Kazi Nazrul Islam

Translation © 2020 Monish Chatterjee

[A YouTube recitation by the poet’s son, Kazi Sabyasachi:

I am the poet of now, not of the Nuevo future

Call me poetic, call me prosaic, I accept with nary a word.

Some tell me, “Your place is with the earth-bound,

The mortal – why do we not witness emerging

From your mind, Rabi– like, the words of Eternity?”

All find fault, yet undaunted, I sing the Bhairavi of dawn.

 

My fellow poets, utterly dejected, read my musings and sigh

“The politics has got him, he’s gone from useful to useless.

Reads not any book, wastes his time.”

Some even say, “The wife likely swallowed him whole.”

And others- “(He) became fat and lazy playing cards in jail.”

Yet others- “(You) were better off in jail, may you soon return there.”

 

My Guru chimes in, “What! With a sword you shave now?”

Saturday notes deliver my beloved’s reminder, “You’re a scarecrow!”

I tell her, “Dear, all I do is expose what’s scandalous.”

And instantly the letters stop.

Resigned, I enter wedlock, then Hindus say, “Goodbye, Chacha.”

Am I a yavan or a kafir, in vain I search tikis and beards for sign.

 

Greedy Maulvis and Mullahs menacingly wave their hands-

“He utters the names of false deities, make him an outcaste!

Upon him we place this fatwa, he’s no more than a kafir Kazi

Even though he seems willing to embrace martyrdom.”

(We) boast of reading special pamphlets, and share meals with all

And Hindus impugn, “Uses Farsi in his poems, he’s a fake, a Muslim.”

 

Many a new-fangled non-violent nonco, too, is displeased.

“(He) is the violin for the violent, he aids and abets rebels!”

The rebels, for their part think- “This must be ahimsa

Why else would he sing paeans to the charkha?”

Mr. Orthodox labels me an atheist, Mr. Mainstream a Confucian

The Swarajists that I’m anti-Swaraj, non-Swarajists that I’m a baiter.

 

The men think I’m too cozy with women, women that I’m misogynist!

Migrant friends, “Not a bilet-pherot?  That explains your ignorance.”

The devotees anoint me, “Rabi of the New Age.”

May be not of the Age, but trend-setter, for sure

So I think, and harden my heart and mind

And, fastening my spectacles to my ears, pursue perpetual slumber.

 

What gibberish I write, myself I comprehend little of it-

Brothers, not having raised my fist in protest, I write with head bowed.

Friends, you attached little value to those words

Yet the Raj surely has done it great honor

Anything I write, being priceless, they confiscate at zero price.

Any idea who it is being shadowed night and day by the Raj’s spies?

 

Friend, no doubt you have seen me within the temple of my mind

I have turned blue trying, yet have not tamed the blighted mind-slave.

The more I bind it, the more the shackles break

Have beaten it until it went limp

Yet that confounding loony listened not, followed not Rabi or Gandhi.

The restless feline abruptly wakes up and tears apart the dark forest!

 

I reason with myself, Crazy One! Pray, listen- you are fine enough

Have now risen to half-Neta, if now you miss the boat

You will never, alas, ever become full-Neta!

Practice, dupe, shedding tears at a large public gathering-

Stuff your pocket with chilli powder (to induce crying)

And while at it, forget not to mend your leaky roof too, or else!

 

He understands not profit, roams from village to village as a mendicant

And listeners think, Why worry?  Sit back, relax, enjoy your paan.

No more malaria and epidemics, Swaraj will make a royal entrance

The Swarajists collect dole, will bring grains to assuage hunger

Yet the children cry, “Be quiet,” screams their Mother.  “Look, Swaraj

Is on its way!”  The starving child wants not Swaraj, only a fistful

 

Of rice, a bit of salt.  The day rolls on, the child is unfed,

Fire rages in his belly.  And hence, losing my mind

I rush in, and all pipedreams of Swaraj vanish.

“Heavenly Father!”  I cry, “Are you still out there today?”

“Tell me why, the vampires who feed on these children

Are not tarred and feathered?”  Yes, we know, to usher in Swaraj

 

We have brought along bartaku aplenty, while

Condemning millions of starving children to hunger and death-

Raised crores of rupees to punish the colonists, yet Swaraj never came!

Yet no funds to bring relief to the destitute and famished –

Children taken from Mothers’ bosoms, to the tiger we say-

Feed on grass!  Then too, I find Mothers go around begging

 

For victuals, even as the hidden corpses of their children rot in their hovels.

My friend, I can say no more- the vilest poison stirs within this heart!

Having seen and heard the worst have I gone utterly insane, and say

Whatever words come to my mouth.

Alone, alas, I cannot shed enough blood of vengeance

Hence in letters of blood these words I inscribe-

 

Friend, noble words and higher thoughts arise not in this grieving heart

Those amongst you, friends, who live in comfort,

I beg you to write the everlasting epics.

I care not if I live to see the end of this never-ending nightmare

All I know is the Sun still rises, and this land still has

Hundreds of golden sons!

 

With your heart and soul, brothers, pray with me

Those who usurp the life-giving morsels from the mouths

Of thirty-three crores of my brothers and sisters-

May it be written on the pages of fate in my own blood-soaked letters

Their eternal doom!

Their eternal doom!

Their eternal doom!

 

 

Rabi-                            All references to Rabi allude to Rabindranath Tagore.

Bhairavi-                      An early morning classical raga; presented at daybreak.

Chacha-                       Hindi/Urdu for Uncle.

Yavan/Kafir-                Hindu and Muslim labels for one outside the religion.

Maulvi/Mullah-           Clerics in Islam.

Fatwa-                         A disciplinary ruling given under Islamic law.

Ahimsa-                       The principle of non-violence practiced by Gandhi.

Non-co-                        A contraction of Gandhi’s famous non-cooperation movement.

Charkha-                      The spinning wheel symbolically used by Gandhi for home-spun clothes.

Swaraj/Swarajist-         The movement for establishing self-rule in India; its followers.

Bilet-pherot-                 Bengali label for an Indian who returns from a period spent in the West;

earlier, implying primarily England.

Raj-                              The Hindi term for the British Crown.

Neta-                           A local or national political leader; here derisive.

Paan-                           The betel leaf, and the stuffed version chewed widely in India.

Bartaku–                       Term for charred eggplant used in begun pora and other dishes. In                                             common Bengali usage, both begun-pora and kochu-pora (charred taro or                                 colocasia) imply a futile pursuit.

 

Commentary

Bengal’s firebrand poet/composer, Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976), who also had a softer side driven by romance and beauty, very likely wrote this “Alibi” in protest of, among much else, the dreadful Bengal Famine of 1942-43. The famine, attributed in no small measure to Winston Churchill’s racist disregard for the darker races (in this case, Bengalis and Indians- his derisive statements in this matter, when brought to question as to why much needed grains and rations were being shipped off to the English war front leaving millions from their land of origin to utter starvation, hunger and death, are well documented and I shall not dwell on them here) claimed well over 3 million innocent lives- numbers which should be chalked up as part of those killed in the war by the vaunted Allies (see Madhusree Mukerjee, https://www.amazon.com/Churchills-Secret-War-British-Ravaging/dp/0465024815/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=churchill%27s+secret+war&qid=1597257682&sr=8-1. )

Incidentally, the poem appears to have been written in 1926 (per information provided by Indrajit Dutt of Kolkata), more than 15 years before the Bengal famine.  However, its tone and intent definitely are perfectly suited to the vicious social injustice inflicted by the British Raj, represented by the famine.

The poem may appear to be rambling in places, but this is easily explained by the context and justification amply provided by Nazrul throughout the poem. He set out in this manifesto, not to put out an everlasting epic or work of art- he invites those whose lives are filled with comfort and contentment to write the great epics. He sets out to express his abject horror and anger against colonial exploitation which, as Nazrul describes, “”usurp(s) the life-giving morsels from the mouths” of children, and by longstanding habit of driving millions to poverty and destitution, also of thirty-three crores of his brothers and sisters.

Most notably, Nazrul brings up his role as an author, poet and activist set against the two most illustrious names of pre-independence India from the 20th century- Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi. He refers to Tagore and his grand humanitarian visions by invoking Rabi or the Sun more than once, exonerating himself by reiterating his role as a troubadour, a trouble-maker, a rabble-rouser- not an artist with finesse, but as a scribe who goes down in the trenches with the down-trodden. Much of Nazrul’s literary career indeed zealously pursued this goal.

In the manifesto, Nazrul brings in Gandhi by indirect reference multiple times. He mentions ahimsa/non-violence (maintaining, however, that non-violence and fund raising have not prevented wide-spread starvation across his province or the entire country), charkha or the spinning wheel (about which he had serious reservations as far as achieving freedom from the Empire, even though clearly there were places where he may have expressed some support for the charkha for its symbolism), Swaraj or self-rule, which was much talked about in the Indian National Congress and other political entities, Neta in the derisive sense of a crass political opportunist (this barb was aimed at politicians in general, not Gandhi individually).  He also very meaningfully mentions Non-co, which is an abbreviation of Gandhi’s Non-cooperation Movement, initiated in 1920 in the wake of the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre.

More than one line emerging from this Manifesto (in its original Bengali) became lasting classics in Bengali language and literature. Here are a few of these classics: “”দেখিয়া শুনিয়া ক্ষেপিয়া গিয়াছি, তাই যাহা আসে কই মুখে “”, “”অমর কাব্য তোমরা লিখিও, বন্ধু, যাহারা আছ সুখে …”, and most of all, the entire last stanza, with the first line, “”প্রার্থনা ক’রো যারা কেড়ে খায় তেত্রিশ কোটি মুখের গ্রাস “” which I recall was effectively used in an early Bengali biopic of the revolutionary icon, Subhas Chandra Bose.

Dr. Monish R. Chatterjee, a professor at the University of Dayton who specializes in applied optics, has contributed more than 130 papers to technical conferences, and has published more than 75 papers in archival journals and conference proceedings, in addition to numerous reference articles on science.  He has also authored several literary essays and four books of literary translations from his native Bengali into English (Kamalakanta, Profiles in Faith, Balika Badhu, and Seasons of Life).  Dr. Chatterjee believes strongly in humanitarian activism for social justice.

© Monish R Chatterjee 8/12/2020


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One Comment

  1. Avatar MonishChatterjee says:

    A protest manifesto written by revolutionary poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam, opposing British colonial occupation and in particular the devastating Bengal Famine of 1942-43 which claimed over 3 million lives in Bengal. The poem has iconic status in Bengal.