A Hundred Years From Now

for Rabindranath Tagore


At the dawn of the 21st century

in this era of war and deaths

my soul seeks refuge in poetry

though no one writes like Wordsworth

or Keats because lakes have dried

and daffodils do not bloom to inspire

the poets—the sylvan vase no more

impresses them to find a seam

between truth and beauty

Once the world of innocence

the world Blake portrayed in his poetry

was the world readers would dream

to build—now experience fraught with

greed flares up all over

We have witnessed world wars

and read The Waste Land

still millions have taken the road

Frost declined to pass through

Now we write elegies for Aylan Kurdi

for thousands of other children too

We write poems on mass migration

on Syria, Palestine, Myanmar

on chilling Charlie Hebdo tragedy

and Manhattan massacre

or on Rana Plaza disaster

But what else should I take refuge in

if not poetry, if not the words

written for a world free from war

and violence and blood?

Sitting under a tree without leaves

by the bank of a river without water

near a field without grass

I see a young poet writing a new poem

after 100 years on tree, field, river

and flower in imagination—

imagination indeed creates poetry

From this heated globe

from the world of the dying

with this bleeding heart

I send my love to the young poet

my best wishes for a better world

Many things will be extinct after 100 years

Forms will transform

Even the deathless will be forgotten

but words will continue to live

Mohammad Shafiqul Islam Interview: “Rivers Lament”

mohammad-shafiqul-islamRead Mohammad Shafiqul Islam’s poem “Rivers Lament” from Reckoning 1.

Michael: We hear a little here in the US about Bangladesh’s low-lying areas being one of the most heavily populated places in the world under threat from rising sea levels, but not much comes through to us about it in the way of media reporting. What has been your experience of climate change so far? Do you see it affecting the people around you, your co-workers, and your students?

Shafiq: Bangladesh is proud of Bay of Bengal, the Sundarbans and hundreds of rivers flowing around the country. Bay of Bengal, the largest bay in the world, is situated on the southern part of Bangladesh bordering India and Sri Lanka. The Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world and a world heritage site declared by UNESCO, covers the northern part of the country. Bangladesh government has planned to set up the Rampal Power Station that is going to be a coal-fired power plant in Bagerhat, Khulna. Environmentalists, along with left-wing politicians and activists, are protesting against the power station, but the government reiterates that the station will not affect the Sundarbans.

With an area of 1,47,570 square kilometers, Bangladesh is well-known as a riverine country. There were once about seven hundred rivers in the country, but unfortunately, the number has declined. We are losing rivers because of the unrestrained greed of the land grabbers—small rivers in various districts of the country have disappeared. Besides, industry wastes land in rivers, which is why river water is becoming poisonous. The capital city, Dhaka, stands by the Buriganga, one of the important rivers in the country, but its clean water is now only a memory. It is true that low-lying areas of the country are submerged by flood every year and this affects human life severely. Climate change, a global phenomenon, also impacts the environment and life—comfortable weather conditions no longer resonate with the seasons here.

Michael: Could you tell me something about literature in Bangladesh? Who are your favorite authors, your influences as a poet? You’re a professor of English—what kinds of writing do you assign to your students? What do they like?

Shafiq: Bengali literature in general is rich in comparison with many other literatures of the world, whereas Bangladeshi Bengali literature in particular has also drawn attention of readers throughout the world. Translation of Bengali major works into English is taking them across borders and cultures. I should make it clear that the language of West Bengal, India, is also Bengali, and their literature is called Bengali literature. So Bengali literature by Bangladeshi writers and the same by West Bengal writers need to be addressed separately. Bengali literature made its mark across languages and cultures for Rabindranath Tagore who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913 for his seminal work Gitanjali (Song Offerings). Kazi Nazrul Islam, famously known as a ‘Rebel’ poet, is the national poet of Bangladesh. Famous poets and writers of Bengali literature include Jibanananda Das, Buddhadev Bose, Selina Hossain, Syed Shamsul Haq, Rudra Muhammad Shahidullah, Humayun Azad, Helal Hafiz, Hasan Azizul Haq, Shahid Qadri, Nirmalendu Goon, Mahadeb Saha, Humayun Ahmed, Taslima Nasrin, Imdadul Haq Milon, Mohammad Nurul Huda, Shaheen Akhtar, Syed Manzoorul Islam, Harishankar Jaladas, Nasreen Jahan, Mohit Ul Alam, Moinul Ahsan Saber, Audity Falguni and Pias Majid among others. Some of them are also being translated into English.

Bangladeshi English writing is an emerging field though very few writers including Razia Khan Amin started writing in English in 1970s. Bangladeshi English literature has drawn more global attention recently because of Dhaka Literary Festival (DLF) that takes place during November every year. Writers, poets, artists and performers from around the world gather at Bangla Academy premises to share and exchange culture and literature. Among the fiction writers, Thmima Anam, Zia Haider Rahman, Adib Khan, Monica Ali, Niaz Zaman, Mahmud Rahman, Rashid Askari, Kazi Anis Ahmed, Razia Sultana Khan, Jackie Kabir, Sharbari Z Ahmed, Abeer Hoque, Farah Ghuznavi and Shazia Omar are well-known—some of them are diaspora writers as well.

Kaiser Haq, the most prominent English language poet from Bangladesh, is known and studied across borders—he is the leading poetic voice of the country. Besides, a handful of poets including Azfar Hussain, Rubana Haq, Shamsad Mortuza, Ahsan Akbar, Sadaf Saaz, Mohammad Shafiqul Islam, Sabahat Jahan, Sayeeda T Ahmed, Nahid Kaiser and Shehzar M Doja, among others, write poetry in English.

Many works of Bengali literature, translated into English, are becoming part of world literature. Well-known translators including Fakrul Alam, Kaiser Haq, Niaz Zaman and Shabnam Nadiya, among others, have already translated a good number of books into English, and they have enjoyed warm reception. The notable works of translation include The Triumph of the Snake Goddess (Kaiser Haq, Harvard University Press, 2015), The Essential Tagore (Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty, 2011) and Bandhon Hara: Unfettered (Niaz Zaman, Nymphea Publication, 2012). Dhaka Translation Center promotes translation, and it has already published some wonderful books of Bengali literature in English translation—The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction (Comma Press, UK, and Bengal Lights Books, Dhaka, 2016) is one of its remarkable publications.

As an enthusiast of poetry, I try to read all kinds of poemst—classical, romantic, modern as well as contemporary. At present, I am doing a PhD on Nissim Ezekiel who is one of my favorite poets. To name my favorite authors is not easy at all—many poets and writers from various countries and languages have influenced me. Keats among the romantics and Eliot among the modernists are my favorites. I also like reading Baudelaire, Neruda, Derek Walcott, William Carlos Williams and many other contemporary poets. I like Kaiser Haq’s poems very much. Sudeep Sen is also a wonderful poet in the contemporary literary scene. Recently, I have read Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation and liked it very much.

I usually teach poetry—romantic, modern and contemporary. South Asian poetry in translation interests me as well.

Michael: “Rivers Lament” makes reference to some Anglophone literature—I love your use of Grendel as a representative of environmental destruction—but clearly also draws on your own sense of place. Do you write in English? Bengali? I’d love to hear how you think about combining those influences.

Shafiq: I have been inspired by many influential texts and great writers of English literature. When I find a relevant context, I try to bring some characters or subject matters as allusions into my writing. In the poem “Rivers Lament,” I used Grendel as a representative of environmental devastation—you are right. Those who grab riverbanks, grab land, destroy rivers, devastate nature and torture human beings illogically are modern Grendels. I feel disturbed when I see that our rivers are disappearing day by day, river water is turning poisonous and we are losing green to the greed of modern Grendels.

I write poetry in English and translate from Bengali into English. My debut book, Wings of Winds, is a collection of poems. An anthology of short stories in my translation, titled Humayun Ahmed: Selected Short Stories, appeared in 2016. My latest book is also a translation titled Aphorisms of Humayun Azad that is out in February 2017. I am now at work on my second collection of poetry and a translation project.

I have influences among both Bengali and English writers and poets. I use elements from my culture, literature, environment, and everyday incidents as raw material for my writing. I write in English, but the subject matter of my writing mostly comes from my culture. I learn craft by reading different texts from around the world meticulously.

Michael: Are there other writers in your community addressing environmental justice? Anyone you’d recommend I solicit for Reckoning?

Shafiq: Many poets and writers of Bengali literature address environmental justice, but it is difficult to name even a few who exclusively write on environmental justice. But I can refer to a poem by Kaiser Haq titled “Buriganga Blues,” which is from his latest poetry collection called Pariah and Other Poems. This poem reveals how the river Buriganga has lost its glory and how its water has turned poisonous—indiscriminate urbanization and people’s mindless activities are responsible for this kind of damage to environment and nature.

Michael: Thank you! There’s a lot here for me to dig into, I really appreciate it.

Shafiq: Thank you for this amazing publication! In this world of climate change and global warming, Reckoning, no doubt, plays an important part for environmental justice.


Rivers Lament

Rivers lament over why they were born, they

Question their existence, ask their maker if any

The rivers weep copious tears no one can see

For the loss irreparable. Clinically dead, they

Seem to wait for a time when news echoes in

The air: the wasteland returns. Cuckoos will

No more sing to declare the advent of spring

Deadly and ear-piercing cries of humans and

Animals will break stones. O agonized rivers

You don’t shout like human beings absolutely

Vacuum within! You’re calm like trees gifting

Nature with gentle breeze. Desperate and evil

Land grabbers ravage banks extending gluttony

To the rivers, eating out life, destroying beauty

And disturbing cadence like Grendel. The rivers

Had golden days with stream of water as a force

To create rhythmic sounds as if celestial music

And petite white flakes made many a shoal of

Small white fish swim, jump and fall in between

Giant boulders to have a flower nearby blossom

Rapidly and feast the eyes of travelers. Children

Would bathe in a group, young girls would swim

Together, farmers wash mud after plowing their

Fields to sow seeds for golden crops. Toxic water

In different colors spawns fetor making distance

Between humans and rivers—to touch water now

Is to catch incurable diseases! O rivers, you do not

Inundate fields to bring silt for healthier crops and

Bountiful harvests anymore! The soil has already

Begun to crack, trees stopped growing and a new

Form of epizootic is imminent. Ether couriers your

Valued missives: don’t kill water, let your life flow.



Read the interview with Mohammad Shafiqul Islam here.