Shaheed Quaderi (1940–2016) is one of the most important Bengali poets of his generation. Born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), he migrated with his family to Dhaka after Partition, and from the late 1950s he and his friends consolidated the modernist movement in Bangladeshi poetry. A lifelong bohemian, he was an engaging conversationalist and at the same time a fastidious poet. He published four collections in his lifetime, and a posthumous collection is under preparation. He was self-exiled since 1977, first in Cologne, then in London, and since 1982 in the USA.
Sudden panic sends colourful homebound crowds –
Even drowsy ones – scuttling
Like scared red roaches every which way
As if someone in cold forbidding tones,
Tolling familiar bells,
Had come to warn of imminent plague,
Emptying homes and city squares
A flying harpoon of lightning rips through
The rounded whale’s belly of the sky.
Deafening thunder and hail and rain
As if circular saws had roared into ceaseless motion
While a million lathes let out a whine of torment.
Dusk brings on electric storms –
Nervy, peevish – and more
Clouds and water and wind –
With a chromatic scream
Like a peacock’s rainbow tail –
How imperilled our dwellings –
Doors and windows desperate to take wing –
The old house heaving like a tyrannosaur –
Flash floods sweeping through crowded neighbourhoods
And gleaming, abandoned avenues
And swirling round the city’s knees.
Through dusk rent by apocalyptic gusts –
As if the wind were Israfel’s OM! –
Rain falls aslant on parked cars –
Passengers sit in silence, heads bowed
In anxiety and apprehension, and startled,
Look up to see
Swift and fierce,
And willy-nilly hear
The sound of lamentation
Resounding in their own hearts
And in the weird, vagrant monsoon’s sterile dithyramb.
Tonight in this downpour, on city thoroughfares
Tramp and drifter, homeless youth and lifelong beggar,
Spy, thief and the half-crazed
Come into their own,
Theirs is the kingdom in the rain tonight.
The revenue collectors
Always to be seen carefully counting
Money they pocket every day
Have fled in terror.
They burst into lusty song – dark
Festival hall and drunken placard flapping on the wall,
Twisted telephone pole at whose tip swings
An old dented signboard blown thither by a gust
While the city’s countless shutters keep time
With a relentless clatter,
For the constable on the beat,
The sentry and the taxman
Have all fled in terror.
And these too – the wise and the wealthy
And all their sidekicks and sycophants –
They too have slipped away unnoticed –
The torrent has washed away all footprints
And will carry only a few miserable mementos
As it rushes, merry as a civic procession,
Towards cascading town drains:
A cigarette tin floats by with a sound like tambourines,
And broken glass, torn wire, envelopes,
Blue air letters, yellow laundry slips,
Doctors’ prescriptions, a white medicine box,
A broken button from a favourite shirt
And miscellaneous keepsakes
From the varicoloured days of civilised existence.
O Lord, amidst the lightning-lit deluge
In this dark city, barefoot and alone
In tattered pantaloons, inside
A shirt billowing like a sail,
I am a shiny little ark –
In the lonely turmoil of my flesh-and-blood existence
Smoulders Noah’s restless, red-hot, wrathful soul
But not a single creature, man or beast,
Stirs in response, though scudding waters
Carry the sound of breathing,
The wind wafts anguished cries –
Exalted by what ardour, towards
Which city shall I drift,
Lured by these seductive waters?
Translated from the Bengali by Kaiser Haq