Not much has changed, has it Nazrul?

National Poet Kazi Nazrul Islam

The poet Kazi Nazrul Islam is synonymous with rebellion, revolt and refusal to bend to the rules. He rebelled against the injustices he saw all around him. The tyranny of the powerful, the suffering of the poor, religious hypocrisy, suppression, repression, oppression, a society rife with mistrust, hatred, disparity and despair.

We have come a long way since then. Or have we?

True, Nazrul would have had to cross the waters of the river Padma by boat, with all the risks involved, if he wanted to get to the other side. No mega bridge to zip across in a fraction of the time. But then again, while crossing the bridge at 60km/h, would he have  been inspired to write 'Padmar dheu re', the haunting song that evokes all the passion, romance, mystery and yearning attached to each wave of the river, every drop of water falling back into the Padma from the wooden oar of the hardy boatman?

National Poet Kazi Nazrul Islam

But that is not the point here. The point is, Nazrul and his compatriots fought against domination, misrule, the evils and vices of society, communalism, abuse of women, cruelty and brutality. We are still fighting against these evils till today.

Does that mean Nazrul and those valiant souls of his ilk have made no difference to this world? They have! They certainly have! They are our inspiration. Nazrul has given us the zeal, the courage, the spirit to fight against injustice, exploitation and all that is wrong.

In 1971 when we fought for independence from the oppressive rule of the Pakistan leadership, every step of a freedom fighter resounded with the 'chal, chal, chal' martial anthem of Nazrul, igniting fire in their veins and courage in their hearts. We became rebellious, reckless and fearless like 'The Rebel' of Nazrul's poem:

I'm the tempest, I'm the cyclone

I destroy everything I find in my path,

I'm the dance-loving rhythm,

I dance to my own beats.

I'm the delight of a life of freedom.

[Translation: Sajed Kamal]

National poet Kazi Nazrul Islam

Nazrul remains relevant down to this day. There is a universality in his message, in his appeal.

He condemned religious hypocrisy, whether of the so-called mullahs or the Hindu high priests. We see such 'faith-peddlers' even today, spewing out rot in the name of religion, to fill their coffers by duping the unsuspecting masses.

In 'Anandaymoyeer Agomone', he condemns those in the semblance of goddesses and the false mullahs:

How much longer will you hide, woman, behind the statue of clay!

The cruel oppressing tyrants, over heaven now hold sway...

and ...

They shake their beards, recite fatwa, go to the mosque to pray,

But forget that they are simply slaves, imprisoned all the way.

These slaves with curses round their necks, see evil as their deity,

With sinful lips read Quran, their beards a show of piety.

[Translated: Ayesha Kabir]

Now coming to women and gender balance. Women have come a long way in every sector of Bangladesh. From the prime minister to the garment industry worker, from pilots to engineers, journalists to soldiers, entrepreneurs and more, women are proving their worth in all areas at work and home. Yet we still struggle with gender balance, patriarchal systems are still embedded in the nooks and crannies of the ostensibly balanced and liberal society. We can take a page out of Nazrul's book when he declares in 'Woman':

I sing of equality.

I don't see any difference

between a man and a woman.

Whatever great or benevolent achievements

there are in this world,

half of that was by woman,

the other half by man.

[Translated: Sajed Kamal]

Kazi Nazrul Islam

In a more recent development, when the US announced its new visa policy, it wasn't their high and mighty attitude that was dismaying. What was dismaying was the fear it invoked among people in vital positions of vital institutions. (What has this got to do with Nazrul? Hold on, I'm coming to that.) Back in colonial times, the sahibs used the stick and carrot strategy of offering 'prestigious' Khan Bahadur titles to their loyal followers among the 'natives', along with other favours and enticement, but it was the boot and the noose to those who refused to bow down. It is certainly not like that now.

Bangladesh has made strides in development and we are doing better than so many other countries in the region. So why are we so aghast at the prospect of not receiving a visa to America? If we can't go to America, is that the end of the world? What eventualities are we scared of, about remaining back in our own homeland? What wrongdoings have we committed that we fear our fate at the hands of our own compatriots? Why can't we stand up like Nazrul, proud and fearless, not catering the white sahibs, or even to the brown sahibs at home? He bowed to no mortal:

Before me bow the Himalayan peaks!

['Bidrohi', translated by Sajed Kamal]

All he wanted was to free mankind of the shackles all around. We can create a song of our own, resonating Nazrul's spirit. Our lyrics would read:

We fear no one, nothing at all

Liberate mankind, that is our call!

This 25 May this year was Nazrul's 124th birthday. It may have been 124 years since he was born, but he still speaks to us in his songs, his poems, his prose and in his all-pervasive spirit that lurks in the heart of every hot-blooded Bengali. Salute Nazrul, salute!