Exploring Shahid Qadri\'s unique modernism

Shihab Sarkar | Thursday, 1 September 2016

In telephone conversations with this writer in 1991, then participating in the Iowa International Writing Program in the USA, Shahid Qadri once said he was very much eager to go back to Bangladesh. In was early October. He spoke from his office in a Boston suburb. His days in the US had already passed more than ten years. He was then in his middle age, full of youthful vigour, and free of fatigue and any physical ailments. The poet sounded quite emotional as he said, "I long to go back to Bangladesh, but I've been stuck in this country. I can't come free of the net in which I have landed." The poet did not elaborate. 
In September, 2015, this writer was sitting in the poet's living room in the suburban Jamaica in New York City. Shaid Qadri had been wheelchair-bound for over a decade. At 73, with all his puffy, black hair gone, he was suffering from acute kidney diseases. Reaching a miserably incapacitating condition, he had to undergo kidney dialysis thrice a week, with his loving wife Neera Qadri looking after him with all conceivable forms of care and affection.
At one point of the 4-hour-long adda on that September evening, the poet, then ravaged by years of crippling illness, yet full of zest for life, once again turned nostalgic. He said he had still been nurturing the dream of visiting Bangladesh. Suddenly he looked sad, absent-minded and began murmuring with a smile, "But how?" Those who were present at his place at that time did not fail to decipher the meaning of his dejected smile. Obviously, the poet was referring to his physical impairment.
Shahid Qadri finally returned to Bangladesh, and his favourite Dhaka, on last August 31. But he was boxed in a wooden coffin. Admirers received him at the airport in a solemn, mournful atmosphere. Despite his presence on the country's soil, people around him no longer heard his soulful guffaw, the sarcastic comments and his spontaneous recitations from the poems of Sudhindranath Dutta or TS Eliot.
For the poetry lovers of Dhaka, especially the ardent admirers of Shahid Qadri, the situation was surreal, if not weird. None in Bangladesh had ever thought in their wildest dream of a Shahid Qadri without his loud presence exuding the charms of life. But this is how the rules of nature guide us. The only consummately urban poet of the country, like Charles Baudelaire of France or CP Cavafy of Greece, Shahid Qadri has left us forever. But as long as Dhaka city survives with its characteristic urban beauty and squalor, its air and everything mundane and ethereal, it will speak of Qadri, his semi-bohemian life-style and his inexhaustible passion for poetry. 
Shahid Qadri published only four books in his lifetime; he was not as prolific as Shamsur Rahman or Al Mahmud. Yet he had been born to poetry, grew up with poetry, and later was wedded to this most elusive form of the arts. 
Qadri was a precocious child, getting conversant with both the Bangla and English languages at an early age. His maiden poem was published in the Kolkata poetry journal Kabita when he was just 14. It was edited by Buddhadeb Basu, a literary giant of the 1930s. He had passed his early youth in Dhaka.
Born and brought up in the pre-partition Kolkata, Qadri did not pursue his institutional studies beyond the A-level. Upon coming to Dhaka after 1947, he had already lost interest in formal studies and got engaged in self-teaching and discovering the beauty of language and poetic expression. He had not yet met the major literary figures of Dhaka --- all of them young poets. Qadri's introduction with the poets Shamsur Rahman, Syed Shamsul Haque, Al Mahmud et al came a little later. This phase of the poet found him as an extraordinarily talented young man, whose thirst for scholarship and the urge to write poetry complemented each other. As time wore on, Shahid Qadri emerged on the Bangladesh literary scene as the most educated and enlightened of the local intelligentsia.
By the time his first collection of poetry, Uttaradhikar, came out in 1967 he had already established himself as a young poet of high intellectual and creative calibre. In the following years, Shahid Qadri proved himself a strong voice in Dhaka poetic landscape. Equipped with a rare intellectual and creative sophistication and erudition coming from his vast reading, the poet in no time earned the position of the unofficial guide to Dhaka-based poetry.
In the whole 1960s and the 70s, Shahid Qadri's judgement and assessments of both senior and younger poets would carry lots of weight. He was outspoken, at times merciless and cruel, when it came to reviewing the work by his fellow poets. Poetic pretensions and dilettantism would make him furious. At one stage, Qadri became the most awesome person to many of his contemporaries. At the same time, he was a kind and encouraging senior poet to the younger generation. A person gifted with keen observation and the ability to recognise budding creative geniuses, Qadri was tireless in helping poets blossom. Thanks to his learned and skilful tutoring, many younger poets of his time later emerged as potential figures in our poetry.
Informality and casualness had made up a major portion of his temperament. He nurtured a rebel in the subterranean level of his self. He felt devastated after the killing of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975. A wanderer also resided in him. Or else, one fine morning in 1979 why should he say goodbye to the country and embark on a journey with no definite destination? By the time he had reached the USA in the early eighties with bitter stints in the UK and Germany, he appeared to be one pondering to finally choose self-exile. That's what he had settled for willingly.
Despite his physical detachment from the country, Shahid Qadri lived through Bangladesh during his days in the USA. He couldn't afford to sever connection with Bangla and Bengali culture. Along with foreign books, old and the latest books in Bangla would comprise a large segment of his reading list. He would keep abreast of the socio-political developments of Bangladesh and the sub-continent and the global scenario and would make his own judgements. 
Apart from literature, Qadri would sail through history, social science, economy and current affairs with equal ease. He had a passion for physics and the new developments in medical science. When it came to books, he would suggest others to read the new books of his choice. Many had greatly benefited from reading the books on his recommendation. Poet Shamsur Rahman was also an avid reader; but in terms of variety of subjects, Shahid Qadri surpassed all.  Had he not later emerged as a poet, Qadri would surely have left distinctive mark in the area of scholarship.
The poet proved his brilliant poetic excellence since the publication of his very first book - Uttaradhikar (1967). It was greeted with rave reviews. It contained the widely read poems like 'Brishti, Brishti', 'Nortoki', 'Shahid Qadri Bari Naei' etc. It was followed by Tomakey Obhibadon Priyotoma and Kothao Kono Krondon Naei in the 1970s in independent Bangladesh. Shahid Qadri later published two more collections of poetry while in the USA. Compared to his superb creative talent, his grasp of the medium, his amazing erudition, the number of his published books seems meagre. He had never been prolific, a much-sought-after 'quality' that used to draw his ridicule. Many of our poets one time or another became subjects of his attack for their being over-productive.
However, Shahid Qadri's small output vis-à-vis his great creative potential had also sparked disapproval of both writers and readers. Many blame this on his laziness and his more liking for scholarly addas at favourite hangouts than for becoming alone and composing poems. In fact, Qadri was more of a poets' poet than someone having conventional creative traits. He was averse to all kinds of mediocrity. In a land of average and below-average talents, measuring the height of a poet like Shahid Qadri is a daunting task. In spite of the gaps in his writing career, his stature as an outstanding and major poet has long been a firmly established fact.
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