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  • 'Kirtinasha', Poems of Mohammad Rafiq [Parabaas Translation] : Mohammad Rafiq
    translated from Bengali to English by Carolyn Brown

    Kirtinasha

    Mohammad Rafiq

    Translated from Bangla by

    Carolyn 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

    kirtinasha-2

    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

    kirtinasha-1

    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

    kirtinasha-2 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

    kirtinasha-1 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?

    kirtinasha-2 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

    kirtinasha-2 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

    kirtinasha-1 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

    kirtinasha-2 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

    kirtinasha-1 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

    kirtinasha-2 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

    kirtinasha-1 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

    kirtinasha-2 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

    kirtinasha-1 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

    kirtinasha-2 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

    kirtinasha-1 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

    kirtinasha-2 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

    kirtinasha-1 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 . . . ”

    kirtinasha-2 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?

    kirtinasha-1 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

    kirtinasha-2 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

    kirtinasha-1 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

    kirtinasha-2 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

    kirtinasha-1 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

    kirtinasha-2 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

    kirtinasha-1 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.


    Illustrated by Nilanjana Basu. Nilanjana has been regularly illustrating for Parabaas. She lives in California.

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