A biographical sketch

Saiful Islam Khan, a public servant by profession, writes under the pen-name of Hayat Saif. He is one of the major poets of Bangladesh and is identified with the prolific sixties. A profoundly modern poet, he has immersed himself in the contemporary global literature as well as the culture and heritage of his own. His refined taste in art and literature has given him a unique poetic diction and a deep insight into our contemporary existence, where, as he regrets, violence plays a crucial role. Hayat Saif has an unusually musical voice of his own with which he takes his readers to a very special world where man may, at least symbolically, be born again in love and beatitude.

He is considered as one of the most powerful personalities of the sixties and a serious literary critic. Not only is he renowned for his poetry, he is also known as a prolific prose-writer, who with an unusually rich vocabulary, can express subtle topics in lucid language. His article In Search of Roots: The Situation in the Poetry of Bangladesh1 has been highly acclaimed for radical analysis of modern trends in Bengali poetry. Currently, he is working on Herbert Read and translating his The Meaning of Art into Bengali, part of which has already been published.

Hayat Saif attended the Dhaka University from where he received his M. A. degree in English literature in 1965. Later he received higher training on economic policy and tax-administration from institutions abroad. Retired in 1999 from from government service, in the Customs and Excise Cadre, he joined the Finance Services in 1968 of the then Pakistan Superior Services. Before becoming a career civil servant, he served as a teacher for about three years during the mid-sixties.

Apart from literary activities, Hayat Saif, is a widely published author on technical subjects. Before working as the Chairman of NBR in 1998, he served as the Member in charge of Value Added Tax (VAT) and played a major role in establishing the VAT system in the country, replacing the old excises and sales taxes. He has widely travelled around the world, to deliver papers on tax policy and administration at conferences in different countries.

Hayat Saif was born on the 16th of December, 1942 in Dhaka where his father was posted at that time as a government servant. Much of his youth passed in Rajshahi where his father the late Mr. Moslem Uddin Khan served in the Rajshahi University till the later part of the sixties. His boyhood left indelible impressions on his mind. However, according to him. they are extremely personal and beautiful with all the pains and pleasures. He was very fond of his parents and had a happy childhood. His father was an idealist person and he was brought up rather strictly, in severe discipline. But, his mother Begum Sufia Khan was the balancing factor in his early life and had a profound influence in moulding his personality. Married to Tahmina Islam, whom he admires and is deeply attached to, he has three sons, namely, Zeeshan Saif, Mehrab Saif and Mehran Saif. While his demanding career keeps him busy round the clock, he is evermindful of the well-being of his children and spends his spare time with three grand children- Zaka, Zakwan and Misam to whom he has dedicated his collection of poems “Roshun Bonar Itikatha, 2010” (The story of planting garlic, 2010).

He started to scribble rather early. He was a student of eighth grade (Class VIII) when he actually became conscious about it. It all began rather playfully. One of his maternal uncles used to compose interestingly funny poems to the delight of his listeners. Young Hayat Saif was often in the audience. Moreover, his father had an excellent taste in literature. He had the habit of occasionally reciting poems of old masters from memory in Bengali, English and Persian. He listened. At some point of time young Hayat Saif tried to string up a few words together and some of them looked pretty good. That was the beginning. His first publication was a leaflet really-a long poem he wrote on the occasion of the marriage ceremony of one of his cousins. He was then a student of class VIII. The first published poems appeared in Shamokal, in 1962.

But he actually got stuck-up with it during the university life. And when his poems began to appear in prestigious literary journals like Shamokal edited by Sikandar Abu Zafar and Purbamegha edited jointly by Zillur Rahman Siddiqi and Mostafa Nurul Islam, his emergence as a modern poet was confirmed. At one point, in the beginning, he was considerably influenced by Sudhin Dutta, one of the giants of the thirties, to which Bengali literature owes its modernity. He always admired Jibanananda Das, too, though the latter is not very discernible in his techniques.

His first book Santrashey Shahobaash (To Live in Violence) came out in 1984. As of now (1998), he has publishes only six-books of poetry since then, one being a collection comprising poems from other books. He has comparatively lesser number of poems written so far, compared with some of his contemporaries with whom he started writing poetry in the sixties. This, he thinks, explains a wider dispersion both thematically and phonetically in his writings. However, as he stated in an interview, he is too busy to find time to sit for writing. Whatever leisure he has, he prefers to spend in reading. Nevertheless, he believes that he will probably return to writing very soon. He also contemplated to do some paintings which was his passion during his youth in early sixties.

Like his father, he recites very well. His poems are best presented in his own voice. In the inner circle, he is renowned for his oratory, and superb table-talk that speaks of a high level of sense of humour and sharpness of mind.

Asked in an interview why he writes poetry, he candidly answered. "I don't really know, honestly, I suppose I write poems because I have to, because I have nothing better to write." To him writing poems is more like a continuous conversation with one's own self. "It is somewhat like brushing things up", he says and "putting them in order in a room continuously. In the mind structures, images, thoughts come and go; colour, sounds, contours of the physical environment leave their impressions there; they do not quite die down."

To Hayat Saif, conversations with himself include all these and at one point of time they take a concrete shape in the form of a poem. According to him, what poetry basically does is to bring minds together to share similar aesthetic sensations. These sensations are conveyed through words, their sounds and meaning their images and implications. These sensations are conveyed by saying things and by leaving things unsaid. Like every other creative process there is trial and error, there is conscious choice and there is also that subconscious continuum some call ‘inspiration'. So there is something beyond volition involved in writing poetry. As he once said, "If you are a poet you may have to write almost involuntarily at times and at times you can't even write." He believes that this differentiates poetry from other literary forms.

Hayat Saif does not consider the question of achieving perfection in writing poems irrelevant. As once he remarked, "I do not achieve perfection, nor do I aspire for it." He added, "I think the idea of perfection itself suggests that the condition is not achievable, at best not in the physical sense. Only the concept of ‘God' and perhaps the state of Nirvana, to some extent, nears the idea of perfection." Then he further added, "I am thus too small, insignificant and humble even to attempt it."

Nevertheless, in framing out a poem, he usually does a number of drafts for a piece of poem. He writes and re-writes a single poems time and again, even doing anew a single poem based on the first version. This may take long. Normally they are done over time not on a single long sitting but many short sittings at various times. This is the normal pattern of his work. When asked whether sometimes the process of composing poems becomes tortuous enough to cause mental agony, he replied, "Some pieces have caused agony if that is what one would like to call it, but beyond it, when a poem is completed there is always an ecstasy—a sense of surfeit."

Modern Bengali poetry has undergone a process of evolution over time. There is now far more leaning towards the language of common speech than it used to be. Nevertheless, Hayat Saif clings to the classical techniques of the earlier period. According to him, "In spite of all the innovations verse is still verse as differentiated from prose pieces. Music is the basic quality of the language of poetry that differentiates it from other forms. Classical methods give the opportunity to choose structures in which I feel at ease. It is a natural bent I find, useful for my purpose. I don't try to address large audience. I am happy with few discerning ones."

The works of Hayat Saif are under constant watch of his peers. According to Al Mahmud, in the final analysis, Hayat Saif is a poet of love and lyrics. And according to Abdul Mannan Syed, Hayat Saif is a poet sensitive to his own existence and the society around. "Niddrita" (The Sleeping Lady) for example, or "Shei Shomoy”(That Time) or "Jananir Nam" (Name of Mother) bear out this contention.

By all means, Hayat Saif has an impressive personality. His unassuming attitude towards life easily achieves him friendly relationships. He is praised for the exquisite management qualities and leadership in his profession. He has similar order and logic in his writings which draws its strength from his keen power of observation of the life around him and is enforced by a deep spirituality as well as true emotive fervour.

by Faizul Latif Chowdhury

Photograph by: Din M Shibly

Related Pages

Hayat SAIF :: Interview

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