The Language of Bengal and the Liberation War: Sufia Kamal’s Poems

Begum Sufia Kamal (1911 – 1999) was a Bangladeshi writer, poet and activist. Lovingly known as ‘Khalamma‘ (aunt), Kamal holds a special place in Bangladesh’s literary and social history due to her provocative writing on feminism, nationalism, and communalism. While her early formal education was in Urdu, she was secretly taught to read and write Bengali by her mother. Though girls from her background weren’t allowed to go to school, young Sufia is said to have dressed up as a boy to attend classes. She recounted her childhood thus:

… I had an indomitable nature and I crossed my limits to get a taste of all there was. I was allowed to learn Arabic and a little Persian, but not Bengali. I made it a point to learn Bengali from people working in the house.

In Kamal’s time, respectable Muslim women writing in Bengali was considered to be a shameful act as Urdu was being reinforced as a Muslim language and Bengali, a Hindu one. Subsequently, Pakistan imposed Urdu on all of Bangladesh, a political move that personally impacted Kamal and prompted her to get actively involved in The Language Movement of Bangladesh from 1952 onwards. This movement was an important forerunner to the Bengali nationalist movement that eventually led to its independence from Pakistan. In her poem “Our Language: The Language of Bengal,” Kamal’s fervour for this cause is evident:

For our language many have died,

drawn from the arms of our mother

but down the road, smeared with their blood

I hope freedom will come to this land:

the simple language of a simple people

Will meet the demands of this our land.

Another childhood incident that molded her was a meeting with feminist writer, Begum Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain, when she was merely seven years old. Hossain not only had a profound influence on her work, but also nudged her on the path of social justice along with the pursuit of literature.

Kamal remained vocal about several causes, but she most ardently protested the Pakistani government’s attempts to suppress Bangla and Bengali culture. The conflation of Bengali culture with Hinduism and automatic alienation with Islam, was a cause she passionately articulated in her writing. As a devout Muslim, this binary enraged her and she raised sharp questions to the supposed flag bearers of Islam in her poem “My Prophet”.

My Rasool (My Prophet)

Are you of Arabia alone? Have you not filled

The hearts of Bangla in millions?

Tell me: Aren’t you a prophet of all humanity?

Are they Muslims?

In their hands your flag is blackening in sorrow

and being humiliated.

O my prophet, I beseech you

Be kind enough to pray to the great God of all domains

that humanity regains its self again.

Source: Ahrar Ahmad in the Daily Star

Despite grave personal sacrifices, Kamal stood by her beliefs until the very end. The efforts of Kamal and countless others were rewarded with the liberation of Bangaladesh in 1971, which she celebrated in this ode to the martyrs:

Where My Darlings Lie Buried

(addressing martyrs)

No, I shall not disturb them

in their slumber

I shall leave for them, instead

a kiss on the green mounds.

As I touch the grass tenderly

I seem to feel the clasp

Of millions of eager hands,

And millions of eager voices

Speak to me:

Don’t you feel proud of us Mother?

That we have liberated our Bangladesh

Ah, my daredevil darlings that you have indeed done!

In the comity of nations

you have indeed laid out for your Mother Bangla

a bright carpet,

dyed with your ruby-red blood.

Now, and through the ages

Mahakal – the great God of time –

will stand at attention to pay you homage

for the marvel you have done.

Ah, our dear ones, you are deathless!

Source: The Daily Star

We thank Asma Firdous for her inputs.

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