Syed Khwaja Moinul Hassan : In Memoriam

 Published in: The Daily Star on April 11, 2009
Syed Khwaja Moinul Hassan : In Memoriam

Gentle yet passionate nature

Fakrul Alam
Looking at Syed Khwaja Moinul Hassan, it would have been difficult to imagine the depths of passion in him. He appeared, almost always, a gentle soul, courteous and amiable. Although excitable, he was the type who seemed incapable of offending anyone. A good friend and a popular teacher, he was well liked by all those who came to know him everywhere.
And yet if one takes his poems as evidence, he was a passionate man and occasionally an intemperate one too. The Collected Poems of Syed Khawja Moinul Hassan, published by Kolkata’s Writers Workshop, assembled from five books of verse published in Dhaka and Kolkata, testify to someone continually disturbed by recent history, by a record of a world falling apart. ‘Between Barbed Wires’, the titular poem from his first volume of verse puts it thus: “The days are terrible and parlous/And the nights awful and fearful”. The nightmares of subcontinental history bothered him a lot, as is evident in the poem ‘Dhaka 1971’, where he vented his disgust at the atrocities committed that year: “Filthy joints full of hogs,/Khaki serpents, querulous apes/ crying vultures and barking dogs/All in arson, loot and rape”. The second volume of verse, Inner Edge (1987), continues to reflect the fissures created by history in his psyche in emotion-soaked verse.
Consequently, Hassan’s early poems can at times sound like outbursts; there was too much powerful feelings in them, and obviously not enough tranquility had gone into transforming his raw emotions into poetry. His third volume of verse, Ashes and Sparks (1990) record his indignation at America’s first invasion of Iraq : “America your Armada is in the wrong Gulf/America come home your house is on fire/There is a lot of smoke in the basement/Where your children spend the night opening coffins/like crates”.
There were many reasons why Hassan was so moved by the nightmare of contemporary history. He was born in a distinguished family that had moved to Dhaka because of the political impasse that led to the partition of India. He was the son of Pirzada Syed Khajaj Borhanuddin, and the great-grandson of Wazir Ali Naqhsbad, Zamindar of Beleghata, Kolkata. In his university years he was witness to the savage scenes of 1971. In the USA he saw that country get stuck in the quagmire of history because of the jingoistic policies of the two Bushes.
An outstanding student, Hassan was placed First Class First in his B A (Hons.) examination and got another first in his MA. Subsequently, he became a lecturer in English at Dhaka University. He left Bangladesh in 1983 and studied at Purdue University, where he was awarded a PhD in 1994. Later, he settled down as Associate Professor in the English department of Claflin University, South Carolina. Since this university has a link program with Dhaka’s Stamford University, he came to Dhaka for successive summer sessions of teaching in recent years..
Hassan died of a heart attack in the USA on the 3rd of April 2009. His burial took place in Long Island, New York on the 5th. He will be much missed by his friends, students and dear ones in Bangladesh as well as all those who will remember him for his gentle yet passionate nature, his sincerity as well as intensity, and his abundant love for his people.

Fakrul Alam is professor of English. He is the general editor of the Dictionary of Literary Biography: South Asian Writers in English in the well-known Thomson-Gale series.

Zindagi ka Safar

Khademul Islam
Khwaja Moinul Hassan and I were fellow students – he was a little senior to me – at Dhaka University in the early to mid 1970s.
At that time I used to write for ‘Holiday’ weekly. When his first book of poems, Barbed Wires, came out Khwaja gave me a copy to review. I was not gentle with it. To me it seemed mawkish, ‘poetic’ stuff, prose lines stitched together with end rhymes.
A couple of weeks later I saw him at Pedro’s, a rare appearance, sipping tea and staring at the gurdwara. I said hi. He said hi back. He then added that he had read my review – in an impeccably courteous tone. Pomp may have vanished from his nawab family, but pedigree remained in the bone! On an impulse I sat down beside him and did something I’d never done before or since – I tried to explain why I had written what I did. He may not have agreed with everything I said, but at least he understood where I was coming from.
Then, I don’t recollect how, we suddenly went on to Urdu poetry. Perhaps because of a stray remark about my Karachi school days. He was astonished at how many ghazals I had in my memory bank – all gone now! Khwaja too startled me – any amateur can toss off a little Bahadur Shah Zafar or Ghalib, but it took a pro to know Allama Iqbal the way he did; he knew his Ghalib, sure, but what got me was that he knew Daagh Dehlvi too:
Zeest say tang ho ai Daagh to jeetay kyon ho
Jaan pyaree bhee naheen jaan say jaatay bhee nahin

(If you’re bored of life, Daagh, why carry on this long?
If you aren’t enjoying it, why keep on with it?)
I, however, bested him on Akbar Allahabadi and Firaq Gorakhpuri.
Ai Shaikh gar asar hai duan may
To masjid hila kay dikha
Gar nahin to do ghoont pee
Aur masjid to hiltay dekh

(O Sheikh, if there be force in your prayer
Make the walls of the mosque shake
If you can’t, down a peg or two
And see how the mosque shakes.)
We never had a repeat adda. But I felt I knew where his English poetry came from: Urdu poetry, ghazals, couplets, nazms. Perhaps Khwaja couldn’t quite (in my eyes solely!) manage the impossibly difficult task of transmuting that noble, profound feeling for and inspiration from it into the English language.
We lost touch when later we both left for the USA. After I came back to Dhaka, in 2005, while on a visit to Dhaka, he called me to touch bases. The conversation was brief; too many years had gone by. We promised to meet, but never did.
Late on the night I got word he had died, I thought of a tea shack and an animated adda over Urdu poetry and poets. And Ghalib’s Zindagi ka Safar couplet came to mind, which Khwaja would undoubtedly have known:
Rau may hain raksh-e-umr kahaan dekhiyay thamey
Naee haath baag par hai na paa hai rakaab main

(Life goes by at a gallop, I don’t know where it’ll end
The reins are not in my hands, nor my feet in stirrups).

Khademul Islam is literary editor, TheDaily Star. The mangled translations in the above piece are solely his doing.

The last laugh

Rubana Huq
He taught Romantic poetry at the Dhaka University, got his doctorate degree from Indiana, worked at Claflin University in South Carolina, had three books of poems published by Writers Workshop in Kolkata. That is all I know of him. After all, I had met him only through his poems.
Syed Khwaja Moinul Hassan’s first Writers Workshop volume of verse, Inner Edge, was in 1987. The book is dedicated to an ‘Estella’, his “Gateway to Xanadu”. The book’s introduction is by Margaret Moan Rowe, Graduate Studies director in the English department and Hassan’s dissertation supervisor. She credits him as a poet having an “active vision” with which he honoured his readers.
Hassan’s vision had a clarity that could only breed hurt. No ‘Tajmahal’: “the myth of a moth-eaten civilization” bound him; no Partition set him free:
“I have always been taken for somebody else
At Allahabad, right after the War,
They wouldn’t let me in…
At Multan they wouldn’t finalise a deal
Taking me for somebody else…
For how long can one afford to lose himself
Be taken for somebody else,
Rendered nationless on pretended realities…”
Hassan’s second collection of verse, Ashes and Sparks, published by Writers Workshop in 1989, has a foreword by Professor Jacob H. Adler at Harvard University – who did mistakenly call Hassan an Indian and appreciated his poem ‘Pakistan’:
“My heart bled and I could not see
By raising walls how a people could be free.”
A second introduction in the book is by Professor Timothy A. Brennan,Columbia University, who compared Hassan to the young Brecht: “Some I am told eat to live, some live to eat/and some I have seen eat the living.”
Hassan’s third WW book, published in 2003, is a collection of his poems from his two earlier WW books plus selections from Between Barbed Wires (Provincial Books, Dhaka, 1977), Burning the Olive Branch (Ankur Prakashani, 1995). This book is dedicated to his wife, Labiba, and three children who have just suffered the severest of blows.
While his family and friends will have memories to hold on to, readers like me will accidentally and occasionally read him, cherish him, and know that the poet at the end indeed had The Last Laugh:
“He was a deserter running away
From a war he could no longer believe
Into a neutral country
But there was none,
Now he could not speak even if he wanted to
Nails all over his tongue
Made words heavy,
Sick of telling the truth
Afraid of fighting
He dies in a second crossover.”
(‘The Last Laugh’: Ashes and Sparks, 1989)

Rubana Huq is a poet and researcher at Writers Workshop, Kolkata.

With him went soul poetry

Syed Badrul Ahsan
There was a life-sustaining force in Syed Khwaja Moinul Hassan. It had always been an integral part of his character. When we met for the last time – after a gap of many years since he had moved to the United States – here in Dhaka some years ago, he bubbled with the old energy. You and I, he told me, can never stay away from literature, for that is life. And I realized anew the sheer force in those thoughts. He was my teacher in the English Department of Dhaka University. In the classroom, he was a poet, carried away to new shores with every line of verse. To me he was in the tradition of Shelley or Byron or both.
In early 1976, Moinul Sir (and that’s how I have always looked upon him, despite the very little difference in age) and I acted in a comedy cobbled together by the English Department and shown on BTV. It was called When Shakespeare’s Gentlemen Get Together. I was Hamlet and I believe he was Petruchio. There were four others. It was a rollicking time we had. Moinul Sir kept everyone merry. He had this huge capacity for laughter, a laughter that came from deep within his heart.
Syed Khwaja Moinul Hassan led me by the hand one January afternoon in 1979 to the Dhaka YMCA. Thereafter, for many years, I was a teacher there. One rainy evening in April that year, he and I spoke of the tragic end of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had been executed in the predawn hours of the day. On my yearly visits to London, it was a thrill getting calls from Moinul Sir from distant South Carolina, where he taught at a college. The conversations were long, the subjects all-encompassing. He was an incorrigible romantic.
And with his passing goes the gleam that underlines the poetry in our souls. I still hear that laughter streaming from the waterfall that was Syed Khwaja Moinul Hassan’s heart.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is current affairs editor, The Daily Star.
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