The Poet Who Writes Silences

The Bengali poet Bhaskar Chakraborty is not very well known to readers outside of Calcutta, a city that constantly enters and leaves his poems.

File photos of Bengali poet Bhaskar Chakraborty. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0

File photos of Bengali poet Bhaskar Chakraborty. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0

Bhaskar Chakraborty’s 11th death anniversary falls this year on July 23. One of Calcutta’s most elusive poets, Chakraborty is not very known even to Bengali readers outside Calcutta. Just as the Finnish poet, Paavo Haavikko, was called “Europe’s best kept secret” for years, Chakraborty’s fame was for a long while saddled with such an epithet. Perhaps the elusive language and complexity of certain poets literally translate into the extent of their reception in the world, at least during their lifetime. It demands more alertness on our part as lovers of literature to pay attention to these voices.

Translating him for the last two years, I learnt as much about the poet as about the task of translation itself. Translation demands slowness and fidelity. Translation is an act of a love whose enemy is haste. It takes time for a poet’s voice to emerge from your reading and slowly flow into your very bloodstream. It is only then that you may feel bold enough to translate him. In translating a poet it’s not the language you possess that becomes visible, but the language you lose, as you find yourself translated by the poet. The secret of all great works of translation is a reversible one: You translate the poet/writer who translates you.

There is also the question of language. On the question of how free or attached to the original a translation should be, no one perhaps made it clearer than Jorge Luis Borges: “The original is unfaithful to the translation.” In my opinion, only weak translators are anxious about fidelity. Imagine the creative audacity in Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which made Garcia Márquez provocatively declare the English translation better than the Spanish original. Speaking of poetry, Octavio Paz put the matter succinctly: “A translated poem is another poem.” That is why translators should only be faithful to the language they are translating into. While working on Chakraborty’s poems, I was mostly attentive to how his voice would echo in English.

Chakraborty hears and writes silences. There is a ghostliness about his poems that reverberates with a strange depth, where the obscure is familiar and the familiar, obscure. Because of this element, the poems seem to float between dream and reality. In one of the short poems in his famous Language of Giraffes he writes,

“I see the breeze blowing and buses, their wings spread,
Flying in the city.”

In another prose poem he writes,

“Our Calcutta has grown further away from us; we haven’t kept news of it.
Well, many a days I have roamed to die in this city. So many days I woke up in a dream.”

Or in the prose-poem, From Life, see the rush of images that crowd his memory:

“When there were days only meant for roaming around, I used to see the double-decker bus swimming and rushing through Calcutta – in parks and restaurants, boys and girls are floating, and kissing each other.”

Chakraborty, like almost all other poets from Calcutta, is a poet of the city. The city constantly enters and leaves his poems. But Chakraborty’s Calcutta is not recognisable through its usual commotion. His poems, unlike those of other Calcutta poets, do not grapple with the sweat and toil, the hustle and bustle, or the vivid scenes of city life. Chakraborty breathes and walks a different time and the city is transported into memory, where it both comes alive and evaporates the way all memory of a place does. This ushers in a pulsating sense of distance between the city and the poet, who seems to live by its wayside, as much as the city lives by the wayside of his many memories of life. In his autobiography, written in the form of a prose poem, see how the word “maybe” adds an enigmatic uncertainty to memory with stunning effect:

“Maybe it was with you all I used to sit for dinner every night – maybe with you all I used to go hear the musical concerts – sleep – and at midnight your sister used to steal herself away and sleep beside me. I was a lot like an absentminded lake.”

Calcutta is Chakraborty’s nostalgia and nightmare, as he both remembers the fleeting pleasures of companionship, as much as he hallucinates about his life in the city. There is also a strong disenchantment about Calcutta in Chakraborty, where he finds himself quite alone; his relationship with it increasingly remote and bewildering. There is a subtle hint of restlessness with middle class life as he writes in a short poem titled Calcutta:

“I will surely one day run away from this Calcutta
There is only sound of broken glasses in Calcutta
Sound of knives and forks spreading on the floor.”

The absence of sentimentality in the poems adds to the emotional maturity of the poet’s engagement with the city.

Chakraborty’s poems are also a constant conversation with death. He appears to be strolling on the banks of a river called death. Death appears like a concrete shadow on his pages, between his lines, often plunging him into despair, or often calming and sobering his anxieties. In a poem about spending time in a restaurant, remembering the sexual embraces of youth, he suddenly changes the tone of the entire poem:

“There is poison in the blood, o’ beloved
Now life goes, slowly, it goes.”

Even though he constantly registers his refusal to give up life and die prematurely, he is also not afraid to offer death a seat, look it in the eye and measure life against all that death is about to take away from him. Chakraborty is a poet in despair, but also extremely brave amidst that despair. With two, three swift moods, he confronts the chilling aspects of being like this:

“I see my harmless soul being sold for seventeen rupees –
Won’t I now be invisible in the streets?
So am I a nightmare? Slighted?
Why is the blood then sprinkling down?
How much fever I have, only Allah knows, Bhagwan knows.”

There is also an echo of Jibanananda Das, arguably the best poet in the Bengali language, in Chakraborty. Apart from suggestive imageries, Chakraborty shares with Das the exploration of the often disturbing relationship between time and modern life. Das frequently used naturalist – and on rarer occasions like the famous Banalata Sen, mythological – images to depict the passing of time. Chakraborty is thoroughly urban. Yet, in an exceptional and complex poem, Bad Times, describing an existential anguish, he makes a sudden, uncanny leap into folk-time, with stirring effect:

“Will I stay like this, go nowhere? What kind of day is this?
The ships appear to have left the dock – there are no dreams
As if the king’s son lies dead somewhere and it only rains.”

It is perhaps crucial to read Bhaskar through the state of his illness, as it pervades the mood of the poems written after he was diagnosed with cancer. During the ’60s, in the time of the ‘Beat Generation’, the American poet Allan Ginsberg had visited Calcutta and collaborated with the most well-known poets of that era. The use of narcotics and drugs had a huge impact on the poetic imagination. It coincided with the rebellious spirit of youth, breaking conventional and conservative modes of the aesthetics of middle-class sensibilities. Chakraborty also hallucinates from the effect of the drugs taken for his illness, but unlike the Ginsbergian experience of excess, where drugs are voluntarily administered to disturb the state of the mind, Chakraborty experiences the effect of drugs as an impossible means to recover everything he was losing: his memory and his life.

In a poem titled, For You All, what Chakraborty takes away is a severe consciousness of death:

“In the smell of kerosene, I again remembered
All of you – in the dark courtyard  –
Where is the faraway train going
And in this dusk, I sit all alone.”

These lines reminded me of Osip Mandelstam’s famous poem, ‘Night Piece’, where you find desolation in the heart of companionship:

“Come love let us sit together
In the cramped kitchen breathing kerosene.”

If there was a poet in India who could create ambiances that would remind you of a Mandelstam, Chakraborty was surely the one.

(All translations of Chakraborty are by the author)

Manash ‘Firaq’ Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.