Shamsur Rahman: A poet of the soil and beyond -The Asian Age

August is a month of grief for the people of Bangladesh. On this day, 17th August, of 2006, Shamsur Rahman closed his eyes for ever fighting against death for more than a week in the BSMU hospital. The time when his life-breath extinguished was a pleasant dusk with no cloud in the sky. It was the day and weather about which Rahman wrote a poem titled "Bibecana"  (Consideration).

In his lifetime Rahman was a soft-spoken gentleman, and was very careful not to put people into trouble for his cause. This is why he wanted people not to be in trouble for his funeral when he would die. The last few lines of the poem: "Whatever be the day/ The city be not wet in rain/ Disgusting mud be not accumulated at turn of alleys/If the roads flood on that day/The blessed  corpse carriers  will badly be irritated."

Shamsur Rahman is often called Swadhinatar Kabi, (a poet of liberation) for his many poems written on our struggles for freedom. In fact, Rahman's appearance in the literary scene and the crises emerged out of a religion-based Pakistan state coincided. In political arena the one man who had the fiercest voice against Pakistani oppression was Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman under whose leadership Bangladesh became independent in 1971, and the one poet who captures all the events of a nation to be born with all their hopes and desires, joys and sorrows, is Shamsur Rahman.

Through his verses Rahman makes the Bangalees of the then East Pakistan aware of their own language, culture and identity. Against the backdrop of Language Movement, Rahman wrote 'Barnamaala Aamaar Duhkhini Barnamaalaa' (Alphabets, My Sad Suffering Alphabets). In this poem the Bangla alphabet is personified as a mother who 'lives in my being like a cluster of shining stars' but whose face is so sad that the poet now cannot bear to look at her, and that is because a lot of conspiracy is going on against her.

In this poem the speaker links his identity with Madan Mahan Tarkalankar, the 19th century Bangla poet, who contributed to develop Bangla text-books for children. The poem alludes to the Pakistani conspirators who were playing a foul game to uproot the language from the hearts of the Bangalees, thus making them culturally impoverished and rootless. The poet sorrowfully says: "If you are plucked out, tell me, what remains of me."

In the poem February 1969 Rahman depicts the historical mass movement of the people of East Pakistan. The poem vividly describes how people from diverse backgrounds and professions gather at a place for a common cause, that is, to speak against Pakistani oppression. In this poem the poet commemorates Salam, Barkat and others who in the language movement. The speaker of the poem says, "the flaming Krishnachura of Ekush is nothing but the conscience of us today."

Although Rahman was born and brought up in Dhaka and passed his whole life in Dhaka, he was able to hold the hopes and aspirations of the masses, and he includes all types of people in his poetry comprising a national identity.  He depicts the sights, sounds and landscapes of Bangladesh which give the Bangladeshi audiences a sense of belonging and rootedness.

The poem "Hartal" portrays a ghostly picture of Dhaka city when the mass movement was going on.  "Asad's shirt" pathetically describes the blood-soaked shirt of Asad, a student leader, who was shot by the police when the anti-Govt protest was going on in the streets of Dhaka. Rahman wrote the poem about the shirt and it a thing of inspiration. The last line of the poem states: 'Asad's shirt today is our life's flag'.

When the liberation war was going on Shamsur Rahman wrote many poems to inspire the freedom fighters. These poems were published from India in the renowned magazine, The Deys, under the disguised name Majlum Adib.  It is during the liberation war when Rahman wrote his two best known poems on Independence, 'Tomaake Paaoyaar Janya he Swaadhinataa' (To Get You Freedom) and 'Swaadhinataa Tumi' (Independence You).

'Tomaake Paaoyaar Janya he Swaadhinataa' features great sacrifices of the working people for the cause of freedom. "Swadhinata Tumi" depicts the cultural routes of the Bangalees on which they should build their identity. In the poem "Samson" Rahman uses the myth of Samson Agonistes to metaphorically indicate the victory of Bangladesh over the occupational forces of Pakistan. The defeated hero Samson ultimately comes out victorious by killing a huge number of enemies. Shamsur Rahman perhaps used the Samson figure to refer to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who was kept imprisoned like Samson but who ultimately came out victorious by defeating his enemies.

Rahman wrote poems on every turmoil of his motherland. In post independent Bangladesh he was shocked at the incidence of 15 August 1975 when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibor Rahman was brutally assassinated along with his family members. His two daughters Sheikh Hasina (now Prime Minister) and Sheikh Rehana luckily escaped death because of staying abroad.

Rahman wrote a number of poems about his country's falling into a quagmire. He used Greek myths to write the poem Electraar Gaan (Electra's Song) signifying that like Agamemnon's daughter Electra (who took the revenge of his father's killing) will come to hold the state power to take revenge upon her father's killers. Obviously, political scenario that followed the tragic death of Bangabandhu shocked Rahman a lot. Rahman could not support the subsequent Govts that originated from the cantonment. Being unable to conform to the undue interference of President Ershad, he had to resign from his post as an Editor from the state-controlled daily Dainik Bangla in 1987.

This incident made Rahman fall in a serious financial worries in his subsequent days. He wrote a number poems including 'Udbhat Uter Pithe Chalese Swadesh' (The country is riding on the back of a queer camel) criticizing the Ershad Govt.  Undoutedly, all the turmoils related to Bangladesh's freedom struggle, the ultimate achievements, post independence crisis, and above all, the hopes and aspirations about independence, have better been reflected in Rahman than any other of his contemporaries. But these are not all about Rahman's greatness as a poet.

Above everything else, Shamsur Rahman is a poet who celebrates life, who sings the song of life  that transcend societies and cultures.  He hated everything that was unfair. He hated religious extremism, communal   disharmony and violence. He holds the ideals of a liberal humanism that treats a man as a man not as a Muslim, as a Hindu or as a person of other religions.  It is true that self-talk is recurring in Shamsur Rahman's poems. He speaks of his very personal things and events of his day today life.

But this very personal becomes impersonal, and here lies his greatness as a poet. Rahman can be compared to great poets of the world. An Mphil research has been carried out in English comparing Shamsur Rahman and the English poet T.S Eliot (The research was done in the Institute of Bangladesh Studies, Rajshahi University, by Pradip Adhikari). More such researches can be conducted nationally and internationally to focus Rahman outside the boundary of Bangla language and the Bangla speaking territory. P.B Shelley, a great English poet of the Romantic period,  commented that 'A great poet belongs to no country; his works are public property, and his Memoirs the inheritance of the public.'  The writer is Professor and the Chair, Department of English, Jagannath University, Dhaka