'Flowers of Stone': Intimations of Loss and Triumph in the Poetry of Subhash Mukhopadhyay

On February 12, we have stepped into the centenary of Subhash Mukhopadhyay’s (1919-2003) birth. Here’s a look at how he chose to engage with the craft of poetry-writing in a world marked by deep fault lines.

Personal manifestos can often be clumsy and awkward – they also date easily – and so it is a tribute to Subhash Mukhopadhyay’s genius that his statement of poetic intent, penned over 50 years ago, rings fresh and true to this day:

I want to stand every single word
on their own feet.
I wish to see every shadow
grow their own eyes.
I would like every static word
to walk free.

That someone called me a poet
I wouldn’t want.
I would rather that I could
walk on with many others
shoulder to shoulder, holding hands
till the day I die.

Oh! But that I could
lay my pen down
by the tractor’s side
and say,
Here, I am done now –
Brother, will you give me a light?

Kaal Madhumash (literally, Tomorrow is Spring) made its appearance in 1966, nearly three decades into Mukhopadhyay’s career. But the humble spoken word of everyday life, with its infinite variety of tone, colour and cadence, had been the body and soul of his poetry for many years already. Here was a consummate artist who, at the peak of his powers, wove his magic out of the sparsest of props. The story of how his craft evolved is worth recalling in the year of his birth centenary.

Mukhopadhyay started publishing quite early, and Padatik (The Foot-Soldier), his first book, came out in 1940, as he just turned 21. Urbane and witty, and already capable of coming up now and then with incredibly clever turns of phrase and strikingly original rhyme patterns, he, however, was not to come truly into his own before  Agnikone’(The Abode of the Fire God) that made its appearance in 1948. The very first offering of the collection, For the Sake of a Poem, bursts forth with an intensity of tone and a vividness of imagery that take your breath away:

A poem is about to get written. For its sake
the sky, like a blue tongue of fire,

seethes with rage; over the sea
a violent storm flails its wings, the smoky locks
of the clouds’ wild hair unravel, the roll of thunder
echoes in the forest, in its roots
the terror of landslides throbs fiercely,
lightning cranes its neck to look back
and, by its light, over the entire valley,
mirrored in dark red blood, at its own image,
looks the terrible Moloch.
A poem gets written for his  sake…………

Mukhopadhyay’s weltanschaung was fashioned by the turbulent 1940s, when great political and social upheavals rocked India and, indeed, the world. And he was not merely an onlooker, and plunged headlong into the battle for equity and social justice as a young communist activist, choosing, at the party’s bidding, to live in Budge Budge’s industrial ghetto for several years, where he had to daily shuffle his duties as an agitator and organiser with those of a reporter-cum-column writer for the party’s mouthpiece. In the event, his poetry quickly shed the somewhat self-conscious urbaneness of the initial years and grew mellower, more earnest in tone, even as images from humdrum,  everyday lives came increasingly to make up his canvas:

The sky is like Babarali’s crazed eyes.
Underneath it, walking with a procession
and struggling to keep pace,
many miles from home,
is Babarali’s little daughter Salemon,
looking for
her mother.

Where in the city’s labyrinth
of alley-ways and blind lanes,
where are you hiding,
Salemon’s mother?

Where under the sky
that looks like Babarali’s deranged eyes,
where have you set up home,
Salemon’s mother?

Do you hear
how, in chorus with other voices
in the procession,
the corners of her sticky eyes
running with tear-drops
and calling out to you,
Salemon’s mother,
is your daughter
born in the time of a famine,
and now staring at another?

It is only you, Salemon’s mother,
that she is searching for.

By now, Mukhopadhyay had clearly outgrown the need to speak cleverly. Or mockingly (‘My love, now’s is not the time to play with flowers / For ruination, stark, stares us in the face./ Gone from our eyes are the blue dreams of pleasure / As a remorseless  sun our backsides bakes’). His intellectual commitments had found their moral and emotional equivalents in the bitter struggles, the collective joys and sorrows, the unredeemed darknesses  and the sporadic iridiscence of hope in the lives that ordinary Indians  lived around him. He no longer felt the need to declaim, or to pontificate (‘Comrade, shan’t we usher in the new day now?…..’) – and while his world view could still quite easily be divined by any attentive reader of his poetry, its compelling quality derived from a clear stream of universal humanism from which men of all ideological and cultural sympathies could drink deeply:

‘Where under a cataract-blinded sky
His ancient head
Sagging to his knees
A scraggy stick in hand
Sits doddering old darkness

Where all through the long night
And the entire day
Autumn leaves fall drip drop drip drop
On to the ground

Where like the stevedore on a steamer
Memory sits
Plumbing the depth
Of life’s ocean
All day

Towards there
I know
The icy winds of winter
Will shove me too
One day

Oh, mother Earth
May I never
See the face
Of that wasted day

Before that time comes
Do take out my eyes
And tie them
Like two jingling anklets
To my two feet

Here simplicity of diction blends magically into startlingly vivid word pictures. The overall impression, however, is one of extreme economy, and this often helps mask the technical virtuosity, the verve at play in Mukhopadhyay’s mature poetry:

After drowning the western sky in blood
Intimidating, like a raging bandit
Glowering all the while at those out on the  streets
Back to his formidable den
The sun

A very long while after
To investigate at first hand
So that day could easily be turned into night
In the policeman’s Black Maria / Came / Evening

As I switched on the light
Out through the open window

And when
I drew the curtains open
Like a startled, frightened deer
In a tight embrace
Clasped me
The wind

It is possible to forget that Mukhopadhyay stood in a line – maybe not in a direct line, though – of descent from Bengali poetry’s great lyricists, including Rabindranath Tagore – till we look a little more closely and come up with verses such as this:

I will never forget
You helped erase my grief
On a dark night.

The sky outside
Was blinded by the swirling dust
Kicked up
By the stiff desert wind.

In the dark, a pack of camels
Their bells jingling
Were making their reluctant way
From the town to the village
Turning up their noses in disgust.

What tree was that on the road’s other side?
I did not know.
What flower was that in bloom in that garden?
I did not know, either.

I was a stranger, new To this unfamiliar town.
In the distance
The car lights, shining a little above the road
Were criss-crossing one another

They looked as though
They were deep furrows
On the forehead of a man
Who had lived a hard life.
Suddenly, my tears froze
And the invisible coffin
That sat on my shoulders
Felt incredibly heavy.
That day I realised
That living was lighter
Than death.

Memories of an empty life
Came back to me.
I thought of my country
Of the times we lived in
And I missed it all so badly.
I, a complete stranger
New to this town
Still held on my wrist
My own country’s time.
Words of sympathy rolled towards me
But however much I tried
I could not hold them in my hands.

It was then,  in silence
That you stood up, and walked towards me
And held my hand.
No, you did not say a word
But how you made me forget my grief
On that dark night –

You may one day forget
But I will not.  

Words shorn of all ornamentation, words that yet are drawn from the heart of the most deeply felt emotions, combine here to create what can only be described as musical phrases of stunning beauty. Mourning the death, and at the same time celebrating the life, of the great Bengali novelist-storyteller Manik Bandopadhayay, who died at the tragically early age of 48, Mukhopadhyay weaves  an unforgettable tapestry of night and day, of death and life:

Night after long night I sat awake to watch
when and how it becomes light.
My days were spent
trying to unravel the mysteries of the dark.
Never did I, even not for a moment
stop and sit still.
I squeezed out life’s essences
and left them to settle in many hearts –
today they spilled over, every one of them.

I am no longer content with mere words.
I would rather that I could reach out
to that one place where all  words arise
and also end –
that one source of all our words
that final destination of all our names,
the earth, the water and the wind –
I wish now to be one with all of them.

put me down now
loads of firewood embrace me.
Let an ineluctable spark of fire
allow me to forget for ever
all the pain that flowers bring.  

A more moving elegy is unlikely to have been sculpted out of such simple building blocks anywhere.

Anjan Basu freelances as literary critic, commentator and translator. He has published a book of translations from the work of the well-known Bengali poet Subhash Mukhopadhayay.