Crimson tide

Published April 7, 2021
Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

PABLO Neruda was already something of a renowned poet when he was posted as the Chilean consul to Barcelona in 1934, and shortly afterwards transferred to Madrid, a vantage point from where he witnessed the unfolding Spanish civil war. It proved to be a thoroughly politicising experience.

He did not need to be pressured to pick sides in that conflict. Like the towering American singer Paul Robeson, he had no choice. The Franco fascists claimed the life of his close friend Federico Garcia Lorca. Other comrades fought at the front. Neruda published a volume of verse titled Spain in My Heart, and subsequently, as a diplomat in France, facilitated the passage of dozens of Spanish Republican exiles to Chile.

Reflecting on Bangladesh’s independence struggle, I was recently reminded of a poem about Madrid that appeared in Neruda’s Residence on Earth. As translated by Mark Eisner, he concludes it thus: “You will ask why his poetry/ doesn’t speak to us of dreams, of the leaves,/ of the great volcanoes of his native land?// Come and see the blood in the streets/ come and see/ the blood in the streets/ come and see the blood/ in the streets!”

One can only wonder whether one of Neruda’s later comrades, the foremost Urdu poet of his age, had such verses in his mind as he navigated his way through 1971.

1971 was a tricky time for Pakistan’s leading poet.

That wasn’t a good year for any Pakistani, as the much anticipated advent of democracy degenerated into a bloodbath that sealed the nation’s fate. There was only a handful of intellectuals, mainly on the left, who publicly spoke out against the violence being perpetrated in what was then still considered the country’s eastern wing. Faiz Ahmed Faiz wasn’t among them.

The silence, it’s fair to presume, weighed down the poet’s heart. One could argue endlessly, and probably inconclusively, about the extent to which it was or wasn’t voluntary. What’s indubitable is that in those days (and, sadly, through most of the decades that have followed) there was a price to be paid for demonstrably deviating from the official narrative.

Faiz had been down that road before. Denigrating, and often punishing, opponents of the government policies or actions is by no means exclusively a Pakistani trait. It has, in fact, gathered steam in recent years in many parts of the world — not least in India. And it can be evidenced in Bangladesh, too.

If memory serves — and it’s inevitably an imperfect, occasionally deceptive, archive — the only significant public statement from Faiz that year was a critique of the Indian and Soviet role in the freedom struggle of East Bengal. I cannot testify to the pressures he faced, nor would it be fair to be too judgemental. He ought not to have been too surprised to discover, on visiting post-independence Dhaka for the first time in 1974, as part of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s delegation, that some of his surviving comrades in Bangladesh refused to renew their acquaintance.

That experience yielded one of Faiz’s best-known poems, in which he wonders how many monsoons it would take to wash away the bloodstains. Three years earlier, though, the angst he felt he could not express in public had been poured into appropriately blank verse.

Nuskha Hai Wafa, the nearly complete collection of his verse, suggests the following poem was composed or concluded 50 years ago tomorrow, on April 8, 1971. I would strongly recommend the original to those who are conversant with Urdu. For the rest, here’s an admittedly inadequate, non-literal translation, although I hope it conveys the essence of the poet’s torment:

“The accumulated afflictions of the soul overflowed,/ When my eyes welled up I had no choice/ But to heed the inner voice/ And I bathed my dust-encrusted eyes in blood./ Yes, I rinsed my impure eyes in the liquefied essence of life,/ And now each earthly vision and visage/ Every conceivable aspect of creation/ Is in perfect harmony with the hue of my perception:/ The golden orb glows blood-red in the ruddy sky,/ Likewise its nightly surrogate, the silvery moon;/ The blood-curdling mirth of the mornings/ Echoes the blood-drenched mourning by night;/ Every tree’s a tower of sacrifice, each bloom a funereal flower;/ Gore greets each gaze, every vista is a scarlet haze./ As long as it freely flows, the crimson tide/ Reflects shades of martyrdom, torment and remorse;/ But when the blood coagulates, it smoulders/ Likes the embers of hate, of dusk and death,/ The cremation rites of every tint and taint./ Let it not be thus, o giver of hope -/ Conjure up from the depths of this divine despair a flood of tears, / A cleansing tide/ That miraculously might purge/ The blood from my dust-encrusted eyes.”

Perhaps Faiz’s Bengali friends would have been less unforgiving had they been familiar with this anguished lament.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2021

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