Categories
Tribute

Akbar Barakzai’s Paean to Humanity

Poem by Akbar Barakzai, translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch

Akbar Barakzai (1939-2022)
WE ARE ALL HUMAN

Russia, China and India,
Arabs and the New World*,
Africa and Europe,
The land of the Baloch and Kurds --
Indeed, the whole world is ours.
We are all human.
We are all human.

Of blood and brotherhood,
We share common traits and ties.
Love is all we harvest.
On freedom our faith does rest.
Indeed, the whole world is ours.
We are all human.
We are all human.

A life free from strife,
A world blooming with 
Dreams and desires,
Happiness and delight --
This is all we seek.
Indeed, the whole world is ours.
We are all human.
We are all human.


From murderers and tyrants,
Like Genghis,
With our swords and soul,
We protect the beautiful Earth.
Indeed, the whole world is ours.
We are all human.
We are all human.

Together along with the downtrodden, 
The wretched of the Earth,
We shall wage a war 
Against brutes of the world,
And for truth we shall lay our lives.
Indeed, the whole world is ours.
We are all human.
We are all human.

With the stars of our blood,
Like our beloveds, we shall adorn
The night-bitten cities and valleys.
The dark night will vanish forever.
Indeed, the whole world is ours.
We are all human.
We are all human.

The sun will rise from our blood,
the prophet of glory will appear,
The night will pass into dawn --
There will be happiness everywhere.
Indeed, the whole world is ours
We are all human.
We are all human.

*By the New World, the poet means the continents of Americas and Australia.

Akbar Barakzai (1939-2022) was born in Shikarpur, Sindh. He is ranked amongst the proponents of modern Balochi literature. His poetry reflects the objective realities of life. Love for motherland, peace and prosperity and dignity of a man are the recurrent themes of his poetry. His love for human dignity transcends all geographical and cultural frontiers. Barakzai is not a prolific poet. In a literary career which spans over half a century, Barakzai has managed to bring out just two anthologies of his poems, but his poetry has depth and reaches out to human hearts with its profundity. Last year, Barakzai rejected the Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL) award, quoting  the oppressive policies meted out to his region by the government as the reason.

Fazal Baloch is a Balochi writer and translator. He has translated many Balochi poems and short stories into English. His translations have been featured in Pakistani Literature published by Pakistan Academy of Letters and in the form of books and anthologies. Fazal Baloch has the translation rights to Barakzai’s works and is in the process of bringing them out as a book.

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Categories
Interview

At Home Across Continents

In Conversation with Neeman Sobhan

Neeman Sobhan is an expat who shuttles between Italy and Bangladesh and writes. She has a knack of making herself at home in all cultures and all spheres. Having grown up partly in Pakistan (prior to the Liberation War in 1971), Bangladesh and completed her studies in United States, she has good words about time spent in all places. Her background has been and continues to be one of privilege as are that of many Anglophone writers across Asia. Her stories have been part of collections brought out to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bangladesh.

One of her most memorable stories from her short story collection Piazza Bangladesh, located around the 1971 war takes on an unusual angle, where the personal seems to sweep the reader away from the historic amplitude of the event into the heart-rending cries of women at having lost their loved ones in a way that it transcends all borders of politics, anger and hate. The emotional trajectory finds home in a real-world event in the current war. The fate of innocent youngsters dying while not being entrenched in the hatred and violence wrings hearts as reports of such events do even now. I find parallels in the situation with the young Russian soldier whose mother did not know he was in Ukraine and who was killed while WhatsApping his mother his own distress at being there. And yet her stories stay within certain echelons which, as she tells us in the interview, are the spheres that move her muse.

When and how did you pick up a pen to write?

I have always written. The written word has always held a powerful fascination for me, which has not dimmed at all. From my childhood through my teens, I was a voracious and precociously advanced reader, as well as a passionate writer of poetry, and a keeper of a daily journal. My poetry was regularly published in The Pakistan Observer’s Junior page.  I don’t dare look at them now to even assess whether they were embarrassingly bad or surprisingly good enough to be salvaged and resurrected now! I preserved them as the earliest evidence of my continuing evolution as a writer and a poet today.

During those early days, I also won the first prize in a national essay writing competition sponsored by the newspaper. The Pear’s Encyclopedia I won still holds a precious place on my bookshelf.

English was my favourite subject in school and college, and I knew I would study English literature at university. I started out at Dhaka University in 1972 but by some perverse logic, I actually enrolled in the newly opened International Relations department and not the English Department (in which I had applied and been accepted). The reason, I now recall is because the English department was over-flowing with students, while the International Relations department was something exclusive and admitted a handful of students. However, after a few months I realised I had made a disastrous choice.

Meantime, my marriage was arranged, and I was whisked away to Marlyland, U.S. My husband, Iqbal, an ex-CSP officer (the Civil Service of Pakistan) was a Ph.d student of Economics at the University of Maryland, and in no time I enrolled as an undergraduate student and blissfully went on to study English and Comparative Literature, graduating eventually with a Masters in English Literature.

That I was going to be a writer was for me, even as a teenager, like a pre-ordained and much desired fate. I never wanted to pursue any other vocation.

What gets your muse going? 

Anything, and everything.  A view, a scent, an overheard conversation, a line of poetry, a memory……If I’m angry and seething, I write; if I’m sad or grieving, I write; if I’m joyous or ecstatic, I write; if I feel aa surge of spiritual bliss, I write; if I’m confused, I write. What form that writing takes is unpredictable. It could become a poem, or a paragraph in my notebook, which later could be part of my fiction, or a column. I wrote a regular column for the Daily Star of Bangladesh.

Writing is my food and nourishment, my therapy, my best friend, my passion. The writer-Me is the twin that lives inside me. It’s my muse and guide that defines my essential self. I am a contented wife of almost 50 years of marriage, a mother of two sons, and a grandmother of four grandsons (aged 5-4-3 & 2). These gratifying roles nourish my spirit, give me joy and inspiration, teach me lessons that help me grow as a human being. But my writer-self exists in its own orbit, proceeding on its solitary journey of self-actualisation, following its inner muse.

You have written of Italy, US and Bangladesh. How many countries have you lived in? 

Yes, I have lived in Italy, US and Bangladesh, which makes 3 countries. But, in fact, I have lived in 4 countries.

Remember that I was born not just in the undivided Pakistan of pre-71, when present day Bangladesh was East Pakistan, but I was actually born in West Pakistan, present day Pakistan, in the cantonment town of Bannu, near the borders of the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan, (formerly, the NWFP or NorthWest Frontier Province, presently KPK or Khyber Pakhtun-Khwa). Although my parents were Bengalis from Dhaka, my father’s government job (not in the army but under the Defence department, ‘Military Lands and Cantonments Services’) meant being posted in both wings of the then Pakistan. So, during my childhood and girlhood, I grew up in Karachi (Sindh), Multan and Kharian (Punjab) and Quetta (Balochistan). As a family of five siblings and our adventurous mother, we always accompanied our father on his official tours, by car or train, over the length and breadth of that country.

In the English medium school I was enrolled in, I had to choose Urdu as the vernacular subject, since Bengali was not taught in West Pakistani schools, though the opposite was not true! Anyway, I have no regrets. I am proficient in both Urdu and my mother tongue Bangla/Bengali, which I learnt at home from my mother, who in Quetta actually set up a small Bengali learning school for Bengali Army officers’ children. I am proud of the fact that I carried my mother’s tradition when I taught Bengali to Italians at the University of Rome, many decades later!   

What is it like being an immigrant writer? Which part of the world makes you feel most at home? Why? 

To start with, and to be honest, I do not really consider myself a true immigrant — someone who bravely and definitively leaves his familiar world and migrates  to another land because he has no other options nor the chance or means to return; rather, I feel lucky to be an ex-patriate — someone who chooses to make a foreign country her home, with the luxury of being able to revisit her original land, and, perhaps, move back one day. In fact, I have dual nationality, and am both an Italian citizen, and continue to hold a Bangladeshi passport. I might be considered to be an Italian-Bangladeshi writer. I consider myself a writer without borders.

I feel equally at home in Italy and in Bangladesh. Before the pandemic, my husband and I would make an annual trip to Dhaka for two months from December to February end, since my classes started in early March. Presently, I am back in Dhaka, after two almost apocalyptic years.

Despite the continuing hurdles of mastering the Italian language and trying to improve it constantly, we love our Roman home as much as our Dhaka home. Still, living away from ones’ original land, whether as an expatriate or an immigrant, is never easy, beset by nostalgia for what was left behind and the struggle to create a new identity of cultural fusion within the dominant and pervasive culture of a foreign land. But in this global age, it’s quite usual to live in a mix of cultures and live in a borderless world where ones national or cultural identity is not so clear cut. (I have a daughter-in-law who is Chinese, and another who is half-English, half-Thai! And my grandchildren are the heirs to a cornucopia of cultures and are true global citizens). Nevertheless, in the four and a half decades of my living away from Bangladesh, the eternal quest for that illusory place called home has shaped the sensibility that nourishes my creativity and compels me to write. Often, it’s the pervasive and underlying theme in my columns, stories and poetry. There is a poem of mine, “False Homecoming” which underlines the poignant sense of displacement a person can feel, not in a foreign land but in ones’ own motherland, or the version from the past. After all, many people who live away, exist in a time-warp.So, no matter which part of the world you feel at home in, it’s temporary. For me, as a writer between countries and homes, it is an external and internal odyssey.

It is the endless journey of a writer in constant evolution.

Tell us a bit about your journey. 

I realised early on that our real world being increasingly borderless, it’s not a tract of land that makes me feel at home. It’s my writing. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once said, “Words became my dwelling place.” This has always resonated deeply with me, because for me, too, language and literature have been my sanctuary and true homeland. I have lived in that comfort zone at the heart of my creativity, imagination and writing: my dwelling place of words.

Of course, there are as many shapes to the sheltering place of language as there are literary forms. My nest of words was also feathered by my particular exigencies, followed a particular route and journey.

Though I speak various languages, my mother tongue is Poetry. For as far back as I can remember I have always written poetry, like writing in a journal, considering it to be the shorthand of my heart, a secret language. I am a reticent person, and there are writers like me who are content to use writing, whether poetry or prose, as a tool for self-exploration, self-knowledge, self-definition, with no thought of being published. At least, not my personal poems.

Yet with poetic irony, despite being a private person, my career as a writer started when I was jettisoned into that most public form of literary expression: the world of weekly column writing. At the urging of a friend, the editor of the Bangladeshi national daily The Daily Star, I turned into a public chronicler of the minutiae of my world, my life and times. Now I discovered my professional language, my father tongue if you will, the language of prose and my journey as a writer started.

When one reads your writing, it is steeped in a number of cultures. Which culture is most comfortable for you while writing and which one for living? 

There’s no place as beautiful and pleasurable to live in as Italy. Except for two or three months of winter, the climate during the rest of the year is perfect; the natural beauty and historical and artistic richness are unsurpassable, the food is delectable whether it’s based on nature’s bounty or the simple elegance of its distinctive cuisine. But for a writer who is also a housewife, the most comfortable country to write in, for me, is Bangladesh. With the culture of household helps abounding, I often get more writing done in two months of living in my Dhaka apartment than a whole year in Rome. My domestic staff are like family to us, and valued parts of our life. They sustain us and we sustain them, helping them educate their children to stand on their own feet. I miss this support network in Italy.

What are your favourite themes and your favourite genre? Expand on that a bit. 

My favourite genre to both read and write is the short story, poetry, humorous essays, travel writing and insightful book reviews. I read fewer novels now, and I have been writing and struggling to finish my first novel for years. I suspect, this is because I am temperamentally more attuned to the short sprint dash of producing a discrete work of imagination than the long-distance run of a lengthy work. But I am determined to conclude this opus before it becomes an unfinished relic.

I never approach fiction-writing through themes. But in non-fiction prose writings, like essays and articles for columns, I love to write about certain topics, or about books, places, and people, from all walks of life. I also love to write about nature, food, history and traditions, about how to improve our world, our lives and our relationships; and the happy, hopeful moments of life. As far as reading goes, I love reading about travel, love and friendship, human compassion, and anything with a happy ending.

You seem to have centred much of your work on people who are affluent. What about the rest — especially the huge population who serve the affluent? Have you written on them? Tell us why or why not.

That is an incomplete picture, and a wrong perception of my writing. To start with, as a writer I am more interested in the richness of the inner lives of human beings, and less so in the outward, economic and class differences. To me, no one is merely affluent or poor, but human and worthy of a compassionate gaze. The diversity and motivations of characters, whichever strata of society they belong to moves my imagination. I do not write to either preach or disseminate ideas of social justice or to right wrongs, but to explore and present the world we live in, in all its complexities and subtleties, the joys and ugliness, the small dreams and grand passions, the disappointments and triumphs of individuals and generations. I like to delve into the psychological or political motivations of human behaviour, especially within the domestic sphere, the family, an ethnic community.

I have many stories about those who serve or are not from privileged classes. My story ‘A Sprig of Jasmine’ is about a sweeper woman at a school in Bangladesh. Then there is the story ‘The Farewell Party’ about a temporary domestic help in a Bangladeshi home in Rome, suspected of stealing. I also have a sequel to that which explores the life of the same Bengali help now working as a nurse-companion to an old Italian woman.  These and many more are awaiting to be published soon in another collection.

But I never consciously choose a subject or set out specifically to tell the story of an under-privileged, oppressed, or marginalised person. It can happen that the story turns out to be about them, but for me a story reveals itself randomly, through an image or scent or a view or an overheard conversation, once I witnessed a slap being delivered, etc, and I follow its trail till it leads me to an interesting bend where it starts to shape into a story. I never know how a story will start or end. It grows in organic but unpredictable way. That is the challenge, and adventure of writing a story.

For example, one of my most newest stories, titled ‘The Untold Story’, (published in a recent anthology for Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary, When the Mango Tree Blossomed, edited by Niaz Zaman), is two parallel tales of two Birangonas (‘war heroines’ or raped victims during the Bangladesh liberation war ), but it came to me more as a way to explore the craft of storytelling, which is something that always engages me: how a story is narrated, as much as what the narrative is about.

By and large, I like to write stories about the world I know, and the people in my own milieu because no one writes about the expat society of Europe. I like to write about my world in all its details and extrapolate from its larger truths about humanity in general.

Jane Austen wrote about the landed gentry and her corner of England, but the stories ultimately reach our hearts not merely as stories of the affluent but of human foibles. John Updike wrote about his American suburban world. Annie Proulx writes about Wyoming. Alice Munro about the middle-class world of her neck of the Canadian world. Henry James focused on American aristocrats. But what is human and vulnerable, or worthy or unworthy, transcends class barriers. People are interesting, subtle, unpredictable, noble or wicked, no matter whether they are affluent or of straitened means. Tagore’s tales of women trapped in their roles in rich households are just as moving as those among the poor and underprivileged.

There are plenty of writers with a sociologist’s background who can chronicle the lives of the downtrodden whom they meet. I applaud them. My younger son works with the Rohingyas; my brother-in-law, a doctor worked for years with children of addicts. They have their stories to tell. I have mine. I’m interested in humanity, wherever I find them.

In the little I have read of your stories, Bangladesh is depicted in a darker light in your narratives — that it is backward in values, in lifestyles etc. Why? 

I don’t know which particular story or stories you have in mind where you felt that this impression was consciously created. Unless the story was indeed about a backward area, like the dingy alleys and neighbourhoods of old Dhaka in the 60’s and 70’s. Or, the murky values resulting from the explosion of wealth and the rise of corruption, undermining civic and ethical values in the rampantly urbanised zones.

In which case, it’s an unavoidable fact and not a depiction.

However, since I write more in a nostalgic light about Dhaka past rather than the reality of the present, I actually have not really written about the darker sides of the country; and which country or society does not have its seamy side. A good question would have been why I have not depicted Bangladesh in a darker light as contemporary writers of Bengali fiction do, dealing courageously with sinister aspects of politics and corrupt moral values at every level of society.

There is much in the Bangladeshi culture that we are proud of, beautiful traditions, and so much beauty in our natural world. I like to weave these into my narrative. So, I’m surprised that you found my stories to be dark.

 What are your future plans?

One of my most urgent projects is to get my novel-in-progress published.

I’m also planning to come out with another collection of stories, and a collection of my columns on travel, and an Italian and Bengali translation of my fiction.

So far, my three published books, and all the stories that have appeared in various anthologies are just a few milestones but do not define my journey as a writer. Daily I grapple with the insecurities of a writer, and daily I learn new things that help me grow towards being the writer I aspire to be. It’s still a long way to a full flowering, but each passing day I dabble in words, I feel the creative petals unfolding, slowly but surely.

Thank you for your time.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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Categories
Slices from Life

Dhaka Book Fair: A Mansion and a Movement

Ratnottama Sengupta writes of a time when a language freed itself and a palace called Bardhaman House became the centre of a unique tryst against cultural hegemony. The Language Movement of 1952 that started in Dhaka led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In 1999, UNESCO recognised February 21 as the Mother Language Day.

The window at Bardhaman House. Courtesy: Kamrul Mithon

All through the day Kamrul Mithon was standing in front of this window, waiting. He was waiting to be allotted a stall in Ekushey Book Fair 2022. This year the annual book fair in Dhaka is being hosted by the Bangla Academy from February 15 to 28. 

This window is a part of the Bardhaman House. The first boimela or book fair had started under the banyan tree facing this very window. Kamrul Mithon, who earns his bread and butter by the click of his camera, is a book publisher by passion. The freelancer for National Crafts Council of Bangladesh is the Associate Visual Editor at Nymphea Publication who have just published titles like Cannes Diary and When the Mango Tree Blossomed, in the ongoing book fair. The day he spent facing the window was the day the lottery was held – so the best way to while his time was by clicking away, capturing all that captivated his fancy. 

Later it occurred to him that he could post the pictures on Facebook to announce the forthcoming boimela. And when he did so, he captured my attention. “Is this a painting? A poster? A book cover?” My curiosity was piqued. “Neither,” Kamrul replied. He went on to give me a brief history of ‘Burdwan House’ – the architecture from the British Raj when Dhaka, the second biggest city of Bengal Presidency, housed estates of many erstwhile royalties including the Raja of Burdwan.

Maharajadhiraj Bahadur Sir Bijay Chand Mahtab (1881-1941) was the first in the Burdwan family to obtain formal education qualification, tour England and Europe, write his memoirs. Adopted at the age of six, he was bestowed the title of Rajadhiraj at the coronation in the Delhi Durbar. Though only eighteen then, he had the savvy to build a Gothic style gate to welcome Lord Curzon when the Governor General visited Bardhaman. That gate continues to be a historical landmark in the Indian state of West Bengal. 

In 1908, when Bijoy Chand Mahtab risked his life to save that of Sir Andrew Fraser from a Nationalist bullet, Lord Minto elevated him to the title of Maharajadhiraj. He represented the Bengal zamindars in the Bengal Legislative Council and in the Imperial legislative Council for years. President of the British Indian Association, this philanthropist in education and health welfare was part of the committee that recommended replacement of Zamindari by the Ryotdari or tenancy system. After all this, though, he extended hospitality to Gandhi in 1925 and to Subhash Chandra Bose in 1928. Did he sense that the sun was soon to set on the British Empire?

The mansion in Dhaka was one of the many palaces of His Highness of Burdwan: the one in Darjeeling was his Summer Palace. Through the year he resided in the Burdwan House in Kolkata’s Alipore area. That stately home is now rented out for weddings and other occasions. So, I was especially happy to learn that Dhaka has transformed the classical architecture into a centre for research and preservation of Bangla. “Indeed this was where the Bangla Bhasha Andolan spread out from,” Mithon cues me in, “since this was where the instruction went out on the evening of February 21, to fire on the students of Dhaka University.”

Mithon further leads me through the various chapters of the Movement. “In 1952, being the residence of Nurul Amin, the Chief Minister of East Pakistan, Bardhaman House witnessed the escalation in our demand that Bengali be accorded equal status with Urdu as State Language of Pakistan.”

I remember hearing the backstory of the movement from my father, writer Nabendu Ghosh: he was forced to leave Kolkata, the home ground of Bengali literature, theatre, cinema, art – indeed, of Bengali culture – and live in Bombay after the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. Because? The readership of Bangla literature had been halved as had the viewership of Bengali films. Keen to build upon its Islamic genes, the government of the newly formed Pakistan decided that Urdu would be the state language. And to impose that decision even in East Pakistan, its eastern wing separated by 2000 miles of land and rivers, language and culture, it decreed that even Bengali, its lingua franca, must be written in the Arabic script!

Mithon encapsulates the story of rebellion against the firman – the decree — that took the masses unaware. 

“1947, December 5. The working Committee of the Muslim League was meeting in Bardhaman House. The students and teachers of Dhaka University were stunned by the unfair decision that would impact the lives of the 44 million Bangla-speaking citizens who formed roughly 2/3rd of the 69 million population. They took out a procession to demand that Bengali be made the language of education and administration in the state — and at the Centre, it should be accorded the same dignity as Urdu, adopted by the Western wing of the divided India that encompassed large part of Punjab and Sindh, where the lingua franca was Pubjabi and Sindhi.

“1948, January 8. Evening at Bardhaman House. Leaders of the Language Movement met Prime Minister Najimuddin. The purpose? To protest the arrest and torture of the Bhasha Andolan (language revolution) activists — under section 144 — for demanding that they be allowed to freely read write and speak Bangla.

“1948, March 15. On the eve of signing the State Language Agreement, the then Governor Khwaja Najimuddin met the students involved in the Andolan. The next day a procession set out for Bardhaman House to demand the cancelation of the draft agreement. The police were let loose on them, for disobeying the orders under section 144, and the students and teachers were severely wounded. 

“February 21, 1952, was Phalgun 8, 1358 on the Bengali calendar. Governor General Nurul Amin sent out the order that took the lives of Rafiq, Salam, Barkat, Abdul Jabbar, Shafiur Rahman, teenaged Aliullah, 17 other students, teachers, progressive intelligentsia and non-communal individuals, rickshawallahs and labourers… The tower that came up overnight in the University campus was not the only direct fallout of the inhuman firing: The symbol of Power, Bardhaman House became the target of people’s anger. 

“After the heinous bloodbath, the demand to turn it into a Centre for Language Studies gathered momentum. And four years later, in 1954 it gained formal sanction prior to the elections. The 21-point Charter of Demands put forth by the Jukta (United) Front spelled out that the Prime Minister move into a less luxurious residence, leaving the mansion to be used as a Student’s Hostel and, subsequently, to be turned into a Research Centre for the language.

“Eventually the Pakistan government had to bow to the unrest: On May 7, 1954, Bengali was adopted as one of the state languages in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. And on December 3, 1954, the Chief Minister of East Pakistan, Abu Hosain, inaugurated the Bangla Academy in the Burdwan House.” 

Quite naturally, along with research and nurturing of the language, Bangla Academy has taken care to perpetuate the memory of the Amar Ekush (eternal 21st) martyrs. The first floor of the Bardhaman House is home to the Bhasha Andolan Museum. Inaugurated on February 1, 2010, it preserves historical photographs, newspapers, memorial documents, cartoon, letters, publicity leaflets, manuscripts, book covers and memorabilia of the language martyrs. And in the ongoing Boimela, Nymphea has brought to the reading public volumes like Ekush: A Photographic History of the Language Movement (1947-1956) and Kaaler Kheya (The Boat of Time) about passing on Bangla from generation to generation. 

The events of February 21, 1952, shed a long shadow that culminated in the emergence of the sovereign nation of Bangladesh which sings, Moder garab moder asha – Aa mori Bangla bhasha (Our pride, our inspiration, O sonorous Bangla!)… The love for its language has seen the nation adopt Tagore’s creation as its national anthem, Aamar Sonar Bangla. And even before that, Renaissance personality Satyajit Ray saluted the language by penning Moder nijer bhasha bhinna aar bhasha jaana nai … O maharaja, we speak no language other than our own, and we celebrate through that very language, Mora sei bhashatei kori gaan

Indeed, the world salutes the struggle and sacrifices of the people of Bangladesh to be able to sing their songs. In November 1999, UNESCO paid tribute to Amar Ekush, the movement for safeguarding Bangla – with all its proverbs and poetry, myths and songs — by declaring February 21 as the International Mother Language Day.

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Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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Categories
Interview

In Conversation with Akbar Barakzai, a ‘Part-time Poet’ in Exile

Who can snuff out the sun? 
Who can suppress the light?
-- Akbar Barakzai, Who Can Snuff Out the Sun

Akbar Barakzai (1939-2022)

His poetry rings with the spaces between mountains. It rushes like the wind of freedom, taking you to the heart of the land and people he writes about.  

Balochistan has a bit of the blood and bones of many cultures and people through the ages – dating back to Harappa and Indus Valley civilisations. Akbar Barakzai, the Baloch poet and activist, writes about transcending the suffering that exudes from hurts inflicted on humankind. He urges the masses to voice out against oppression.

Don’t ever bury the word 
In the depth of your chest 
Rather express the word 
Yes, speak it out. 
The Word brings forth 
Freedom and providence.
--Akbar Barakzai, The Word

He writes for freedom from injustices and lives by his beliefs and principles. Having been forced to move countries to run journals, he is an immigrant in quest of a future that will unite the East and the West. Gently opposing oppressors with his writing, beliefs and ideas, Barakzai made news when he turned down the Pakistan Academy of Literature award last year because he says; “The Pakistan Academy of Literature is sponsored by the Islamabad rulers. I cannot accept an award from an organisation that operates at the beck and call of the tormentors of my people.”  A writer who continues to emote for his people and their rights, he has been translated to English by a lecturer, Fazal Baloch, and published. 

Barakzai calls himself “a part time poet” – but his poetry moves our hearts and minds – it makes us think, imagine a better world. Is he really a part time poet or a major inspiration crying out for mankind to move out of ‘messiahdom’, dogmatism and take charge of their own lives? In this interview, Barakzai not only reveals his life but also his sense of freedom from oppression, his love of human rights which forced him to move countries to conserve the voice of his people.

Since when have you been writing poetry? What set your muse going?

I started writing poetry in 1954 when I was still in school. I was inspired by our people’s long struggle for freedom and justice against the Pakistani and Iranian occupiers.

Your poetry mixes many strands of thoughts and many lores. Can you tell us what influences your writing? Books, music, writers?  

My writing has been influenced by many poets and writers from different languages and cultures. The lasting influence on my art has been that of classical Balochi poetry. However, I must mention some great names from diverse poetic traditions who have had an impact on my poetry, such as the Persian poets Hafiz, Rumi and Nima Yushij; Urdu poets Ghalib and Mir; English poets Shelley and Keats; Russian poets Pushkin and Pasternak and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Your poem ‘Waiting for Godot’ depicts the theme of the play by Samuel Beckett. It has a beautiful mingling of East and West. What led to it?

Beckett’s Godot is perhaps the most mysterious character in modern (world) literature. My poem is a reminder that the so-called Messiahs never return to this world. Mankind has to find its own solutions. East and West are two different aspects of the same coin. Unlike the infamous poem by Rudyard Kipling, that great apologist of Western imperialism, the East and the West are slowly but steadily inching towards each other. Despite enormous odds “the twain” are destined to “meet” and be united to get rid of the geographical lines created by imperialist powers.

You deal with both the political and the spiritual in your poetry. How do you attune Che Guevara with the God who even if ruthless exists in your poetry?  

I made peace with God quite some time ago. I hope we understand each other better now. I do not believe that God is necessarily ruthless. It may sound strange, but my spirituality is not religious at all, it is based on humanism.  Your interpretation of my poem is different from what I had intended. I am not sure if such a dichotomy exists in the poem. However, it appears that poetic curiosity in the end has succeeded in detecting some kind of duality. With regard to Che, he symbolizes the primordial fighter for justice. He embodies all those millions of people who have fought against the forces of darkness. Hence the allusion to Phoebus Apollo and the ever-conquering brilliance of the sun.

Do you write only in Balochi? You must be fluent in English having lived in England for many years. Why do you not write in English? Or translate your own poems?  

I used to write in Urdu and Persian in my younger years, until I discovered that I could write a lot better in my mother tongue.  As far as writing in English is concerned, I do not feel confident enough to write in it.

Your poetry, the little I have read, takes on elemental truths and uses nature, intermingles those to arrive at larger truths toward the end. Is it all spontaneously expressed? Or do you need to work on it? Tell us a bit about your poetic process.  

My experience of the poetic process tells me that it is spontaneous. Design and architecture of the poem occupy a secondary position. After a poem is formed in my mind my main concern would then be to revise and improve its language. This process may take any length of time. I must confess that I am an obsessive reviser. For example, one of my longer poems took many long years to complete.

As a poet, you continue shrouded in mystery. Tell us about your life.  

My life is and has always been an open book. I don’t think a few random poems are sufficient to reveal the life story of any poet. However, without these fistful of poems, I would have appeared to be a greater mystery. My life, like the billions of ordinary people in this world, is indeed very ordinary. My great grandfather migrated from Western (Iranian) Balochistan as a result of the brutal military operations in the early twentieth century in which thousands of old men, women and children were killed and injured and thousands of others migrated to Sindh. My great grandfather was a small-time farmer. As a result of the Iranian atrocities, he was forced to abandon his land and livestock and move to Eastern (now Pakistani) Balochistan and finally to Sindh. In 1928, Reza Shah of Iran ultimately succeeded in occupying our country. Once they settled in Sindh my great grandfather and grandfather worked as labourers until they saved enough to buy a small shop.      

My father had a basic English education. He had left high school when still in the 4th or 5th grade to support the family with odd jobs. A few years later, he opened his own shop, a ration shop. These shops had mushroomed all over during the war as the English authorities introduced a food rationing system in India. I believe with this background I must have belonged to the lowest rungs of the class system. But my family worked hard to improve their lot.

When I was ten or twelve, my father thought I was strong enough and responsible enough to work in the shop. I would go to school in the morning. As soon as I finished school, I would rush to the shop to help my father. 

A few years before I finished high school, my father got a job in the Directorate of Civil Supplies as the manager of a warehouse. He rented out the shop. With two incomes our lot did improve a little. I was now in high school. I didn’t have to work in the shop anymore. During this period, I became interested in books – any books. These were mainly Urdu, Persian, Sindhi and Balochi books. I read a lot, but my reading wasn’t systematic. I wrote a few nondescript poems during this period and became interested in politics, particularly in Baloch politics. By then I was in college reading literature and related subjects. However, I was more interested in politics than in my studies which meant I wasn’t a good student. Despite this I somehow managed to graduate from Karachi University. My father wanted me to study further and enter the Civil Service. But by then I was completely radicalised. I think I disappointed him then by refusing to continue my studies in order to take competitive exams to join the civil service. However, a few years later as a result of the escalating Pakistani military operations in Balochistan, he told me that although at the time he was not happy with my refusal, he confessed wholeheartedly that my decision was absolutely right. I was so proud of him that he had finally approved of my decision. Although he passed away a long time ago, because of this confession I do love him and miss him more.  

This rather lengthy snapshot of my life should be sufficient to explain why my poetry is expressly concerned with social and political issues.

What led to your move to England?  

This was the busiest period of my political activism. It was the time when General Ayub Khan had imposed Martial Law in Pakistan and was trying to consolidate his rule by hook or by crook. In Balochistan he had re-ordered the military to crush the Baloch resistance once and for all. But the resistance has outlived Ayub Khan, and his military might. It has grown stronger and stronger with the passage of time albeit with huge sacrifices sustained by ordinary people. The rulers treated the Baloch people like dirt and our leaders as traitors who “deserved” to be hanged. By 1965, the military government stepped up its operations in cities and towns, especially in Karachi where the Baloch formed a sizable minority and naturally supported the struggle for freedom. By this time the majority of our leaders were imprisoned in various Pakistani jails. Hundreds of young activists were also put behind bars. I was constantly harassed by the secret police. They raided my house three times and confiscated all my books and papers. These included some precious manuscripts left by a maternal uncle of mine. I was told that they would be returned “in due course”, but I never saw them again. 

In those days, at least in the big cities, the government showed that they believed in the legal system. However, things would soon change. They started arresting people at will, without producing them in a court of law. People would languish in prisons for many years without any charges brought against them. They kept on introducing new forms of brutality, including bombing the population and “disappearing” activists and ordinary people. Under their “kill and dump” policy, they to this day torture and kill activists and then dump their bodies in the periphery of a town or village. So far, they have “disappeared” about 5,000 activists and their family members. Recently they have started abducting young female activists and then dumping their bodies. Almost all of these victims have been assaulted and raped.   

I was picked up twice by the secret police. The second time they brought the great poet Gul Khan Naseer (the Baloch Nazrul) from prison. We were both delighted to see each other. We hugged and exchanged greetings in Balochi. We were told firmly not to speak in Balochi. We protested at this suggestion. Without reacting, they started the interrogation which took about three or four hours. Naseer was taken back to prison. I was told to go home but be prepared for further sessions.

I was advised by our leadership to go underground and eventually leave the country and head for the Gulf region to organise the Baloch migrants working in that part of the world. I did exactly as I was instructed to do. Because of visa problems, I could not stay in the Gulf for long. I therefore moved to Syria, Lebanon and finally to Iraq where in 1973-74, I was joined by some other friends. Together we used to edit a monthly newspaper in Balochi called Tipaakie Raah (Path of Unity). In fact, this used to be the Balochi edition of the paper which was also published in Arabic, Persian, Azari (Azarbaijani) and Kurdish editions. We also managed a daily radio programme in Balochi. Additionally, we published a monthly newspaper in English from London which was called People’s Front. This task was assigned to a senior friend who moved from Baghdad to London for this purpose. Our stay in Iraq would soon be short lived. After Saddam Hussain and the Shah of Iran met in North Africa to end the dispute over Shatt al Arab waterway, the situation in Iraq changed drastically. We were told very politely that the “world situation” had changed. We would still be welcome to live in Iraq, but the publication of the newspaper and the radio broadcasts must stop. It was therefore decided I should move to London. With the help of a doctor friend, I obtained a British visa and moved to London.

Your poetry still cries out for your motherland. Do you want to return? Is a return possible?

Who wouldn’t want to go back to the country they love? But it is not possible. I am only tolerated if I keep silent and remain as far away from Balochistan as possible.

Why did you turn down the Pakistan Academy of Literature award?  

The Pakistan Academy of Literature is sponsored by the Islamabad rulers. I cannot accept an award from an organisation that operates at the beck and call of the tormentors of my people.    

You have published very selectively — do you have more writing which you have not published? If so, do you have plans to publish those?

I have never been a prolific writer or a poet. I keep on telling people that I am a part-time poet.

What message would you like to give to emerging writers?

As a part-time poet I don’t feel I am in a position to advise young writers. I can only say this much to them — be honest to yourselves and your art.   

Thank you very much for giving us your time.

Click here to read translated poetry by Akbar Barakzai.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Akbar Barakzai

Akbar Barakzai (1939-2022) was born in Shikarpur, Sindh. He is ranked amongst the proponents of modern Balochi literature. His poetry reflects the objective realities of life. Love for motherland, peace and prosperity and dignity of a man are the recurrent themes of his poetry. His love for human dignity transcends all geographical and cultural frontiers. Barakzai is not a prolific poet. In a literary career which spans over half a century, Barakzai has managed to bring out just two anthologies of his poems, but his poetry has depth and reaches out to human hearts with its profundity. Last year, Barakzai rejected the Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL) award, quoting  the oppressive policies meted out to his region by the government as the reason.

Interview

In Conversation with Akbar Barakzai, a ‘Part-time Poet’ in Exile

‘The East and the West are slowly but steadily inching towards each other. Despite enormous odds “the twain” are destined to “meet” and be united to get rid of the geographical lines…’

Click here to read.

Poetry

  1. The Word: Click here to read
  2. Waiting for Godot: Click here to read
  3. The Law of Nature: Click here to read
  4. No: Click here to read
  5. Freedom: Click here to read
  6. Who can Snuff out the Sun: Click here to read
  7. For How Long: Click here to read
  8. Be & It All Came Into Being: Click here to read
  9. Mysteries of the Universe: Click here to read.
  10. Shorter Poems of Akbar Barakzai: Click here to read.
  11. We are All Human : Click here to read.

All his poetry has been translated by Fazal Baloch who has the rights to their translation.

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Poetry

Be And It All Came Into Being

Balochi poetry by Akbar Barakzai, translated by Fazal Baloch

Folio from an `Aja’ib al-Makhluqat (Wonders of Creation) of Qazwini (late 16th century).Courtesy: Creative Commons
Be and it All came into Being
(A Poem for Atta Shad*)

The heavens and the earth 
The moon and the sun 
Stars, galaxies and clouds
Space and spacelessness
Indeed the entire creation
God created all in just seven days 
All praise be to God!
 
On the seventh day 
Tired of hard labour 
He thought of heavenly delights
Of fair damsels and houries
Thus hurried to the garden of paradise 
All praise be to God!

’Tis not all His fault 
If unaware He is of worldly woes and worries 
Of the agony of love and longing
Of the harsh nights of hunger and famine
'Tis not his fault if He is unaware
Of the monsters of tyranny and suppression     
Ours is a world too far from Him
Let us not disturb Him in His heavenly abode
He must have other more important things on His mind
May the curse of Allah befall these blasphemous thoughts!
Indeed how would Akbar, a mere minion of God
Know His never ending mysteries!
A mere poet and wordsmith 
He seeks His forgiveness
All praise be to God!

*Atta Shad (1939-1997) is one of the most cherished modern Balochi poets.

Akbar Barakzai was born in Shikarpur, Sindh in 1939. He is ranked amongst the proponents of modern Balochi literature. His poetry reflects the objective realities of life. Love for motherland, peace and prosperity and dignity of a man are the recurrent themes of his poetry. His love for human dignity transcends all geographical and cultural frontiers. Barakzai is not a prolific poet. In a literary career which spans over half a century, Barakzai has brought out just two anthologies of poetry, Who can Kill the Sunand The Lamps of Heads, but his poetry has depth and reaches out to human hearts with its profundity. Last year, Barakzai rejected the Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL) award, quoting  the oppressive policies meted out to his region by the government as the reason.

Fazal Baloch is a Balochi writer and translator. He has translated many Balochi poems and short stories into English. His translations have been featured in Pakistani Literature published by Pakistan Academy of Letters and in the form of books and anthologies. Fazal Baloch has the translation rights to Barakzai’s works and is in the process of bringing them out as a book.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Poetry

The Law of Nature by Akbar Barakzai

Akbar Barakzai was born in Shikarpur, Sindh in 1938. He is ranked amongst the proponents of modern Balochi literature. His poetry reflects the objective realities of life. Love for motherland, peace and prosperity and dignity of a man are the recurrent themes of his poetry. His love for human dignity transcends all geographical and cultural frontiers. Barakzai is not a prolific poet. In a literary career which spans over half a century, Barakzai has brought out just two anthologies of poetry, Who can Kill the Sun and The Lamps of Heads, but his poetry has depth and reaches out to human hearts with its profundity. Last year, Barakzai rejected the Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL) award, quoting  the oppressive policies meted out to his region by the government as the reason.

The Law of Nature

(First Voice)

Come, you the riff-raff evildoer!
Hearken to what I utter

You are my slave 
I am your Master
You are homeless
At my feet are forts and palaces
You are homeless 
I’m the lord of power and puissance 
You are destitute and famished
I am rich and affluent

I am wise and prudent, you are brainless
I am the man of might, you are weak and frail
I'm the owner of large estates and orchards
Irksome is your existence in this world
I’m the master
You are my subject

Of faith and the divine book
Guidance I always seek
You are a wayward heretic
I am pure, you are filth
I am strong, you are meek

Have you ever pondered?
On the law of nature
Always subdued in the world
Are the weak and vulnerable 
A shark preys on little herrings
The lion hunts the ibex
Birds and locusts are the falcon’s prey

History bears witness
Always favours the fittest
Throne and crown,
Glory and pride. Discern! 
In rebellion
You’ll gather only humiliation
I am powerful, you are powerless
I am the master, you are the subject

(Second Voice)

Granted, you are the master
Proud, rich and affluent
I am miserable and poor, 
Pious jurists and clerics
Your companions and cohorts
I am but a sinner and transgressor

True you are the mighty overlord
I'm just a wretched slave
But listen you to me --
I’m also a man, a descendant of Adam
No matter how much you oppress me
I wouldn't accept your law of nature
A pretext of my subjugation
No matter how mighty you are
No matter how weak and frail I am.

Fazal Baloch is a Balochi writer and translator. He has translated many Balochi poems and short stories into English. His translations have been featured in Pakistani Literature published by Pakistan Academy of Letters and in the form of books and anthologies. Fazal Baloch has the translation rights to Barakzai’s works and is in the process of bringing them out as a book.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL