Kazi Nazrul Islam wrote in Bangla but he wrote for the world, says Maria Barrera-Agarwal, who was the first to translate the great poet into Spanish. It is this universality about Nazrul’s poetry that attracted her to the great poet. bdnews24.com’s Samin Sababa caught up with her during her first visit to Dhaka in 2015.
Sababa: So I’m just going to start and ask you about where you come from and how you identify yourself in the literary world.
Maria: Thank you so much. It really is a special occasion to be here. I am from Ecuador in South America and my family has had a very special relationship with literature. My maternal grandfather was a poet. My parents were also interested in literature. I was brought up with an intense love for literature, mostly from the Spanish speaking world. Later, I married a gentleman from India. Through him and because of a number of life issues, I got interested in knowing more about sub-continental literature and particularly Bengali literature.
Sababa: So, it’s a huge sector, a huge platform, South Asia’s literature, and it’s very diverse. Was it difficult for you to penetrate the language barrier and differences? Was it difficult for you to understand?
Maria: It was very, very complicated in the beginning. Simply because, as you already said, it is so diverse. I found that we, from the Spanish-speaking world, knew almost nothing. So, no matter where I directed my interest, it was all new. I could do far more with that new material. It is not like European literature, about which everybody has spoken already. Exactly … it was so fresh for me. The most surprising thing for me was that I got a chance to avoid the pitfalls of the European gaze, while trying to reach a new realm such as the sub-continent’s literature. I believe this is a sort of ‘sieve effect’. The problem is that we always expect great writers or philosophers to come with a mark of approval from Europe or from the United States. It is necessary to avoid that effect, and I’ve been trying to avoid it.
Sababa: So do you define that as ‘The pitfall’ because you believe you’ve been directed into it?
Maria: It is necessary to make direct contact. We can stop ourselves from expecting a mark of approval from the North, because your literature is something that is actually very close to us, though we don’t know it.
Sababa: So you believe what Kazi Nazrul Islam has been talking about, it’s very universal?
Maria: He is absolutely universal. I do believe in the universality of the kind he was an example of. He himself mentioned in one of his talks that he was not writing only for the Bengali people, for his nation, but for the world, and that comes out beautifully in every one of his compositions and literary output.
Sababa: And about that … do tell us – I’ve had the honour of translating your essay that came with ‘Selected Poems and Prose of Nazrul Islam’ – do tell me what moved you to write the essays on him, what are the things, the contents, you chose to put in there – and of course the story of your first interaction with him.
Maria: Now I should mention I was in New York with my husband in a cab. The gentleman who was driving the cab…I remember it as if it was now – he was listening to some music and I did not know what it was but I was completely taken aback by the beauty of the song, by the beauty of the words. I asked my husband, ‘What’s this? Is this Hindi? What language is it?’ Then I asked the driver and the gentleman told me, ‘This guy is Nazrul Islam, and he’s our National Poet … the national poet of Bangladesh.’ Then he started to translate the lyrics for us. It was a discovery!
Sababa: I must interrupt; do you now know which song it was?
Maria: I can’t remember, I wish I could remember it and I wish I could meet that gentleman again, because he opened up the world of Bengali literature to me.
Sababa: Do you remember; I understand that most of the expatriates feel a close connection to their homeland … There are people who are emotionally invested at home, rather than abroad. So I believe he was very eager to tell you about Nazrul, in a way that was beautiful for to him too. So, do you remember the things he said to introduce Kazi Nazrul Islam to you?
Maria: He mentioned that he was a unique poet. That he was very popular in Bangladesh … that he was a man who lived a very hard life … that he lost one of his sons and faced many complications in his life, but he went always, always ahead with his power to share his feelings and philosophy with his people. He said, ‘even now the people of Bangladesh love him as if it was yesterday’. I remember that ride, and I remember more than anything, the shine on his face when he was telling me this. I have also spoken to other people from Bangladesh, expatriates, about Kazi Nazrul Islam… and I always find the same feeling. When I mention that I’m interested in him, there is always this great pride, and it’s beautiful.
Sababa: It’s beautiful … because we come from a community, a group of people who think their literature will be limited within ourselves. But you’ve been doing a great deal for us in terms of exposure.
Maria: I have a feeling that we have so much to learn … from the Bengali people.
Sababa: Who do you mean when you say ‘we’?
Maria: I mean the people back in Latin America. I have totally marvelled at the fact that there can be a Fair, a one-month Book Fair … and it’s not a little fair … It is everything that happens around it, it is the strength of literature…
Sababa: It’s quite the thing, we wait for it every year and it’s our month. I remember that growing up, as a child in Bangladesh …it is those days you celebrate in various ways. You remember, you commemorate and the Amar Ekushey book fair, for me, it’s always been there. So growing up as a child here, I will tell you, it is always about these special days. So do tell me about the book fair, the people and the interactions you’ve had there.
Maria: The fact that people from all kinds of backgrounds, no matter from what social status and what educational situation, are so enthusiastic and so passionate about books. The fact that you can go there and meet everybody – there is this sense of discovery that you very much perceive on everybody. A sense of celebration around books. And the fact that Bangladesh has chosen to remember such an immense tragedy, such as the War of Independence, and that immense tragedy has been sublimated into remembering the martyrs of the Language. It is a lesson for the world … It is a lesson for the world.
Sababa: To hold on to things that would be considered morbid by other nations … that we hold on to our history so tightly – it’s very recent history for us – there are special days … you’ve been to other parts of the world, did you not see that in any other place?
Maria: People in Europe and the United States, I think, are far less demonstrative of what they feel. But even under certain circumstances, I don’t perceive the kind of passion and enjoyment out of books, such as the one that exists in Bangladesh.
Sababa: Going back to Kazi Nazrul Islam and hardship; Are you in anyway drawn towards the hardship of the people, is that how you connect Latin Americans to us and our condition?
Maria: I believe so. I believe that hardships and sacrifice are concepts far more understandable to us in Latin America and in Bangladesh, than in other regions of the world. We are conscious of how precious life is … in a more intense way than other countries and regions that are, perhaps, more fortunate from a material point of view. And I do believe that that consciousness sublimates itself into a higher appreciation of what is really important in life, including literature. There is a deeper feeling, a deeper knowledge of what literature can be.
Sababa: I understand that you’ve spoken here about how Nazrul’s tone is dramatically different from (Rabindranath) Tagore. Why did you choose to compare them and also how did you get introduced to Tagore, who is another great master?
Maria: Kabiguru is extremely popular in Latin America. I grew up reading …
Sababa: How, as in, is he in text books?
Maria: He is … he is also in text books. He was translated by a great poet from Spain, Juan Ramon Jimenez and by his wife, Zenobia Camprubi, and he never lost the popularity that he acquired in the 1920s. We love him, we don’t know him at all very well, because the translations are more an adaptation to Spanish that decreases him in a lot of ways. But still, we know about him. Now, we don’t know about the Tagore that was a patriot. We don’t know a lot of things about him, those have not been transmitted to us. However, the Tagore that we very much know is the spiritual Tagore.
Sababa: Spiritual Tagore in the sense that … I do believe that he has a remedy for all sorts of ‘situations’.
Maria: It’s the Tagore that makes you meditate about life and I don’t know how, but it kindles in your soul a sort of longing, and, at the same time it gives you the chance to understand that longing. It is very specific … and it diverges a lot from what ‘Bidrohi Kabi’ is. He is older, plus you have the rebellious one and the peaceful one.
Sababa: … the peaceful one, who acknowledges all, accepts all …
Maria: Accepts and continues, whereas the other one…
Sababa: … Is very angry. (laughs)
Maria: The angry young man such as the ‘Bidrohi Kabi’, yes there is a huge difference and I was taken aback by it when I started understanding that there was a huge difference.
Sababa: You write here (essay), I hope that as soon as this interview goes out people will definitely click to read this essay and give it a thorough look because it says here of course about Nazrul and how you went from that cab, straight to the internet and then to the public library. Do tell us about that experience because …. you were just drawn to his sounds and it led you to a whole new world. So was it your first exposure to South Asia, clearly no, because you knew Tagore from before. So what was your idea of South Asian literature before Nazrul and what changed when you went to the library and discovered this new person?
Maria: I was familiar with Tagore and I was also familiar with poets such as (Mirza) Ghalib, such as Kamala Das … such as a few of them. However I was not familiar with the roots of Bengali Literature, the real roots. When I went to the library and started reading the translations into English of Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poetry and especially ‘Bidrohi’…
Sababa: What was the first poem you read?
Maria: Yes. ‘Bidrohi’… I went directly into ‘Bidrohi’… I think it was the first or the second poem that was there. And before that, I had done a little research and everybody was mentioning that it was his masterpiece … and I was … it blew my mind … it completely blew my mind.
Sababa: It’s the kind of poem you keep on reading and use it in life …
Maria: Absolutely. The meaning, the metaphors, the richness, the unlimited thinking that went into it and all other aspects, it’s just amazing. I don’t think I have ever recovered from that experience and will probably never do.
Sababa: How would you compare your country’s literature, Latin American literature… do you find similarities, do you try to find similarities, they are of course very distinct, do you think our colonial experiences, hardships and a lot of things make us similar?
Maria: There are similarities … there is no doubt about it. I think we have much more in common with the subcontinent’s literature than with Europe and the United States, there’s no doubt about that. Our poets such as Vallejo, Neruda, such as so many of them, such as Mistral -all of them were deeply influenced by the translations of Tagore into Spanish. Even though these translations were not absolutely perfect.
Sababa: Borges disliked him (Tagore) …
Maria: (laughs) Absolutely, Borges didn’t, but that is not strange, because Borges did not like literature from Latin America, he actually preferred literature from Europe. So he has mentioned this much, the fact that … well Latin American literature … you have to give it a chance … so I’m not surprised that he did not like Tagore. One has to take that with a little grain of salt, we also don’t really know what Tagore he was exposed to.
Sababa: I’m so glad I asked that because while reading Marquez and others I’ve always sensed a similarity … I wanted to ask someone if there was actually one. So do tell me more about Nazrul’s expressions, style that attracts you the most… I do not believe I’m not fully qualified to ask you specifically … but in your own way how do you analyze him in the context of world literature.
Maria: I’m going to be talking tomorrow at the (Amar Ekushey Book Fair) festival about the fact that Kazi Nazrul Islam is such an exceptional poet that the theory of post-colonialism literature does not really apply to him. Because he is probably one of the few authors in the world’s history … in literature, in world history … who had a completely decolonized mind, way before the term came to exist.
Sababa: So you say there was no colonization in him?
Maria: No, and it is an amazing thing to perceive that a little boy, from the rural side of Bengal, could find that in himself, to completely and absolutely take away any kind of burden of colonialism from his mind, and was capable of speaking, face to face, with a judge … the representative of colonial powers … and speak to him without any kind of subservience… just face to face … with equal status, and moreover, that he was able to imagine a world in which … he would say, if the roles were reversed, if Britain was the subjugated country and if India was the country who had taken over, then Britain would be justified to fight against that colonialism. To be able to think like that, to put himself in the shoes of the British, under those circumstances, it shows a mind that has broken all kinds of bounds, be it colonialism or anything else. He was just amazing.
Sababa: Did you find any of those likes in literatures from other countries that have also been colonized, that if defined, I would say are very grounded? Or do you believe it is inherently South Asian or Bengali?
Maria: I don’t think so. I believe it is inherently Bengali, probably. I don’t think even in the 60s, perhaps a little bit in the 70s, perhaps poets such as Roque Dalton… but in his time, the start of the 20th century, when no one could really anticipate what was going to be the destiny of India, the destiny of the subcontinent, the destiny of Britain … the fact that a little boy, a young man from Bengal, without any reinforcements from any powers, would be able to say something like that and think like that – that was a real revolution, that was a revolution that came from a mysterious place, to my mind.
Sababa: And it was the situation that accelerated it and created him. The hardship, the situation he was in … those difficult times, possibly, his defiance comes from there. So it’s very interesting when you say it is inherently Bengali. So, in your exposure to India, how do you … I mean, not every Bengali is Nazrul, that’s absolutely true … So do you believe that Bengali writing and poems are different from other works from South Asia, how would you characterize it?
Maria: In the case of Nazrul, which I believe has been replicated in other cases, it is possible to see very clearly the influence of the multi-cultural roots of Bengal, of the many, many influences … religious, cultural, social …of all types. He absorbs everything, he catalyzes everything and I don’t think anyone in any other country of the world, in his time as in ours, could have been so lucky and at the same time so powerfully influenced in order to try to create a body of work.
Sababa: It is also his life and his work put together, they cannot be separated in two …
Maria: No, not at all. The fact that he was perfectly at ease with the Symbolists’ books, with Hinduism and that he had his tradition of Islam …
Sababa: And he was fun too!
Maria: Yes! All that makes him perfectly unique and I don’t think anybody, in the history of literature could have brought up such works.
Sababa: That’s absolutely amazing- you don’t let me work, you’re doing all of it!
Maria: Bless you, bless you.
Sababa: So did you get to learn about other authors who are now working in Bangladesh?
Maria: Yes, yes absolutely. I’ve had the very good luck to meet many of them in the festival. And before that I’ve had contacts with other poets including Mohammad Nurul Hudaand many others, and I’m trying to get it contact with young, current poets of Bangladesh.
Sababa: Is that a part of your plan to research more? How do you plan to do that?
Maria: Nazrul is an inexhaustible subject, so I expect to be busy with him for a long, long time. Additionally I would love to get more in contact with other periods of Bengali poetry, especially.
Sababa: You understand that he has surviving family members, they are very much culturally active and they do, in a way, represent him.
Maria: I expect to have a chance to meet them at some point, and that would be a pleasure and an honour for me.
Sababa: So you’ll come back.
Maria: It would be an honour to do so. To visit Bangladesh is for me a great honour.
Sababa: So about your exposure to us, we have changed a lot since our time under a colonial superpower and then another … so we have experienced that … so his voice and what he gave to us accelerated our Liberation War, he provided us with that self-belief and power.
Maria: He did enough for you but one has to think about the fact that it’s very rare in history to find countries, nations that have this sense of gratitude. The fact that the government of Bangladesh came to know about the situation of Kazi Nazrul Islam and had the initiative of bringing him as the National Poet, giving him a house, tranquillity in the last years of his life. The fact that they honoured him with all kinds of good things and good feelings … that is also special about Bangladesh. I know that countries change and I know that there are many faces of countries. But one has to focus more on the idealistic view of countries, because otherwise one falls into all kinds of negatives. I do love this face of Bangladesh, and I have a feeling this was then and this is now.
Sababa: Would you like to add something of your own, just say whatever you want, because I do believe I’m asking you a lot about comparisons and how your exposure was, but is there anything you want to say?
Maria: I would take this opportunity to thank the Bangla Academy, The Nazrul Institute and the people of Bangladesh, my good friends, Razu Alauddin and Mohammad Nurul Huda. I was thrilled and thankful for having this opportunity of reaching the Bengali people, the Bengali public. I would also like to thank bdnews24.com for this opportunity. Thank you.