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Haq, Kaiser

HAQ, Kaiser


Nationality: Bangladeshi. Born: Kaiser Mohamed Hamidul Haq, Dhaka, 7 December 1950. Education: University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, B.A. (honors) in English 1972, M.A. in English 1973; University of Warwick, England, Ph.D. in English literature 1981. Military Service: Bangladesh Liberation Army, 1971–72: 2nd lieutenant; War Medal, Campaign Star, Victory Medal. Family: Married Dipa Haq in 1976 (died 1999). Career: Lecturer, 1975–82, assistant professor, 1982–85, associate professor, 1985–91, and since 1991 professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka. Member, editorial board, Form, Dhaka, 1982–86, and Art, Dhaka, 1993–95; editor, Dhaka University Studies, 1999–2001. Judge, Commonwealth Writers prize, 1994, and biannual short story contest in English, Singapore National Arts Council, 1995; regional chairperson, Commonwealth Writers prize, 1996, 1997. Awards: Senior Fulbright scholarship, 1986–87; Vilas fellowship, 1987. Address: Department of English, University of Dhaka, Dhaka 1000, Bangladesh.

Publications

Poetry

Starting Lines. Dhaka, Liberty, 1978.

A Little Ado. Dhaka, Granthabithi, 1978.

A Happy Farewell. Dhaka, University Press Ltd., 1994.

Black Orchid. London, Aark Arts, 1996.

Other

Editor, Contemporary Indian Poetry. Ohio State University Press, 1990.

Translator, Selected Poems of Shamsur Rahman. Dhaka, BRAC, 1985.

Translator, Quartet, by Tagore. London, Heinemann, 1993.

Translator, The Wonders of Vilayet. Leeds, Peepal Tree Books, 1997.

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Critical Studies: "A Bard from Bangladesh" by Khushwant Singh, in Sunday (Calcutta), November 1990; "Kaiser Haq: Between Western Know-How and Eastern Wisdom" by Niaz Zaman, in Holiday (Dhaka), 29 November 1991; "Scholar Sees Cultural and Literary Possibilities in Change" by Asad Latif, in The Straits Times (Singapore), 16 September 1995; "On a Road Less Travelled By: Kaiser Haq's Poetry" by Fakrul Alam, in Daily Star (Dhaka), December 1995; in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 32 (1), 1997.

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While a significant number of Indian poets writing in English have achieved international reputations, their counterparts in neighboring Bangladesh are significantly fewer. Among them, Kaiser Haq is the only poet who has gained worldwide acclaim. A professor of English at the University of Dhaka, Haq came of age during one of the most tumultuous periods of modern South Asian history—the 1971 civil war between the two sections of Pakistan (East and West) and the emergence of Bangladesh from the former East Pakistan. Twenty-one at the time, Haq served as an officer in the Bangladesh Liberation Army, as did other young poets writing in Bengali, who later used the event as the mainspring of their patriotic and political verse. The only poem in Haq's first collection, Starting Lines (1978), to treat the event directly is "Bangladesh '71." Startled by the brutality he has witnessed and perhaps even participated in, the speaker asks as "smoky dusk falls like fear /Over stone and human heart /How, and with what, shall one create art?"

Otherwise, the poems in the collection show Haq as a spirited, self-assured observer of the urban landscape. Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, serves as the aesthetic focus of many of the poems, which depict the beauty but more often the squalor of this unmanageable sprawl of a metropolis. His images are always striking, especially the similes, and some are even profane to South Asian sensibilities; if they were written today, they might provoke the powerful orthodox to ban his works and perhaps even call for his arrest. In "Two Trees and Time," for example, he writes, "A minaret gleams in the distance /like a condom in full bloom."

The collection A Little Ado, published simultaneously with the first, contains newer and, in many ways, more mature poems. Here Haq continues his romance with the city of Dhaka, especially with its cacophony and its pungent, even revolting, smells. The poems speak of the "reek /of masses" ("Street Incident"), of the call of children playing hide-and-seek at night, of birds and vehicles, of beggars and vendors, and of a couple pondering with fright the prospect of returning to the city after a brief respite in the peaceful countryside. Many of the poems also reveal a more political cast. Here irony abounds in the disparities between the rich and the poor and the beautiful—sometimes, but not always, the former—and the ugly. "Fringe Benefit," for example, addresses the poverty of children, who seem to be more at ease with their plight than the putatively guilty middle-class man who gives them both his apologies and money. In "Street Incident" adult beggars "thrill … /at the divine, imported fragrance" of a pampered wealthy woman complaining of the heat as she dashes from an air-conditioned limousine to an airconditioned store; the beggars "loudly chant … /their praises of heaven" in the wake she leaves.

A Happy Farewell (1994) offers poems from 1978 through 1993 as well as selected verses from Haq's first two collections. While some poems have as their traditional subject the monsoons, the rivers of Bangladesh, snake charmers, and yogis, the best are centered on the quotidian life of the extended family. In "Moon," for example, "Aunts in orgies of gossip /plough through mountains of betel, /outchewing a flock of goats," and the excitement of witnessing an infant nephew's first words in "Baby Talk" prompts the conclusion that "language /is a /life-sentence." Some of the most unusual poems in the collection are written in what the author calls "subcontinental English," the variety of language used by South Asians whose command of idiom and vocabulary are, by textbook standards, nonstandard, a trend started by the Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel in the 1970s. "Civil Service Romance," in the style of a memo, is a love letter cluttered with office jargon and written to a woman new in an office by a veteran who invites her friendship. Sadly amusing, it expresses the desires and attraction of a lonely man unused to approaching women as equals, especially in the workplace, and attempting to stave off his ineptness and inexperience through the objectivity and force of officialese. Poems of this type have caused considerable negative reactions in academic and critical circles, although, in fact, such language is often used and even sanctioned.

Haq's published oeuvre is small, but it is possessed of an overall excellence that places him among his peers not only in South Asia but also in the contemporary world of letters. His poems are thoughtful, well-constructed works, frequently sinewy, often delicate, in which sensibility is matched by notable imagery and poignancy, and they are always reflective of the human condition in a part of the world where, even without civil war, it is not easy to make art.

—Carlo Coppola

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