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Mohammad Rafiq

Translated from Bangla by

Carolyn Brown


at the river's edge ambushing

shadows huddle in the mud

rasping breaths echo in the dusk

it's only evening, not doomsday

mutterings boil up and burst

over the land, grumblings gather

and scatter—it's not

the flood, only the turning tide

the air cracks, then shatters

ayai, it's the end—the wind shrieks

and whips the night—it's only

the riverbank plunging, not the deluge

surging spurting spilling

it's only water, not poison


ho now, Beguni! your lover's coming tonight

so comb your hair, coil your braids high

hush, Kirtinasha's rising, racing, drenched in desire

under the last full moon in this season of sighs

Damodar, the wind's husky voice is sweet tonight

hope's phantoms rock the tethered boat

water kisses it, night clasps its planks

seeking sleep's secret in the dripping rain

foamy waves whirl wildly over rippling arms

soaked ribs quiver in the rampaging wind

ho now, Beguni! never mind your scented clothes

no tired feet, no darkened doorways, forget them tonight

tomorrow Kirtinasha will ebb and flow as always

tonight is different, Damodar, tonight's call is different


brine-encrusted wall . . . snake drooping over a beam

dusk approaches with a sigh . . . scraps of crumpled paper

scuttle across the floor . . . a window has blown open

the chill wind sweeps in whooping and wailing

grit scatters over a grimy body with spine-tingling

scratches and scrapes, covering it from head to toe

a half-empty barley tin lies close by, an open

bottle of medicine . . . a bat, just one, frightened

wings flapping, follows the trail of fading light

heavy-lidded eyes open wide, straining to see

the end, its face, its shadow, though the man knows

he's alone . . . no one's been there for days

now even that dim awareness dissolves . . . it's night

a drift of dust shifts without warning, burying

the trickle of painful memories . . . eyes glaze

a lizard clacks loudly, the only witness


water slaps the waning moon—I'm going, it cries

in the hyacinth-drugged fog, a dinghy strains

at its tether and shudders, awakened

from oblivion by hissing waves, grumbling tide

the shocked moon shivers in the churning water

across the muddy sandbank shadows creep

slowly uncurling scrawny black fingers

sleeping rice stalks startle and quake

the moon lingers, flickering, nearly consumed

a boatman coughs and stretches, tamps his hookah

splashes his face on the echoing shore

a snapping turtle floats idly, biding its time

the tide crests—it cares for nothing

the moon shatters in its wake—goodbye, goodbye


so, you've taken my son, my husband, my only daughter

what more can you do? go ahead, take me too

it's the season when weeping bokul buds litter the ground

this morning they make me think of death

others are sure to cheat me—they'll take everything that's left

last night, bats' shadows whirred for hours

over the moon-glazed marshes, across

the thick-planted paddy stretched under the stars

look at the flower-flocked kamini—I planted it myself

now, under this cloudburst of blossoming memories,

a cobra digs down in its burrow—whatever I touch

breaks in my hands—I was widowed at seventeen

I've spent my life smelling scorched flowers, chameli burnt

by the harsh sun—it's late, with so many chores undone

water to fetch, fresh straw for the cow

bless you, baba, won't you take a bit of sweet?


can anything stop this ceaseless soaking? Kirtinasha

will these floods never end? the clouds, the rains?

water streams from your hair, pours down your back

chill shafts of rain pierce your shivering skin

tonight, crocodile after sex-starved crocodile will lock

limbs on the banks and devour each other with desire

tonight, wave after wave of fish will break ranks

and go marauding downstream, insatiable, insane

can anything stop this boundless burning? Kirtinasha

will these droughts never end? the sickness, the dying?

a torn sari clings to your body, tattered waves cover your chest

the sun's thirsty eyes burn mad and cruel

can anything stop this gnawing pain? Kirtinasha

someone will tear up this black body and eat it too


looking and listening—loving, looking and listening for so long—watching

mouths on grass blades, breasts on blossoms, weary arms on oars; at the end

of autumn bleached reeds rustle by the wrinkled water; crystal-clear

eyes travel from light to black light, then track by scent in utter darkness

twinned stars blink in the evening sky; teal call out, shadows fly below

shivering wind, cowering fields, fleeing light, darkness, night

murky reflections float, muffled tears pock the waves

night birds shift their perches, fresh fears feed on each other

clouds drift across the sky like lines torn from a poem, some raindrops fall

clouds swallow clouds, light trades places with darkness, its dead light

dawn taps on the window, the blushing sun tiptoes in; bhuichapa open

their petalled eyes, laughing without laughter, breathing without breath

mute gazes, dazed smiles, stinking shroud, a last dying look—it's wrong

to hedge when clouds stream tears—or to leap to conclusions


day is done, Pranabandhu, and you're still silent

cracked voice, moss-shrouded brittle bones

spiritless salt-pitted tongue

shiulis drop their petals in the sun's first light

the river rises, banging its head on every bend

its face will get stuck in the sand one day

whatever men have, they always want more

an unheard refrain echoes in the decaying storeroom

bugs go on gnawing, roaches spread their dirt

the sharp tang of childhood sours the rest of life

six in the morning, a distant steamer shrieks

at Nilgonj the empty docks shudder

a mother's warm kiss, the rocked cradle's whisper

stones strike a secret hornets' nest

jets of venom spurt, the body goes numb

boatmen dip their oars, float their longings on the tide

by the threshold two shandhyamoni stems shiver

wanderers are heartless, they break their promises


neither duck, mynah, nor dove

it's a crow, a scrawny black crow

an angry midday sun scorches the green paddy

Kirtinasha boils dry like a sputtering kettle

from border to border, fire fire, they cry

neither parakeet, sparrow, nor pigeon

it's a crow, a raucous dirty crow

the wind's hot breath scatters parched red dust

thorny thickets crackle like a blazing oven

across the exhausted land, doom doom, they groan

neither beast, songbird, nor human

it's a crow, a scrawny black crow

kindled by the Choitro sun, wholly devoted to hunger

it tears chunks of rotting flesh from bones

helping itself to sun-broiled eyes, melting brains


the girl, she's just sixteen, exposes herself lewdly

hair spills down her back in wild waves

neither science's sharpest lens nor philosophy's

yellowest page will ever offer the slightest reason

though she spouts senseless syllables, eyes ablaze

no one's hot, probing hands have kindled or scorched her

never in her short life has she been tossed back

and forth between false kindness and dark desire

not a single boat's oar has been lured off-course by her scent

not one cobra has coiled itself around the frame of her cot

no dire messages have ever struck her like a clap of thunder

breasts bared, head banging between splayed legs in shame

she gasps for breath between tirades of cryptic threats

after days and nights of endless waiting, the tension

breaks under a phantasmal monsoon moon

she's learned the truth: the reign of madness, primal pain


At twilight crickets scrape out their complaint

bodiless forms steal past fences, through doors

a jarul stands stiffly between two jambu

stunned by nightmares of a vagabond moon

a flower's fragrance drills secret holes

rotting pondweeds poison the wind

this night's the last, if the tales are true

a woman with tangled hair stamps her feet

the tide tugs unseen on the village dock

intentions all crumble—no reason to fuss

passions flood the besotted sky

roots are yanked up from underground

screams fly into the dizzied light

a cobra's hood flares in someone's dream

this life's the last, if these lines are true

yelping foxes rip into the night

wasps sip moonbeams in a daze

solitude feeds their malevolence


why's the dog barking? oh bou, have you fallen asleep?

what sort of behavior is this? my son stays out late

night after night, Kalu's fourth oldest got spooked

coming home last night, he's been running a fever ever since

beat it, that black cat, now the dog's going

to make a ruckus . . . come and eat, bou

that precious son of mine, Rahim's bhabhi has bewitched him

what sort of spell is this erasing every thought of home

get the lantern, it's time to add a bit of oil,

well, baba was always half-drunk or drugged too

liquor, dope, or women, whatever he could get

while I wept all night, the child on my lap

fallen asleep, oh bou bou, and all this food to cover up

here's that nasty tomcat, trouble always comes in pairs



not the slightest sign the cow will get better


it's a total waste to spend two twenty-takas on that stuff


jump in the rice pot hungry belly aching joints chilies forty


gone to the city to be a man about town six months no news


will give birth again no end to brambles and weeds


thatch on the west side strains to fly off the roof in a squall


clouds grumble over the ink black sky every year


drawn on the walls of an ancient cave, an incredible gallery

of faces in contorted poses, winking eyes, signaling hands

hunter's raised spear, prey scampering away

half-eaten goat in a hyena-god's mouth

tall black woman filling her belly with the sun's shadow

half-naked shadow phantoms leaping in a primitive dance

mossy letters etched on the damp cave walls

tales of what might have been but perhaps never was

some customs that could have come close

straightforward solutions from a science of simple magic

clever Lazarus breaks out of his stone-hewn grave and rises up

flowery garlands sway and lamps blaze again in Behula's chamber

grotesque expressions and suggestive gazes

illegible scribbles completely impossible to decipher


Kirtinasha has borne muddy water all through the rainy day

leaving his hilsa net on the deck, Nibaron heads for a hut

at the market to get drunk on rice wine

the black day blusters, carrying personal grudges

windswept thatch stalks half-drowned in the water

Asarh's demented clouds tug at flying hair

bewildered, completely unprepared, a strange bird

and two white cranes cower on the far bank

water, surging fiercely, crashes down in harsh reproof

quick as an arrow, a long shaft of fire splits a fan-palm

just-planted paddy begs forgiveness on bended knee

the unprotected boat rocks improbably

Nibaron keels over and wallows in the muddy market

in the rampage weaver birds' nests have fallen

from date palm fronds into the muck, eggs and all

muddled wave-slapped bubbles burst—salt water

shoals of timid puti scatter every which way

chased by foul weather with no reason or mercy

seized by the east wind, Asarh's black storm clouds

race onward, the whole river thrashes and groans

on such unruly days all accounts should be settled


faces float random and unfamiliar—or are they?—

peering into mucky corners through broken bars

strange obscene stench      bloated chameleon corpses

small shy breasts      twitch of a sultry sari

winter-wracked wind       smear of dusk's sweaty palm

stray shadows in flight       familiar insinuating sneer

shards of decaying eyesight       bleary tangle of grays

brush of innocent lips      curses flowering from a glance

faint footsteps from long ago cross a worn threshold

pause at the bare boards—and scuttle away

dingy sweat-soured quilt      dank devouring gloom

a cot's wooden clasp      thrashing of burdened blood

wolf packs in a frenzy      crazed coupling of mongeese

one last strangled cry      the oil lamp sputters out


he died last night—or some night past

not enough sandalwood to ignite the pyre

the oil, the rituals, feeding the guests

prices keep rising, business is bad

he died yesterday—or the day before

epidemics spread from village to town—fever, cholera, pox

starvation—bugs burrow through the rice, swarming locusts

darken the sky—Sadagar's crushed, the granary sits empty

he died, but when? yesterday! what difference does it make

the body's already stinking, vultures and gulls have plucked

the eyes from their sockets—all that remains are gaping holes

bit by bit the carcass drops from the raft into the water

Behula's dream crumbles with each slapping wave

you bring no hope, no end—you're only the river


“Did you know, son, that every single Friday when I was growing up

my mother would sweep the courtyard, scrub the verandah,

and smear dung on the walls—this high and this thick?

She kept it all spotless, did you know that, son?

You're a man now, but you still act like a child.

Don't tell me what day it is—it's Monday. How many days

without news from my brothers, no letters, not even a little note?

How many years—it's almost fifty—without a visit?”

“What are you saying? A letter came from uncle just yesterday.”

“I suffer for everyone, son. See, my heart aches all day,

my head starts pounding the moment the sun comes up.

When will the cut on Jhunu's foot heal?

My youngest uncle was beautiful to behold, son. He used to say:

If you get up early to pick the flowers—in those days there were

so many—their fragrance will stay on your fingers all day.

People say that a father-in-law's house is a young woman's paradise.

My mother-in-law would just kiss me on the cheek and weep.

If only you'd come a few days earlier, he'd have . . . peace.”

“Did you know, my mother has no present or future?

She has only the past, that's why she cries so much.”

“Son, look at these hands, look at my face, do you see

any stain, any sin, any sign of guilt?

Someone else's face, some ghost or shadow's eyes,

did you know, son, pure pain has turned this heart to stone . . . ”


an arching ashshaora leans over a canal

why does it lean so      does it know?

a vine hangs down binding branch to branch

why does it hang so      does it know?

a flock cries out and scatters bird by bird

why does it cry out so      does it know?

burning shadows stretch across field after field

their stench scorched and coppery

soldering leaf to leaf the sun-struck

Choitro sky lights its own pyre

but why just so      does it know?

sharp-sheathed reeds recklessly crack and shatter

the wind chases itself in breathless play

why does it run so      and die      does it know?


a few letters, commas, and scribbles will be left

in your hand—days of storms, rain, and storms

an uprooted chatim tree, bark splinters, root slivers

Boisakh's waterline stretches along the silted riverbed

jumble of slapdash, naughty doodles

water dreaming here, sand glittering there

water moans, falling leaves spin and twirl

a leech climbs slowly up the grass to the tip

every intention follows this sluggish track

days of sunshine, many more of storms, rain, and storms

carved stone inscriptions in a dark moss-covered cave

traces of a masterpiece here, a sketchy grotesque there

the sun ricochets from rock to rock and shatters

whirls of radiance dazzle the entire sky

wounded face, scarred chest muscles

the moon in eclipse clouds your vision for days

black shadows sizzle in the blazing oven

sal wood bursts, buds fly off, pyres fly away

ashes fall, phrases fly off, delirious syllables fly away

for how long? how many days and hours and minutes

trying the limits of patience like flies pestering a putrid corpse

if you shoo them away, they fly back, settling on nose, mouth,

cheeks—bloodstains darken, shadows thicken on banyan leaves,

battle weary, beaten, always in suffocating pain

let grand passions cease, clamp them tight in a frame

storm-lashed forest, silver-clad paddy scorched by the sun

far downstream, a midnight appeal—"Bodor, protect me"

sand plies through your veins, line after long line—at best

a few faint, barely legible marks in assorted styles

will be left under the sun's burning span


afternoon shadows batter their heads on the batabi boughs

huddling together, three sparrows hide in the grass

chat a bit, stare a while, work a bit, stare some more

foreboding billows endlessly from the sweltering sky

dust scours exhausted eyes, blank

bitterness dissolves in the scorching heat

with slow deliberation the jarul sheds its leaves

three sparrows anxiously fashion their nests

nothing's new, whatever happens has happened before

poison in the milk, stingers in the honeycomb

if not today, tomorrow—if not tomorrow, some other day

afternoon shadows hang themselves on the batabi boughs


tide's turning, boatman

there'll be a house, you'll have money

waves swallow each other in frantic little whispers

bits of straw go swimming across the watery world

startled fish are spun round by the muddy current

tide's turning, boatman

there'll be a wife, you'll have children

a lone crane, turned topsy-turvy by a little gust of wind,

flies off with a fluster of wings, crying its complaint

the river runs unruffled beneath the warring waves

tide's turning, boatman

so take hope now, rest content

that groaning is only the water pressing on the prow

the oars, gripped by sweaty palms, slowly slacken

lost in lethargy, the sinking sun, the downcast sky

it's hard work rowing against the current

a warm bowl of rice will be waiting, boatman,

this is a journey with no return


night crawls over the harrowed field and stretches

wearily, an owl perches on a tamal branch, eyes

flaring as it spots a toad, a beetle, a plump mouse

the hunter's wings beat the air, the forest flinches

darkness coils around itself, a tightly wound cobra

swallows the sky whole, leaving just a few frightened stars

a sinewy civet slinks by the ghat on the south side of the pond

sharp claws extended, sniffing the fishy perfume of a trout

clumps of silence thicken in the bodiless dark

inside the drowsing huts the air is too heavy to breathe

black bats bare their glistening teeth, pomegranate

branches, weighed down with fruit, quiver in fear

a jackal screeches, trees scatter their ragged leaves

only the crazed wind comes back to grieve


Kirtinasha, let there be no more treachery, when

water sparkles in the sun, wave breaking on sunlit wave

and sparrows flit among flowers in meadows and woods

when schools of fat puti, escaping the heron's sharp beak

go drifting drowsily through the water, when

boats span the shoreless ocean, their sails

puffed out like smug traders, and far-flying

swans beat their wings, shattering the shadows

that crawl behind the waves ready to pounce, when

silt cakes the riverbanks in the harvest-scented wind

and beans, peas, and mustard blanket the gritty soil

children grow up on every veranda in one's own image

Kirtinasha, let there be no more treachery, when

these blood-stained hands wash clean in the sunlit water


That hint of forbearance in your eyes tells me

I'm growing old, though a few strands of hair

are still black—groaning and whispering within me

a tall betel tree strains against the late autumn wind

a blood red tide rushes with the wrath of a madman

between the riverbanks tearing off bits of earth

that trace of indulgence on your lips tells me

I am old, with no further claim to pain


all these awkward scribblings, what's the point?

cranes drink their fill and fly away, tame geese

head back to their pens, their weary wanderings leave

meaningless lines—hopes / struggles—a smeared scrawl

stretched across the sand as the sun sinks into

the marshes beyond the prosaic waves

on the river's furthermost bend

slipping into the dusk, silhouetted, obscure

murderous enemies slowly haul in their dark

conspiratorial nets hand over hand

closeted whispers leak across stagnant waters

flattening blanched reeds, startling the parched grass

dumbstruck night grips the moorings, villages, towns

these stories of new life are just tall tales, empty talk

mountains, plains, springs, and stretching tamarisk—

is there any other destiny, Kirtinasha?

Translation Notes:

This set of translations comes from Mohammad Rafiq's third collection, the award-winning Kirtinasha (1979), a book-length sequence of fifty-one poems. No translation into English—or transliteration into the Roman alphabet—can adequately reproduce the poet's simple but eloquent gesture assigning a character from the Bengali alphabet to each of the poems. (For instance, the final poem is headed with the sign for nasalizing a vowel, called the chandrabindu, or 'moon-dot'.) Readers should know, however, that the identity of Bangladesh is inseparable from the Bengali language—and from the memory of the martyrs of the Language Movement (1952), who gave their lives protesting the Pakistani goverment’s attempt to make Urdu the national language, and of the freedom fighters of the War of Liberation (1971), who died defending their distinctive Bengali culture. The publication of Kirtinasha established Mohammad Rafiq as a major poet of Bangladesh. The book's title, which means "great destroyer," refers to the two-mile-wide channel of the Padma River (itself the main channel of the Ganges as it divides in far western Bangaldesh) after it has received the waters of the Jamuna and flows southeast to join the Meghna, which empties into the Bay of Bengal. Kirtinasha is renowned for its fickle power: in one season it is a placid mirror of the sky, stretching from horizon to horizon; in another season it is a raging monster, swallowing up all traces of great imperial palaces. In this collection of poems, the river’s powerful current flows through an ageless landscape and contemporary conditions, carrying with it myths, fairytales, traditional songs, and characters from modern Bengali literature, revealing in ever-shifting images the implacable force of nature and the fragility of human dreams. In the following selection, the original order has been altered to better reflect the interplay among poems in the complete Bengali text.

Translated by Carolyn Brown Carolyn Brown's first translations from Bengali were of poems by Mohammad Rafiq, a participant in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 1993... (more)

Illustrated by Nilanjana Basu. Nilanjana has been regularly illustrating for Parabaas. She lives in California.

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* To learn more about the ITRANS script for Bengali, click here .