This summer literature-lovers and many others besides, celebrate the hundredth anniversary of two of the most famous poems ever penned in English and Bangla, "The Waste Land" by TS Eliot in English and "Bidrohi" by Kazi Nazrul Islam in Bangla. To commemorate this watershed point in literary history the Dhaka based "The Reading Circle" (TRC) had organized a Webinar last month in April. It was chaired by Professor Niaz Zaman. There were four speakers-two guests Professors Syed Manzoorul Islam and Ahmed Ahsanuzzaman, and two TRC members Sanjeeda Hossain and I. Our remarks were followed by a stimulating discussion , ably conducted by the chair.
The two poets, Eliot and Nazrul, had never met in person, but their writings had similar impact in stirring the minds and intellects of their respective adoring reading publics, linked by common bonds of history and similarity of values. This essay will attempt a brief survey of both the poets, and the poems.
There is something about spring in England that appeals to all of us. However, Eliot in his 'Waste Land" famously describes April as the "cruellest month"; perhaps because during that month the cityscape of his waste land lies barren, incapable of growth, productivity and renewal. While in the non-waste land the snow melts, the lilacs blossom, crops are sown, and love is in the air! It is that time of the Easter Egg, of fertility and fecundity!
Contemporary times of the Covid Pandemic and the Ukraine war reflect in many ways similar experiences as the two poets had undergone in their time through World War1 and the killer Spanish flu. In a hundred years the cycle of history seems to be repeating itself. Both were eras of destruction, desolation, and despair. Both in the years 1922 and 2022, political map of the world was being redrawn and society was being shaped by a myriad challenge. Eliot and his wife were both afflicted by the pandemic, and he penned parts of the poem during his convalescence.
In the Wasteland, he draws in a dizzying array of literal, musical, historical, and cultural allusions in order to present the terror, futility and alienation of modern life in the wake of the first world war. Eliot overlays his waste land with Dante's Inferno, which may be also relevant in our present context of global turmoil. For a possible way out of the quagmire of crises in the sterile and unsatisfying western civilization, Eliot turns to the spiritualism in the east. His intellectual predilections were manifested in his PhD thesis which was on the idealistic metaphysics of FH Bradley who had strong affinities with Indian philosophical sensibilities.
Unsurprisingly Waste Land' several sectional titles reflect Indian imagery. The Fire Sermon references a sermon of the same name by Buddha; Death by Water engages Indra's slaying of VRTRA to release the waters in Rigveda: What the Thunder Said references the eponymous episode from BRIHODARANYA UPANISHAD. I will confine my remarks to only What the Thunder Said. In a letter to Bertrand Russel, Eliot describes it as not only its best part but the part that justifies the whole. Here he seeks the rebirth of civilization by turning to the cultural values of the east, Hinduism, and Buddhism, as also as I can see living as I do in Singapore, the spirit of Taoism.
In the Upanishads, Brahma/Projapati urges his three creations -gods, mankind and demons -to practice the onomatopoeic "da-s", DAMYATO or restraint on the gods, DATTA or charity on mankind and DAYADVAN on the demons to be compassionate. Since man also combines the qualities of the other two, all three instructions are incumbent upon him. The final three repetitions of 'Shanti/Shanti/Shanti' might imply Eliot's way of saying that he has gone as far as words could take him. In the end there might be a mystical peace out there. But it is probably something that exists beyond human understanding. So, is there then, a non-western path to salvation? Perhaps we are not doomed? Perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel?
Even if Eliot and Nazrul never interacted with each other, they lived in the same world, the British empire. Ironically colonialism provided a kind of linkage, even though oftentimes unwanted by the colonial subjects, between the east and the west. Eliot was politically a conservative and not overly critical of imperialism. Nazrul, on the other hand, pined for the shackles of bondage to be shattered. In this Nazrul had more in common with the non-colonising Americans, Walt Whitman for instance. Some see shades of Whitman's "Pioneers! O Pioneers" in BIDROHI. But there was also empathy between Nazrul and Eliot in that both celebrated human creative powers. Nazrul was perhaps more forthcoming in the affirmation of the rebellion against all forms of oppression, and in the individual's capacity for heroically daring action: "...Ami bhogoban bukey eke debo mor podochinno".
One notes a similarity between him and his fellow Muslim South Asian Mohammed Iqbal. Interestingly, both Nazrul and Iqbal saw their heroes in the German and Turkish traditions respectively, both opponents of the British empire. Notice their commonalities. Iqbal influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche's Ubermenche or Superman, though his counterproposal was 'The Perfect Man", the Holy Prophet, says: Khudi ko kar buland etna ke har taqdir se pehle , Khuda bande se khud Puchhe Bata Teri Raza Kya Hai". Just as Nazrul glorifies the individual hero when he sings a paean of praise to ORE OI PAGLI MAYER DAMAL CHHELE KAMAL BHAI referencing the Ataturk, Mustafa Kamal Pasha.
So, literature is a mirror image of society, then as now. The panaceas to mankind's travails suggested by the finest poetic minds of a century ago remain as valid today as they were then. They provide us with a modicum of hope in our march along the inscrutable path of destiny, and hope is what sustains us in adversity, stimulates our faith in life, and inspires us to action!
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