Monday, 27 September, 2021
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‘September on Jessore Road’— an Ever Memorable Poem

Chinmay Prasun Biswas

September (from Latin Septem- seven) is the ninth month of Gregorian calendar. Originally it was the seventh of ten months in the oldest known Roman calendar beginning with March (Latin -Martius). After subsequent reform January and February were added to the beginning of the year and September became the ninth month. This month is connected with many international events. A romantic comedy film named ‘Come September’ directed by Robert Mulligan, starring Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida, was made in Hollywood in 1961 but September became important during the Liberation War of Bangladesh. It may primarily appear that Jessore Road is a road in Jashore district, which is partly correct but in fact it is a 155 km (air distance 126 km) long international road that connects Kolkata (India) and Khulna (Bangladesh) via Bangaon and Jashore.

This road has a historical background. Kali Prasad Poddar (or Kaipada Dey), an affluent goldsmith of Jashore, constructed a road from Jashore to Chakdaha via Bangaon for pilgrimage. It is said that his mother intended to take holy bath in the sacred river Ganges but there was no road from Jashore to Kolkata in 1826. As a devoted son, he built this road so that her mother can be carried to Kolkata on palanquin. It took around five years to complete the road. Then it was known as road of Kalibabu. Afterwards, it was connected with Khulna and the entire road from Khulna to Kolkata is known as Jessore Road.

 Not only situational but this road is historically important. In 1971, millions of refugees fled away to India along this road. In another way, this road is emotionally connected with the emergence of Bangladesh. Being shocked at observing the plight of refugees from East Pakistan after visiting the refugee camps beside Jessore Road, Allen Ginsberg, an American poet and activist, composed this poem. It contains the deplorable condition of the refugees he witnessed there and attacks the US government's indifference to the humanitarian crisis. It was first published in The New York Times on 14th November, 1971. It ensured that the Bangladesh crisis became a key issue for the youth protest movement around the world.

Due to heavy rain in 1971, Jessore Road was drowned. As driving became impossible, Ginsberg somehow reached Bangaon on the border with East Pakistan on 9th September with eminent poet Sunil Gangopadhyay by boat. Ginsberg visited the refugee camps located beside Jessore Road and its surrounding areas. They witnessed the suffering of refugees living in those camps. Millions of Bengalees of Bangladesh (the then East Pakistan) were compelled to leave their homes fearing persecution and violence inflicted by the Pakistani occupation army and take shelter in those camps. Ginsberg was informed earlier by an aid worker that food was distributed once a week in the camp there. Preserving his observations in a tape recorder (that was the only mechanical device then), he also reported on the heavy rain, cholera epidemic and hatred of local people towards refugees.

Ginsberg’s first-hand experience of meeting the refugees in those camps is portrayed in this poem. Very meticulously and accurately, he has held the sufferings that every refugee experienced during that war. The poem also criticises the US government and its state machinery for not supporting the freedom loving Bengalees. His basic intention behind composing this poem was to express solidarity with the Bengalees’ determination for freedom on the one hand and to create opinion among the Americans against Pakistani atrocities on the other. This poem shows how Ginsberg held his experience into words and reminds us of the pathetic history behind the liberation of Bangladesh.

Ginsberg recited the poem with guitar backing at the opening of the John Sinclair Freedom Rally held at the University of Michigan on 10th December, 1971 and was headlined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The 152-line poem reflects a portion of 266 days' liberation war of Bangladesh. As a student of class nine and a refugee in 1971, I can still clearly visualise the plight of refugee camps on both sides of Jessore Road, other roads in Bangaon and adjacent areas and beside the railway line from Bangaon to Sealdah. I can remember squalid bamboo huts with two fold sheds covered by polythene, fenced by jute sticks, mud upto half of knee, unhygienic latrine, a tubewell for more than 50 families, wide contamination of eye disease, long queues for collecting foodstuff (rice, onion, pulse etc.) supplied initially by Kashi Biswanath Seba Samity, then by Ramkrishna Mission and finally by the government of West Bengal. Once saree, soap and bed sheet were distributed by a company at our nearby camp but the crowd was so thick that I could not penetrate.

Before composing this poem, Ginsberg participated in ‘Concert for Bangladesh’ organised by Pandit Ravi Shankar and George Harrison at the Madison Square Garden in New York on 1 August 1971. This poem was later used by renowned filmmaker Tarek Masud in his film Muktir Kotha (Tale of Freedom) in 1999. This poem was composed as a song in another film Muktir Gaan (Song of Liberation) of the same director. Noted singer Mousumi Bhowmik lends her voice to the song. At the time of final editing of the film Bangabandhu’s speech of 7th March was inserted in addition to this poem.

The government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed gratitude towards all the foreigners who contributed to Liberation War of Bangladesh and provided humanitarian, moral or any sort of assistance in 1971. Liberation War Memorial Award and Bangladesh Liberation War Friendship Award were officially handed over to 83 of them or their representatives. Allen Ginsberg, an intimate friend of Bangladesh, died on 5th April, 1997 in New York but his poem will remain ever memorable to the people of Bangladesh.

 

The writer is a former Commissioner of Taxes