Letter from Dhaka

Her acquaintance with an Urdu poet reveals to Parsa Sanjana Sajid the deep waters of identity and prejudice.

Illustration by Sarah John

Friendships and (be)longing are woven through Shamim Zamanvi’s poem Faslon ki Qurbat (Destiny’s Nearness): ‘The shadow of my memory will be with you / Yours with me / The pulse of our friendship will vanquish this distance.’ He likens fate to a magician-gambler, but trickier still. Each move, each gamble, isn’t one you wanted to play, but instead were played – that dice was never yours to throw. Zamanvi, an Urdu poet and translator, knows what that feels like. Born in the vortex of mid-20th century metamorphoses of empires to nations, one of which was the 1947 partition of India, his has been a splintered reality.

His family is from Zamania, a town near Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh (UP), India. The surname, Zamanvi, a trace of that attachment like driftwood settled on a distant beach. Zamanvi hasn’t been to UP in a while, which is an understatement; fatherless very early on, he has memories of Chittagong, where his mother and elder brother relocated, but he was raised by a childless uncle in Khulna before settling in Dhaka. But ‘settling’ is perhaps another understatement. Where one is from and where one settles and where home is are bent to shape like bonsais of nationalist fantasies.

After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the Urdu-speaking community found itself in the untenable position of statelessness, because many of its members had sided with Pakistan, which never showed any interest in granting them a right of entry or citizenship once the war ended. The community’s ties to Pakistan were somewhat conceptual to begin with, since most were from what is now India, many from the states of Bihar and UP.

Not easily identified by race or ethnicity, it is their linguistic identity as Urdu speakers that marks them out as a minority in Bangladesh. Although no longer stateless through successive court verdicts granting them Bangladeshi citizenship, post-1971 theirs has not been an uncomplicated journey in a nation founded specifically on its Bengali ethno-linguistic identity forged through resistance to what Urdu encoded at the time. Urdu has become tainted by association, an unfortunate and indefensible aftermath, especially when Urdu literary practice has a rich and varied tradition in Bengal.

There are no easy ways to be a poet anywhere. Zamanvi, a man of his times, writes furiously and achingly but is not diligent about archiving his output. There are couplets on his Facebook posts and slim volumes meagrely supported by a handful of patrons. This is just as well, as manuscripts have been lost both to nature and petty lawlessness.

In 1969 his entire poetic output up to that time was washed away in a deluge in Khulna. In Dhaka in the 1990s, miscreants snatched a bag with his papers as he was returning from a late night mushaira (a gathering where poets recite their works) in a rickshaw – gone was his treasury of letters. But with feelings, there is no lessening or nobody to whisk them away, he tells me, sitting against the light in a white kurta showing signs of wear. So he keeps going, the writing continues.

‘So many of my friends left for India, for Pakistan in the 1970s, but I didn’t,’ he says. ‘I’ve more friends here, in Bangladesh, Bengali friends I couldn’t live without. I could fill my stomach anywhere, but nowhere else would I find this fraternity, so why should I even entertain that thought?’ I hadn’t asked him why he had stayed or whether he wanted to leave, questions that would presuppose a home elsewhere, but that hardly matters, as he consistently encounters suggestions of the kind. But Faslon ki Qurbat is also a lament and a celebration of those scattered ties.

Zamanvi shares that prominent personalities – authors, poets, scholars, a trustee of the Bangladesh Liberation Museum – have supported Urdu literature in Bangladesh, namely translation of Urdu works to Bangla and vice versa. While undoubtedly commendable, it is also a reminder that the practice of Urdu has to be shown to be supported by and through the Bengali nationalist project, thus reconfirming its secondary status. Undaunted, his ode to friendships, tied so curiously to geographic limits yet somehow loosened from them, endures.