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  • Kirtinasha : Mohammad Rafiq
    translated from Bengali to English by Carolyn B. Brown







    A
    at the river's edge ambushing
    shadows huddle in the mud
    rasping breaths echo in the dusk
    it's only evening, not doomsday

    mutterings boil up and burst
    over the land, grumblings gather
    and scatter—it's not
    the flood, only the turning tide

    the air cracks, then shatters
    ayai, it's the end—the wind shrieks
    and whips the night—it's only
    the riverbank plunging, not the deluge

    surging spurting spilling
    it's only water, not poison





    B
    ho now, Beguni! your lover's coming tonight
    so comb your hair, coil your braids high
    hush, Kirtinasha's rising, racing, drenched in desire
    under the last full moon in this season of sighs

    Damodar, the wind's husky voice is sweet tonight
    hope's phantoms rock the tethered boat
    water kisses it, night clasps its planks
    seeking sleep's secret in the dripping rain

    foamy waves whirl wildly over rippling arms
    soaked ribs quiver in the rampaging wind
    ho now, Beguni! never mind your scented clothes
    no tired feet, no darkened doorways, forget them tonight

    tomorrow Kirtinasha will ebb and flow as always
    tonight is different, Damodar, tonight's call is different





    C
    brine-encrusted wall . . . snake drooping over a beam
    dusk approaches with a sigh . . . scraps of crumpled paper
    scuttle across the floor . . . a window has blown open
    the chill wind sweeps in whooping and wailing

    grit scatters over a grimy body with spine-tingling
    scratches and scrapes, covering it from head to toe
    a half-empty barley tin lies close by, an open
    bottle of medicine . . . a bat, just one, frightened

    wings flapping, follows the trail of fading light
    heavy-lidded eyes open wide, straining to see
    the end, its face, its shadow, though the man knows
    he's alone . . . no one's been there for days

    now even that dim awareness dissolves . . . it's night
    a drift of dust shifts without warning, burying
    the trickle of painful memories . . . eyes glaze
    a lizard clacks loudly, the only witness





    D
    water slaps the waning moon—I'm going, it cries
    in the hyacinth-drugged fog, a dinghy strains
    at its tether and shudders, awakened
    from oblivion by hissing waves, grumbling tide

    the shocked moon shivers in the churning water
    across the muddy sandbank shadows creep
    slowly uncurling scrawny black fingers
    sleeping rice stalks startle and quake

    the moon lingers, flickering, nearly consumed
    a boatman coughs and stretches, tamps his hookah
    splashes his face on the echoing shore
    a snapping turtle floats idly, biding its time

    the tide crests—it cares for nothing
    the moon shatters in its wake—goodbye, goodbye





    E
    so, you've taken my son, my husband, my only daughter
    what more can you do? go ahead, take me too
    it's the season when weeping bokul buds litter the ground
    this morning they make me think of death

    others are sure to cheat me—they'll take everything that's left
    last night, bats' shadows whirred for hours
    over the moon-glazed marshes, across
    the thick-planted paddy stretched under the stars

    look at the flower-flocked kamini—I planted it myself
    now, under this cloudburst of blossoming memories,
    a cobra digs down in its burrow—whatever I touch
    breaks in my hands—I was widowed at seventeen

    I've spent my life smelling scorched flowers, chameli burnt
    by the harsh sun—it's late, with so many chores undone
    water to fetch, fresh straw for the cow
    bless you, baba, won't you take a bit of sweet?





    F
    can anything stop this ceaseless soaking? Kirtinasha
    will these floods never end? the clouds, the rains?
    water streams from your hair, pours down your back
    chill shafts of rain pierce your shivering skin

    tonight, crocodile after sex-starved crocodile will lock
    limbs on the banks and devour each other with desire
    tonight, wave after wave of fish will break ranks
    and go marauding downstream, insatiable, insane

    can anything stop this boundless burning? Kirtinasha
    will these droughts never end? the sickness, the dying?
    a torn sari clings to your body, tattered waves cover your chest
    the sun's thirsty eyes burn mad and cruel

    can anything stop this gnawing pain? Kirtinasha
    someone will tear up this black body and eat it too





    G
    looking and listening—loving, looking and listening for so long—watching
    mouths on grass blades, breasts on blossoms, weary arms on oars; at the end
    of autumn bleached reeds rustle by the wrinkled water; crystal-clear
    eyes travel from light to black light, then track by scent in utter darkness
    twinned stars blink in the evening sky; teal call out, shadows fly below
    shivering wind, cowering fields, fleeing light, darkness, night

    murky reflections float, muffled tears pock the waves
    night birds shift their perches, fresh fears feed on each other
    clouds drift across the sky like lines torn from a poem, some raindrops fall
    clouds swallow clouds, light trades places with darkness, its dead light
    dawn taps on the window, the blushing sun tiptoes in; bhuichapa open
    their petalled eyes, laughing without laughter, breathing without breath

    mute gazes, dazed smiles, stinking shroud, a last dying look—it's wrong
    to hedge when clouds stream tears—or to leap to conclusions





    H
    day is done, Pranabandhu, and you're still silent
    cracked voice, moss-shrouded brittle bones
    spiritless salt-pitted tongue

    shiulis drop their petals in the sun's first light
    the river rises, banging its head on every bend
    its face will get stuck in the sand one day

    whatever men have, they always want more
    an unheard refrain echoes in the decaying storeroom
    bugs go on gnawing, roaches spread their dirt

    the sharp tang of childhood sours the rest of life
    six in the morning, a distant steamer shrieks
    at Nilgonj the empty docks shudder

    a mother's warm kiss, the rocked cradle's whisper
    stones strike a secret hornets' nest
    jets of venom spurt, the body goes numb

    boatmen dip their oars, float their longings on the tide
    by the threshold two shandhyamoni stems shiver
    wanderers are heartless, they break their promises





    I
    neither duck, mynah, nor dove
    it's a crow, a scrawny black crow
    an angry midday sun scorches the green paddy
    Kirtinasha boils dry like a sputtering kettle
    from border to border, fire fire, they cry

    neither parakeet, sparrow, nor pigeon
    it's a crow, a raucous dirty crow
    the wind's hot breath scatters parched red dust
    thorny thickets crackle like a blazing oven
    across the exhausted land, doom doom, they groan

    neither beast, songbird, nor human
    it's a crow, a scrawny black crow
    kindled by the Choitro sun, wholly devoted to hunger
    it tears chunks of rotting flesh from bones
    helping itself to sun-broiled eyes, melting brains





    J
    the girl, she's just sixteen, exposes herself lewdly
    hair spills down her back in wild waves
    neither science's sharpest lens nor philosophy's
    yellowest page will ever offer the slightest reason

    though she spouts senseless syllables, eyes ablaze
    no one's hot, probing hands have kindled or scorched her
    never in her short life has she been tossed back
    and forth between false kindness and dark desire

    not a single boat's oar has been lured off-course by her scent
    not one cobra has coiled itself around the frame of her cot
    no dire messages have ever struck her like a clap of thunder
    breasts bared, head banging between splayed legs in shame

    she gasps for breath between tirades of cryptic threats
    after days and nights of endless waiting, the tension
    breaks under a phantasmal monsoon moon
    she's learned the truth: the reign of madness, primal pain





    K
    At twilight crickets scrape out their complaint
    bodiless forms steal past fences, through doors

    a jarul stands stiffly between two jambu
    stunned by nightmares of a vagabond moon

    a flower's fragrance drills secret holes
    rotting pondweeds poison the wind

    this night's the last, if the tales are true
    a woman with tangled hair stamps her feet

    the tide tugs unseen on the village dock
    intentions all crumble—no reason to fuss

    passions flood the besotted sky
    roots are yanked up from underground

    screams fly into the dizzied light
    a cobra's hood flares in someone's dream

    this life's the last, if these lines are true
    yelping foxes rip into the night

    wasps sip moonbeams in a daze
    solitude feeds their malevolence





    L
    why's the dog barking? oh bou, have you fallen asleep?
    what sort of behavior is this? my son stays out late
    night after night, Kalu's fourth oldest got spooked
    coming home last night, he's been running a fever ever since

    beat it, that black cat, now the dog's going
    to make a ruckus . . . come and eat, bou
    that precious son of mine, Rahim's bhabhi has bewitched him
    what sort of spell is this erasing every thought of home

    get the lantern, it's time to add a bit of oil,
    well, baba was always half-drunk or drugged too
    liquor, dope, or women, whatever he could get
    while I wept all night, the child on my lap

    fallen asleep, oh bou bou, and all this food to cover up
    here's that nasty tomcat, trouble always comes in pairs





    M
    Khaleq
    not the slightest sign the cow will get better
    medicine
    it's a total waste to spend two twenty-takas on that stuff
    frogs
    jump in the rice pot hungry belly aching joints chilies forty
    son
    gone to the city to be a man about town six months no news
    whore
    will give birth again no end to brambles and weeds
    suddenly
    thatch on the west side strains to fly off the roof in a squall
    Khaleq
    clouds grumble over the ink black sky every year





    N
    drawn on the walls of an ancient cave, an incredible gallery
    of faces in contorted poses, winking eyes, signaling hands
    hunter's raised spear, prey scampering away
    half-eaten goat in a hyena-god's mouth
    tall black woman filling her belly with the sun's shadow
    half-naked shadow phantoms leaping in a primitive dance
    mossy letters etched on the damp cave walls
    tales of what might have been but perhaps never was
    some customs that could have come close
    straightforward solutions from a science of simple magic
    clever Lazarus breaks out of his stone-hewn grave and rises up
    flowery garlands sway and lamps blaze again in Behula's chamber
    grotesque expressions and suggestive gazes
    illegible scribbles completely impossible to decipher





    O
    Kirtinasha has borne muddy water all through the rainy day
    leaving his hilsa net on the deck, Nibaron heads for a hut
    at the market to get drunk on rice wine

    the black day blusters, carrying personal grudges
    windswept thatch stalks half-drowned in the water
    Asarh's demented clouds tug at flying hair

    bewildered, completely unprepared, a strange bird
    and two white cranes cower on the far bank
    water, surging fiercely, crashes down in harsh reproof

    quick as an arrow, a long shaft of fire splits a fan-palm
    just-planted paddy begs forgiveness on bended knee
    the unprotected boat rocks improbably

    Nibaron keels over and wallows in the muddy market
    in the rampage weaver birds' nests have fallen
    from date palm fronds into the muck, eggs and all

    muddled wave-slapped bubbles burst—salt water
    shoals of timid puti scatter every which way
    chased by foul weather with no reason or mercy

    seized by the east wind, Asarh's black storm clouds
    race onward, the whole river thrashes and groans
    on such unruly days all accounts should be settled





    P
    faces float random and unfamiliar—or are they?—
    peering into mucky corners through broken bars
    strange obscene stench    bloated chameleon corpses
    small shy breasts    twitch of a sultry sari

    winter-wracked wind    smear of dusk's sweaty palm
    stray shadows in flight    familiar insinuating sneer
    shards of decaying eyesight    bleary tangle of grays
    brush of innocent lips    curses flowering from a glance

    faint footsteps from long ago cross a worn threshold
    pause at the bare boards—and scuttle away
    dingy sweat-soured quilt    dank devouring gloom
    a cot's wooden clasp    thrashing of burdened blood

    wolf packs in a frenzy    crazed coupling of mongeese
    one last strangled cry    the oil lamp sputters out





    Q
    he died last night—or some night past
    not enough sandalwood to ignite the pyre
    the oil, the rituals, feeding the guests
    prices keep rising, business is bad

    he died yesterday—or the day before
    epidemics spread from village to town—fever, cholera, pox
    starvation—bugs burrow through the rice, swarming locusts
    darken the sky—Sadagar's crushed, the granary sits empty

    he died, but when? yesterday! what difference does it make
    the body's already stinking, vultures and gulls have plucked
    the eyes from their sockets—all that remains are gaping holes
    bit by bit the carcass drops from the raft into the water

    Behula's dream crumbles with each slapping wave
    you bring no hope, no end—you're only the river





    R
    “Did you know, son, that every single Friday when I was growing up
    my mother would sweep the courtyard, scrub the verandah,
    and smear dung on the walls—this high and this thick?
    She kept it all spotless, did you know that, son?
    You're a man now, but you still act like a child.
    Don't tell me what day it is—it's Monday. How many days
    without news from my brothers, no letters, not even a little note?
    How many years—it's almost fifty—without a visit?”
    “What are you saying? A letter came from uncle just yesterday.”
    “I suffer for everyone, son. See, my heart aches all day,
    my head starts pounding the moment the sun comes up.
    When will the cut on Jhunu's foot heal?
    My youngest uncle was beautiful to behold, son. He used to say:
    If you get up early to pick the flowers—in those days there were
    so many—their fragrance will stay on your fingers all day.
    People say that a father-in-law's house is a young woman's paradise.
    My mother-in-law would just kiss me on the cheek and weep.
    If only you'd come a few days earlier, he'd have . . . peace.”
    “Did you know, my mother has no present or future?
    She has only the past, that's why she cries so much.”
    “Son, look at these hands, look at my face, do you see
    any stain, any sin, any sign of guilt?
    Someone else's face, some ghost or shadow's eyes,
    did you know, son, pure pain has turned this heart to stone . . . ”





    S
    an arching ashshaora leans over a canal
    why does it lean so    does it know?

    a vine hangs down binding branch to branch
    why does it hang so    does it know?

    a flock cries out and scatters bird by bird
    why does it cry out so    does it know?

    burning shadows stretch across field after field
    their stench scorched and coppery

    soldering leaf to leaf the sun-struck
    Choitro sky lights its own pyre

    but why just so    does it know?
    sharp-sheathed reeds recklessly crack and shatter

    the wind chases itself in breathless play
    why does it run so    and die    does it know?





    T
    a few letters, commas, and scribbles will be left
    in your hand—days of storms, rain, and storms
    an uprooted chatim tree, bark splinters, root slivers

    Boisakh's waterline stretches along the silted riverbed
    jumble of slapdash, naughty doodles
    water dreaming here, sand glittering there

    water moans, falling leaves spin and twirl
    a leech climbs slowly up the grass to the tip
    every intention follows this sluggish track

    days of sunshine, many more of storms, rain, and storms
    carved stone inscriptions in a dark moss-covered cave
    traces of a masterpiece here, a sketchy grotesque there

    the sun ricochets from rock to rock and shatters
    whirls of radiance dazzle the entire sky
    wounded face, scarred chest muscles

    the moon in eclipse clouds your vision for days
    black shadows sizzle in the blazing oven
    sal wood bursts, buds fly off, pyres fly away

    ashes fall, phrases fly off, delirious syllables fly away
    for how long? how many days and hours and minutes
    trying the limits of patience like flies pestering a putrid corpse

    if you shoo them away, they fly back, settling on nose, mouth,
    cheeks—bloodstains darken, shadows thicken on banyan leaves,
    battle weary, beaten, always in suffocating pain

    let grand passions cease, clamp them tight in a frame
    storm-lashed forest, silver-clad paddy scorched by the sun
    far downstream, a midnight appeal—"Bodor, protect me"

    sand plies through your veins, line after long line—at best
    a few faint, barely legible marks in assorted styles
    will be left under the sun's burning span





    U
    afternoon shadows batter their heads on the batabi boughs
    huddling together, three sparrows hide in the grass

    chat a bit, stare a while, work a bit, stare some more
    foreboding billows endlessly from the sweltering sky

    dust scours exhausted eyes, blank
    bitterness dissolves in the scorching heat

    with slow deliberation the jarul sheds its leaves
    three sparrows anxiously fashion their nests

    nothing's new, whatever happens has happened before
    poison in the milk, stingers in the honeycomb

    if not today, tomorrow—if not tomorrow, some other day
    afternoon shadows hang themselves on the batabi boughs





    V
    tide's turning, boatman
    there'll be a house, you'll have money
    waves swallow each other in frantic little whispers
    bits of straw go swimming across the watery world
    startled fish are spun round by the muddy current

    tide's turning, boatman
    there'll be a wife, you'll have children
    a lone crane, turned topsy-turvy by a little gust of wind,
    flies off with a fluster of wings, crying its complaint
    the river runs unruffled beneath the warring waves

    tide's turning, boatman
    so take hope now, rest content
    that groaning is only the water pressing on the prow
    the oars, gripped by sweaty palms, slowly slacken
    lost in lethargy, the sinking sun, the downcast sky

    it's hard work rowing against the current
    a warm bowl of rice will be waiting, boatman,
    this is a journey with no return





    W
    night crawls over the harrowed field and stretches
    wearily, an owl perches on a tamal branch, eyes
    flaring as it spots a toad, a beetle, a plump mouse
    the hunter's wings beat the air, the forest flinches

    darkness coils around itself, a tightly wound cobra
    swallows the sky whole, leaving just a few frightened stars
    a sinewy civet slinks by the ghat on the south side of the pond
    sharp claws extended, sniffing the fishy perfume of a trout

    clumps of silence thicken in the bodiless dark
    inside the drowsing huts the air is too heavy to breathe
    black bats bare their glistening teeth, pomegranate
    branches, weighed down with fruit, quiver in fear

    a jackal screeches, trees scatter their ragged leaves
    only the crazed wind comes back to grieve





    X
    Kirtinasha, let there be no more treachery, when
    water sparkles in the sun, wave breaking on sunlit wave
    and sparrows flit among flowers in meadows and woods
    when schools of fat puti, escaping the heron's sharp beak

    go drifting drowsily through the water, when
    boats span the shoreless ocean, their sails
    puffed out like smug traders, and far-flying
    swans beat their wings, shattering the shadows

    that crawl behind the waves ready to pounce, when
    silt cakes the riverbanks in the harvest-scented wind
    and beans, peas, and mustard blanket the gritty soil
    children grow up on every veranda in one's own image

    Kirtinasha, let there be no more treachery, when
    these blood-stained hands wash clean in the sunlit water





    Y
    That hint of forbearance in your eyes tells me
    I'm growing old, though a few strands of hair
    are still black—groaning and whispering within me
    a tall betel tree strains against the late autumn wind
    a blood red tide rushes with the wrath of a madman
    between the riverbanks tearing off bits of earth
    that trace of indulgence on your lips tells me
    I am old, with no further claim to pain





    Z
    all these awkward scribblings, what's the point?
    cranes drink their fill and fly away, tame geese
    head back to their pens, their weary wanderings leave
    meaningless lines—hopes / struggles—a smeared scrawl

    stretched across the sand as the sun sinks into
    the marshes beyond the prosaic waves
    on the river's furthermost bend
    slipping into the dusk, silhouetted, obscure

    murderous enemies slowly haul in their dark
    conspiratorial nets hand over hand
    closeted whispers leak across stagnant waters
    flattening blanched reeds, startling the parched grass

    dumbstruck night grips the moorings, villages, towns
    these stories of new life are just tall tales, empty talk
    mountains, plains, springs, and stretching tamarisk—
    is there any other destiny, Kirtinasha?




    ________________________________________
    Translation Notes:

    This set of translations comes from Mohammad Rafiq's third collection, the award-winning Kirtinasha (1979), a book-length sequence of fifty-one poems. No translation into English—or transliteration into the Roman alphabet—can adequately reproduce the poet's simple but eloquent gesture assigning a character from the Bengali alphabet to each of the poems. (For instance, the final poem is headed with the sign for nasalizing a vowel, called the chandrabindu, or 'moon-dot'.) Readers should know, however, that the identity of Bangladesh is inseparable from the Bengali language—and from the memory of the martyrs of the Language Movement (1952), who gave their lives protesting the Pakistani goverment’s attempt to make Urdu the national language, and of the freedom fighters of the War of Liberation (1971), who died defending their distinctive Bengali culture. The publication of Kirtinasha established Mohammad Rafiq as a major poet of Bangladesh. The book's title, which means "great destroyer," refers to the two-mile-wide channel of the Padma River (itself the main channel of the Ganges as it divides in far western Bangaldesh) after it has received the waters of the Jamuna and flows southeast to join the Meghna, which empties into the Bay of Bengal. Kirtinasha is renowned for its fickle power: in one season it is a placid mirror of the sky, stretching from horizon to horizon; in another season it is a raging monster, swallowing up all traces of great imperial palaces. In this collection of poems, the river’s powerful current flows through an ageless landscape and contemporary conditions, carrying with it myths, fairytales, traditional songs, and characters from modern Bengali literature, revealing in ever-shifting images the implacable force of nature and the fragility of human dreams. In the following selection, the original order has been altered to better reflect the interplay among poems in the complete Bengali text.



    অলংকরণ (Artwork) : Nilanjana Basu
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