all good except that bit about Jamaat. Farewell and may your poems be read as long as the language lasts.