Bangladesh celebrated its 44th Victory Day on December 16 last year. On that day in 1971, the Pakistan Army surrendered before the India-Bangladesh forces in Dhaka, leading to the liberation of erstwhile East Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh. The rare public surrender at the Race Course grounds marked the end of the 13-day India-Pakistan War and the nine-month long Bangladesh Liberation War.

Bangladesh’s mukti-judhho (liberation war) began soon after the Pakistan Army launched its notorious crackdown on civilians, called Operation Searchlight, in Dhaka on March 25, 1971. Dhaka burnt like Rome while the Pakistani leadership watched like Nero as the city became a killing field. In the genocide that continued for months after, over 30 lakh people were said to have been killed, over two lakh women raped, and about three crore people displaced, of whom one crore took refuge in India.

Bengali members of the Pakistan armed forces, paramilitary forces, and the police defected soon after the crackdown. They were joined by civilians—students, teachers, farmers, artists, writers—to form the Mukti Bahini, or the Liberation Army, which was organised and trained in guerrilla warfare in India. In the sea of humanity that silently made its way into India were youths headed to become mukti-joddhas (warriors for liberation). Kaiser Haq was one of them.

Sixty-four-year-old Haq is a Dhaka-based poet, essayist, translator, critic and academic. He is possibly the best known Bangladeshi poet writing in English. He taught English at Dhaka University and is currently the head of the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh. He is also the director of the Dhaka Translation Centre, which aims to promote literary translations. He has published eight poetry collections so far, most recently Published in the Streets of Dhaka: Collected Poems (2012). His poems, mostly in free verse, are taught at colleges in Bangladesh and have been included in school anthologies in India, the UK and Norway. “A Myth Reworked” has been included in The Arnold Anthology of Postcolonial Literatures and has been used in universities in North America and elsewhere.

In 1971, Haq was a Dhaka University student—a “cynical romantic” and “regular wanker”. He was already a poet and had won an all-Pakistan poetry competition held in January. Becoming a soldier was not even a remote possibility. The March 25 crackdown forced him to make “an existential choice”.

His “Dateline, Dhaka, 25 March 2006”, offers an explanation:

Who’d have thought
We’d be waylaid
By History –
Sounds portentous
But how else to put it?

As we picked our way
Around improvised barricades
To reach home under exploding skies,
Amidst slain bodies
The ultimate choice –
Fight or flee –
Fixed us in a gorgon stare.
We stared back, unpetrified
(Though scared) and vowed
To fight till all were free.

Haq, accompanied by two cousins and two distant uncles, left his home in Bhulta (12 kilometres from Dhaka) in May to join the Liberation War. All he had on him was a change of lungi, an anthology of modern poetry edited by John Wain, a book called The Age of the Guerrilla, and the 1964 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. In Calcutta— “the tortured city smells of sweat, saffron, stagnant water”—the poet-warrior acquired a Penguin anthology of World War II writings and a 1933 issue of an English poetry magazine before heading for north Bengal, where he was trained as an officer by the Indian Army. The Bangladesh government in exile commissioned him in October and he was posted at the war front till the Pakistani surrender on December 16.

However, war is not one of Haq’s favourite themes in his poetry. Though he keeps returning to 1971 and the war every once in a while, his poems are mostly his reflections on life and death and society and politics.

Loneliness is the same
in Frisco or Soho,
Timbuctoo or Tokyo,
Delhi or Dhaka,
and so is love
and the enemies of love. (“
Growing Up, or Softly Falling”)

In September 2012, rioters looted and torched holy Buddhist sites in Bangladesh. Haq’s response came in the form of the poem “How Many Buddhas Can They Destroy?”:

What can they do to so many
Those merchants of calculated hatred
Those engineers of irrationality
Tell me
What can they do against six billion Buddhas
Tell me
How many Buddhas can they destroy?

With a self-confessed penchant for the comic, Haq mostly writes his poems in a humorous vein, using razor-sharp irony and satire in cold blood. In the hugely popular “Ode on the Lungi”—the piece of clothing being “an emblem of egalitarianism, symbol of global left-outs”— he takes on, in his words, neo-imperialism and sartorial hegemony.

Just think –
at any one moment
there are more people in lungis
than the population
of Europe and the USA.
Now try wearing one
to a White House appointment –
not even you, Grandpa Walt,
laureate of democracy,
will make it in.

Friends and fellow lungi lovers,
let us organize lungi parties and lungi parades,
let us lobby Hallmark and Archies
to introduce an international Lungi Day
when the UN Chief will wear a lungi
and address the world.
Grandpa Walt, I celebrate my lungi
and sing my lungi
and what I wear
you shall wear

And in “Eleven Serious Warnings”, he writes:
look for answers in books like

Existentialism Made Easy
life will give you failing grades
or books like

Teach Yourself Dialectical Materialism
you’ll get invited to
Moslem weddings of Communists

While Haq has consciously stayed away from writing “war poems”, he is often found reflecting on the struggle for independence and wondering if the 1971 Liberation War really succeeded in fulfilling the dreams of the people of Bangladesh. In “A to Z, Azad” he writes:

we thought the world
or at least our corner of it
could be made
if not better
at least less bad,

but it’s only getting worse –
looks like we’ve been had.
True, we won a war –
or at least a Victory Day
but more than what we won’s
at stake in battles that rage
around us every day.

Haq speaks to Fountain Ink on poetry, war, Bangladesh and more.

When and how did poetry happen to you? Why did you choose this medium? 
I think I started late, at 17. Before that, poetry wasn’t anything special to me. I liked it when we did poems in class, but never looked for interesting poems to read. Except perhaps once, and that is because someone told me that Shelley had a poem which featured the phrase: “the golden tresses between her thighs”. I borrowed a selection of Shelley’s verse from the school library and looked in vain for the delectable line. I still haven’t discovered its provenance.

Then one day we did D. H. Lawrence’s poem “Snake” in class. We had a truly inspirational teacher in Brother Hobart, a spirited Irish-American who had spent most of his working life in Bangladesh. He used to take a text, read it out or make us read it out, and then produce a collaborative critical appreciation. Lawrence’s “Snake” was an epiphanic experience. I thrilled to the supple rhythms of the free verse as well as to the poem’s content.

Soon after, I started scribbling poems. But at that time I wanted to be a novelist, a writer like Hemingway, who was a hero to me. Writing poems, I thought, was good practice in using literary language. I even published a few short stories in the literary pages of newspapers in Dhaka. But as time went by, I realised that fiction wasn’t my forte, and that prose fiction and poetry demanded different kinds of discipline.

I believe poetry offers the reader an aesthetic experience that is of special value. It induces contemplation.

What made you join the war? From being a poet-student— “pretending insouciance”, “talking realpolitik”—to being a lieutenant commanding 200 newly trained guerrillas of an infantry division in a matter of months, it must have been quite a journey.
It was an existential choice. The brutal crackdown by the Pakistan Army forced it upon us. I could either lie low, try to go to a western country to seek asylum, or join the resistance. I chose to join the resistance.

It was not an immediate choice, as it was with some of my comrades-at-arms. After the crackdown, I accompanied my family to my mother’s ancestral village. It was May by the time I learned there was a route followed by those who wanted to cross over to India to join the Mukti Bahini. There were volunteer guides who could take you part of the way. A couple of cousins and uncles were willing to go. The five of us trekked the distance in phases. In the last phase we made a dash across the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway and crossed over into Indian Tripura, not far from Agartala.

The Mukti Bahini was a rapidly expanding force, recruiting volunteers for training as guerillas , launching attacks along the border, sending squads deep into the country and the cities to carry out raids and demolition tasks. In Agartala, I heard that some close friends were in Kolkata. I took the train there with one of my uncles. In Kolkata, I heard a few other friends were at the headquarters of Sector 7, and set off without delay.

The day I reached, a team of Bangladeshi officers turned up to interview youths with enough education to qualify them for officers’ training. Several of us queued up. A friend and I were eventually selected. Out of 11 sectors, a total of 61 young people were chosen for an intensive 15-week course conducted by the Indian Army in an improvised school set amidst the hills bordering Bhutan. It is a heavily forested tea-growing area. The forest rest house is set in that area. We did tactical exercises around that rest house.

Our batch of 61 cadets were commissioned by the Bangladesh government in exile on October 9, 1971, and posted to various sectors and units. I was assigned to Sector 7 and then sent to Hamzapur sub-sector, where for a week or so I was leading patrols and skirmishing with the enemy. Then Colonel Zaman (Lieutenant Colonel Quazi Nuruzzaman), my sector commander, took me to his HQ and asked me to shape about 200 newly trained guerrillas into an infantry company. That took a couple of weeks. I accompanied the sector commander when our troops attacked a Pakistani border outpost. Then I took the newly formed company back to my old area of operations.

From then till the end of the war my company and I were face to face with the enemy. The only respite was when we took turns to go in batches to the base camp for a bath and a night’s rest.

Did war and poetry go together? Did you write any poems in the camps? Why do you write so little on the war?
I took a couple of poetry anthologies along to the war, but hardly read them. Nor did I write any poetry. The pressure of events was too great. But the thought that I ought to attempt to turn my experiences into some form of writing was there at the back of my mind. It is still there. Why did I not write much on the war? Perhaps because I feel that much of what I could write would be a repetition of what has already been done brilliantly by modern war poets. For some time I had a vivid memory of every move in the battles. I thought of writing it all down but kept putting it off. Then I found that the memories were becoming frayed.

How was life in the army camps? In your essay 'Strike a Heroic Pose: A Memoir of Camp Life in the Independence War', you look back at your camp life with humour, ruining the romantic notion of war, making light of the serious camp situations. I’m reminded of Bernard Shaw’s 'Chocolate Cream Soldier'. Was humour really a part of camp life? 
Life in a military training camp is an interesting experience. The drill and exercises are rigorous; the food frugal, the rest one gets minimal. The key to survival is a sense of humour.

Oh, the humour was very much a part of camp life. It always is. The romantic notion of war is a ridiculous one. I think every good soldier is a Chocolate Cream Soldier – but a Chocolate Cream Soldier who also carries bullets and uses them effectively. Shaw was overemphasising the chocolatey part to make his satire more effective.

Some people I met in Dhaka told me India should have left Mukti Bahini to fight, and eventually win, its war and some said they feared India would annex Bangladesh after liberating it from Pakistan. What was on your mind?
As training progressed, I became convinced that the Indian Army would join us in a well-coordinated campaign against the Pakistani Occupation Force in the winter. That was the time when there were diminished chances of Chinese intervention, thanks to the extreme weather and frozen conditions in the mountainous border belt.

Mountain divisions could be withdrawn safely and deployed against the Pakistan Army. Without Indian help there was no telling how long the Mukti Bahini would take to finally force Pakistan to surrender or withdraw. The refugees, a crore in all, were in the meantime a serious drain on India’s resources.

And in December 1971, as the whole world knows, it took less than a couple of weeks for the joint Indo-Bangladeshi forces to force the enemy to capitulate. Did I worry that India would occupy Bangladesh? No. None of us even considered the possibility. Because India had nothing to gain from that. If attempted it would have provoked resistance, and created another problem for India.

What I did think is that independence would usher in a new era of regional cooperation. I thought visa-free travel between the countries would be possible. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. We are far from attaining the kind of cooperation that one sees among EU countries. Whether that will be possible in our lifetime is doubtful.

You have also been very critical of how Bangladeshi leaders have not done justice to the hard-earned independence. In “Playing Games”, you write: if only we could be reasonably sure our leaders would one day stop playing at playing the game of democracy – and start playing it. Have Bangladeshi leaders failed the nation?
The problem with our politics is that we do not have two sides willing to play the game of democracy. There’s too much reliance on muscle, too much mistrust, corruption, and general lawlessness. One positive development is that since the Opposition’s bloody campaign last year, people on the whole have learnt to abhor violence in the name of politics. Bangladeshis more than ever are more interested in the economy; they have become homo economicus rather than political animals.

But Bangladesh today is so much better than what it was in 1971, or even a decade ago. 
Bangladeshis today are on the whole better fed and better clad than ever before in the whole of our history. How has it been possible? Because of the demands of global capitalism for cheap labour. This takes two forms: there is investment in production plants in countries like Bangladesh where there is cheap labour; and oil-rich countries are eager to import cheap labour from countries like Bangladesh. The Bangladesh economy has a growth rate of around six per cent. It could be higher with better governance.

There are serious problems that we face, a couple of them along with the rest of the world: global warming, which is going to affect Bangladesh badly; pollution due to rapid industrialisation, which is not properly regulated, sadly; extremely high population density.

I don’t think we could have attained this level of economic growth without independence from Pakistan. The greatest gift that independence has brought is a level of self-confidence in Bangladeshis collectively that was missing in the past. The colonial stereotyping of Indian peoples into martial races and non-martial races was buried once and for all on the soil of Bangladesh by the Bangladeshi guerillas, ill-trained and inadequately armed though they were.

What do you think about new writing in Bangladesh, especially literature in English?
Most of the writing published in Bangladesh is in Bengali. The production of prose fiction has gone up noticeably since independence. It also sells better now. Humayun Ahmed (1948-2012) was the first Bangladeshi writer who became wealthy from his books, and TV and film scripts. He became wealthier by setting up his own production company. No one has come anywhere near him in popularity. His great contribution to Bangladeshi literary culture, in my view, is that he created a supple, colloquial prose style that goes down smoothly; his sense of humour was a delightful bonus.

Poetry in Bengali, as indeed in any language, has a limited market. Most poets, I believe, self-publish, in very small editions. The great figures who emerged in the Fifties and Sixties—Shamsur Rahman, Al Mahmud, Shaheed Quadri, Syed Shamsul Huq, Rafiq Azad, Abdul Mannan Syed—remain unmatched.

One very positive aspect of the literary scene here is the emergence of a fairly large number of women writers. Taslima Nasreen is of course the most widely known, but there are many others, younger than her, who might be dubbed the post-feminist generation. The rise of the feminine voice has enriched our literature.

Bangladeshi writing in English is an emerging tradition. Again, the prose (mainly fiction, but also some non-fiction) is better known than the poetry. Monica Ali, Tahmima Anam, Mahmud Rahman, Kazi Anis Ahmed, Maria Chaudhuri, and Zia Haider Choudhury are some names that immediately come to mind.

Poetry is losing its popularity worldwide. How does that make you feel? 
It’s a pity that readers nowadays neglect poetry. They may read fiction, but without paying attention to literary questions. They consume fiction. It is, to put it in Indian English, timepass.

The lack of interest in poetry makes me particularly sad, because I write poetry and believe that poetry exemplifies the most concentrated and evocative use of literary language. A culture that ignores poetry is a defective culture.

The most positive development for me as a poet is the Internet which, along with much rubbish and dangerous propaganda, also makes poetry accessible to interested people everywhere. I have discovered that some of my poems have travelled to distant places through cyberspace. If it weren’t for a little bit of vanity I have to confess I possess, I wouldn’t have known this. But casual Googling made me aware that the University of Northern Iowa had organised a whole afternoon around my poem “Ode on the Lungi”. When I published a poem, “How Many Buddhas Can They Destroy?” in protest against the wanton vandalisation of Buddhist monasteries in southeastern Bangladesh (incited by a false story circulated on the Internet), it was picked up and put up on YouTube by someone I don’t know.

Just the other day I found that someone has put up a reading of my poem “Liking It” on a site called Dailymotion. I could give many more examples.

What are you writing at the moment?
I have completed a composite prose retelling of the Manasamangal or Padma Purana, the story of the snake goddess Manasa/ Padma and her struggle for recognition. I am waiting to hear from the publisher I have submitted it to. My friend Olivier Litvine has been translating my poems into French, and has set up a website where one can see samples. He has put together a selection titled Combien de Bouddha et Autres Poemes, which will be published next summer in Paris by the firm of Caracteres. The book will have a foreword by Bernard-Henri Levy and an afterword by Erik Orsonne, the 1988 Prix Goncourt winner.