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Returning To Earth

The pre-eminent and best loved Bengali poet after Tagore was an elusive, deeply private writer, reluctant to make himself better known, reluctant, in some crucial instances, to publish his own work...

Amit Chaudhuri ON | 27 June 2008
Returning To Earth
Returning To Earth
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‘Jibanananda’ is a Tagorean name; its meaning, ‘the joy of life’, recalls, for me, the lines from a famous song in the Gitanjali, in which Tagore’s defiant Nietzschean mood is contained, as it almost always is, by decorum and serenity: ‘Jagate ananda jagne/ Amaar nimantrana’ -- ‘I have been invited/ to the world’s festival of joy.’ Of course, Tagore had to earn those lines’ triumphal affirmation, and also their irony; by the time he wrote them, his wife was dead, as were two children, a son and his favourite daughter, Rani.

Das found himself invited to the ‘festival of joy’ in 1899; from the evidence of his poems and fiction, it doesn’t appear that he thought life -- ‘jiban’ -- an unqualified benediction. There is, not infrequently, a note of bewilderment in the way Das’s poems speak of earthly existence, the bewilderment of a person who wakes to find himself in a place of transit from which he must soon move on. The nameless speaker in the poem ‘Banalata Sen’ begins wearily:

For thousands of years I roamed the paths of this earth,
From waters round Ceylon in dead of night to Malayan seas.
Much have I wandered. I was there in the gray world of Asoka
And Bimbisara, pressed on through darkness to the city of Vidharbha.
I am a weary heart surrounded by life’s frothy ocean.
To me she gave me a moment’s peace -- Banalata Sen from Natore.

The translation is Clinton B Seely’s, of the Department of South Asian Languages at Chicago, from his superb literary biography of Das, A Poet Apart. From the beginning, Das, an elusive, deeply private writer, reluctant to make himself better known, reluctant, in some crucial instances, to publish his own work, has had his champions, who attempted to bring his work to the attention of the Bengali, and now the Anglophone, reader. The most important of these was the poet and critic, Buddhadeva Bose, Das’s contemporary, probably the most influential Bengali writer of that bristly, fascinating post-Tagorean generation, whose generosity in supporting a fellow poet was, and still is, as unusual in the republic of Indian letters as was his critical shrewdness and acumen. The poems are now part of the Bengali consciousness, on both sides of the border dividing India from what was Pakistan and is now Bangladesh; it’s safe to claim that Das is the pre-eminent and best loved Bengali poet after Tagore. Those who know his work first-hand are convinced that he is among the twentieth century’s great writers, and so the process of recuperation continues, now in English. Like some of those writers -- one thinks of Pessoa and Kafka -- Das felt, for some reason, compelled either to suppress some of his most important writings, or to locate them in a secret life. Seely’s excellent work, as translator and biographer, represents a sustained effort that’s been ongoing for a few decades now, a project, however, dogged by the sort of inexplicable delays and impediments (his translations have still to find a publisher), the sort of nebulous cloud, that occasionally seemed to keep Das’s contemporaries (despite the enthusiasm of Bose and some younger writers, and Tagore’s qualified but genuine admiration) from seeing the true value of his work.

Now the English poet Joe Winter’s translations, collected in two slim but not insubstantial volumes, Naked Lonely Hand, a selection of some of the most well-known poems, and Bengal the Beautiful, which contains the sonnets that were published posthumously and made him a household name in Bengal, give the process of dissemination, and the cause of Das, a fresh impetus -- a small but significant contribution which will not be, hopefully, scuppered by Saturn.

Both translators, Seely and Winter, have either taken the trouble to master Bengali (Seely’s doctoral thesis was on Bengali literature) or to make themselves intimate with it -- Winter, until recently, lived in Calcutta, and returned to England after several years; it was in Calcutta, I believe, that he discovered Das’s poetry. Seely has been revising and revising the translations, including the one of Das’s single most famous poem, from which I’ve quoted, above, the opening stanza. Winter’s version announces a translator who’s happier with looser forms, whose diction has a not-unattractive roughness and simplicity that is probably more characteristic of Winter’s own writing as well as of some post-War British poetry than it is of Das. Unlike Seely, Winter is also intent on preserving Das’s glancing, sometimes unnoticeable, rhymes -- a constraint which, paradoxically, produces some of that looseness of structure, as well as occasional awkwardnesses of phrasing. Here is the same opening stanza in Winter’s version:

For thousands of years Earth’s path has been my path. I have passed
at dark of night the sea of Ceylon and the ocean of Malay;
the ashen worlds of Bimbisara and Asoka I’ve encompassed,
and Vidarbha town’s dark distance, in life’s far ocean-foam-play…
and a touch of peace came to me once, the tiredest of men --
there and gone, the gift to me of Natore’s Banalata Sen.

One of the reasons that Winter is trying to preserve the original structure of the three-stanza poem and its rhymes is, surely, to adhere to the summation, in the original, of the last line of each verse with ‘Natorer Banalata Sen’; or ‘Natore’s Banalata Sen’. This is a rounding-off, a coda, at once mysteriously resonant and mock-resounding; it enacts a characteristic and essential modernist comedy, although comedy is not what one usually associates with this poem or its author, ‘the most solitary,’ according to Bose, ‘of our poets’. Yet comic is what, in the first instance, Natore’s Banalata Sen is, as is the idea of her simultaneously physically and transcendent redemptive quality; for Natore is what in India is called a ‘mofussil’, a prototype of the sort of small town that came into being (in this case, in East Bengal) in the time of colonialism, usually with an administrative centre, a post office, a school, a hospital, a railway station. Banalata is the kind of name a young middle-class woman of Das’s generation might have had; ‘Sen’ a surname that ordinarily denotes the vaidya caste, the caste Das’s own family belonged to before it became Brahmo (the protestant reform sect among Bengali Hindus founded by Rammohun Roy). The fact that she’s called ‘Banalata Sen’ rather ‘Banalata Devi’, ‘devi’ a respectful honorific once used to address women in lieu of the surname or maiden name, tells us that she belongs to the new educated bourgeoisie, and probably appears to our exhausted traveller, after his sojourn through mythic and historical time, in a drawing room. In other words, Natore and Banalata Sen are at once glamorous and banal, these two unrelated qualities converging in them as they did in several aspects of not just modernity, but what the Indian social scientist Partha Chatterjee calls ‘colonial modernity’ (it’s natural, in this context, to think of Joyce). That the ordinariness, the replicatedness, of the colonial modern should somehow be both embedded in the monuments of the past and of the world (the Odyssey, the kingdoms of Asoke and Bimbisara), and yet be involved in a huge inversion of value, where it (here Banalata Sen) possesses, in its banality, a magic greater than that of myth, is a crucial part of the comedy, and its revelatory intent. As critics have shown earlier, the poem is not only haunted by the passing of civilisations, but freighted with allusion. There are references to Poe’s ‘To Helen’; and, as an excellent essay by the Bangladeshi poet and critic Kaiser Haq demonstrates, to Pater’s euphony to the Mona Lisa. But it’s the ordinariness and the singularity of the colonial modern, of Banalata Sen, that gives it its special shape, and sets it apart from the piece by Pater and the poem by Poe.

Das himself was born to educated, even accomplished, Brahmo parents (his mother a poet, his father a schoolteacher) in an important mofussil, Barisal, in what was then East Bengal. The mofussil had some of the characteristics we ordinarily associate with small towns -- of being a backwater, of being a place to escape and get out of. But it does seem to me, from the evidence and the quality of my parents’ memories, both of whom also grew up in a mofussil in East Bengal, that it was, to a significant extent, a place of discovery, subversion, possibility (these are registers I find in the phrase ‘Natorer Banalata Sen’), and, noticeably, ambition. At least until independence, it represents a crucial stage of self-fashioning, between the pathshala (the traditional school, such as my father went to when he was very small) in the village and the university (such as also my father went to) in Calcutta. That is, the mofussil was not all provincialism and dullness, as is, so often, the case with the American small town, at least in its literary incarnation; nor was it a Naipaulean ‘half-made’ entity. It was a place of both constrictedness and hope, and, keeping figures like Das, Nirad C Chaudhuri, and even my parents (my mother a singer of some repute, my father a successful corporate man) in mind, one of professional and artistic experimentation, and a real seedbed for cosmopolitanism. I have mentioned ambition as a quality of the mofussil (sometimes formerly landowning) bourgeoisie; it’s something that Das appeared to lack, or to interrogate terribly and turn inside out. Das went to Calcutta first as a student of English literature at Presidency College, gaining a second class both in his undergraduate and his MA degrees, and then took up various forms of employment, including that of part-time lecturer (the second class degree foreclosing academic advancement). Whether it was ambition that took him there or whether it was something else isn’t clear. Whether it was ambition that made him publish some of his poems, and never publish many of them, and kept him from publishing his short stories or the novel Malyaban, or whether it was something else is also open to question. Whether it was intention or unmindfulness that made him step in front of a tram in Calcutta (a pretty difficult thing to do accidentally) in 1954, leading, of course, to his death, has never been fully explained. Indeed, intentionality, and its robust mofussil cousin, ambition, are never transparent or clearly stated in Das’s life, or in the lives of the drifting protagonists in the poems (‘For thousands of years Earth’s path has been my path. I have passed/ at dark of night the sea of Ceylon and the ocean of Malay;/ the ashen worlds of Bimbisara and Asoka I’ve encompassed’) and the fictions.

What Das did take from the mofussil is what one might, for want of a better descriptive term, call its palpable dream-life, a mixture of daytime fantasy and the images that populate our sleep, and inform, at any given point in history, the very decisions we make. It’s this dream-life that gives to my parents’ memories their still-contemporary mixture of colour and cosmopolitanism -- a peculiar mixture of emotion, desire, and the secular word that seems to have occurred at that time -- for which words like ‘cosmopolitan’ actually sound tentative and inadequate, and ‘dream’, in the end, seems almost more apposite. Das’s poems make this dream-life explicit in their susceptibility to astonishment, and in their particularly eccentric take on historical time. Here are the opening stanzas of ‘Windy Night’, in Winter’s translation:

The wind was fierce last night -- a night of innumerable stars.
Nightlong an immense wind toyed with my mosquito-net;
at times the net billowed out like the monsoon ocean’s maw,
at times it tore free of the bed
on a whim to fly to the stars,
there were times I felt -- half-asleep maybe -- there’s no net over my head,
it’s flying like a white heron in a blue ocean of air to graze the side of Swati’s star!
Last night was such a splendid night.
Then all the dead stars were awake -- not the hint of a gap in the sky --
there too in the stars I saw the faces of the ashen, all the dear dead of the
world;
all the stars shone in the dark like the dew-glistening eye of a courting
male kite at the top of an aswattha-tree;
the vast sky glittered like a shawl of shining cheetah’s-skin over the
shoulders of the Queen of Babylon on a night of moonlight!
Last night was such an amazing night.

This is an account of an inner tumult, as well as of the positioning of one’s relationship to one’s art and to certain transformative moments; the process that produced it is part of the same one, you suspect, that produced Raymond Roussel’s and Henri Rousseau’s visions, as well as their ambivalent, double-faced relationship to the public persona of the artist. These imaginations -- Das’s, Roussel’s, Rousseau’s -- are often cartographical and historical; they don’t balk at making impossible, even ludicrous, journeys through time, spaces, horizons; and yet often their mode, in the lives of their authors, is secrecy, a jealously-guarded privacy, that undermines the two poles -- the exoticist and the cosmopolitan -- in which the eclectic, internationalist sensibility most often falls in the twentieth century. They emanate from a nameless dream-life that constituted the submerged universe of the more visible and recognisable forms of cosmopolitanism, a universe that was to be found in the mofussil, in the suburbs of Calcutta, as well as in the Jardin des Plantes which Rousseau visited frequently, and the affluent Parisian street on which Roussel lived. It’s this submerged universe, linking Bengali mofussil to Paris, that I became aware of, in a circuitous way in my own consciousness, when I first heard of Roussel’s Impressions of Africa, a title that came to me with the curious bit of information that Roussel had never actually journeyed to equatorial Africa. This, then, immediately reminded me of Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee’s Chaander Pahaad or The Moon-Mountain. Banerjee is the author of the classic novel, Pather Panchali, and his The Moon-Mountain is set in Africa, to which Banerjee had never been. I also recalled, at once, that this last fact had been conveyed to me, when I was a boy, by my uncle, who’d grown up in one mofussil, Sylhet, then moved to another, Shillong, just before Partition, where he’d read Chaander Pahaad. ‘One day,’ he said to me, ‘I received a letter from my older brother, who was then a colonel with the King’s Engineers (it was the time of the War), and I immediately knew from the postage stamp that it had come from Africa. Do you know why? Because I had read Chaader Pahaad. But it was not an Africa of elephants and lions. The picture on the stamp was of a railway platform and railway tracks. That was the Africa Bibhuti Bhushan had written about.’ In other words, the Africa my uncle recognised was at once mofussil, enmeshed in Partha Chatterjee’s semi-comical and specificity-cherishing ‘colonial modernity’, as well as imaginary continent; a place simultaneously alive and immediate as well as being one that was experienced absolutely second or third-hand. This is the submerged, rather than the visible, world of cosmopolitanism from which many of Das’s trances and visions seem to emerge, with rents in the mosquito net and cheetah-skin all intact.

Here is the unnamed protagonist again, in the poem ‘Naked Lonely Hand’ (from which the collection takes its title), reminiscing, bringing back to the present a more composed but nevertheless slightly unfathomable setting:

Again in the Phalgun sky the darkness lowers:
as if a mysterious sister of light, this darkness.

Like that lady who has always loved me
and yet whose face I have never looked upon,
that very lady,
the darkness deepens in the Phalgun sky.
I seem to hear a tale of a lost city,
the beauty of an ash-gray palace wakes in my heart.

On the Indian Ocean shore
or else beyond the Mediterranean coast

or out beyond the Sea of Tyre
not now, but once, a certain city stood,
a certain palace,
a palace of the richest furnishings:
Persian carpets, cashmere shawls, round-sheer pearls and coral of the Bering wave,
my lost heart, my dead eyes, my extinct dreams and desires,
and you lady --
all was once in that world.

The ‘lady’ is one of Das’s many compulsive variations on the Banalata figure, here lifted out of the colonial modern and made metonymic, presented in the world of the poem only as a ‘naked lonely hand’. The only suggestion, here, of the modern -- not the colonial modern, but the post-1860s Bengali refashioning of the ‘modern’ -- is, curiously, in the recurring reference to the Bengali month which coincides with spring, Phalgun. Both the Indian seasons and the Bengali calendar are pointedly observed and run as a counterpoint and as a parallel time-cycle to the Gregorian calendar in Bengal’s nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and this counterpoint in time is an essential characteristic of Bengali modernity. In the poem, Phalgun is the present moment, the settled, familiar, homely moment of Bengali bourgeois modernity, from which the other time-frame, the Gregorian calendar of history, is seen in a perspective that narrows and converges till it becomes invisible, or visible in another way:

Phalgun’s darkness is here with a story from over the sea,
a pain-filled outline of exquisite domes and arches,
the smell of pears, now gone,
ash-pale parchments in profusion of lion-hide and deer-skin,
glass panes rainbow-coloured,
and at curtains coloured like peacocks’ fanned-out tails
a momentary glimpse
of rooms, inner rooms, more rooms, further rooms --
a timeless stillness and wonder.

Curtains, carpets spread with the blood-red sweat of the sun!
Blood-crimson glasses of watermelon wine!
Your naked lonely hand…

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