A prolific poet and writer with feel-good verses and children stories occupying a major portion of his life’s work, Asad Chowdhury candidly converse with Emran Hossain of New Age sharing his views on politics and art while coursing through some of the decisive moments of his life since childhood
Speaking without fear
Asad Chowdhury, one of the major poets of contemporary Bangladesh, for his buoyant attitude towards life and a cheerful style of writing, has always been considered a personification of optimism.
You’d hear the echo of the future / In life, in dream, in memory — these two lines from his poem Perspiring, testify to Asad’s tryst with the future where no dark shadow looms, no speck of disbelief intervenes. But, things have come to such pass that the aging poet feels an irresistible urge these days to talk about the ‘state of politics’.
At 75, the litterateur who penned more than 80 books including poems, stories and translations, find people around the globe faced with the hardest ever challenge to live a ‘dignified life’ as politics, to sum up in short, has failed them.
Sitting by the window of the tiny drawing room at his Kalyanpur house on October 28, the poet said that he could feel the decay in his aging body and that it was high time he spoke out loud about issues that mattered to him.
To start the conversation, Asad referred to his favourite writer Thomas Mann who said, ‘Politics controls everything. The fate of human being is at the hands of politicians.’
‘In my life all I cared about as a writer was human dignity which I find at stake all over the world,’ said Asad.
Referring to Rohingyas, Asad said, politicians have failed everyone. Even the peace-loving Buddhists have reduced themselves to a mere crowd of marauders over the years. ‘I take pity on Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Even she failed to deliver like any other of her peers,’ said Asad.
‘All of this is happening because of infiltration of non-political personalities in politics around the globe,’ feels Asad. He could not help but worry over the rise of figures like Donald Trump in world politics which signals a new era of businessmen taking over real politicians. And the same is happening in Bangladesh.
‘When people of other professions come to politics the first thing they do is pick on popular issues like religion and sex to win public support,’ said Asad.
‘The next thing they do is take every opportunity to keep people divided, cultivating hatred to stick to power,’ said Asad.
The situation is no different in Bangladesh which is well reflected in the rapid rise of communalism in the country, just like any other part in the world, he said.
Here in Bangladesh democratic institutions are falling apart with the government becoming increasingly harsh while dealing with its critics and passing laws to limit freedom of expression, said Asad.
‘This is very strange to watch only journalists opposing the controversial Digital Security Act, though it is no less dangerous for writers as well,’ he said.
‘For instance,’ Asad said mockingly, ‘If Jibananda Das was alive he could not have penned his famous poem “Hajar Bochhor Dhore” with Digital Security Act in force.’ The poem could have been accused of making false claim that someone could walk the earth for a thousand years, Asad sarcastically argued.
A poet who also worked as a journalist at different stages in his life, Asad sees division among journalists as a sign of the fall of the most powerful institution in a democracy — Press.
‘Journalists are divided and are participating in the race to show their allegiance to individual politicians. This is rather unfortunate,’ said Asad.
To the poet, it seems that politicians in Bangladesh have ceased caring about people and are concerned only about two things: Assuming power and sticking to it forever once there.
‘They all are blinded by power,’ feels Asad.
But not long ago there was a time when politicians took a great deal of interest in what was on the mind of an artist to better understand contemporary crises in human life.
For instance, he said, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was a great admirer of painting.
Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani embraced Shah Abdul Karim during Kagmari conference in Tangail in 1957, just to recognise the role he was playing in building the society, long before the Bauls came to the notice of popular media, said Asad.
‘Nowadays you won’t be able to single out someone among contemporary politicians taking an interest in the affairs of art and culture,’ said Asad.
But never before the necessity of getting people in touch with art and culture was felt greater than now as fundamentalists raise their ugly heads in every sphere of society, said the poet.
Of childhood and creativity
‘A piece of art, be that a painting or music or even a story or a poem, inspire people to think, go deep into a subject to comprehend it,’ said Asad.
It is from this realisation that Asad decided to write more for children so that they grew up developing a habit of reading.
More than half of his work is meant for children, including stories, poems, biographies and translations. He translated folk tales of Nepal, Bhutan, India and Pakistan, among other countries.
Folk tales are interesting in the sense that they deal with crises in ways that connect people across cultures by way of emphasising a value or a basic human emotion, said Asad.
Asad recalled a 1998 incident in which his son took an overnight drive in the USA to buy a newly released book by J K Rowling for his granddaughter. Asad could not stand the temptation of joining them. He loved reading the book and ended up reading more works by the writer.
‘It is not great literature. But its magical world pulls readers into its fold. It is about getting kids to read,’ said Asad. He still remembers the excitement that kept flashing on the faces of his son and granddaughter on the trip to buy the JK Rowling book.
Asad has also been an eclectic reader. He developed the habit of reading at an early age. He was a student of class VII when he had gone to a stationery shop for buying the first book in his life. He bought Alice in Wonderland for only 14 ana.
He read a lot of cartoons too. The famous cartoon series titled ‘the legend of Tarzan’ was one of his favourites.
Still a school student, Asad started translating as he read cartoons and folk tales.
Though born into a zaminder family at Ulaniya in Barishal, Asad never got carried away by the attention his social status won him among general people. It was at a very early age when he learned that human being should never be neglected, neither their dignity should ever be hurt.
‘We were brought up in a way that we did not mind sharing bed even with our domestic help,’ Asad said.
Asad’s parents Mohammad Arif Chowdhury and Syeda Mahmuda Begum were in fact preparing their son and two daughters Akter Jahan Begum and Mukta Jahan Begum to accept the economic and social changes taking place in contemporary society.
Asad was born in 1943, just about a decade before Zamindary was revoked in 1956, nine years after the partition of India in 1947.
Though still respected by people, the family already became well aware of the fact that the days of Zaminders were gone. It was in the next 20 years that Asad’s father sold a part of the family’s estate and donated the rest to settle down in Dhaka permanently.
However, Asad was still a child to grasp the meaning of what was happening around. He was busy living every moments of his childhood, thereby making beautiful memories for him to look back in awe in his later life.
In those days, Asad, his sisters and one of their uncles were a team staging dramas every now and then before an audience of relatives. They would bring together cots to make a stage out of them to perform their play, without caring for sound, light and even a script.
‘We improvised,’ remembered Asad.
Sometimes, his father would come and join, though mostly to the chagrin of his co-performers. Defying his brother-in-law’s consistent objections, he would walk in on the stage to perform.
‘It won’t be very difficult for my father to find the right moment in which to appear on the stage. He was a gifted musician and always found the right moment to appear with one of his songs,’ said Asad.
Asad has regrets about not preserving the songs composed by his father.
Another one of his great childhood memories centres on a radio. ‘It was a big deal to have a radio back in 1947,’ said Asad.
He remembered local police visiting their house from time to time to learn about special national announcements.
A passage through time
One thing Asad find remarkable about his birthplace is the harmony in which people of different religions lived there.
‘There was no hatred among people. Hindus and Muslims lived in complete harmony,’ said Asad.
‘We never heard about a riot breaking out between Hindus and Muslims,’ said Asad.
The people of the area had their first taste of violence during the liberation war in 1971, when Pakistan army killed three to four shopkeepers in Mehendiganj, he said.
Asad completed his secondary school certificate from Ulania high school in 1957. He obtained his higher secondary certificate from Barishal Brojomohun college in 1960.
Then he got admission at Dhaka University to study Bengali language and literature. He completed his masters in 1964.
It was during university days that Asad came across personalities like Rafiq Azad, Abdul Mannan Syed and Akhteruzzaman Elias who would soon turn out to be great writers in Bengali literature.
Asad always enjoyed staying in touch with the writers. They even opened a fund for saving a fixed amount every month to self-publish their works.
‘To become a writer was the last thing on my mind. I loved the work of my friends and tried to stand by them,’ said Asad.
Still, a fresh university student, Asad penned his first poem which was to be published in Sangbad in 1961. The poem titled ‘Itihasher Arek Nayok’, commemorated the demise of Patrice Émery Lumumba, Congolese independence leader.
Asad wrote the poem at the request of Azad Sultan, the owner of a famous library in Barishal. ‘I was excited to have the poem published, but never thought I would continue writing,’ said Asad.
He rather liked teaching and joined Brahmanbaria Government College as a lecturer immediately after completing his masters. He taught without a break until the war of liberation broke out in 1971.
When the war broke out, Asad travelled to Kolkata to join Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, the war-time radio station of Bangladesh government. He also worked for Joy Bangla, a weekly published by Awami League, from Kolkata.
For every recitation he was paid Tk 30 and Tk 200 a month for working with the weekly.
‘It was a lot of money for me,’ Asad recalled.
‘At that time I became aware of the power of my voice,’ said Asad who would become a prominent TV anchor in independent Bangladesh much later.
Asad became so popular for his recitations that he would soon come to be known by his name not only among general people but also among the likes of Bishnu Dey and Subhash Mukhopadhyay, the celebrity poets of West Bengal, India.
After the war was over, he returned to teaching and married in 1972.
His son was born the next year. Asad had only Tk 10 in pocket at the time. That day for the first time in many years ever since he started smoking, Asad did not have enough money to buy a cigarette.
Reality dawned on him. In his word, ‘It was thrust upon my face. And I decided to move to the capital Dhaka for a better job,’ said Asad.
With the help of veteran journalist Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury, who happened to be a relative of him, Asad joined Janapad, a newspaper in 1973, setting off his career as a writer. He also worked for Deutsche Welle in Germany for three years from 1985.
Asad published his first book of poems, Tabak Deya Pan, in 1975.
Asad left journalism in the 1980s to join Bangla Academy. He retired as director of the academy.
He said that the rapidly growing economy of the country promises great prospects for creative arts, especially for translation literature. He referred to the effort the government to popularise works of national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam in China.
‘The government will seek to brighten its image more than ever before as it gets richer,’ said Asad.
‘It is only obvious that literary translations will get a lot of attention in the days to come. A new horizon of opportunities is opening up for creative art practitioners,’ he added.
Looking back with humility
Asad won numerous awards, including Ekushey Padak and Bangla Academy literary award, for his work. His notable works include poems Bitto Nai Besat Nai (1976), Ekka Dokka (1980), Joler Madhye Lekhajokha (1982), Je Pare Paruk (1983), Modhya Math Theke (1984), Megher Julum Pakhir Julum (1987), Nadio Bibastro Hoi (1992), Premer Kabita (1992), Garbo Amar Anek Kichur (1994), Tan Bhalobasher Kabita (1996), Batash Jemon Parichito (1998), Brishtir Sangsare Ami Keu Noi (1998), Kichu Phool Ami Niviye Diechi (2003) and Prem o Prakritir Kobita (2003).
But for a man of deep humility like Asad Chowdhury, the long list of selected poems is nothing much to take pride in. He even refuses to call himself a poet. He finds his ideal of poet in Jibananda Das, the poet who possessed rare ability to contain world history and politics in his poems.
His list of great Bengali poets of the country includes Helal Hafiz, Nirmalendu Goon and Al Mahmud.
‘I can tell you that I am no writer. I am trying my heart and soul to become one,’ said Asad.
‘I believe if I keep trying someday I will be able to write something good,’ said Asad, as he spoke in his unique way as if he was drawing every word he was uttering from the bottom of his heart.
Cover photo and another photo by Abdullah Apu