Grave Schism

A cross-border family feud over Bangladesh’s national poet

courtesy kazi anirban
01 August, 2016

On 25 May, Bangladesh was awash with birthday celebrations for its national poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam. Garlands were hung on his grave in Dhaka, cultural programmes were held, and both the president and the prime minister made statements in his honour. Still, two days prior, a group of artists had gathered in the Bangladeshi capital to demand that the government do more to memorialise Nazrul, by naming more roads after him and building more monuments to him.

Such fervour would not have surprised Kalyani Kazi, the 83-year-old widow of Aniruddha Kazi, Nazrul’s eldest son. A few days before the festivities, in her flat in Kolkata, she explained to me that, “in Bangladesh, there is a more affectionate public for Nazrul’s work.” But as much as Bangladesh claims the poet as its own, the story of his national allegiance is actually quite complex.

Nazrul spent most of his life in India, and lived in Dhaka for just a few years before his death in 1976. For decades now, the circumstances surrounding his years in the city have been the root of a major conflict within his family. While some of his relatives say he was happy there, others claim that he went uncared for, and that he was not sent back to live his last days in India, as he should have been, because the Bangladeshi government wanted to stake its claim on him.

Born in 1899, in the village of Churulia in West Bengal, Nazrul lived primarily in Kolkata. He was prolific and political, writing novels, essays, songs and poems that often criticised the British Raj and religious communalism. But tragedy struck early in his life: in 1942, he began suffering from an incurable neurodegenerative disorder that robbed him of the ability to speak and degraded his cognitive faculties. By the time Kalyani met Nazrul, in 1950, “he would wander around the house, and he seemed very happy to do that,” she told me. “He would also listen to his sons if they instructed. He was like a disciplined child.”

In 1972, the first prime minister of a newly independent Bangladesh, Mujibur Rahman—commonly called Mujib—sought to bring Nazrul to the country. Anirban, Kalyani’s son, told me that earlier that year, Mujib had even “sent a secret team of his to see how the poet was living.” Anirban said the agents were “very much disappointed” when they saw the family’s sparse living quarters: a two-room government flat in Kolkata. Anirban told me Mujib asked the Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, for permission to host Nazrul in Bangladesh for a short time. She agreed, and, soon after, Nazrul went to Bangladesh with his two surviving sons, Aniruddha and Sabyasachi, and their families.

Bangladesh received the Kazis with grandeur. “When we came to the Dhaka airport, I could see a wide expanse of black heads, all waiting for Kazi Nazrul to de-board,” Khilkhil, Sabyasachi’s daughter, told me. “They were throwing garlands into the air.” She remembered the crowd cheering: “Joy Bangladesh! Joy Nazrul! Joy Mujib!”

The family was allotted a large, government-owned bungalow. Immediately after Nazrul arrived, he was made Bangladesh’s national poet—a surprise to his family. Kalyani told me that, for the country, “it was a source of pride that he was living there,” so “they were trying to institutionalise him, even when he was alive.”

Initially, Nazrul’s entire family stayed with him in Dhaka, but after a few months Aniruddha and Kalyani took their family back to Kolkata. Sabyasachi stayed behind with his wife, Uma. At this point, the stories I heard from the two halves of Nazrul’s family began to diverge.

Kalyani’s Kolkata flat is full of books and objects related to Nazrul. When I visited her on a late May night, we drank whisky as she told me that in Dhaka, around 1975, Uma and Sabyasachi both moved out of Nazrul’s bungalow, leaving him alone. The poet’s “standard of living started deteriorating,” Kalyani said. The household staff “would tell us that he would look for us, and would very visibly look depressed when we were not around.”

Anirban, who was sitting with us, added that the family in Dhaka got a lot of money from the government for being related to Nazrul, and “they misused it so badly that Mujib called my father and requested that our family should stay there, and not them.” Kalyani then read to me from an essay written by Nazrul’s doctor, published in a book called Shotokathay Nazrul—Nazrul in 100 Words. By 1975, the doctor wrote, Nazrul “wasn’t getting the same medical treatments as before. The standards of his meals fell and the house was not being well kept. … People are taking advantage of his situation, and he won’t live long if this keeps happening.”

According to Kalyani, the doctor discussed the situation with Mujib, and together they decided to move the poet into a hospital cabin. When I asked why he had not been returned to Kolkata, she answered, “They already thought of him as the national poet, and they didn’t want to send him back.”

Among the relatives in Dhaka, I could only speak with Khilkhil, since Sabyasachi died in 1979, and Uma’s memory has become porous. When I asked Khilkhil, on the phone, about the allegations of Uma’s neglect of Nazrul, she told me that the care her mother showed him was unimpeachable. “She fed him, clothed him, gave him bottled milk, and bathed him—just like a mother takes care of her child,” Khilkhil said. “My grandfather used to defecate in his clothes and only my mother cleaned it. Not just in Bangladesh, every Bengali in the universe knows this.”

On the morning of 29 August 1976, Kalyani heard on the radio that Nazrul had died from bronchopneumonia. She and Aniruddha rushed to the airport and boarded a plane to Dhaka, with the intention of collecting the poet’s body so he could be buried next to his wife in Churulia. Due to a technical problem, their flight was delayed by almost an hour. By the time they arrived the burial had already occurred, near a mosque on the campus of the University of Dhaka.

Government officials told Kalyani and Aniruddha that the funeral had taken place without them because it is a Muslim custom to not bury bodies after sunset. But, Kalyani told me, “There’s another school of thought that says they buried him early because we would have claimed his body.” Anirban was more opinionated, saying he believes the government intentionally delayed the flight to prevent them from reaching the burial on time.

Khilkhil, on the other hand, spoke to me of “a fear amongst all of us that my grandfather’s body will be taken away to Kolkata. The whole of Bangladesh had this fear.” Nazrul was Bangladesh’s national poet, she said, so “how can you bury him in India?”

Kalyani and Anirban told me that although they still believe deception was involved, they now think it may be for the best that Nazrul’s burial happened in Dhaka. Both were pleased with the work being done in Bangladesh to preserve the poet’s legacy, and admitted that they doubt West Bengal’s government would have put in such effort.

Yet, they are worried by what they perceive as attempts to Islamicise Nazrul’s legacy. Although he was a practising Muslim, Nazrul also worshipped the Hindu deity Kali, writing her into many of his songs and poems. Now, Anirban told me, people in Bangladesh are intentionally downplaying those works, and “twisting his legacy to seem more Muslim”—something that Nazrul “would not approve of.”

On my train ride back to Delhi from Kolkata, I was seated next to a Bangladeshi man. When I told him about the story I had been reporting, he became sentimental. He pointed to his heart as he spoke of the poet. “But why are you going to Kolkata?” He asked. “If you want to know about Nazrul, you need to come to Bangladesh.”