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       Volume 10 |Issue 25 | July 01, 2011 |


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Cover Story

A Voice of Conscience

Beyond her poetic identity, Sufia Kamal, throughout her life stood up for the weak and the oppressed. On the occasion of the birth centenary of this iconic figure we look back at her work and her words.

Tamanna Khan

The social and cultural activist at her study.
Photo courtesy: Sufia Kamal Jonmoshotoborsho Udjapon Porshod

The name Sufia Kamal brings to mind the image of a diminutive motherly woman with a calm countenance and sweet, caring smile lined with traces of determination and courage – a lady clad in a simple, white, cotton saree, with the end always covering her head. Those who saw this figure, heading processions in the streets of Dhaka, find it difficult to perceive the poet or the activist in her.

Yet she has been the conscience of the nation. Breaking out of the barriers of her own conservative family background, she stood up for the weak and the oppressed – from women, children, the physically and mentally challenged to an entire nation. On the occasion of the birth centenary of this iconic figure we look back at her work and her words of wisdom.

Sufia Kamal was born on June 20, 1911 to Shayestabad's nawab family in Barisal. Although raised within strict purdah, that denied her of academic education, she was self-educated in Bengali, the ostracised language of the nawabs, with the encouragement of her mother, brother and a maternal uncle. While stealing into the literary works of Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Begum Sara Taifur and Begum Motahera Banu, at the safe haven under the beds of the nawab palace, the young Sufia aspired to be a writer herself.

Although her first writing “Sainik Badhu” (Soldier's Bride), published in Taroon (Youth) magazine in 1923, was a short story, Sufia became known more as a poet. She received acclamations from both the maestros of Bangla literature Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. In fact, it was the progressive Nazrul, a strong believer of women's emancipation, who, after coming across Sufia's work assisted and encouraged her to write poems regularly for Saugat, a renowned magazine from Kolkata.

“A wave of joy swept through our house, as she entered. Once she was done asking after everyone, she would always leave her writings on the table and tell my father to do whatever he liked with them. She never gave a heading to her poems,” recalls Nurjahan Begum, the editor of the Begum magazine and daughter of the editor of Saugat, Mohammad Nasiruddin. Sufia Kamal became the first editor of Begum, when this pioneer weekly magazine for Muslim women started its journey in 1947.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Sufia Kamal thanked by political and cultural activists. Photo courtesy: Sufia Kamal Jonmoshotoborsho Udjapon Porshod

Perhaps her seemingly nonchalance towards her own poems emerged out of her indifference to publicity or because words would naturally flow out of her pen regardless of the situation. “Maa wrote spontaneously," relates Sajed Kamal, the poet's youngest son. "One who had found poetry in life, did not need a special time to write it. Even when she used to cook at noon, if anyone from a magazine came and asked for her poems, she would tell them to sit and immediately write a poem.”

Describing Sufia Kamal as a holistic poet, he adds, “She wrote about life and life involves everything – romance and social issues. She never compartmentalised her life. She wrote about political and contemporary issues, at the same time her writings had historical context and concern for the future.” Sufia Kamal in an interview with The Daily Star, called herself a romantic poet. However, she admitted that as time changed her writings became more concerned with socio-economic, cultural and political issues as well as women's issues.

Her apprenticeship at social work began in 1925, when she joined Barisal's Matri Mongol society as the only Muslim member. Later, she became a member of Begum Rokeya's Anjumane Khaowatine Islam, a social organisation and was nominated the first Muslim woman member of Indian Women's Federation in 1931. Surviving through the difficult times of 1930s, after her first husband's death, she again committed herself to social cause. During the riots of Kolkata, she conducted a shelter centre at Lady Brabourne College and afterwards opened a kindergarten school with help from the members of Mukul Fouj.

Poet Sufia Kamal with her mentor Kazi Nazrul Islam.
Photo courtesy: Bengal Foundation

However, the poet in her interview with The Daily Star mentioned the 1950s and 1960s as the time when she actually started fighting for socio-economic and political causes. From leading the Martyrs Day march in February 1952 to the Sanskritik Swadhikar Andolon (Movement for Cultural Autonomy) in 1961, she continued to challenge state imposed oppression. She was elected as the founding president of the renowned cultural organisation Chhayanaut that emerged out of the movement.

According to Md Sarwar Ali, Vice President of Chhayanaut, Sufia Kamal used the cultural movement as the vehicle to form an equitable, just, secular, social and democratic society. “Her political ideology emphasised on changing the mental setup of the people of the society,” he adds. As a result, Sufia Kamal never became a member of any political party. She, nevertheless, was close to left politics and in Worker Party's president Rashed Khan Menon's opinion, “She had an inclination towards communism because it talked about the empowerment of women which was always her main focus.” He quotes Sufia Kamal: “If women are not empowered, there will not be any development in the country.”

Lost in thought. Photo courtesy: Sufia Kamal Jonmoshotoborsho Udjapon Porshod

Mujahidul Islam Selim, general secretary of Communist Party of Bangladesh mentions in his memoir on Sufia Kamal that in the 1960s she often came as a guest at the different programmes organised by “Sangskriti Sangshad”, an organisation closely related to the leftist student body “Chhatra Union”. He writes, “It was the Pakistani period. The country was under military rule. Political leaders were in jail. The Communist Party was banned. It was considered a sin for a gentleman to even pronounce the word 'communist'. Most of the leaders of the party were either in jail or in hiding. Right at that time she wrote a poem praising the communist.”

“Bipul bisshoy prithibir
Joy joy joygaan kaste-haturir!”

(The world is amazed… victory to the sickle and hammer)

Not surprisingly, she supported Soviet Union during the Cold War and was elected as the chairperson of Pak-Soviet Friendship Society in 1966. Visiting Russia on two occasions before and after liberation, she was captivated by the empowerment, self-awareness and dignity of Russian women. In fact the creation of Mahila Parishad in 1970 was influenced by a combination of all these political ideologies of the time.

“Before the Liberation War, when everyone was coming up with their demands – the 6-points, 11-points – the female student leaders thought that it was the right time to talk about women's rights and equal rights. Before that, they had already started a signature campaign demanding the bail of political leaders who were in jail. That's when they came across Sufia Kamal. Because of her wide acceptance all female leaders from different political groups and professions, formed the Mahila Parishad, with the poet as its nucleus,” relates Maleka Banu, General Secretary of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad.

The exhibition at Shilpakala gallery on the occasion of her birth centenary. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

Despite her demure appearance, she was resolute in her stance even before the mightiest autocrat like Ayub Khan. At a meeting, with artistes and intellectuals of Dhaka, Ayub insulted the Bengalis as “haiwan” (beasts). Sufia lost no time in retorting back, “Tab to aapvi janaab haiwanon ki badshah hotey hain” (Then, sir, you are the leader of the beasts).

During the liberation war, Sufia Kamal stayed in her house at Road-32, Dhanmondi under the watchful eyes of the Pakistani Army. This did not stop her from helping the freedom fighters secretly and sending her two young daughters to the war. Concerns from the international community about her safety, forced the Pakistani administration to air her interview where she appeared only for 90 seconds saying, “I am not dead.” She did not answer any other question neither did she show her face.

Even after liberation she did not bow her head to state elements. Although she had a congenial relationship with her neighbour Bangabandhu, she never hesitated to disagree with the highly esteemed leader. Md Sarwar Ali reminisces, “Sufia Kamal was very close to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. After liberation, Chhayanaut was given a monthly government allotment, but after a year they made it a conditional allotment. Then Sufia Kamal said, 'Chhayanaut will not receive any allotment with any condition.' She always wanted Chhayanaut to be self-reliant and sustainable. Today the Chhayanaut Bhaban has been built without the help of any government or private donations.”

Sufia Kamal was the first Bengali Muslim woman, whose picture was published in Saugat.
Photo courtesy: Sufia Kamal Jonmoshotoborsho Udjapon Porshod

In spite of her multi-faceted activism, she never forgot or neglected her duties to her family. “We hardly used to have ordinary or commonplace food, because mother had a keen interest in cooking. She liked to prepare special dishes. She used to cook different types of food everyday,” says her daughter, human rights activist Sultana Kamal.

In fact Sufia Kamal's cooking is praised even by Nurjahan Begum. “Often on Sundays she came and cooked at our house in Kolkata. She used to tell my mother 'Nuru's mother you do the cutting and preparing of the spices, I will do the cooking'. My mother tried but her dishes were never as delicious as Sufia Khala's,” Nurjahan reminisces.

Calling her mother a super-active woman, Sultana Kamal, Executive Director, Ain o Salish Kendra recounts how Sufia Kamal, despite having sufficient house-hold help, would always do chores like cooking, washing clothes, sewing dresses, reading bedtime stories to the children at night, on a regular basis. Growing up at her crowded house, she never felt annoyed by the flow of continuous visitors. Says Sultana Kamal, “One interesting thing was, those who came to her, they always felt that they were the most and best loved person by her. When she spoke to anyone, she would give her full attention to that person, irrespective of whether he was a hawker, or a high official or an ambassador.

“She was always cautious about one thing that she would never encourage any of us to join her organisations. For example, I always had been pressurised by others to become a member of Mahila Parishad. But she said, 'It is better that you don't. There you would be khalamma's (Sufia Kamal) daughter. That would create a couple of disadvantages. Firstly, if you say something and they do not agree with you, they won't say it out loud because you are khalamma's daughter. Second you by, will never be judged by your merit.'”

Sufia Kamal with her sons, daughters, sons-in law and grandchildren.
Photo courtesy: Sufia Kamal Jonmoshotoborsho Udjapon Porshod

The poet's bedroom. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

Sufia Kamal's secular identity never conflicted with her piety. Md Sarwar Ali recounts, “Every December 16 at the Savar National monument, after singing the national anthem with us, she would say a prayer for the martyrs.” Sultana Kamal recalls how her mother never reciprocated any personal attacks made on her by religious extremists. “She told us that a person would behave as per his or her characteristics. When a dog opens its mouth it cannot do anything but bark. So why should you get angry at them. You go on doing your work the way you want to. Look at your conscience all the time. Do that which is good for others. Do not heed other people's words,” remembers Sultana Kamal.

And Sufia Kamal did not heed to others – be it Ayub, Mujib, Ershad, Hasina or Khaleda or any other political figure. She kept her dignity high and silently went on doing what her conscience demanded of her, all through her 88 years of life. She once wrote to Nasiruddin and those lines aptly summarise her life and philosophy:

“I'll go on doing my work silently, calmly. I'll remove the thorns along the path – so that, for those who come after, thorns don't prick their feet; so that, for their thorn-pricked feet they don't fall behind. That much I'll do with whatever strength I have.”

The poet's spectacles lie forlorn on her reading table. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

The Poet Speaks

Excerpts from 'The Poet Speaks' – an exclusive interview of Sufia Kamal by Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star Mahfuz Anam, taken on December 28-29, 1995 and published on January 1, 1996 – the year Sufia Kamal was awarded 'Woman of the Year' by The Daily Star.

The poet reading in her favourite verandah at “Shajer Maya”. Photo courtesy: Sufia Kamal Jonmoshotoborsho Udjapon Porshod

What are some of the most prominent thoughts in your mind at this critical moment in our history?

Now I am very sick. I cannot go out into the streets and listen to the people or talk to them, as I have been doing all my life. What worries me most is the condition of the common people. How are they? Have their situation improved?

One of the things that worries me very much is our increasing foreign dependence. I agree that over the last several years a lot has been achieved, many bridges, miles of roads, some factories and big buildings in the cities. But have all these really helped our people? With whose money have we done all these? Is it with borrowed money that all these have been built? What will happen if money from abroad suddenly stops coming? Have we not become more and more dependent on foreign aid over the years? I do not understand much about economics, but I have been taught this much that the growth that does not come from my own wealth and is dependent on somebody else's assistance cannot be all that good for me.

I do not understand much about free trade and what not. But I can see that today even most of the the essentials - eggs, lentil, vegetable, fruits, even salt, I am told- come from India. How can this be good for us? This leads me to talk about the question of employment.

The other thing that worries me is the rising unemployment. It is increasing all the time. Our young boys and girls are coming out of universities and colleges and from vocational institutions but there is nothing for them to do. What have we done to give employment to our young educated people? In the old days when we did not have all these bridges there used to be small business on both banks of a river for people who would cross. Now we just go across the bridge. I know the bridge has improved many things but what about those who lost out on their daily earnings? What alternative measures have we taken for them? What I am citing is a small example of how modernisation leads to greater unemployment unless we plan carefully. Widespread unemployment is the fundamental cause for violence and criminal activities among the young.

This is the third thing that worries me. I cannot recall anytime in the past and I have lived through many critical times, when there was so much violence and insecurity all round. This is very worrying indeed. The great tradition of our students is being destroyed by the criminal elements that have been injected into our student community by the political parties. I cannot believe, I refuse to believe that any genuine student can raise a gun against a fellow student, let alone kill him. These are criminals who are under the protection of the political parties.

These criminals have spread their wings into the whole society. Every aspect of our civic life is now suffering under their evil influence. Close relations within a neighbourhood does not exist anymore because of the local mastans. People visiting their neighbours, our children going from one house to another a common feature of life in Dhaka- has all but disappeared. We do not feel safe letting our children move freely within our own neighbourhood anymore. Before every neighbourhood - para, moholla- used to look after its own community, and there was pride and joy in each others' success. Now we stay within our shells. Part of it is the change of times, but a large part of it is due to the criminalisation of our society.

Rising population also worries me. We have such a small country and there are so many of us. I know now, the government and the NGOs are giving loans to buy a cow, a lamb or to raise chicken at home. But for the large number of landless and for those who have a small home within large family members, where will they keep their animals or raise chickens? I think the idea of small loans to raise home-based farms of all types is a very good idea. But does it really help our landless? Can they benefit from such loans?

Another thing that worries me is the lack of respect for women these days. Earlier when men and women used to work side by side, there used to be tremendous mutual respect. Now it is all gone. It is the age of competition and I can understand that men may resent women intruding into their world. So let there be competition, but why should it come with lack of respect?

Why have we not been able to build our country better in the last 25 years?

The most important reason is that we do not have a courageous leader who can lead us out of this all pervasive degeneration. We may have committed leaders today, but none of them are courageous enough to take sweeping and visionary decisions; decisions that go far beyond their partisan or coterie interest. Our leaders lack courage. People of Bangladesh have never fallen back from supporting any courageous leader. Our people are ever ready to undertake whatever struggle necessary to solve all the problems that we face today. What we are lacking is leadership. In Sheikh Mujib's name our nation plunged into battle with bare hands. So our people are full of courage, our leaders are not. Today they take recourse to bombastic rhetoric but never take the bold and unpleasant decisions – because they lack courage.

Do you see any sign of hope or only of failure?

Of course, I am tremendously hopeful about the ability of our new generation. If they are not misled by vested groups or the so-called leaders, I think our young people can build this country and take us out of this shameful poverty and backwardness.

Reading, a lifelong passion. Photo courtesy: Sufia Kamal Jonmoshotoborsho Udjapon Porshod

What are your views on the current political crisis?

I have read in the newspaper that Sheikh Hasina said that she will talk with Prime Minister Khaleda Zia after she resigns. My view is, once Khaleda resigns then she will not have any power to implement whatever decision they both may arrive at. Out of power Khaleda Zia's words will carry far less weight, and they will make less impact on the course of events. So the talks should be held when Khaleda remains the Prime Minister to enable her to implement the outcome, and take follow up actions. Therefore I suggest, they should sit immediately and start talks on solving the present crisis.

During my meetings with Hasina I asked her why she left the parliament. She said that opposition was not given due opportunity to play its role. Whatever may have been the situation it was wrong of Hasina to have left the parliament. Parliament belonged to us and it was our place to keep the government in check.

Did Khaleda Zia ever come to see you?

Only once, a long time ago, may be sometime in the mid eighties.

She did not visit you during your last illness?

No. Hasina came to see me. She comes now and then. If she comes again – she has not come for sometime now – I will tell her that she must sit for talks immediately. She should not insist on Khaleda's resignation.

There is another thing I feel strongly about. Isn't there a single person… a single intellectual in our country who is acceptable to both sides, somebody who can mediate between these two groups? Why do we have to get a foreigner to solve our problems? It is a shame for us. When Mr Shahabuddin (former President) came to see me during my illness, I asked why he did not try to mediate and resolve the crisis. He said “Did you not hear that PM, thinks that only a child or a mad man is capable of being neutral. Since I am not a child, neither am I mad, how can I be neutral enough to be able to mediate? Please excuse me, I do not think I can do anything to resolve this crisis.” If I was well, I would have invited them for talks in my own house. I would have appealed personally to both of them to come to an understanding. Most probably Khaleda Zia would never come to my house, but I, nevertheless, would have tried. I cannot see the suffering of the common people anymore.

I am very much against these hartals and strikes. These actions do not hurt the government, it hurts the people. The more poor one is, the more strikes and hartals hurt. The widespread violence, random breaking of cars etc., pain me very much. These activities are pulling us backward further. The middle class and the small business people are especially affected by these strikes– the small entrepreneurs, the shopkeepers, the roadside vendors, daily workers, hawkers etc.

Sufia Kamal with her family. Photo courtesy: Sufia Kamal Jonmoshotoborsho Udjapon Porshod

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