Poetry: Two poems by Kaiser Haq

As Usual

As usual
My old friend
The Sage of the Roadside Tea-stall
Casually solves a problem or two
Between sips of semi-viscous tea
For which, as usual, I am paying
Because, as usual, he is out of pocket.

The talk, as usual, is of money-
Ministers and their multi-millions,
Captains of commerce and their borrowed billions,
Spiralling prices and dwindling incomes.

“Ban money,” the Sage counsels.
“Abolish currency, and peace
Will reign on earth.”
Silence descends upon us
Like feathers from ruffled chickens.

All eyes are trained on the Sage
Imploring elaboration. “No money-
No desire for money, no pickpocketing,
No bribes, no violence;
No taka-no trickery,
No pounds sterling-no pound of flesh,
No moolah-no murder,
No greenbacks-no Green Berets.”

The Sage pauses,
Takes a long sip
And a sagacious conceptual leap:
“I am of course using the word money
In a broadly symbolic sense.
By money I mean everything
That arouses cupidity-
Gold, diamonds, cars…
I mean, in fact,
Private property.”

“What about power?” I ask.
(You see, I’ve read my Michel Foucault.)
“I was coming to that,”
Says the wily Sage.
“Abolish power as well.
No more power play
Between politicians and the people,
Between teachers and the taught,
Between friends, lovers, relatives,
Family members, colleagues, fellow citizens,
No more money, and no more power-
Only peace, peace, peace,
Shantih, Shantih, Shantih!”

As dinner invitations pour
On the Sage
Like confetti
A brainwave hits me:
“What about sex?” I mutter in his ear.
“Don’t add unnecessary complications,”
he mutters back.

PUBLISHED IN THE STREETS OF DHAKA

Pretty objects continued to be admired until 1875 when the phrase “pretty-pretty” was coined. That did it. For the truly clever, apt, and skilful, the adjective pretty could only be used in the pejorative sense, as I discovered thirty years ago while being shown around King’s College by E.M. Forster. As we approached the celebrated chapel (magnificent, superb, a bit much), I said, “Pretty.” Forster thought I meant the chapel when, actually, I was referring to a youthful couple in the damp middle distance. A ruthless moralist, Forster publicized my use of the dread word. Told in Fitzrovia and published in the streets of Dacca [now spelt Dhaka], the daughters of the Philistines rejoiced; the daughters of the uncircumcised triumphed. For a time my mighty shield was vilely cast away.

— Gore Vidal, “On Prettiness”, New Statesman, March 17, 1978.

Pretty, isn’t it-sure he’s caught
You on the wrong foot, Mr. Morgan Forster
Broadcasts his priggish amusement
Over cigar and port in the King’s SCR.

The story travels swiftly-and why not,
It’s suitably droll-to Fitzrovia,
Where poets moustached with Bitter froth
Nibble nuts and gossip in equal measure.

But all the way to monsoon-racked Dhaka?
That’s a stretch! I should know,
I was born and live here.
Your pretty tale swinging into print
Under the bamboo, the banyan and the mango tree
Is the height of absurdity-isn’t that your point?

Point taken. Now imagine the dread
Of a writer from Dhaka. Yes, a writer,
For Homo Scriptor has a local branch, you know,
And at bazaar booksellers’ such things
As lyric verse and motley belles lettres
Peep out of routine stacks of Exam Guides
Like rusty needles-I too have perpetrated a few.

But your unsolicited publicity may well put paid
To the prospects of any pamphlet or book
Published in the humble streets of Dhaka.
After all, Mr. Gore Vidal,
You are almost as famous
As Vidal Sassoon.

Your word may not be law
But it comes close, in certain quarters-
Deservedly. In assailing the iniquitous
You never beat about the bush
Or blare like a bully. In my axiological tree
You are up there with Chomsky,
Honderich, Arundhati. That makes your snide
Aside rankle all the more. Now,

What are we to do, Mr. Vidal?
Stop writing, and if we do, not publish?
Join an immigration queue, hoping
One day to head for the Diaspora dead-end,
An exhibit in an alien multicultural museum?

No way. Here I’ll stay, plumb in the centre
Of monsoon-mad Bengal, watching
Jackfruit leaves drift earthward
In the early morning breeze
Like a famous predecessor used to

And take note too
Of flashing knives, whirling sticks, bursting bombs,
And accompanying gutturals and fricatives of hate,
And evil that requires no axis
To turn on, being everywhere-

And should all these find their way
Into my scribbles and into print
I’ll cut a joyous caper right here
On the Tropic of Cancer, proud to be
Published once again in the streets of Dhaka.

(KAISER HAQ, a professor of English at Dhaka University, Bangladesh, is a poet, translator and essayist. He has published four collections of poetry and a number of other works, including The Wonders of Vilayet (Peepal Tree, 2001), the only English translation of an excellent Persian memoir of a visit to Europe by a Bengali Munshi in 1765. He has been a Commonwealth Scholar in the UK and a Senior Fulbright Scholar and Vilas Fellow in the USA.

Haq was an undergraduate when the Bangladesh war of independence broke out in 1971 and saw the action upclose as a freshly commissioned subaltern in command of a company.

Syed Manzoorul Islam has written insightfully about what makes Haq’s poetry such a resonant presence in the Bangladesh literary landscape. “Haq writes about the contemporary Bangladeshi scene, exposing life’s little incongruities and ironies . His poetry relies on understatement. It combines flashes of insight with a journalistic detailing of objects; it is moving and insightful, but smart and refreshingly witty at the same time,” writes Islam in The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry in English.)

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