Foreword, by Sadaf Saaz

The poems in this ambitious collection are by women poets writing in Bangla, who have emerged
from the land that is now Bangladesh – having lived, or are still living here, or are now part of the first-generation diaspora.

What beautifully comes through in this thoughtfully curated and faithfully translated volume, is Bangladesh emerging as a country on its own terms, with this collage of writing from women, rooted in a rich eclectic cultural history, and yet with a contemporary and cosmopolitan sensibility. Much has been written about the economic success and social progress of Bangladesh, especially highlighting women’s empowerment. However, the creative spaces in Bangladesh, especially in poetry, have been largely dominated by men. Dipping into this book will be like the delicious potential discovery of a treasure trove of work by women who bring out varied aspects of the collective Bangladeshi experience. The poems really give a sense of what Bangladesh is, 50 years after its inception; while celebrating the rich history of people of an ancient land over millennia.

Bangladesh today is an amalgamation and confluence of our pluralism, diversity and syncretism, and the energy of a young country free-er from rigid prescriptive structures, forging our own future–though still with a plethora of barriers. These come through in the work, with force and creativity, but without melodrama.

The inferences to the culture, the land and nature form the backdrop to women navigating their reality. With echoes of Rabindranath Tagore, Jibanananda Das, and Kazi Nazrul Islam, they get strength from the familiar, symbolic and concrete, to express themselves, and frame and voice their resistance. The historic influence of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Animism, Tantric, and other practices, as well as the sheer potency and beauty of the fertile land and mother nature, are drawn on, interpreted and used as they see fit.

Fearless, confident, defying expectations, and covering age-old emotions like anger, love, and dissonance with the status quo, many of the poems display a boldness of material and direction that is able to capture the essence of what could represent the modern Bangladeshi women. Whether it’s the pioneering force of Sufia Kamal, the seasoned words of Kochi Reza and others of her generation, or the younger poets who are finding their voice, we are left with a feeling of wanting more. Rather than nationalism as a constraining, jingoistic notion, these poems are a celebration of Bangladesh from a woman’s gaze, giving due recognition to the injustice, colonisation, upheavals and neglect that those who have been part of this land have faced, along with that which has given them resilience, a certain kind of defiance, and multiplicity.

Most importantly, the women in this collection come across as the multi-dimensional beings we are; beyond binary caricatures. Historically, “ma”, the mother, has been put on a “pedestal”, given the “highest” position; the one who gives and sacrifices, is devoted to her family, but rarely is expected to have dreams or thoughts of her own. The counter to this is the lack of rights and social acceptance for women actually demanding their voices be heard and their rights be respected, and their potential to be met. Throughout the ages, we have demonised or glorified women with a “bad” woman/“good” woman narrative. Women have been used as cultural markers to represent the horrors of the war with a “loss of honour” as women who were raped, or vilified for the violation of their bodies being their fault.

From strident voices of strong women who pioneered the way, encapsulating the fervour of rebellion, whether it is from those who were born well before the war of independence, like Sufia Kamal and Anwara Syed Haq, to those who had their formative years in Bangladesh like Leesa Gazi, and Shahnaz Munni, to the newer voices of Rimjhim Ahmed, Mahi Flora and Shweta Shatabdi Esh, the collection traverses generations, with surprises and twists along the way. The modernity of the work spans the collection. From the trepidations of love, seen through Farida Majid’s The Wait, or Taslima Nasrin’s Emancipation, to Zeenat Ara Rafiq’s powerful Promise, and Anjana Saha’s The Curse, with Alaka Nandita’s refreshing Eye Glasses, and Shakira Parvin’s stark Special, as well as Shanta Maria’s irreverently “spot on” What’s a Woman Gotta Do in Heaven, to the quirky, off left field Crime from Jahanara Perveen, and Existentialism of Novera Hossain, these gems, largely unknown to the wider world, along with the many more poems in this collection, underline the contrast between truth and perception, countering stereotypes and defying societal restrictions.

The poems capture women as I have known many to be in all my years here – passionate in love and purpose, compassionate, courageous, unconventional, not taking no for an answer, full of rage against the unfair structures that be, and wanting to tackle the world at large on their own terms, along with expressing vulnerabilities and acknowledging the tribulations of fighting deep-rooted patriarchy and prejudice. There is a feeling that perhaps the elegance and cadence of their words can only be fully appreciated in the original Bangla. However, this translated collection does convey the philosophical and the practical, and I believe will entice and inspire lovers of poetry to dig deeper and further explore their works, and those of other Bangladeshi women poets (those who write in Bangla, English and the myriad of other local languages) too.

Sadaf Saaz is a poet, director, and producer of Dhaka Lit Fest.

‘Arise out of the Lock’, Sufia Kamal (1911-1999)

No time to braid that lock, to arise is the order!
Whether or not the sari has a graceful border,
the beauty mark on the forehead, kajal in eyes, time
to redden your lips is up, it’s over. It’s life or death rings the chime.
No more just smiling teenagers, young women, and wives:
defined chin, mouth and lips firm, to pledge and strive,
forever alert. Just as the bright sharp sabre
wide eyes raised quick to the moment, not lowered any more.
No longer frightened like the doe, those glances, hark,
show a mind in search, a falcon looking for its mark.
Their hearts sans mercy, hardened like solid stone
to wield revenge against the invaders of our home.
The woman’s shy soft form has gone for a change,
all her dear ones, kin, and comrades she will now avenge.
Slim waist and her bosom full of the lion’s might
the brave-heart holds boundless strength, no love songs in voice bright.
Hail Motherland, hail the people! Glory be to the Muktisena, hail!
Her aanchal soaked in martyrs’ blood, the woman too is ready to sail.

The Curse, Anjana Saha (b. 1955)

Why do I alone have to soak in
the sorrow-laden downpour of blue
dew drops every single day?
It is a relentless I who keeps pleading
at the feet of impossibility.
Why needlessly do you sow the seed of secret suspicion
in the private garden I tended with love and care?

So who’s fault is it, really –
the blackened night’s or mine?
In the hope of earning moksha
at a penance like the stoic Ekalavya
I hide away from everyone’s sight.
You have no idea, fire, I know it
one can’t buy with wealth anyone’s deep sighs!
Wait till the lolling tongue of nature’s revenge
plays the flute of apocalypse on your chest!

Forever Fragrance, Leesa Gazi (b. 1969)

Yesterday’s words are bygones
the words reverberate, but meanings are bygones
sentences are still expressive, utterances are bygones
didn’t you just say, no? We’ll forget tomorrow itself
grass, leaves, flowers that we will touch, and forget all
only forever fragrance.
Clouds want to steal a look at you, hence dew-cradled
although the world is miserly, desire is migratory
once the light comes emitted by the dark itself
this mind of clay doesn’t store anything at all.
Other than your wonder it doesn’t remember a thing
you just looked back, no? I’ll forget tomorrow itself
only aggression will stay in mind
whether this evening falls or not
yet forever fragrance.
Yesterday’s words are bygones
the words reverberate, but meanings are bygones
sentences are still expressive, utterances are bygones
you just uttered, no? We’ll forget tomorrow itself
grass, leaves, flowers that we will touch, and forget all
only forever fragrance.
Whether this evening falls or not
yet forever fragrance.

What’s a Woman Gotta Do in Heaven, Shanta Maria (b. 1970)

Heaven has no poet
so what’s a woman gotta do in Heaven.

Wide-eyed hoors
keep dancing nonstop
along the corridors of Heaven.

No lovers in Heaven
no enchanting flirtations
the ambiance of Heaven? Quite boring
spic and span, all severely arranged in a neat row.

Where’s forest in Heaven?
Sea or rivers?
Mandakini, Al-Kawthar, Lethe?
If it doesn’t meander wild
breaking banks in frenzied ecstasy
how is it even a river?

In the Heaven-corridor you see pious men and women
praying day and night
no desire or lust in Heaven
aspiration or disappointment
sorrow and all that enticing tamasha
where are the wild reckless men
in the heart of Heaven?
Neither there’s death written anywhere –
what’s a woman gotta do in Heaven anyway.

Coin, Asma Beethe (b. 1980)

A tiny round brownish metal coin
hundred years of history on both sides
travelled far and wide and changed many hands
passed around by both the thief and sage
crossing seas, borders, the earth’s lines
where will it stop on which extended palms
its rolling days see some wager and debts
lament-wishes for the dark-round sphere
Archaeology has dug up its kingdom
the script erased from the king’s blurry face
The remnant of bones inside the earth know
There are tears stuck to the erosive copper coin.

Excerpted with permission from Arise Out of the Lock: 50 Bangladeshi Women Poets in English, translated by Nabina Das, curated by Alam Khorshed, Chittagong Arts Complex Balestier Press.