In memoriam: Mahmud Hasan’s conatus

by T Zami | Published: 00:00, Dec 04,2020


T Zami writes on Mahmud Hasan (1987-2013), a poet, critic, and activist, who left the world a little too soon

The rays of sunlight seem lately to be reaching my soul again,

Stirring up life from its drowse,

Never have I seen an amazing spring as this — absent the sardonic swallow.

About myself I don’t know, but the subterranean pulsation and the springing forth of life

That I can sense deep down —

May I live to see it carried to fruition!

(Mahmud Hasan,

March 1, 2012, tr T Zami)


WRITING about a belated friend often involves all sorts of abuses: one makes wilful projections and mythification, appropriating and distorting the friend’s image into one’s favorite phantasm. Of course, all accounts are confabulations, but a certain sense of fidelity serves well.

Like many of us, Hasan was an unfitting jigsaw piece, probably a little more incongruous than others. Hasan enrolled in Dhaka University in 2005–06, a year before I did. Before I met him, I had heard stories of his exploits from common friends. When I talked to him, what I found striking was not only his quirkiness but also his enmeshment in everything that was in the air: philosophy, politics, and poetry.

Hasan wrote poems unencumbered by the stylistic innovations popularised by poets like Bratya Raisu, Subrata Augustine Gomes, Masud Khan and others. He wrote long prose pieces related to politics. His writings blended into his participation in an oral culture of critical-creative subjectivity that posited existence as by default political.

In navigating the intellectual morasses of Dhaka in the first decade of the second millennium, Hasan was derisively sceptical of big names, to whom, however, he would be drawn like a moth seduced by flames, or rather a flame seduced by its likes.

He interacted with the major social types of Dhaka intelligentsia: the university leftists, the authoritarian liberal nationalists and the inter-passive Islamocrats. Hasan would not only take their words with a pinch of salt, he often rubbed the salt into their wounds. This was an intelligentsia whose political affiliations were more sociological than political. Many of them went on to become bureaucrats, educational migrants, or various possible incarnations of the petty bourgeoisie of a fragmentary civil society submitted to a lumpen capitalism.

Hasan came from the mofussils and studied in philosophy while I was a business student brought up ‘like farm chicken’ in Dhaka. I was a secondary figure in campus addas presided over by Karl Mujib. Hasan would often walk by or sit around for a while, puffing a cigarette or two. He once taught us how to tuck in one’s shirts properly, but he lived as a self-critical bohemian.

Dhaka’s intellectual network was smaller at that time. Hasan visited the hospices of the few key public intellectuals, teeming with the aforesaid social types: university leftists, inter-passive Islamocrats, and autho-lib nationalists. He would indulge the bonfire of ideas hosted in intellectual addas. But being a poet somehow predisposed and enabled him to discern persons behind ideas. He would discern the affective-imaginary foundations underlying the elaborately rationalised symbolic structures of ideology – whether political or philosophical. The self-incongruence of established idols and camps would be put into sharp relief in the face of Hasan’s irritating, unsettling, anti-systematic attitude, which would often appear to amount to borderline cynicism. He would laugh off doctrinaire suggestions made by his interlocutors. Sometimes one’s philosophical personality is revealed most succinctly by a gesture or an idiosyncracy. Hasan would reveal himself in his laughter: corrosively dismissive yet heartily accommodating. He was not free from suggestibility, but he could not be trusted with a precept or a label. He was an empiricist who would appropriate experience into the space of philosophy through metaphors coming out of lived experience. This isolated him from the loose groupings. He navigated the margins, and to the margins would he be consigned with his antinomian life. He courted defilement: for he was a true rinda, or heretical lover. I did not like his cynicism, but I admired his involuted openness.

Hasan’s ancestral home was Netrakona, but his parents were based in Khagrachari. The poet, thus, had a firsthand experience of the Bengali-Pahari relations in the Chattogram Hill Tracts. Soon after his admission to the university, the country faced a deep political crisis as the two main parties clashed over the terms and conditions of participation in a supposedly pluralist democratic system. Things came to a head in 2006–2007 and to a military-led caretaker government in power. In August 2007, there was a movement by students against the new dispensation. This brief movement left a deep imprint in Hasan’s mind. If he had 10 determined activists with him, he once boasted wryly, he could bring about a revolution.

Marginal though he was, Hasan loosely maintained a vast network of acquaintances and a few friends. I was not a close friend. Hasan did not like me much and there were clear differences in ideas, yet he would sometimes talk to me. He indulged my naiveté, but his rhetoric would make me speechless. As the years went by, we passed out of the university. Some friends lined up to emigrate and a few of us got busy with jobs, with occasional moonlight activism and intellectual engagements. Hasan didn’t settle into a proper job. He published a poetry book anthologising his own poems along with those of six young poets. Slowly but steadily he was drowning into a sense of irredeemable loneliness. In early 2012, he decided to bring out a journal and asked me to translate articles for it, which I did. He also organised one or more seminars on contemporary issues. I could not join a seminar as I got locked into unpreannounced official assignments, Hasan took offence. I apologised and tried to make it up. Things, however, were not going well in Hasan’s life as he was trying to grapple with existential crisis. In September that year, he shared with me a draft of a small booklet authored by him titled ‘The Utopia of a Student Moment: August Insurrection 2007’. That was last I heard from him. In early 2013, Mahmud Hasan made his final departure, just a few weeks before the Shahbagh movement.

Even suicide requires a strong conatus, wilfulness and indifference to pain, which is probably the reason many euthanasia-enthusiasts cannot just get it done away with, so demoralised and passively dominated are they by the endlessly accumulating moments of existence. The death of a friend moves the coordinates, because all that we learn and think are part of a conversation and contest with friends. The experiences that I gather, pleasure and pain that I suffer all get registered in the shared mind space of a friendship, even after the departure of some of its occupants. This is the fundamental interpassivity of friendship, although I was never much of a friend for him.

It is often easier to write an obituary for a friend once they are dead than to reach out to them when still alive. Easier still is to keep silent. The necro-culture of Dhaka is such that creative geniuses — long buried from visibility — are hauled back to publicity only upon their passing. If Mahmud Hasan had been alive, chances were high that he would have burst out into laughter reading the obituaries — or silence — by his friends and acquaintances.

Some of his friends are now working to bring out a collection of his unpublished Bangla poems. The poet Naseef Amin translated Hasan’s last poem into English. I will quote the translated poem in its entirety:

Reaching out for eternity brings the horror of demise

Owls across the horizon obscure the shift of day and night

They hold no eagerness for gobbling rats

Merely spread out shadows of Milky Way into my head

And they want to lose me… lose me into the Milky Way

I, too, want to lose them keeping mind upon their minds

Don’t want to dredge any flow

If it flows unceasing…

In my way there’s neither light of stars

Nor they finely appear.

Sun is one and they are many

Rather than being loud, no words come out of me.

Now being amazed, I walk silent

Down to the Milky Way made by owls

And being cocooned into the cuddle of stars

I want to hold the emptiness

All within my hands…

(Mahmud Hasan, ‘Horror of demise in eternity’, tr by Naseef Amin)

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