“Cast a cold eye/ On life on death/ Horseman, pass by/,” wrote W. B. Yeats in his own epitaph. The inscribed words are the last bit of his poem Under Ben Bulben, which later became and is still becoming the philosophy of life of many of his devotees. I don’t know if the Irish poet was or not an influence on our recently deceased poet Belal Chowdhury (1938-2018). However, I am, pretty sure that the latter was the strong silent type and did never make a parade of his literary talent, remained unsung and passed away rather silently. He was a self-proclaimed solitary man as evidenced by his own verses that occur in his poem ‘Self identity’. “…suddenly did I realize: in this twentieth century I’m a helpless/A solitary man.”[Trans. added] A deep sense of alienation is manifest in the good poet’s self-realization which is, however, a key characteristic of many of legends and luminaries dead or alive.
Poet Belal Chowdhury had a fairly good innings of 80 overs (1938-2018). Gravitating to Calcutta in the early 1960s, he took to writing poetry, essays and research articles in close association with the great Kolkata literary masters like Shakti Chattopadhyay, Sunil Gangopadhyay and Kamal Kumar Majumdar. Belal Chowdhury had established a close rapport with the 1960s Kolkata-based writers of the generation called ‘Hungry Generation’, also known as the ‘Hungryalist Quartet’ led by Shakti Chattopadhyay, Malay Roy Choudhury, Samir Roychoudhury and Debi Roy alias Haradhon Dhar. Believers in, sort of, an avant garde literati and cultural movement, the Hungryalists stood against the contemporary clichéd ideas and preconceived colonial canons of literary pursuits and proposed a new kind of style especially in the language and idiom of their poetry. This counter discourse initiated by the poets and painters of the Hungry Generation can be considered as the herald of the postcolonial awakening in the subcontinent. Poet Belal Chowdhury was left with a mixed feeling about the Hungryalist Generation. Although he did not directly support that newfangled movement and considered it or the likes somewhat unsuitable for Bangladeshi poetry, he was always of the opinion that there should be change and reform in Bengali poetry especially in its form and language. However, it can be quite arguably presumed that the Hungryalist Movement had a sneaking influence on Poet Belal Chowdhury and he measured the popularity of Shakti Chattopadhyay as an outcome of the movement. However, it is evident that Kolkata in the 1960s---the bustling metropolis, the bibliophile’s paradise- College Street, the lively rendezvous-Coffee House, the tranquility of the Ceoratola Crematorium, the flat expanses of Gorer Math and, above all, the enjoyable company of friends like Shakti Chattopadhyay and Sunil Gangopadhyay have exerted a tremendous influence on the subconscious of Poet Belal Chowdhury. The 18th century Genevan philosopher and writer J. J. Rousseau, whose political philosophy revolutionized the process of Enlightenment across entire Europe and paved the way for the French Revolution, sought happiness in solitude, walking in nature, botanizing and meditation. The account of his ideas arising from his past reminiscences and reflections found expression in his last great work Reveries of the Solitary Walker, and became an eternal source of his achieving self-knowledge. Poet Belal Chowdhury, however, did not welcome isolation voluntarily, but was a victim of circumstance. He did not invite self-exile like Rousseau, but was compelled to “ … pretend to be self-exiled, put up my hands to declare myself homeless/ Whereas I was born in these infamous villages/ Ancestors were ploughmen/ Now I’m a townie by deception/ How long I’d mistake myself for my own eyes?”[Atmaprakriti, trans. added]. Whatever it is, there is no denying the fact that his literary sojourn in Kolkata provided a solid foundation for his poetic career that extended over the rest of his life. On his return to Bangladesh in 1974, he began writing poetry in a trendsetting style to suit it to the spirit of the newborn country. He had always been working as an activist of the progressive cultural movements to ward off the social and cultural evils.
Belal Chowdhury’s literary works number more than 50 and include poetry, essays, translation, editing and juvenile literature. Ballal Sen, Mayur Bahan, Sabuktagin were his pen names. Among his poems, Nishad Pradeshe, Atmaprakriti, Sthir Jibon o Nisharga, Jolbishuber Purnima, Shelai Kora Chhaya, Kobitar Komolbone, Battrish Number, Bidaiyee Chumuk are worthy of note. Alongside writing poetry, he translated the works of great masters like Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Dylan Thomas, Octavio Paz.
Poet Belal Chowdhury was an original poet par excellence. He was a complete individualistic in his writing. He tried to stand out of the literary crowd of his country. The craving for popularity never prompted him to write trash to titillate the taste of the teeming folks. He never tried to win praises either from the readers or the critics by writing so-called love or rebellion poems or catchy slogan-ridden verses like many of his generation.
Belal Chowdhury was both a socialist and a nationalist in the good sense of the terms. He had a tremendous love and passion for his motherland, our dearly bought Bangladesh. He was a devotee of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Bengali nationalism. That Bangabandhu’s residence 32 Dhanmondi is the centre which guided the course of the history of Bangladesh Independence finds a beautiful expression in his poem titled ‘Number 32’. To quote: “To find out the history of the Bengali and Bangladesh/ You’ve to go to Number 32/To see the saga of glories of Bangladesh and the Bengali / You’ve to go to Number 32/ To know the foundation history of Bangladesh and the Bengali you’ve to turn page at 32/ Also to see the sign of stigma of Bangladesh and the Bengali you’ve to go to Number 32;/ 32 is not only a mere house number, nor a mere symbolic number/ The house isn’t limited only to the numerical entity/…”. [Trans. added] Belal Chowdhury’s Number 32 is the history of a nation distilled into a few verses. It expresses the poet’s social, political and history consciousness and his allegiance to his homeland. If you want to dig deep into the hard facts about the social and cultural existence of Bangladesh, you can source them from Belal Chowdhury’s writing. He tried to release his patriotic and humanitarian feelings through his writing which at the end of the day turns into sort of a cathartic experience.
Poet Belal Chowdhury is not a much talked about poet in the Bengali language, nor is he a popular one in the prevalent sense of the term, and hence his poetry too, has not been appreciated/explored in right earnest. However, his poetry has literary viability. Given its worth, his poetry has become a must-read in the literary circle for both the professionals and amateurs. His poetry would sure hint at newer aspects of our socio-political and cultural heritage of Bangladesh and may lead us to the pursuit of a postcolonial identity, which is a pressing need of time. The poet’s bohemian existence, his checkered past, his tumultuous Kolkata days, his profound sense of Bangladesh history and independence and his far-reaching secular vision manifest in his writing/poetry are revealing subjects of study for now and always.
Dr. Rashid Askari is a writer, fictionist, columnist and vice chancellor of Islamic University, Bangladesh. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org