Encounter with Mahatma Gandhi in Barisal and support for non-cooperation movement
In 1925 Sufia met Mahatma Gandhi in the town of Barisal. Inspired by Gandhi's struggle for independence and non-cooperation movement, she wove some thread on Charka (a small spinning wheel) as a mark of protest. Mahatma Gandhi also inspired her to wear simple clothing. Following her marriage, she had stopped wearing the elaborate, richly ornamented 'Mughal' dress of her childhood. Now she began to wear the simple handloom saris commonly worn by Bengali women. She also became a member of ‘Matri Mangal’ an organisation dedicated to women’s welfare.
Migration to Kolkata where she met Kazi Nazrul Islam and Mohammad Nasiruddin and published her first poem
After marriage Nehal moved to Calcutta (now spelt Kolkata) for higher education to continue studying law. He brought along his young energetic wife. This move led to Sufia's entry into the world of literature. The mighty, vibrant metropolis left a lasting impact on Sufia's mind. She got involved in literary activities and came to know Kazi Nazrul Islam, the Bidrohi Kobi (Rebel Poet) (1899-1976) and Mohammad Nasiruddin (1888-1994), a great patron of Muslim authors.
Kazi Nazrul Islam - who later became the National Poet of Bangladesh - was very impressed with Sufia's poems and urged her to print them. At the time Nasiruddin was the editor and publisher of 'Saogat', a literary journal that promoted young and upcoming writers. He inspired Sufia Kamal to engage herself into writing and Sufia quickly began put much effort in reading books and sharpened her writing style. She became inspired by the progressive and secular thoughts and views of Kazi Nazrul Islam and Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, and was also introduced to Rabindranath Tagore's works that time. This consumption of large intellectual reading helped the teenager to become a better writer and in 1926, aged only 15, Sufia wrote her first poem, 'Basanti' (Of Spring), which was published by Saogat.
Sufia Kamal became close to Mohammed Nasiruddin who provided space to Muslim women writers of Bengal in his magazine and fought against the discrimination perpetrated by the better-educated Hindu majority literati as well as those by conservative Muslims. Apart from reading, Sufia would send her stories and poems to different newspapers and magazines and rapidly became a familiar figure in the then literary arena.
When Sufia Kamal first met Mohammad Nasiruddin in 1927, she was wearing a veil and the editor told her that a poet like her should not be under a veil. She replied that although she personally did not endorse it, she had to wear veil because of familial and social norms. Soon after this meeting, she stopped wearing the veil. In 1929, Shawgat decided to publish photographs of female writers along with their work, and Sufia Kamal was the first woman to agree to publish her portrait. When Nasiruddin took her to the studio of the famous portrait photographer, C. Guha, he was very surprised as that was the first time any Muslim lady stepped into his studio to be photographed.
The initial phase of Sufia Kamal's struggle was unique since there were very few Muslim women active in the social arena and she found support mostly in a progressive, liberal, male-dominated Muslim circle; this core group was considerably active in Kolkata. Such contacts and exposure made her a littérateur as well as an activist in the mainstream society.
A wave of joy swept through our house, as she entered. Once she was done asking after everyone, she would always leave her writings on the table and tell my father to do whatever he liked with them. She never gave a heading to her poems.
Nurjahan Begum, editor of Begum magazine and daughter of Mohammad Nasiruddin
Membership of Begum Rokeya's women's organisation Anjuman
In 1928 Sufia Kamal got the credit for being the first Bengali Muslim woman to fly in an aeroplane, for which she was congratulated by Begum Rokeya. The following year 18-year-old Sufia joined Anjuman-i-Khawatin-i-Islam, a social organisation of Muslim women founded by Begum Rokeya. The organisation aimed at promoting education and social awareness among women, especially those in the slums. Sufia used her real life experiences to help women realise the importance of female education. She would always encourage the guardians to send their girl children to school. Sufia played an active role and had a successful short but fruitful spell with Anjuman.
This [Anjuman-i-Khawatin-i-Islam] association not only provided women a forum where they could discuss issues relevant to them, it also promoted education and social reform. The influence of Roquiah's social ideals would continue to inspire Sufia throughout her life. She would write a number of poems on Roquiah and also dedicate an anthology to her, Mrttikar Ghran (Fragrance of the Earth, 1970). She would also help form the 'Rokeya Sakhawat Smriti Committee' (Roquiah Sakhawat Memorial Committee) which proposed that the first women's hall of Dhaka University be named 'Rokeya Hall'.
Begum Rokeya's great influence on Sufia Kamal
In 1929 Sufia also sent esteemed Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore a poem on his birthday. She later met the poet on his invitation at Jorasanka where he gave a copy of 'Gora'. The next year Sufia had a write-up published along with her photography in Saogat's first women's issue.
In 1931, 20-year-old Sufia was elected to the Indian Union Women's Federation. She became the first Muslim woman to be elected to the federation.
But very soon things were about to change for the worse.
Nehal's death and flooding of nana'r bari
When Sufia Kamal was blossoming in Calcutta with active support of her husband, trying her hand in creative writing and getting involved with social work, a great disaster struck her. Her husband died suddenly of tuberculosis on 9 December 1932. Ten days before Nehal's death, Begum Rokeya, who had huge influence on Sufia's thoughts through her revolutionary notions, had also passed away. The sudden demise of these two influential figures dampened Sufia's spirit. However, her mother helped her overcome the shock.
Shortly after this tragedy, a sudden flooding of the river Kala Badar engulfed the palatial building of her maternal grandparent in Shaistabad as well as much of the family's landed property. Sufia Kamal, the 21-year-old widow with a 6-year-old girl child was in a fix and she decided to be on her own.
Following her husband's death young widow Sufia Kamal decided to lead an independent life in Kolkata, instead of succumbing to family pressure and withdrawing to her in-laws' home in Barisal and leading a life of dependency on male members of the family.
She stayed behind in Kolkata with her daughter Amena, her brother Abdul Wali, and her mother. Sufia had brought her mother from Barisal to stay with her who herself was a widow by then. As they stepped into a new world of Kolkata, Sufia struggled a lot to live the life she wanted.
If she were born some 50 years earlier, such an option could not have been thought of. Ghulam Murshid in his book Reluctant Debutante wrote that in the late 19th century “a woman could earn independently only by working as house maid, illiterate midwife or as a dancer".
School teacher in Calcutta
In 1933 Sufia Kamal joined Calcutta Corporation Free Primary School for girls as a school teacher. It was a very bold decision for a Muslim widow of 21 years old and one that was slated by her extended family.
Her anguish and disappointment was aptly captured in a poem she wrote:
The tune of my flute vanished in the sandy isle,
The dark waves of river Bador has devoured every thing.
Those who used to kiss me with love
Now no longer want to see my dark face.
Not one to give up, Sufia fought against this conservative attitude and continued to work as a teacher for next eight years while still continuing to write and participate in social welfare activities. During this time she met the poet-essaysist Abdul Quadir (1906-1984) and Jasimuddin (1903-1976) who were co-workers at the school and who became her life-long friends.
The coming years were very crucial in Sufia Kamal's life as she went through the test of fire. Sufia Kamal did not have any formal education, nevertheless her well-wishers managed to find her the job of a school teacher. But life did not become easier even after getting the job. The conservative attitude prevalent in society found reflection in considering her as the 'evil spirit' in the family, one who begets misfortune. Moreover her job as a school teacher which required more open presence in society and her contact with writers and publishers made her a pariah in the family.
Sufia Kamal became a lone crusader against social barriers and the difficult struggle sapped her energy.
The 1930s was a period of great personal crisis in Sufia Kamal's life. She was tired of life and could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. Her only solace was in writing poems and communicating with her author friends, most of whom became important personalities in her later life.
First book of short stories and first book of poems receive highest praise from Kazi Nazrul Islam and Rabindranath Tagore
Sufia's literary career took off after her first poetry publication.
In 1937 Begum Sufia Kamal's first book, Keyar Kanta (The Thorn of Flowers) was published containing a collection of short stories. The following year, her first book of poems, Sanjher Maya (The Twilight Illusion, also translated as The Eventide Spell) was published. Kazi Nazrul Islam wrote the foreword and praised the young poet. Rabindranath Tagore also read the book and wrote a glowing tribute to her, praising the collection as an exemplary work of literature.
Banglar kavya gagane navadita uday tara (a new star on the horizon of Bangla poetry).
How Kazi Nazrul Islam described Sufia Kamal after reading her first book of poems 'Sanjher Maya',
Bangla sahitye tomar sthan uchche ebong druva tomar prathista (You have a high place in Bangla literature, as constant and fixed as the Pole Star).
Rabindranath Tagore letter of praise to Sufia Kamal,
In 1984 'Sanjher Maya' was translated into Russian among other languages.
In spite of the publication of these books, depression engulfed Sufia. She became sick and frail.
During this difficult time a well-wisher arranged her marriage with Kamaluddin Ahmad Khan (1907-1977), a writer and translator. Kamal was a leading member of the Bulbul literary group which contained Habibullah Bahar Chowdhury, Shamsunnahar Mahmud and M. Wajed Ali, among others.
Kamal was a liberal and educated young man who became a great patron of Sufia Kamal's literary and social pursuits. Sufia found a new meaning in life and rediscovered her own self.
In Saogat she wrote a poem titled "The Letter from Spring":
I was perplexed
and never knew when the dew covering my pain evaporated,
When the flowers blossomed in spring.
In 1940 Sufia Kamal gave birth to her first son Shahed Kamal. But the 1940s was a time of great turmoil in India. Nationalist struggle reached a new height and ultimately succeed in forcing the British to finally leave India after ruling for nearly 200 years. Hindu-Muslim tension was also on the rise with political leaders failing to mend the gap between the two major communities. As communal relationship deteriorated, riots flared up in different parts of India. One of the most profile took place in Calcutta in 1946.
For her part Sufia Kamal worked very hard to calm the situation and bring peace. She worked tirelessly to help set up a temporary shelter camp for riot victims at Lady Brabourne College.
In those difficult times, she never lost her humanitarian belief, nor did she allow her outlook to be tarnished with communal feeling. The multicultural cosmopolitan atmosphere of Kolkata was a source of inspiration for her. She had met a great number of litterateurs, both Hindus and Muslims, and received encouragement from them.
After the riot Sufia started a kindergarten school named 'Begum Rokeya Memorial' in Congress Exhibition Park along with Muhammad Modabber, artist Kamrul Hassan, his brother Hassan Jan and many other members of Mukul Fauj.
It was also during this turbulent year of 1946 that Sufia Kamal met with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for the first time. Her relationship with Jathir Jonok (Father of the Nation) of Bangladesh would go on to be profound and influential.
Migration to Dhaka, East Pakistan, and encounter with Leela Nag Roy
In 1947 Mohammad Nasiruddin founded Shaptahik Begum, a weekly women's magazine. He appointed Sufia Kamal as its first editor.
In August that year British India was partitioned off into India and Pakistan, with the two wings of Pakistan known as East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (present day Pakistan) separated by India in-between. There was mass exodus of people across the border. In October, few weeks after the Partition, Sufia Kamal left Calcutta and moved to Dhaka, the provincial capital of East Pakistan, along with her family.
But the Kamal family had no place to go and took shelter at an orphanage. It was here that Sufia Kamal was contacted by Leela Nag Roy, a legendary revolutionary and close associate of Subhas Chandra Bose. She came to know about Sufia Kamal from various people but they had never met before. Sufia also met other famous women leaders like Juiful Ray and Asha Lata Sen. Leela Nag assisted Sufia to find a house and got her involved with the work of Shanti (Peace) Committee founded by herself to provide relief to the victims of communal riot and maintain Hindu-Muslim friendship.
[Leela] Roy was the first female student of Dhaka University established in 1921. She founded and edited the journal Jayshree, led a revolutionary organisation and was in jail for ten years. She realised that as someone from Hindu community, it will be difficult for her to stay and work in East Pakistan, so when Sufia Kamal arrived in Dhaka, Roy immediately knew on whom she could rely to carry forward the struggle for emancipation.
Following the Partition, Mohammad Nasiruddin shifted publication of 'Saogat' and 'Shaptahik Begum' from Calcutta to Dhaka. Noorjahan Begum took over from Sufia Kamal as editor of Shaptahik Begum, but Sufia still remained a close associate. She gradually became more involved with various kinds of social activities.
The same year, the 'Purba Pakistan Mahila Samiti' (East Pakistan Women's Council) was formed with Sufia Kamal as its president.
In 1949, she became the founding co-editor with Jahanara Arzoo of a weekly magazine, 'Sultana', named after the principal character of Roquiah Sakhawat Hossain's famous novel "Sultana's Dream".
Student leader during Bhasha Andolon (1948 - 1952)
In 1950 Sufia gave birth to her first daughter Sultana Kamal with her second husband Kamaluddin Ahmed. But in newly formed Pakistan there were increasing frustration between the East Pakistanis and their leaders in West Pakistan. The people of East Pakistan were growing angry with the subjugation of the powerhouses in West Pakistan and their attempt to continuously undermine the Bengali people and culture.
This frustration gave rise to Bhasha Andolon (Bengali Language Movement) when the authorities tried to replace Bangla with Urdu as the official language of Pakistan.
Even though she had just given birth, it didn't stop Sufia Kamal from revolting against the communal riots in Dhaka in 1950. She gave leadership to the resistance movement and worked as a relief worker. The following year, Sufia was elected president of Dhaka Shishu Raksha Samity (Dhaka Children Protection Society). In the same year here book of poems, Maya Kajol, was also published.
In 1952 Bhasha Andolon had reached its peak. During this turbulent time Sufia gave leadership to a group of women activists and organised procession. She was also heavily pregnant. That same year, Sufia gave birth to her third and final daughter, Saeeda Kamal.
It was 21 February 1953 [i.e. Ekushey February]. We attended programmes all day, observing the first Language Martyrs' Day. Barefoot, we went to the Shaheed Minar, which was just a bare brick structure covered by black cloth then. We were at memorial meetings and rallies, mourning those who had embraced martyrdom to secure our right to speak Bangla. In the evening, Sufia Kamal asked me what my plans are, and my tired answer was that I wanted to go back to my hall (at Dhaka University). She asked me, 'aren't you invited to the dinner celebrating International Poetry Festival?' I told her as they are celebrating the occasion on a national mourning day, I don't intend to go.
To my surprise, she told me that we should protest this by going there, in front of all. I could not but agree with this brave woman and went to the dinner. Our presence itself was a protest, as we were in a total contrast with the jovial atmosphere. Sufia Kamal wearing a white cotton saree and me in a cotton shirt - both of us wearing a mourning badge. We were barefoot. Responding to the host's reluctant query, Sufia Kamal said that we were there to protest the event as it dishonoured the Language Movement, and that we wanted the guests to pay homage to the martyrs. I translated her words into English, as there were many non-Bengali guests. We left the dinner after the guests acknowledged the Language Martyrs' Day. That's how bold and determined Sufia Kamal was.
Dr. Rafiqul Islam, a noted Kazi Nazrul Islam researcher
Pakistan came into being with the overwhelming support of Bengali Muslims. The communal conflict fuelled the rise of two-nation theory whereby Muslims of Pakistan were identified as one nation blurring their distinct national cultural identities. This inherent contradiction of the state flared up very soon and on 21 February 1952 students came out in protest against declaring Urdu as the only state language of Pakistan. Sufia Kamal took active part in the language movement and was at the forefront of many protest demonstrations.
Ever since the early days of Pakistan, Sufia Kamal continued to be at the forefront of almost all the major protest movements and over time, the short and frail lady turned into the tallest and the boldest woman in the movements.