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Mohammad Rafique at 74

  • Published at 04:55 pm October 6th, 2016
  • Last updated at 04:16 am October 7th, 2016
Mohammad Rafique at 74

Mohammad Rafiq is not mentioned as frequently as some of his peers in literary discussions or addas. But critics and poets alike regard him as one of our best poets who, in a career spanning more than five decades, has kept carving for himself newer paths. Sanatkumar Saha, a renowned critic, has said Rafiq continues to grow as a poet even in his 70s, and stunningly so, as he is rarely found to have repeated himself.

His poetry has received some commendable translations. A selection of his poems in Carolyn Brown's translation has been incorporated in the Oxford Anthology of Bangla Literature. During a recent talk, when I asked him why there wasn't any translated collection of his poems in the market yet, he mentioned Carolyn Brown and Bharati Mukherjee and went on to reminisce about how both of them, during his residency in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, USA, had hoped to find a publisher for a collection of translations. But that, he regretted, did not see the light because of his own indifference to the matter.

Arts & Letters reached out to Ms Carolyn who has quite extensively translated into English Rafiq's poems and asked her for new translations, if there was any. She responded instantly, with as much enthusiasm and cheer as was evident in Rafiq's reminiscences. To mark the poet's 74th birth anniversary, which falls on the 23rd of October, we carry a few of Carolyn's new translations from collections published from 1999 to 2003.

From Biskhale Sandhya (2003)


you’ll go tomorrow on the swollen Jamuna

today you were carried back in bundles

from the threshing field—husks stick to your legs

you’re filled inside and out with paddy’s perfume

the paddy has been cut, bound, and stacked

get up, you have to go, the babus are here, since dusk

they’ve been waiting to do business just this one night

move, shameless woman—cutting paddy leaves patches

of stubble on fields by the hundreds, fallow in winter

and summer, bits of straw dry in the sun, molder

then rain falls, spreads, washes away—thundering

head-pounding currents abate, paddy will be planted

to fill the babus’ fields again—paddy ripens, stalks fall

tomorrow morning, you’ll be left here sprawling

but after the processions and fanfare, they say

fields’ worth of ripe paddy piles up in babus’ rooms

while the chaff, lodged in dikes and hollows, counts the days

till it too is cast far and wide by the drunken monsoon

From Mati Kisku (2000)

The Return

this was a long muddy dirt path that day

the nearest station ten or twelve miles off

the moon overhead was perfectly full then

a clump of shadows crept across the fields

the wind carried a single whistle from far away

wheels stuck or kept spinning on their axles

then time limped along ever so slowly until

dawn opens all its doors in wonder at a bird’s call

Tanni Tamal Piya rushes out to mop the courtyard

the first sun’s gaiety bursts forth in all directions—

the tongue can’t get rid of the taste of childhood

the flavor of sweets and cakes fried in oil

perhaps not far away but still a very long ways away—

today that oxcart is still right there

abandoned now, wheels off, falling to pieces

two oxen, not standing but lying down, chew their cud

waiting outside the station grounds

now, of course, it’s not evening, the night’s almost over—

the child returns home after a long journey

today it’s not even very far away

the sound of steady shoveling can be heard clearly

each down-thrust of the spade is heartrending, cruel

where bamboo leaves fall in the unforgiving wind

where all the houses become just one house, just one door

dirt-covered, shapeless, cold—

today there’s no dusty path anymore, it’s paved, smooth

no chance of wheels’ sticking in the mud or coming loose

the day is bright white with the icy sheen of an outstretched shroud

time is leaving the oxcart behind, for a long time

From Matsyagandha (1999)

no distance is very far

in histories, in epics—

from Dhaka to Hostinapur, whether after or before

side by side, lips to lips

the universe in between, crossing

one place to another always surrounded by rising water

even if you grip the boat’s oars firmly

water breaks on the prow with dissatisfied groans, unfailingly the shores

of the great sea crush the ocean in the body, village, stalls, marketplace

even if you climb the fence at that house and pick

flowers in a trance, there are bugs among the petals

poison doesn’t melt in poison, fire doesn’t burn in fire

still, the end is the problem

plays and long journeys don’t end—however short

this story makes all stories clear, the havoc

no ending is unending

constellations, planets, light and fog, broken dinghy

river in between, angry retreating water, mate forever

on the soaked deck

Carolyn Brown's first translations from Bengali were of poems by Mohammad Rafiq, a participant in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 1993, the year she began working as an editor of translations of the work of writers from around the world. She was inspired by his poetry to learn Bengali and to translate more widely. Her translations of Bengali poetry have appeared in such journals as Modern Poetry in Translation, The Iowa Review, Missouri Review, and Zoland Poetry. Additional translations of poems by Mohammad Rafiq appear in the May 2005 issue of 91st Meridian, the online journal of the International Writing Program, and can also be found in Parabaas: The Complete Bengali Webzine. In 2001, Another Shore, a volume of poems by Amiya Chakravarty, translated by Carolyn Brown and Sarat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, was published by the Sahitya Akademi in Kolkata.