Dhaka and Dirty Dialectics: A Nocturnal Prose Poem in Seven Microcantos

Azfar Hussain Translated from the original Bengali by the author


So where is history written/except in the poems?
—Audre Lorde, Our Dead behind Us

They have told me I only talk about politics now.
—Ernesto Cardenal, Zero Hour

Microcanto I

Forgive me if my accent keeps falling on the wrong syllable.

Forgive me if my black poem invites crude prose and even coarse statistics. And forgive me if I blurt out the dark unsayables in the middle of your darbari music or mess around with your late-night discourses on Zen. And forgive me if I miss cues and clues from your City Corporation or Stock Exchange for my reality check.

But I ain’t no apologetic poet. I don’t tighten my nocturnal lines taut like a bowstring so as to sling off words straight at a target from twenty yards out. And words are not machine-guns or even arrows, but there are some that hurt and kill. And, dear sir, I don’t fine-tune my sentences with humble submission to your style manuals. But, frankly, I rehearse the lines of my favorite black poets whenever I get a chance. And I relish repetition, am madly in love with awkward alliterations, and occasionally reach for rhyme—full or half or para- or masculine or feminine, if never royal—depending on my stress.

And I swear.

Microcanto II

I swear by my dark-skinned mother’s milk that Dhaka has three-thousand-and-three-hundred mysterious names, and that everyone from Ginsberg to Günter Grass has misspelled Dhaka at least once.

I swear by my black father’s blood that everyone—from the Sena Kings of Vikrampur and the rulers of Sonargaon, to the Turks and the Pathans, to the Mughals and the British and the Pakistani—sweated the dark details of your three-thousand-and-three-hundred contours and curves, never figuring out who the hell you were, Dhaka, although many of them sized you up, and even measured your black chest, waist, hips, and height.

I swear by the black village of my birth that, digressed by the smell of London, Paris, and New York, your urban poets misread your motives and distort your profile, losing sight of at least eighty-five thousand villages that keep sticking out like night-black veins and arteries all over your body, your snazzy suit and pointed shoes and silk socks notwithstanding.

I swear by my black grandfather’s prayer-mat that parables and paradoxes make up your anatomy and your allegory alike. You run run run on your three-thousand-and-three-hundred legs and leap faster than those horses galloping away in action movies or fairy tales. Yet you often run out of steam, your eyes glaze over with boredom, and you keep limping like Kallyanpur’s Kanu Fakir beat under the burden of a begging day.

I swear by my black uncle’s black beads of sweat that your black slums and your white skyscrapers together keep writing your favorite epigram: “progress is history’s dirty joke.”

I swear by my black teacher’s black umbrella that a bearded man obsessed with unmasking capitalism—Karl Marx or plain Charlie, as some call him—wrote a missive on your tragic “muslin” to make the point that London is fat and overweight because you are skinny and underweight. And words burst into black flames as Charlie rubbed his conceptual blocs.

I swear in the name of black land and black labor, in the name of your fifty-two bazaars and fifty-three lanes multiplying for twelve-hundred years since your Kamrup days, in the name of Raja Ballal Sen’s Dhakesshwari temple, in the name of Islam Khan’s Jahangirnagar, in the name of 1952 and 1971, in the name of those dead metaphors only the dull prose of daily living can resurrect, in the name of those stories my grandmother told me, and in the name of my ancestral blood soaking the kernels of your paddy, that your admirers and detractors alike take advantage of your monuments and massacres, your moods and mythologies, your processions and posters, and your three-thousand-and-three-hundred wounds—whether you conceal them or reveal them.

And I swear in the name of your wounds that they keep bleeding and catching the color of black fire from Lakshmi Bazaar to Tanti Bazaar, from Gulshan to Gulistan, from Mirpur to Mohammadpur.

Microcanto III

Mirpur to Mohammadpur: You stink.

And you stick such that your use-values and exchange-values and aesthetic values and erotic values all lure natives and foreigners alike.

And you attract foreign direct investment that makes Mao and Microsoft sound alike in this era of “tele-techno-hydrocarbon capital,” as they name their game.

And you have your electronic shamans, your dotcom cultural tourists, and your syntactical apologists.

And then there are those who stage a return from the land of dollars and dreams to study your dark hovels of poverty to get sentimental about you and even write a feel-good epic or an anglophony—oops—anglophone novel about your exotic underlife.

And then there are those who buy and sell you on a daily basis, turning you into the middle term of that obstinate circuit mobile at once in the algebra of Das Kapital and in the ritual of your everyday transaction.

And then there are those who even mortgage your moon and dedicate love-songs to the “free” market.

And, sure enough, I, too, wrote a poem that made the same point: when they quibble about the ultimate signified, I say cash cash cash. When they complain that I wax political-economic on every goddamn issue—the Kamasutra included—I say cash cash cash. When they say love and cough cannot hide, I say cash cash cash. When they say “love loves to love love,” I say cash cashes to cash cash.

Does my refrain bother your Board of City Directors like a stubborn itch in the ass?

Microcanto IV

But, Dhaka, I hear your sepoy in the attic say, as he fashions his life after the size and shape of a solitude more tenacious than my father’s faith, and I hear your schoolteacher’s wife say, as she cooks a modest meal with greens and fish—maybe with a tang of lemon—for her husband, and I hear your young lovers say, as their bodies blast in a single burst of honey, and I hear your sentimental poet say, as he seeks to bandage the eyes of a crazy bull with a piece of red cloth, and I hear your painter say, as she draws an orange composed of peels of flame, and I hear your single mothers say, as they pick out lice from each other’s hair, and I hear your professional cook say, as his knife goes gentle into the pulp of a lonely tomato, and I hear your driver say, as his ambulance wails like a wounded animal, and I hear your muezzin say, as he clears his throat before calling his community to prayers in the muhalla’s mosque, and I hear your fortuneteller say, as he reads a fate-line curved like Zindabahar’s second lane, and I hear your cobbler say, as he mobilizes his tools to set those out-of-joint shoes right, and I hear your studentleader say, as he argues a national case with ideas and guns, and I hear your apolitical intellectual say, as he contemplates the notion of nothingness, and I hear your lower-division clerk say, as he dreams of winning the lottery and making big bucks, and I hear your bureaucrat say, as he renders his files and papers infinitely hospitable to dust honored by time, and I hear your businessman say, as he sinks his big ass slowly into the cushion of his sleek limousine and bites deep into the round innocence of an apple, and I hear your announcer say, as the national radio punctuates a Lalon song with a soap ad: your class-lines are stronger than your blood-lines.

Does my hysterical and diabolical materialism bother your Board of Spiritual Advisors in the middle of their meeting or meditation?

Microcanto V

Or am I too prosaic to be in the company of your poets and critics policing the border between prose and poetry, the traffic of statements—over or under—or for that matter the entire regime of tropes and techniques? You must be subtle and low-key—you bet. That is, you must be clever, really. You ought to use Good English to attract foreign presses and foreign critics. For Allah’s sake, hold your tongue, and conserve the purity of your metaphors. Don’t ever mix them higgledy-piggledy. Politics? Boring. It contaminates your poetry and prose alike, and even makes them stink like a pile of pigshit. So forget political economy—there is no time or space for your frigging bigmouth Qazi Nazrul or your Marxleninfreak Nazim Hikmet or your cranky commie Roque Dalton—but take lessons in verbal economy. Key: your profit lies in making the maximum of meaning out of the minimum of words. And, oh yes, make it a point to clean up all your phrases and wipe their arses before they stand up for saying prayers to the West or Washington or Wall Street. And be sure that you don’t rock the boat of those mullahs at this dangerous time. Thus, scale upon scale, their commandments accumulate in the name of Good English Good Poetry Good Prose Good Criticism Good Manners Good Morals and Good God: just grind out your stanzas or paragraphs according to the Golden Rule.

But your factoryworkers and rickshawallas and automechanics and truckdrivers and busconductors and newsvendors and shopkeepers and saleswomen and signalmen—and on and on can I go naming many others, including your entire lumpenproletariat—keep stitching their dirtied sentences of daily struggle in different dialects, from Dhakaiya to Sylheti, under your sunset bleeding like a throat slit sharp by a dazzling knife. And your prostitutes and thieves and nightguards and policemen and dogs and muggers and reporters—crossing one another’s path and knowing your nights better than your urban poets and petit-B politicians or your maastans and ministers—don’t give a rap about ars poetica or ars erotica. Nor do they give a hoot about how well those chamchas bark English to amuse their foreign bosses or buddies. And meanwhile flashing their white teeth, the World Bank and the IMF mispronounce your name, maldefine your needs, make up your contracts, and then produce a long check-list of do’s and don’ts.

Damn! Should I adjust structurally, as I write these lines about you, Dhaka?

Microcanto VI

Dhaka: Do you hear me?

And do you know who runs the international body industry that buys at a discount and sells dear your teenage girls in the name of globalization? O globaloney! You’d better believe that a Cadillac can pass through the eye of a needle or that pigs can fly! And many pigs do. From Dhaka to Delhi to Dakar to Dallas to D.C.

And do you know how those pigs get their slop or swill from Wall Street or Washington and keep oinking in borrowed accents a rhymed couplet: “God, Gold, Gun/Fun Fun Fun”?

And do you know who daily mourns the death of justice after breakfast, feverishly visits foreign embassies after lunch, loudly pronounces shukar-al-hamdullillah after dinner with his bigshot cronies, and nightly rapes his maidservant to cure his damn insomnia?

And do you know why your old farts—despite their gilt-edged securities and shares and stocks—wet their pants hearing people’s footsteps?

And do you know why your functionaries do not function, your civil servants are neither civil nor servants, your politicians talk but say nothing, and your professors profess only postures?

And do you know who arrests your wind, uses thumbscrews on your clouds, takes your lake to headquarters for loitering, and even drags your rainbow into the interrogation chamber, as brother Antler asks and answers in a poem?

And do you know who shuts down your jute mill, imprisons your Shahid Minar, exiles your dukhinee barnamala, and then sits on your chest with a dagger glinting hard with a metallic lust for blood in the darkest of your times?

And do you know how justice becomes “just us?” Do you?

Do my questions bother your lords in the middle of their lovely feudal siesta?

Microcanto VII

Dhaka: On another register.

It’s cool and funky for these American boys to read Mao’s red books and sport Che’s face on their T-shirts and even tattoo Malcom [sic] on their white skin. And they think revolution as a violent phenomenon begins with yoking together Marley and marijuana. And they discuss the current state of the proletarian movement over popcorn, Pepsi, and pizza. And they debate for hours the fine points of dialectics at Starbucks, while listening to jazz or blues, John Coltrane or Dizzy Gillespie. And they write haiku in the lower case to declare that they are new-millennium combatants in solidarity with their third-world brothers and sisters. And high on their coffeeshop praxis and monolingual internationalism, those revolutionaries-in-residence say, “Your English is excellent, Mr. Hussain!” I say, “So is yours and so fucking what?” And I continue: Is there any mention of Dhaka in your Che Made Easy or your Malcolm in Fifty Minutes? Do you know where Dhaka is? And their long answer is a silence standing like a nervous middleman between them and us.

Dhaka: You bore me sometimes, and sometimes you even get on my nerves, but—believe me—I’ve this crazy, crazy obsession with you. Probably I, too, can declare nothing but my love for you and churn out all those clichés or corny jokes about your hangups, your manners, and your shifting mood—indicative or imperative or subjunctive or dark or sunny or silly or frisky or whatever. Probably I, too, can psychoanalyze your six emotions, as the Chinese counted them: sorrow, joy, hate, love, pleasure, anger. Probably I, too, can write the saddest or happiest lines, whether on a hard-ass summerday smelling like burnt rubber or a rainy night offering love and its lyrical madness. Probably I, too, can get confessional and even a bit controversial, announcing that I romanticize you, idealize you, make a fetish of you, and even loan you out like Bollywood Hits, as many of your sons and daughters do under this different sky.

And even when I leave you and resort to this exile, a pseudo-exile, I return to you at every turn, every night, while you keep returning to me both clean and dirty, making me guilty, morose, dissatisfied, happy, hopeful. Hopeful about change. For I see another world taking shape in your children’s eyes: hear, hear the rage roaring in the silence of Kalim-the-kamla and Sakhiman-the-sweeper.


Azfar Hussain currently teaches liberal studies/interdisciplinary studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. He has also taught English and World Literature, Ethnic Studies, and Cultural Studies at Washington State University, Bowling Green State University, and Oklahoma State University. He has published—in both English and Bengali—nearly a hundred academic, popular, and creative pieces, including translations from several non-Western languages. He has written on a wide range of interdisciplinary topics in such areas as “third-world” feminist theory, critical theory, third-world literatures, cultural politics, and political economy. In addition to editing numerous issues of journals and magazines, Hussain has co-edited a two-volume reader titled Reading about the World (1999). The author of the books The Wor(l)d in Question: Essays in Political Economy and Cultural Politics (2008) and The Politics of Sites, Subjects, and Scenes: Micronarratives and Essays (forthcoming), Azfar Hussain is currently working on several books in both English and Bengali, one of which is tentatively titled Towards a Political Economy of Land, Labor, Language, and the Body.