Khondakar Ashraf Hossain is one of the finest poetic voices to have come out of Bangladesh since it won independence in 1971. This volume contains poems that cover a period of creativity extending over almost three decades. Ashraf Hossain's poetry is deeply concerned with the celebration of his motherland, its myths and metonymies, its political and social exigencies. But he also traverses the grounds of existentialist philosophy and mysticism quite often, as he touches such timeless themes as Life and Death, Time and Eternity. In love poems he has combined passion and intellect. In quite a number of poems he has concerned himself with the conditions of womanhood, particularly in the backdrop of religious bigotry and persecution. Ashraf Hossain is at the same time prolific and profound, sombre and playful, scintillating and cerebral. But his language is lucid and lyrical; his voice is mellow and, often, mystifying. His insights into the human condition make him a serious poet, worthy of the attention of the most discerning of readers.

Dr. Khondakar Ashraf Hossain was born in Jamalpur, Bangladesh in 1950. Educated in Dhaka and Leeds, he is currently a Professor of English at the University of Dhaka. He is a renowned poet, writing mostly in Bangla and translating from Bangla into English. He has also translated from German and English into Bangla. Seven volumes of his poetry have been published, including Nirbachito Kobita (Selected Poems). His other books include Teen Ramanir Qasida, Parthob Tomar Teebro Teer, Jibaner Shoman Chumuk and Janma Baul Professor Hossain has translated Selected Poems of Paul Celan, Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction, David Abercrombie's Elements of General Phonetics, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, and Eurpides' Medea and Alcestis, and Edith Hamilton's Mythology into Bangla. Besides these, he has edited Selected Poems of Nirmalendu Goon. He was awarded the Alaol Literary Prize for poetry in 1987 and the West Bengal Little Magazine Award 1998 for editing the magazine for poetry and arts, Ekobingsho. His poems have been translated into English, German, French, Telugu and Hindi. His doctoral thesis, Modernism and Beyond: Western Influence on Bangladeshi Poetry is currently under print.

Khondakar Ashraf Hossain On Behula's Raft Selected Poems ISBN 984 70115 0001 0 Taka 200.00

Daily Star Books Review
Published On: May 10, 2008

English Poems of Khandakar Ashraf Hossain

Khandakar Ashraf Hossain is a professor of English at Dhaka University , and a well-known Bengali poet. He has published seven volumes of poetry, as well as translated into Bengali texts such as Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction. He is the editor of the long-running little magazine Ekobingsho for which he was awarded the West Bengal Little Magazine Award in 1998.

Khandakar Ashraf has now published a volume of English poems, On Behula's Raft: Selected Poems ( Dhaka :, January 2008). In the introduction he writes that his "fond wish is that the reader ...take these poems as 'English versions' rather than, as translations of their originals in Bangla." This is because "writers who 'translate' their own works.. .do not so much translate from one language to another as express the same ideas through two mediums."

As the poet himself points out, aside from the themes of love, "considerations of womanhood" and a tormented vision of Bangladesh , these poems collectively spanning a period of thirty years are discontinuous in mood and content. The poems tend to be self-consciously 'literary' when they echo and refer to canonical Bengali and English poets (even Khandakar's assertion of "same ideas in two mediums," for example, takes on Rabindranath's hue who wrote that his English Gitanjali was the insult of his "urge to recapture through the medium of another language the feelings and sentiments..."). Khandakar's poems are freer when they employ the common rhythms of everyday life: "Do the bed, straighten the sky on the window/Spread last night's clothes on the hangers..."

The brooding sensibility present in the poems is certainly Bengali and Bangladeshi-­as evidenced in the title poem where the mythological Behula's husband protests against being awakened to a present-day Bangladesh with its particular horrors:

A shameless villain of the town lured you to a deserted alley

And stuffed handkerchief under your blouse;

You made a diaphanous headscarf with my shroud-Cloth;

laying me out naked on the sunlit pavement

begged for coppers and dimes from foreign traders.

The poems, however, are marred by Indian English-isms, with atonal registers and both British- and American-speak present ("guys" with "chums", for example, and in the above quote perhaps 'pennies and pice' might have been a tad more musical), awkward phrasing ("I must be avenged for thousand deaths and denigrations"), outdated poeticisms ("O reverend trees"), and redundancies ("bolster pillows"). Had the poet (and his troika of advisors) been more careful perhaps these infelicities could have been avoided.

Star Books Review
Published On: March 29, 2008

A poetic soul nourished by geography
K. Rezaur Rahman is enchanted by a kaleidoscopic offering

Khondakar Ashraf Hossain is perhaps the finest voice on the literary horizon of Bangladesh, particularly in the field of poetic activity, at the present time. He has made his mark on the literary scene as a Bengali poet and has published several volumes of Bengali poems. On Behula's Raft is his first collection of English poems written on a kaleidoscopic variety of themes. Although the poems are written in English, Ashraf Hossain does not claim to be an English poet. His soul, as he says in the preface to this volume, is nourished and nurtured by the alluvial soil of Bangladesh the lush green countryside with clusters of boats sailing on the river, hosts of plants and flowers dancing in the breeze, the twittering of birds in the sky have always been a source of inspiration for his poetic creativity.

Ashraf Hossain's poetry is suffused with his deep feeling for his motherland, its myths and legends, its political and social changes. The title poem does not offer any traditional interpretation of the Behula myth. On the contrary, Behula symbolises the poet's motherland and the poem grows out of his patriotic zeal and national feeling for the land and its people. Behula stands for Bangladesh on whose raft the poet floats with his soaring imagination and emotional responses to events and historical changes. Although the poet is aware of the struggle of life, of death and denigration, the poem ends with implied optimism to stand up against all opposing forces to herald the dawn of a better future for the people of this land.

In spite of his social and political awareness, Ashraf Hossain has traversed the grounds of existential philosophy in conceiving human life as fragile yet undying, as self-destructive yet eternal. In the first poem of the volume, 'Man', he defines Man in terms that take us beyond even the Renaissance glorification of the species: “None can contain Man - /Neither Nature nor the horizon-kissing robes of God,/ neither the river nor the motherland.” The poem ends with a stunning assertion: “I love Man because one day/ he will roast himself in his own fire.” Hossain has reaffirmed the claim of humanity over divine ordination in another poem titled 'Earth'. God said, “We have given thee this earth as bribe.” Men replied, “We've given you that sky, rent-free.../ That blue sky arranged in fold after fold,/ the sun the moon and the planets of gold,/ And angels, those sentinels of immortal light,/ The archers of rain and clouds, and limitless powers--/We salute you babu, but this humble earth is ours.”

Ashraf Hossain's love poems are characterised by stark realism rather than by romantic euphoria. 'Delirium' is a love poem that does not deal with consummated love but a fantasy of unrequited love as the beloved goes beyond human possession. “A journey from sight to a point/ beyond all sights, not to Cithaera A crow perches on the mast .../ A bristling koi fish crawls through my lacerated veins; / A hibiscus of love tumbles down/ from the beatings of your heart.” The image 'hibiscus of love' suggests that love is tender and grows steadily like a plant. But the poem does not end with romantic persuasion of love, rather it creates a sense of dejection as the beloved vanishes like an invisible creature: “Dangling your legs on the sides of the thermometer,/ you fly away, O witch! to far-off Cithaera!”

'The Woodpecker' is a confessional poem, which expresses Ashraf Hossain's commitment to the teaching profession he has inherited from his family tradition. He sticks to this profession as a member of the third generation and has trodden this path for thirty years like a woodpecker searching food for the sustenance of his soul. Ashraf Hossain's passion of life is to become a poet as he has stated in the same poem: “Poetry is soul's food.” But the irony inherent in a teacher's life is that most often what he gets in return is a sense of futility a fruitless pecking on the dead twigs leading to even the damage of the brain: “Many take the crest on my head to be a crown of glory--/ In reality that's the clotted blood, the cerebral hemorrhage--/ Not the plume on a hero's helmet!”

'Noorjahan' is an extraordinary poem centred on the condition of women in a male-dominated and bigoted society. The poem reveals Ashraf Hossain's intense social awareness and insight into the sad plight of a working class girl who toils hard for her survival. She is deprived of all joys of life and helplessly drifts on the sea of sorrow and pain. The poet uses a refrain of two lines: “Water is boiling on the stove./ What is there inside the water?” He then provides his answers. In the course of this Q & A, the poet at one point recounts the general condition of Bangladeshi women: “Water is boiling on the stove./What's there inside the water?/ A woman's heart, her sari./ What do you do with the sari?/ It makes a good burial cloth, you know!/ One who has nothing, a sari is her world, her afterworld./ Wrap her body in a four-yard long sari/-- that'll be her best, her night's rest,/ her winter's warmth.” The poem ends with the vision of a time when vast multitudes of working class women will rise from the abyss of poverty and deprivation like the legendary “ababeel” birds to protest against social inequality and persecution. Ashraf Hossain has made deft use of the Koranic myth of King Abraha and his elephant hordes, which was destroyed by the stone-pelting “ababeels”.

'The Ballad of a Gravedigger's Daughter' is another fine poem, which powerfully conveys a sense of suffering and tragic pathos. The poem, written in four-line stanzas with rhyme, testifies to Ashraf Hossain's artistic skill in handling the ballad form and in creating a terrible sense of loneliness and tragedy of life. While the gravedigger digs graves, his daughter in his lonely hut excavates another kind of grave with her clandestine lover.

In 'Women and Witchcraft,' written in excellent lyrical flair, the poet has focused his vision on the superstition of rural life in the countryside. A snake-bitten woman is lying in the village courtyard, dying or already dead. The crowd is waiting with heart throbbing suspense while a snake charmer chants mantras with the increasing speed of his voice, desperately trying to bring her back to life. In a playful tone the poet draws a spectacle of superstition, which is an integral part of rural life patterns. Apart from these narrative poems, Hossain has written many pure lyrics, some of them based on the natural scenery of Bangladesh. His evocation of the visual scene of the playful wind and rain on the vast paddy fields is spellbinding. Furthermore, he sees the rural scene through the eyes of a man who knows about western dance forms like tango or flamenco. The following is a description of the dance of the cloud on the waters of the marshes: “The cloud figure-skates/ on the swaying aman sheaves./Touching the boats' prow/ on the dark waters of the beel / the turbulent cloud hoofs up a flamenco swirl/ long hair/ floating in a frenzied glee.

Ashraf Hossain's poetry abounds with quotable quotes. Often his first lines take on the look of aphorisms or wise sayings. They are both deep in meaning and original in conception. A few examples: “Life is a half-trained tiger, he has only learnt how to howl;” “Sorrow is a guitar that cuts the maestro's finger/ just to test the sharpness of its strings”, “Your children are the mileposts to your grave--/ Footprints of the traveller snatched away by a tiger”. . .

The poetry is soaked with profound love for the land, its enchanting landscape and masses. Hossain's language is lucid; his imagery is innovative and suggestive. His understanding of the human condition makes him a serious poet. The present collection containing thirty-five poems will certainly be able to receive the appreciation of the most discerning of readers.

Dr. K. Rezaur Rahman has retired as Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka.