Kazi in Nomansland


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UDAYAN reminds me, as we walk to the train, that Nazrul is the only person to appear on the stamps of all three countries.

– That’s not right, can’t be right. There must have been others.

– None, I’m sure.

– Gandhi?

– On the Pakistan stamp...? What do you think?!

– Hmm...what about Nehru? No, I suppose not. Wait there must have been someone.

– No really, he was the only one.

– Are you sure?

Arre bhai, oversure! I did my research, I know Nazrul’s story.

Months later, in the Dhaka central post office, I’m in a parallel argument. This time I’m the one – ‘oversure’. But the Post Master General is not convinced. He calls his kerani in and asks him to search the library. The kerani returns fifteen minutes and one cup of tea later, with a Philately Souvenir Booklet. The director turns, with a practiced hand, to page 22. He has written the essay on that page.

He insists, gently, that I read it all the way through.

The essay is a brief history of Pakistani stamps. It seems there were 328 stamps issued by Pakistan from 1947 until the 1971 liberation of Bangladesh (or ‘rupture of Pakistan’). Only one of these featured a Bengali, poet Kazi Nazrul Islam.

His assistant interjects:

– But, Sir, there was also the 1956 stamp that had ‘two anna’ in Bengali script.

– Yes, but that one had distorted Bangla. Bhool Bangla, bujhlen?


Later, Salam, the stamp shop owner, pulls out his reference notebook to dispute the 328 number as well. He shows me Pakistan’s ‘Pioneers of Freedom’ series, each face drawn in bas relief: Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, A.K. Fazlul Huq, Khawaja Nazimuddin, Nawab Sir Salimullah. But a phone call to another stamp store reveals that this series came out in the 1990s. The 1 for 328 statistic stays intact.

Nazrul ended up spanning all three countries. After Partition, he refused to leave India for Pakistan. Or to be precise, his family made the decision for him, Nazrul had already lost the ability to speak. The mysterious disease that enveloped him was already in its second year. In this manner, he became an uneasy new icon: the Muslim poet who refuses Pakistan, or rather resists the way territory is being redrawn. India embraces this decision, and structures a moral around it: Muslims have a home in India after all. Perhaps Maulana Azad serves the same function within the new Indian state? Muslim refuseniks.


As new flags go up, familiar modes of belonging are broken and reborn. The geographical impossibility that is the new state of Pakistan. In Rushdie’s cartography, ‘two Wings a thousand miles apart, that fantastic bird of a place, two Wings without a body, sundered by the land-mass of its greatest foe, joined by nothing but God.’1

The two Pakistans are ‘united’ by religion but divided by language, culture and many other elements that matter. My grandfather moves the family from Shillong to Sylhet. His younger brother chooses to stay mainly in India, at least partially because of an essay he writes defending Bengali as the state language of Pakistan.2

Naeem Mohaiemen, Kazi in Nomansland (stamps), 2009, courtesy of Green Cardamom for Lines of Control and Granta Pakistan issue.

In 1952, the central state’s clumsy attempt to impose Urdu as an all-Pakistan language goes very badly. Language riots, four deaths, and the birth of a Bengali nationalist movement in the eastern half. By the 1960s, Pakistan is increasingly concerned about ‘losing’ the restless eastern province. The language riots kill one idea, but a newer one takes its place – culture as cohesion. Bengali culture, appropriately modified and ‘Islamized’, as the scaffolding for ‘national unification’.

Two Koreas, two Germanys, and finally, now, a line is drawn. Here, ‘we’ won’t allow two Pakistans. Enter Nazrul into the Pakistan project, passing onto the national stamp. To be used on letters or postcards, perhaps even some to be mailed to our lost families across the border. Reading parts of his story, a friend thinks of an appropriate Derrida quote, ‘No, the stamp is not a metaphor, on the contrary, metaphor is a stamp: the tax, the duty to be paid on natural language and the voice.’3

Slowly, steadily, Nazrul is rebranded as an exclusively Muslim poet, to be used as a counterpoint to the dominance of Rabindranath Tagore. After all, Tagore is a ‘Hindu’, Brahmo Samaj or not. The cultural fascination with his songs must be wiped out at all costs. (Tagore has the last word, his songs end up as the national anthem for two countries.)

Finally, after 1971, when Pakistan is ruptured and Bangladesh emerges, Nazrul becomes a third token, a symbol of independent Bangladesh. But how willing are all these transfers? More on that later, kromosho prokash...


In 2008, I wanted to build miniature stamp towers out of the Nazrul stamps. A tower for three countries, each a different height. But glue curls and moisture modified those plans, reduced my ambition. The Dhaka General Post Office had exactly 19,538 of the 1977 Nazrul commemoratives in stock. With the clockwork efficiency of an automaton in a bad bureaucracy, the kerani informed me of this number after consulting his book. I noticed, however, that he did not correct the number after I was finished with my purchase.

In one week, I bought 3,000 of these stamps. Now collectors began wondering what was going on. Stamp collecting is such an isolated hobby, this much movement is unusual.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Kazi in Nomansland (eyes), 2009, courtesy of Green Cardamom for Lines of Control.

Salam the obsessive philatelist had been tracking me. I get a phone call.

– Did you go to the post office to buy vintage Nazruls? You should have come to me. Their stamps have been in the godown, they are totally damp!

– Don’t worry, for Pakistan and India stamps I still have to come to you. GPO is for Bangladesh only.


My colleague joked that I was causing a tiny tsunami in the stamp market. ‘Better not be planning any more limited editions.’

But he doesn’t actually have that many of the India and Pakistan Nazrul stamps. They are harder to get, more expensive. Fifteen times the face value, or even more. When I explain my idea, he offers an alternative. For the India stamps, the base can be made out of a 1977 birth control commemorative. Same dimensions and same amount of dirt on serrated edges, they will blend in. I pause while I think through how all this will be reflected in the wall labels. But for Pakistan he offers a double meaning. The only Pakistan stamp that fits in size with Nazrul are the multi-hued generics of his nemesis: Pakistan’s founder Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah. Only stamps of Iqbal could have topped this juxtaposition. Nazrul would appreciate this irony – on par with everything else in his life.

In the list of reasons why Pak Sarzamin broke apart into Pakistan and Bangladesh, there are multitudes of economic and cultural statistics. Stamp politics is only a small ‘p’ in that schema.

I am a saint, a soldier of music

I am the prince in disguise

With the dress of a hermit-mystic.

I am a Bedouin, a Chengis the brute

It is none, but me, I salute.


Nazrul’s poetry is innovative, flowing, a ferocious new form in Bengali language. A decisive break with the genteel parlour modes and bucolic imagery of imagined village idylls of previous generations, especially the Hindu bhodrolok litterateur. But his writing is not yet fully directed at the British. The experience of being a temporary loyalist, a soldier in the 49th Bengal Regiment of the British Indian Army, pushes things towards a decisive break.

His poetry and songs accelerate, becoming more radical and confrontational, bleeding out faster and faster after his demobilization. In civilian life he finds the meter of rebellion.

I am thunder

From the God Iswan’s pipe, I am the mystic Omker

Alas! from the bugle of Israfil, I am the roar danger.

I am Bishyamitra’s disciple, Durbasha the furious

I am the fury of forest fire


Nazrul by now has less patience for Gandhi’s non-cooperation andolon, or the Indian Muslim Khilafat movement. Instead, he models his politics after Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk, expressing his admiration in the poem ‘Kamal Pasha’. Standing apart from both Hindu and Muslim mainstream political movements, he argues that the ouster of British rule must be accompanied by the creation of a secular and modern state. For the sake of a united movement that already has popular support, Nazrul joins with the broader non-cooperation movement. But a sharper edge still spills out in his lyrics.

I will burn to ashes this universe.

I am the heart opening laughter

I am the great anti-creation terror

I am the Eclipse of the twelve Suns of the final disaster.

Bidrohi (Rebel Warrior)’4 

Nazrul’s essays and poems land him repeatedly on the police watch. Essays like ‘Muhajirin hatyar janya dayi ke? (Who is responsible for killing refugees?)’ cause the confiscation of the publishing magazine. Repeated police interventions lead to his arrest, trial, and finally incarceration by 1922. While in prison, he launches a hunger strike, compelling the intervention of his admirer, Rabindranath Tagore. In a telegram sent to jail, Tagore writes: ‘Give up hunger-strike, our literature claims you.’ Out of this period come Nazrul’s iconic jail anthems. Things rise to fever pitch, birthing songs carrying a violence of form.

Destroy those iron gates of prison,

Demolish the blood stained stony altars

Of chain worshipping!

O youthful Israfil,

Blow your horn of universal cataclysm!

Let the flag of destruction

Rise amidst the rubble of prison walls

Of the East!!

Play the music of the festival of Shiva!

Who’s the master? Who’s the king?

Who is it that gives punishment

Having snatched away the truth, free and open?

Ha! Ha! Ha! It’s a laugh–

God is to be hanged?


Who gives this nasty lesson?

Karar Oi Louho Kopat (Those Iron Gates of Prison)’5 


The damages of the Great War fatally weaken the Raj, decolonization is increasingly seen as inevitable. As different strands wrestle for control of the liberation battle, Nazrul watches in horror as the movement he supported abandons the idea of a secular, united country. Anti-British fervour metastasizes into Hindu-Muslim riots and the seemingly inevitable drums of partition. In 1941, he publicly writes against the idea of Pakistan, dismaying his Muslim supporters. His one-time mentor, A.K. Fazlul Huq, now abruptly fires him from the newspaper where he was employed.

Two flowers on same stem, Hindu-Musalman

Musalman the centred eye, Hindu the soul

At night now, we chase and slaughter you, my new enemy

But with dawn, brothers will know what they did to each other

We will embrace and cry, and ask forgiveness again.

Deshattobodhok (Patriotic)’6 

In 1942, soon after witnessing the carnage of communal riots, Nazrul contracts a mysterious disease. At an astonishing speed, over a period of a few months, he begins losing his memory and speech. Already abandoned by Huq, Nazrul’s family approaches another Bengali Muslim politician, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy.


From here on, Nazrul begins his travels in no-man’s land. Huq has already ejected his ward for anti-Partition views, Suhrawardy rejects him because he worked for his arch rival Huq, and then factions of the Congress also abandon him because his ideology is not an immediate fit for the newer currents.

His vegetative state increases and will continue for another three decades. His wife dies in this period, which leads to one theory that the disease is syphilis. Later, Pick’s Disease is argued as the more likely diagnosis. Regardless of the cause, a mute Nazrul stays on in India after 1947, voting with his body against Pakistan. On the Indian side, he is now presented as a syncretic Muslim who imbibes Hindu culture. Soviet cultural figures are photographed sitting next to him. The dark Cassandra of songs about both religious syncretism and divisions is forgotten.

Where unite Hindu-Buddhist-Muslim-Christian

Who are you? Parsi? Jain? Jew? Santal, Bhil, Garo

Confucius? Charbak-Chela? Keep listing all your names, be anything you please

In your heart and head, carry whatever books you value


Samyabadi (Egalitarian)’7

Along with Syed Mujtaba Ali, he becomes one of the Bengali Muslims distancing themselves from Pakistan – Nazrul through physical presence in India, Mujtaba through his essay against Urdu as state language. But in Pakistan, the state is intent on crushing ‘Hindu tendencies’ in Bengali culture and music, so they re-imagine this same Nazrul as a Muslim poet. Facts that don’t fit are ignored – personal (his Hindu wife who did not convert), political and in poetry.


The Pakistani state cultural apparatus tries to present Nazrul as Muslim above all else, even re-writing some lines of his poems. In his anti-British marching song ‘Chol Chol Chol (March March March)’, the stanza ‘shajib koribo mohashoshan’ (we will rejuvenate the cremation ground) is changed to ‘shajib koribo gorosthan’ (we will rejuvenate the graveyard). His ‘Kandari Hushiyar (Boatman Beware)’ has two stanzas that are deleted in textbooks (‘Who dares ask if they be Hindu or Muslim/Boatman, tell them it is man who drowns, children of our mother’), as well as the line ‘India will rise again.’ In other textbook reprints, words like Sanskritized bhagavan are replaced with the Arabicized rohoman.

Nazrul is, of course, not the only subject of culture wars. There are others; some become willing participants in ‘unity’ literature projects, while others like Shawkat Osman sabotage the process through novels like Kritodash’er Hashi (Slaves’ Laugh). The coded messages embedded in this Bengali literature of discontent remain opaque to the Urdu speaking elite in Karachi and Islamabad. The final years of the 1960s see Pakistan in continuing turmoil, with language the Achilles heel of the unity project: simultaneously a weapon for transmission, organizing and protest in East Pakistan.

All efforts at ‘united nation’ fall apart by 1971, when the Pakistan project collapses. Now, in a foretold tryst moment, another partition and a new country: Bangladesh. Finally, India flies Nazrul to Bangladesh as a goodwill gesture towards the new President Sheikh Mujib. A temporary visit becomes a new home. His Kolkata family is puzzled. They expect him to come back, but that never happens. I remember reading a magazine article that stated Nazrul ‘seemed happier’ in Bangladesh. I wondered how they could make that deduction.


Four years later, Mujib is killed in a vicious military coup. The new army government moves Nazrul out of the state guesthouse into PG Hospital. Some describe this as ‘house arrest’ but it seems a bit irrelevant for a man who can barely move without help. He looks confused in those photos, surrounded by nurses. As if to ask through his eyes, what is happening outside?

When he dies a year later, the military junta of General Ziaur Rahman refuses the family’s demand to bury him in India. Instead, his funeral in Dhaka is used to cement the military government’s hold on the nationalist narrative. By the time family members manage to bypass the Bangladesh government’s bureaucratic manoeuvring and land in Dhaka, the funeral is over. Nazrul, who fought against Partition, now becomes embedded in the new narrative being constructed by a Saudi-supported, military-led, Islamization project in Bangladesh.

The state funeral of the national poet is a fiasco and a jubilee. I look at General Zia’s sunglass covered eyes in the funeral photos and shiver. Zia never imagined the next big funeral would be his own, five years later. His shattered body would be flown back from Chittagong for a grand procession that would fill up Manik Mia Avenue.

You never commanded any destruction

Other religions, other temples

Today we cannot tolerate any other belief

Forgive Us Prophet!

Khoma Koro Hazrat (Forgive Us Prophet)’8


Many years later, I go to visit an elderly relative. He talks for a whole afternoon, and then proudly shows me a photo album. Tourism snaps in India, Japan, Finland. In a separate section, a set of colour photos, posed and formal. There he is, sitting next to Nazrul. I vaguely recognize the stooped look and inert eyes. There is nothing left of the wild eyed, long-haired Nazrul of ‘Bidrohi’ days.

– This is Nazrul? I never knew you met him.

– Yes of course, this photo is my evidence.

– Well...what stories did he tell you?

– Stories...he didn’t tell us any stories. He didn’t say anything. I mean, he couldn’t speak by then.

– Oh, of course, this is after he became ill. So why did you meet him then?

– We all went. Then it was the fashion, to sit next to Nazrul and get your picture taken. It didn’t really matter that he couldn’t speak.



1. Salman Rushdie, Shame, Random House edition, 2008.

2. Syed Mujtaba Ali, ‘Pakistaner Rashtra Bhasha: Bangla na Urdu?’ (Pakistan’s State Language: Bengali or Urdu?), Tamuddun Majlis, 15 September 1947.

3. Catherine Malabou and Jacques Derrida, Counterpath, Stanford University Press, 2004.

4. Translated by Rezaul Karim Talukdar.

5. Translated by Sajed Kamal.

6. Translated by Naeem Mohaiemen.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.