I had first read about Shaheed Quaderi in the literature page of a Bangla daily. The article, I remember to this day, had a photo of him sitting alone on a park bench in New York, looking away from the camera, a grave but gloomy look. A High School student in Bagerhat, Bangladesh of the late 1990s, I was surprised to learn he had been in a self-imposed exile in the US for decades by then.

That article goaded me into flipping through the books on the poetry shelf at the district public library. None of his poetry volumes were there but several anthologies had three or four of his poems. I sat down with one and started reading Bristi, bristi (Rain, rain). I found it a bit too difficult to relate to, and why not? I was still a stranger to the pangs of alienation and the naked truths of existential crises that stare you in the face in big cities.

I grew up in the verdant greenery of Bangladesh’s southern region, blessed as it is with rivers and numerous tributaries and hundreds of villages lining their banks. A thin stream of the river Bhairab flows by my house as silently as a cat. This rich natural setting gave the poet Jibanananda Das, to my teenage consciousness, something of a godly stature. Then there came this early affiliation with leftist student politics which did the rest by sweeping my sensibility with grand ideals.

First love

Through this romantic mould could enter the poetry of Al Mahmud, Rafique Azad, Nirmalendu Goon, Rudro Mohammad Shahidullah, and to some extent, Mohammad Rafique. All of them could be said to have combined nature and the revolutionary or romantic zeal in their poetry. But Quaderi? No, he couldn’t enter until Kolkata-based singer Kabir Suman, aka Sumon Chattopadhyay, turned his Tomake Obhibadon, Priyotoma (Greetings to you, my beloved) into a song. Humming this song was all the rage in leftist circles.

I picked up the book at the library and read this poem over and over again. It aroused in me a pleasure that I was too ill-equipped then as well as now to express in words. He is reassuring his beloved that he’ll bring about a change when the soldiers will march past holding in their hands bouquets of flowers instead of guns; when the state bank will return cheques and receive flowers; when one will get no less than four lakh taka if they just present the bank with say, a rose, or a chandramallika; when there will be only one kind of inflation and that will come incessantly in the form of artistically successful poems; when the leader of the opposition will be a lover, not a politician. I fell in love with this poem, right on. It was the title poem of the book, published in 1974, his second collection.

More love

Then I collected his first volume, Uttaradhikar (Inheritance), published in 1967, and his third, Kothao Kono Krondon Nei (There’s No Crying Anywhere), published in 1978, thinking there must be more of this kind. I scanned the indexes and found one named “Love” in the third volume.

No, love is not some slender boat
Whose eyes, face, nose will be eaten away
By shoals of sword-like fish…
No, love is not some slender boat
It is not the floating decks of some wrecked ship on sea
Nor is it the Cinnamon Island, nor a swim of strong biceps
Straws? no, it is not even that.

Then what is it? It is, he goes on to tell us, “Vanquished, always, everywhere.”

When Quaderi says “love”, he means it in both personal and collective terms. Love does surface, not very infrequently, in his poetry, but except in two or three poems, it is love vanquished or unfulfilled – and it is inevitably so. What he says in the poem, Songoti (Consistency), dedicated to Amiya Chakravarty, has become something of a saying among forlorn lovers, “The lover will be united with his beloved alright / But will get no peace, no peace, no peace.”

This picture of love fits in the dark, bleak world that he makes of Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, the place where most of his poems are set. There are flowers and trees aplenty; there are those wild gusts of wind that drag you out of your four walls; there is, even, a full moon overhead. But the wind, the shalik birds, even the thin river in Aaj Saradin (All day long) fail to give him the resolve to knock on his beloved’s door, leaving him all befuddled, making him feel like a homeless person.

The moon in Naswar Jotsnyay (Under the transient full moon) comes as his muse, but can cast light only over values which he’s abandoned. There are roses in Protyoher Kalo Ronangone (In the dark battlefield every day), but they come into his hands only after crossing thousands of dead bodies, barbed wires on borders, gutted villages, pools of blood. So the petals are pale and withered.

Quaderi’s diction and articulation seemed more urban than Rahman’s, and his tone more emotional than Abul Hasan’s, a combination which is very rare. Though the power of the language took me in, the optimist in me resisted the attempts of this prophet of despair to enter my world. Hastily I got back to Mahmud, Azad and Goon to suture my troubled mind.

City love

Then I went to university and saw up close how competitiveness, envy, hypocrisy and compromise work among students and teachers. The image of the silent river was pushed to the furthest edge of the background while tension and anger were foregrounded. Then the time came to settle in Quaderi’s city to make a living. Now with every passing year, it seems, he is sinking deeper into me like no one has.

When I read his poems now, I see a poet whose whole being, childhood included, was hopelessly rooted in urban culture; I see a poet who has loved his city like a boy or girl loves their doll, so much so that they put it in a keepsake box and carry it with them till the last day of their life, regarding it their most valued possession.

Now that I know more about this city and its political context in the late 1960s and 70s, I can see why in Uttaridhikar his city was covered mostly in dirt, blood and darkness. The politics of killing initiated by Pakistani government had spawned in him this depression that overshadowed everything else. Then, after independence, in Tomake Obhibadon, Priyotoma, the country was high with the spirit of starting from scratch, and so was Quaderi.

The second collection too had poems dark in tone, like Schizophrenia, but it also had such wonderful ones as Nishiddho Journal Theke (From the banned journal), Blackout-e Purnima (Full moon in a blackout) and Ekusher Shikarokti (Confessions of twenty-one). Now I could see the full moon could as well be an intimation of freedom as it could be the psychological food that homeless people feed on before wandering in the parks or on the streets.

Quaderi’s empathy for the poor and the street prostitutes is as genuine as Saadat Hasan Manto’s. But his response to nature and social issues is markedly different from that of his peers. He responds, almost invariably, as an alienated individual who finds it difficult or impossible to be at one with the collective. In the poem, Nishorger Noon (The Salt of Nature), he explains his own alienated position vis-a-vis other poets i.e., Rabindranath Tagore, Chakravarty, Azad (it is dedicated to Azad), Rahman and Mahmud.

Much like them, he too sought solace in nature but no, he didn’t find peace in nature like they did. Nor could he, like Rahman or Goon, make impassioned calls to the collective spirit of nationalism or revolution. The candour he brings in to portraying his city and his own person, or his failure to follow the tides of the time, is nowhere to be seen in the poetry of Bangladesh.

When the news of his death spread on August 28, that grave but gloomy look came back to me. Always separated from the herd, true, but what he saw and how he saw it never failed to sweep us away with the best urban poetry of love, of alienation, of social dreams unfulfilled, of the tragic presence of the have-nots. Every time there is a heavy shower in this city now, preceded by bolts of lightning, I’m invariably reminded of his Rain, rain. His was a rain that sends all the profit-mongers, hypocrites and people of dubious intentions away into hiding and brings out the poor and the sad on the streets.

Salute to you, Quaderi, not just greetings. Now I know, whether I live in a city or a town or a village, you will continue to sink deeper and deeper into me as long as I am sane and alive.

Rifat Munim is Editor, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.

This article first appeared on the Dhaka Tribune website.

A Salute To You, My Love: By Shahid Quaderi

Don’t worry
I shall arrange it
So that the army
Marches past with bouquets
Of roses
And salutes you
My love.

Don’t worry
I shall arrange it
So that armoured cars
With memories of many battlefields
Pass through forests
Cross barbed wires and barricades
And arrive laden with violins
At your doorstep alone my love.

Don’t worry, I shall arrange it
So that the B-52s and Mig-21s
Drone overhead
Don’t worry, I shall arrange it
So that chocolate, toffee and lozenges
Rain on you like paratroopers
In your courtyard alone my love. 

Don’t worry… I shall arrange it
So that a poet commands all the warships
In the Bay of Bengal
And in the next elections
Contesting against the war minister
A lover gets the entire popular vote
My love.

All possibilities of encounters, you can be sure,
Will end
I shall arrange it so that
A singer will become, unopposed,
The leader of the opposition
The trenches at the border
Will be guarded the year round
By red blue and golden hornets
Everything except the smuggling of love
Will be banned, my love.

Don’t worry, I shall arrange it
So that inflation will drop and the number of poems
That surpass art every day will increase
I shall arrange it so that
The dagger will fall from the killer’s hand
Out of fear not of collective anger
But of collective kisses
My love.

Don’t worry
I shall arrange it
So that, like the guerrilla
Attack of spring on a winter park
Revolutionaries will line up in town
Playing accordions
Don’t worry, I shall arrange it
So that roses
Or jasmines can be exchanged at the State Bank
For at least four hundred thousand taka
And one marigold will mean four cardigans
Don’t worry, don’t worry
Don’t worry
I shall arrange it so that
The navy, army, and air-force
Will ring you and you alone from all
Sides and
Bow to you day and night, my love.

— Translated from the Bangla by Arunava Sinha