If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Friday, 25 November 2011

I never heard my mother …

Shamsur Rahman

[Shamsur Rahman, who lived in Bangladesh, was one of the finest Bengali poets. He was also an important voice of reason in Bangladesh, and once suffered a near-fatal assault by Muslim fundamentalists. I sent this translation to him, seeking his permission for publishing it. But when I wrote to him, I didn't know he had gone into a coma. He died a week later, on 17 August, 2006 at the age of seventy-six.]

I never heard my mother singing.
Did she ever sing a lullaby as she tucked me in
In those far-off childhood nights?
I wish I could remember …

Even before her figure reached the fullness of spring
When she was closer to the season of
Picking up mangoes scattered in a storm
In lonely afternoons, evenings,
No tune ever grew up on her like a silent creeper
Lest the elders should hear …

And even in her husband’s home, my mother
Remained far too silent, far too much in the shadows,
And so far as I know, never fell for music.
In between chopping fish or grinding turmeric
Or perhaps in the afternoon, after swabbing the courtyard
And scrubbing bell metal plates sparkling bright
Bending down on the sewing machine, darning a torn shirt,
Hanging clothes on a clotheshorse,
After sending me off to playground with a kiss,
In her moments of solitude, as she pretended to do her hair,
Did she ever hum a tune?
Such a long time I lived with her, but never found out …

It’s as if throughout her life she stored all her songs
In a wooden chest that reminds us of our sorrows.
Presently from its dark inside exudes but rarely,
Not tunes, but the pungent smell of naphthalene. Y


  1. Santanuda, I have not read or heard the original one but through your translation I could imagine how beautiful it must be.

    Though your letter might have reached him a week late but I am sure had he been alive, Shamsur Rehman would have approved it with pleasure.

    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  2. Santanu, I can't speak two words of Bengali to save my hide but your translation is just superb! And the poem is so very touching. Reminded me of my own mother. Why does our society continue to smother the gifts and talents of girls and women?! Such a pity really. Once again Santanu, I must say your translation of Shamsur Rahman's poem is so extraordinary! Shamsur must be smiling with pride.....

  3. Thanks a lot, Anirban and M, it has been great to read your comments.

    I am sure almost every person of my generation will think of their own mothers when they read the poem. These few lines beautifully capture the lives of almost all women who lived in our country until recently. The story has changed significantly for many of my daughter's generation, although, as M has rightly pointed out, it continues to be the same for countless others.

  4. Anirban, the Bangla poem begins with "Kakhone amaar make kono gaan gaite shunini ...". I read it in Shamsur Rahmaner Sreshta Kobita.

  5. Loved the poem, the pathos, the translation, the tragedy of silenced woman, and the irony of her son wanting to hear his mother's 'voice', but too late. The 'naphthalene' stings, even as it discovers and disinters the bones of silence.

  6. Santanu, I had spoken briefly on this theme when I was asked to address my staff on Women's Day. Nearly half my team are women. They agreed with me that, on that day, apart from celebrating the success of women, we should use the opportunity to recall the millions of geniuses among women across the country, over generations, who would have suffered suffocation at not being able to bring forth their talent and their passion. All of them have gone back to the lap of mother earth, without the world having known their true worth. The world would have been a different place, had we let them bloom.

  7. Sucharita and Damu,

    Thanks for your beautiful comments. There is nothing much to add to what you have written, but let me jot down a positive note.

    I have been thinking about what positive social changes I have seen in my lifetime. Not much really, if you leave out the significant improvement in lifestyle of the middle-class.

    One incontrovertible positive change that has happened is in the status of women in large parts of our country. I love it when I see a young girl openly hugging her boyfriend in public. I love to see girls in spaghetti tops not because of the usual reason, but because it is a sign of the sexual freedom enjoyed by our women today. And the change is not restricted to cities alone. It is not uncommon to read news of underage girls going complaining to police about their being married off.

  8. I agree with you, Santanu. These are tiny steps but they're sure and positive ones in the right direction.


I will be happy to read your views, approving or otherwise. Please feel free to speak your mind. Let me add that it might take a day or two for your comments to get published.