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Off the beaten track

  • Published at 07:22 pm January 12th, 2019

Review of Mohammad Rafiq’s poetry collection in Carolyn B Brown’s translation

This Path is the first English collection of Mohammad Rafiq’s poetry selected carefully from his most defining volumes. The poems are translated by Carolyn B Brown, who, spurred on by Bharati Mukherjee, took a strong liking to Rafiq’s poetry, so much so that she took to learning Bangla and subsequently emerged as an excellent translator from Bangla into English. 

Clusters of Rafiq’s poems in Brown’s translation were previously published in The Oxford India Anthology of Bengali Literature V 2, Zoland Poetry magazine, Arts & Letters, and on the websites of IOWA University’s International Writing Program (IWP) and parabas.com. Khademul Islam has also translated a few of his poems which were published in the literature page of The Daily Star. But the publication of This Path marks a breakthrough—this is the first time English readers are to get a glimpse of Rafiq’s poetry put together in a book.

Bangladesh has no dearth of poets. Some of them will touch you instantly with their robust expressions of love and rebellion, some will take you in with their exquisite cadence imbued with a fascination of nature’s splendor while some will turn you upside down with the way they make you confront aspects of life common in any metropolitan city. So where does Rafiq come in? What model or movement or trend does he fit in with? 

No, Rafiq does not fit in with any of those. As you read his poems from one volume to another, you meet a poet who touches you slowly, and very slowly he rises like a faint but persistent wisp of smoke, spiraling, as if, out of an earthen stove lit at the crack of dawn, faint at first but then growing and forming into the shape of a man, an individual with a distinct poetic voice but then dissolving again—sometimes into the rivers stretching from the Padma all the way to the Bay of Bengal, while some other times into the farmers toiling into rice fields or into the vast nets cast in those rivers by fishermen communities. 

Rafiq is not stripped of romanticism altogether, but he makes it crystal clear right from the beginning of his journey that his is a different path. Romanticism as it was and still is being practiced could not become a co-traveler. Instead, he takes Tathagata, or Sugata (Bangla names denoting Buddha) along, in his debut collection, Boishakhi Purnima (1970); a dream of better days follows suit. Then comes love, combined with a mastery over the different meters of Bangla prosody. From his second collection (Dhulor Sangsare Ei Mati, 1976) on, the personal touches manifest in his controlled expressions of love soon dissolve into a multitude of voices. Whether one voice or a thousand, by the publication of his sixth volume, Kapila (1983), the boundaries of his realm are distinctly visible, as also the people who inhabit it. No matter how far you go down that road or river, the realm is always horizontal where you will never encounter the vertical rises of city imagery, where you’ll endlessly meet the village folks living by one or the other river, and most definitely, these people will always come from the most downtrodden sections of society, endlessly struggling to stay alive, to love and be loved, and above all, to eke out a living. 

The canon of Jibanananda Das lives on, getting stronger by the decade—the poet who is most widely loved and respected in both parts of Bengal and beyond. Rafiq, like all of his peers and the generations who came after, sustains Jibanananda in him yet he retains his uniqueness. What strikes me as particularly significant in understanding Rafiq’s poetry is how Rafiq’s engagement with the farmers is markedly different than Jibanananda’s. Despite all his love for farmers, Jibanananda was never at one with them—the psychological vicissitudes of an individualist, modern man always stood in his way. Jibanananda did move away from his alienated self, as thoroughly pointed out by Clinton B Seely in Jibanananda Das: A Poet Apart (1990). Yet one can safely say he was never on the same plane with the farmers as Rafiq is. Rafiq loses his own voice but in return, he opens up multiple windows into the thoughts, emotions and pains of farmers, village housewives, fishermen and their wives and daughters. The patches that outline Rafiq’s canvas are not bright with bold strokes of green and red; they are light dark yet they are neither too pessimistic nor too optimistic. Rafiq rather paints a bleak world in which the people strive and struggle to progress but fail and perish and then rise up again not to become victorious, but to announce they exist.

References to various indigenous sources of myths and legends and folktales (such as the story of Behula and Lakhindar from the Manasamangal), come as frequently as characters borrowed from the great canons of Bangla prose fiction, such as Kapila from Manik Bandyopadhyay’s Padma Nadir Majhi, or Haran from Putul Nacher Itikotha. It is indispensable, it seems, that there be no artificial attempt to plant a Greek or Roman God living by the far-away Mediterranean mountains into a land edged by the Sundarbans and the murky waters of the Bay. There isn’t any. This is a seasoned poet who has tamed all the impulses he feels and evokes wonderfully within the parameters of Bangla meters, even though his poems lack the punctuation mark that corresponds to full stop in English, a kind of innovation that he can be credited to have experimented first and subsequently established as a norm. 

Indeed, if one wants to research aspects of a non-European poetics, or a pan-Asian-African-Latin American poetics in the history of Bangla poetry, Rafiq’s poetry is a strong case in point. Rafiq writes in the Marxist tradition but he combines it with an anti-colonial spirit to epistemologically construct a world in which Bibhutibhushan’s non-modern temperament is ultimately accorded a higher status than Manik’s Freudian psychoanalysis, in which Rabindranath Tagore’s not-so-modern poetry is placed on a much higher pedestal than his innovations of psychology-riddled techniques in Bangla fiction. 

In his youth, he had been involved with leftist politics and soon after the publication of his first volume, he joined Bangladesh’s Liberation War as a freedom fighter. Living through post-independence political upheavals, he settled into the teaching profession and taught literature at the English Department of Jahangirnagar University, one of Bangladesh’s biggest public universities, for 33 years. In addition to poetry, he’s so far written seven volumes of literary essays, one of which is solely about Jibanananda Das. In his essay collection, Attarakkhar Pratibedan Volume 2, he writes effortlessly about the vast array of Latin American poets whose poetry he studied and taught at JU. From Leo Tolstoy to Ivan Turgenev to Fyodor Dosteovsky to Marcel Proust to Jose Saramego to Jorges Luis Borges to Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Pablo Neruda to Mayakovosky to Nazim Hikmet to Victoria Ocampo, his library, I believe, has one of the biggest personal collections in Dhaka. It does not come as a surprise that the mission he’s taken on is not only literary but also markedly an intellectual one. Does that partly explain the epigraphs used in two poems from Swadeshi Nisshash Tumimoy? In one of them, called “Gatha”, which Carolyn has incorporated in her translation, a two-line quote from Bertolt Brecht shows up while a more significant quote from Cesare Vallejo, the great Peruvian poet, graces the beginning of the title poem, “Swadeshi Nisshash Tumimay.”

Rafiq is out and out a Bangladeshi poet but at the same time, he belongs to the transnational tradition of poets who, consciously resisting the Hegemonic poetic praxes of the west, seek poetic salvation in their respective indigenous roots.

A poet of this stature should only be translated by someone who’s immersed himself/herself in his poetry. I cannot think of a better candidate for this job than Carolyn B Brown who first collaborated with Rafiq during his stint as a residential poet under the IOWA University’s IWP, back in 1993. That was only the beginning of what later turned out to be a life-long literary relationship between a poet and his translator. The output, evidently, is This Path, published by Bengal Lights Books (BLB), a publishing house that has consistently contributed to taking Bangladeshi poetry and fiction to an international audience. Her book-length translations include a collection of Amiya Chakraborty’s selected poems.

This Path is based on Mohammad Rafiqer Nirbachito Kobita (Selected Poems, 2007, Papyrus), edited and introduced by poet-translator-essayist Arun Sen, which contains poems from 13 volumes including Dhulor Sangsare Ei Mati, Kirtinasha (1979), Gaodiya (1986), Kapila (1983), Swadeshi Nisshash Tumimoy (1988), Meghe Ebong Kadai (1991), Matsyagandha (1999), Mati Kisku (2000) and Bishkhale Sandhya (2003). The translated volume has narrowed down the focus a bit, but it does include a considerably big chunk of Rafiq’s poetry. Except for Kapila and Kalapani, Carolyn has incorporated almost all of his most successful poems from the other volumes, the longer ones included, which have continued to influence and guide new generations of poets, and which are enough, at least, for English readers to get a sufficient sense of his poetics. 

Ever since I received a copy of this book, I have been alternately reading the original poems and these translations, sometimes putting them side by side. When I was reading the translations separately, I was trying to understand if Carolyn has been successful in making them stand on their own. However, when I was reading them alternately, I was being overly punctilious, sometimes going over the poems word by word in the most painstaking way to see how much of the original has been retained in translation. Every translator, every erudite reader knows that the sheer beauty of Bangla meters and rhymes cannot be retained in any target language. How is it possible to translate Rafiq’s impeccable prosodic structures of sonnets or his rhythms of Matrabritta? At the same time, every translator, every erudite reader admits that whatever success a translated volume of poetry can aspire to, ultimately depends on the choices the translator makes and the skills s/he demonstrates in her act of translation. Before commenting on the quality of Carolyn’s translation, let me make a small point about Rafiq’s meters. 

Whether Rafiq uses Akkharbritta or Swarbritta (he most prolifically uses Akkharbritta), his verses do not rhyme. If they ever do, like they do sporadically in Kapila, it’s because of some grand experiment he’s carrying out with form. This characteristic removes a lot of hurdles for the translator. Just consider Tagore or Nazrul’s poems; in fact, all the other major poets after them have written excellent rhymed verses. For example, Al Mahmud’s “Samudranishad”. 

The lifelong relationship that Carolyn has established with Rafiq’s poetry has indeed paid off. I totally commend the choices she’s made (such as, using capitalization only in case of place names, otherwise capitalization has been shunned to correspond to Rafiq’s innovations in form) and the skills she’s demonstrated in capturing the moods conveyed in Rafiq’s poems. Her success has left me impressed especially because of the extra difficulties in translating Rafiq. Rafiq’s diction ranks among one of the most highly accomplished poets. However, his frequent allusions to indigenous literary materials and his controlled combination of standard and vernacular languages make the job indeed more difficult for a translator. This aspect has even led Clinton B Seely, who’s contributed a very well-written and well-researched foreword to the book, to raise the point that certain cultural and historical references might disorient the “non-Bangladeshi reader” of this collection. However, like any great poet who’s transcended his geographical and linguistic boundaries, Rafiq always succeeds in engaging his readers with the unique world he presents. Seely also comes to the same conclusion: “… Mohammad Rafiq, in this poem specifically but in all of his poetry generally, weaves wonderfully folklore and fantasy, both Muslim and Hindu, but above all he depicts poetically a harsh view of reality. That view of reality, at the very least, comes through to each and every reader—Bangladeshi and non-Bangladeshi alike … ”

That’s precisely why I find Carolyn’s translation so commendable and successful: This Path is perfectly capable of conveying the different faces of Bangladesh that Rafiq has portrayed in his poems. 

Quoting any of the Kirtinasha poems would do but I have chosen the following to prove my point:

Cry, Bangladesh Cry

cry, the way a mother cradling a son as he sets out on death’s road


the way a wife slapped by her drunken beast of a husband


the way a disheveled girl repulsed by a lecher’s probing tongue


the way Amena, sweaty and distraught, hands blood-spattered 

from breaking bricks


the spring tide rises, an owl’s hoot fades in the depth of night …

This book can indeed be a stepping stone to Rafiq’s wider international readership.

Thanks are also due to the managing editor of BLB and her team who put in a lot of hard work to make the publication of this book a success. Now we hope the book travels to different parts of the English-speaking world in South Asia and beyond, so that the gap created in the absence of translation is ultimately bridged. 

Rifat Munim is Editor, Arts & Letters.

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