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Writing in 1940, poet-editor-critic Buddhadeb Basu noted how a succession of fresh faces appeared on Bengal’s poetry scene through the 1930s with what seemed like unfailing regularity. Each of these new arrivals, he remarked with enthusiasm, happened to be younger than the others who came before him. The first in line was Buddhadeb himself, soon to make way for Bishnu De who, in turn, was dislodged quickly enough from his ‘youngest poet’ perch by Samar Sen. Even Samar’s reign was not to last very long, however, for 1940 saw a twenty-something Subhash Mukhopadhyay erupt on the Bengal literary firmament with his remarkable first book of poems Padatik (‘The Foot-Soldier’).
Were Buddhadeb Basu to pick up the thread of his commentary a few years later, one imagines he would have gladly acknowledged the sighting of another extraordinary young talent; a poet who was not quite twenty yet when he wrote:
Life Eternal! Call an end to pretty verses,
Bring on bland prose, rough-hewn and hard.
Banish the tired sweetness of trilling couplets,
Drive prose’s heavy hammer, break melody into shards.
No use any more for poetry’s subtle charms,
Poetry! Go you now wherever you will!
Only dry prose shapes the hungry man’s world –
Lovely the full moon, but charred flatbread’s lovelier still.
It is impossible to recreate the original’s magic in a rough-and-ready translation, especially as this crisp little poem makes canny use of alliterative aural values. It is not easy to capture the poem’s tone of gentle irony either, or the lilting music of its movement. All in all, it is the work of an accomplished poet whose skill sets were evolved enough to win the reader’s unqualified admiration. And when the poet was all of 19 years old, it was only natural for readers to look forward to many years of sustained enjoyment of this precocious bard’s upcoming work.
As things turned out, however, Sukanta Bhattacharya lived to be only 20, his life cruelly abridged by tuberculosis three months short of his 21st birthday on August 15, 1947. He died on the threshold of India’s liberation from colonial rule, an occasion he had dreamed of and written so often about; one which he had fought for with all the strength and passion of which he was capable. He didn’t even live to see his first book in print. The first anthology of his poems, Chharpatra (‘The Entry Pass’) was going to the printers while he lay dying in a Calcutta hospital, even as the therapeutic use of Streptomycin for treating tuberculosis patients was being standardised overseas.
The other books of his poems, droll verses and songs such as Ghum Nei (‘Sleepless’), Purbabhas (‘First Stirrings’), Mithe-Kadha (‘Sweet and Bitter’) and Abhijan (‘The Adventure’) – as well as his collected writings and letters, Sukanta Samagra (‘The Sukanta Compendium’) – never saw the light of day until several years after his passing. Incredibly, just one photograph of the poet seems to have survived. And even though he is memorialised in a city lane here or an urban flyover there, Bengal’s youngest poet seems entirely to have gone out of favour with the reading public; even in the city he was born, grew up, and died in. His birthday – August 15 – is as good a time as any to consider if he did not deserve better.
There is, of course, no question that Sukanta’s oeuvre is a mixed bag in which the magnificent jostles with the ordinary. In his editor’s preface to the 1967 Sukanta Samagra, Subhash Mukhopadhyay – who had known Sukanta for many years and greatly admired his work – writes that, had Sukanta lived to reach maturity, he would likely not have wanted many things he had published over the years to stay in print. Subhash must be right, but doesn’t what he says hold true for every poet, indeed, for every writer, every artist? Artists evolve; first efforts are often eminently forgettable when viewed in the context of an entire lifetime’s work – and here we are talking about an entire lifetime of a measly twenty years. This is particularly true of writers who make their mark very early and Sukanta’s poems were already circulating widely when he was 14, as Subhash himself attests in his preface.
Sukanta had been politically active since his early teens, immersing himself in famine relief, formally joining the Communist Party as soon as he turned eighteen, and editing the children’s section of the party’s Bengali daily Swadhinata for several years. 1940s Calcutta was a perfect maelstrom of political and social ferment too with the 1942 Quit India movement; the devastating Bengal Famine of 1943-44; the upsurge over the Indian National Army trials in November, 1945; the massive protests around the Rashid Ali Day in February, 1946 and the horrendous communal bloodbath of August, 1946, all deeply affecting for a politically awakened sensibility like Sukanta’s. World War II loomed on the horizon through much of this period and progressive writers and artists in India, as elsewhere, clearly recognised how a potential Axis victory in the war might set human history back nearly irretrievably.
The urge to join the battle for a just and humane future for his countrymen was understandably overpowering for the young poet and he was often focussed more on the message he was trying to put out than on finessing his poetic idiom. Thus we have his poem entitled Cigarette (from Chharpatra) with its somewhat in-your-face raising of the banner of revolt by the hapless cigarette against uncaring mankind:
Your pleasure signals our death.
For how much longer can this go on, pray?
For how much longer shall we be obliged
To wordlessly embrace stealthy, creeping death?
The stirring image of the down-and-out, the persecuted, the tyrannised rising against beastly fate comes back every now and then in Sukanta’s work, often with extraordinary delicacy of touch. Sometimes, however, it comes via uninspired or tired imagery that today makes his message sound rather like a clichéd call for radical change. I have for reference poems like Stairs, Matchstick and A Chicken’s Tale, at one time greatly popular with readers for their subversive – and admittedly cleverly-crafted – messages. (Which goes to show, though, that in their own time these poems did speak to bona fide reader sentiments.) But don’t we need to remind ourselves that we are dealing with a teenage poet who was not granted the chance to ‘mature’; who was also fighting a losing battle with a killer disease? And how can we lose sight of such exquisitely graceful, poised invocations of beauty as the following – a poem that would have done a Buddhadeb Basu or an Amiya Chakraborty proud:
Here in this demure, rain-swept village,
The clock’s busy hands have taken a pause.
Green fields open out one onto another,
There’s no road, but the wandering scarcely stops…
In the veranda’s gathering gloom, as night falls,
Old granny tells the little one a gripping tale
Of how in the hard times of years gone by,
So many men vanished without a trace…
Then one day, come at the well to draw water,
A farmer’s wife looks shyly around,
Lifting her veil, she gazes at the bounty of green,
And hopes that the days of gold await.
Can we also afford to forget that, often enough the young poet achieves a stunning synthesis of political messaging and artistic virtuosity? This can be seen in three poems immortalised by the combined labours of the composer Salil Chowdhury and singer Hemanta Mukhopadhyay: Anubhab (‘Experiences’), Thikana (‘Address’) and Runner (‘Mail Runner’) – three sublime pieces of melodic work arguably more popular in their time than anything else in post-Tagore Bengali music. The poet’s diction here is bare, unadorned, but he strings together words and thoughts with remarkable felicity:
My friend! It’s my address you wanted –
But aren’t you holding it in your hand
Doesn’t the hurt of your forgetting
Grieve me, break my heart? …
You say you looked for me
All across the whole country?
And yet you failed? You must have then
Picked up the wrong scent.
For you can always find me on the road to life
Which drifted inevitably away after a while
From famine’s gloomy trail
Towards light and freedom…
In Runner, the narrative of a poor mail runner’s nightly journey across a dangerous landscape to deliver mail to far-away climes, Sukanta adroitly melds social-political messaging with great lyrical passion, even as he innovates new metrical patterns with surprising rapidity. There is scarcely a false note here, or a redundant word or a facile image. What is most striking about Runner is that even as it digs deep into the misery of the runner’s existence, it stays well clear of any trace of mawkishness. This was an achievement worthy not only of an exceptional young talent, but of a mature craftsman, too.
Sukanta’s generation of Bengali poets could not but have been steeped in Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry but, of all those poets who began writing in the immediate post-Tagore years, it was Sukanta who acknowledged his debt to the great man most readily in print. In some sense, indeed, he stands in a clear line of descent from Tagore in terms of his poetic sensibility; even in his diction. Most of his contemporaries, on the other hand, not only strived to keep their distance from the senior poet’s craft and Weltanschauung in their work, but often made a point of highlighting that distance too.
In at least two poems, Sukanta spoke about his moral and intellectual affinity with Rabindranath whom he saw as much as a consummate poet as his generation’s greatest public intellectual and its conscience-keeper. Here are a few lines from Rabindranather Proti (‘To Rabindranath’), Sukanta’s moving tribute to the great man:
Your incandescent presence, in my solitary moments even now,
Seeps through me like a heady fragrance.
Even now my drooping heart rises to your song,
And I can defy hunger’s frigid stare carelessly.
The golden soil which is your gift to our souls,
Does offer up rich harvests even today…
After this fulsome homage, Sukanta proceeds to locate his poem in contemporary history:
I am a poet of the famine, nightmares torment me each day,
Death stares me in the face endlessly.
My spring day passes in long lines waiting for food,
The shrill siren screams through my sleepless nights.
I thrill to the sight of blood being spilled senselessly,
And I marvel at my two manacled hands.
Which brings Sukanta to his sense of moral kinship with Tagore:
Like you I also believe today
“Singing paeans to peace will seem like a sad joke”…
Let us now pause to weigh up the main themes animating Sukanta’s poetry, which include social justice, inequality, radical change, compassion and hope. All these motifs tie into a common thread which, for want of a pithier expression, we may describe as a variety of ‘secular’ theism: A passionate belief in the possibility of change together with the fervent hope that that change may be just around the corner; qualities that pretty much set the contours of Sukanta’s moral universe.
Affirmation is his moral code, not scepticism or denial. His perspective is the community of men which, despite being made up of human individuals, is somehow bigger, more capacious than and perhaps even qualitatively different from an arithmetic sum of individual lives. He sees the individual largely in the context of society, seldom alone, and rarely gets around to engaging with the individual’s anxieties, aspirations and assertions except in a generic fashion.
This is probably where Sukanta comes across to the modern-day reader as something of an anachronism. In a world where cynicism rather than hopefulness, repudiation rather than affirmation happens to be normative behaviour; where fractured social consciousnesses are an increasingly inescapable reality, it is idle to believe that the message of a connected world, of a common future for humankind will ring true to most, or even many, ears.
The dream that sustained Sukanta Bhattacharya through his struggles with a deadly disease has soured for large swathes of the citizenry. For the rest, the capacity to dream has itself atrophied. Secular theism is fully out of fashion today, though religious theism is all the rage once again.
In Adonis, an elegy for Keats written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1821 after Keats’s tragic death from tuberculosis at the age of 25, Shelley talks about “inheritors of unfulfilled renown”, the suggestion being that Keats was one such inheritor. The expression could be used for Sukanta with equal justification. The renown he ‘inherited’ is stamped on much of his creative output, and it is sad that some of his inheritance remained unfulfilled. One imagines, however, that even when the reader’s world-view diverges significantly from this young poet’s, she will be willing to celebrate Sukanta’s life, and his work, for his artistic repertoire is much more varied than uninformed critical opinion gives him credit for.
And also because it holds possibilities that are on view so very rarely anywhere else.
Anjan Basu can be reached at [email protected].