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 –
But how else to put it?
As we picked our
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
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
Those merchants of calculated hatred
Those engineers of irrationality
What can they do against six billion Buddhas
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.