Some months ago, I received a mail from Sergei Serebriyani, Russian author-translator, asking for some details about the poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay. I said ‘poet’, but Serebriayani’s questions referred primarily to one of Subhash’s prose writings – Hungras (‘The Hungerstrike’), a Bengali novel first published in 1973.
It turned out that Serebriyani was to present a conference paper on the thematic parallels between that novel and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s celebrated One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I later found out that he had translated into Russian two of Mukhopadhya’s major works in prose – Hungras and Ke Kothai Jai (‘Everyone for their own Destiny’) – in 1977 and 1981 respectively.
My answers to his questions, about how widely Subhash’s prose was read these days in West Bengal and how many Indian languages Hungras has been translated into, must have surprised and disappointed him. But he sought to reassure me that, in Bangladesh (where Serebriyani happens to go often), Subhash Mukhopadhyay continued to be read with great interest; indeed, that new editions of his prose writings continued to appear in Dhaka fairly regularly.
I mention this interaction to highlight the fact that, while in Subhash’s home country, interest in his prose is marginal at best, many readers and commentators in other countries continue to engage with the entire body of his creative work, and not with his poetry alone.
Not many readers in India would know today that the range of Mukhopadhyay’s prose writings was strikingly wide, or that his first literary efforts had made prose their vehicle. Indeed, that his prose writings are so far from being a mere extension of the world of his poetry – as happens not infrequently with major poets – that, by overlooking them, we risk knowing Mukhopadhyay only partially at best. They also remain unaware that exploring the many linkages between his poetry and his prose – linkages that operate at multiple levels – can be such a richly rewarding experience in itself.
Subhash published his first book of poems, Padatik (‘The Foot Soldier’) when he had just turned 21. But he had been writing prose since school and, in the early 1940s, started working as a journalist for the Communist Party of India’s Bengal mouthpiece Janajuddha (People’s War).
His work took him to pre-partition Bengal’s far corners – the rugged Garo hills in the north as well as south Bengal’s flood plains, around Kolkata’s industrial ghettoes, but also into the tall grasslands and Sal forests of Dooars.
These were turbulent years. The freedom movement was reaching its crescendo; the escalating World War was turning Bengal’s small towns and sleepy villages upside down, with Allied troops setting up camp in every nook and cranny; there was a new-found daring in labour militancy; and, on all sides, there was desperate poverty although the immensely fertile Gangetic plains yielded up golden harvests of paddy year after year.
Then came the crippling Great Bengal Famine of 1943/44 – a tragedy without equal in living memory. Three million women, men and children starved to death, many more were maimed in body and mind for the rest of their lives. For the young communist activist, this was a shattering experience, but it also steeled his resolve to join the battle to change the world. His reportage of these years later shaped his first book of prose, Amar Bangla (‘My Bengal’), which came out in 1951.
Freedom had arrived in the meantime, Janajuddha made way for Swadhinata (Freedom), and Subhash had just emerged from a nearly three-year-long prison term in independent India. These years in different jails in Kolkata and elsewhere find echoes in his many later works, most immediately in Jakhon Jekhane (‘Whenever, Wherever’, 1960), his second book of reportage-based prose.
Though he had come out with two more books of verse – Chirkut (‘The Parchment’) and Agnikone (‘The Abode of the Fire-God’) before 1951, he did not publish a single new anthology of his poetry between 1951 and 1960, though as many as seven books of prose came from his pen in this period.
They included Bangalir Itihas (‘History of Bengal’s Society and Culture’) a virtuoso adaptation, for youngsters, of Prof Nihar Ranjan Roy’s eponymous masterpiece, a treatise on how language evolved as the foremost means of human communication, a biography of Jagadish Chandra Bose, and a Bengali translation of Bhabani Bhattacharyya’s celebrated novel So Many Hungers.
In later years, Subhash Mukhopadhyay repeatedly returned to the reportage mode: Dak Banglar Diary (‘An Itinerant’s Diary’, 1967), Naroder Diary (‘Narada’s Diary’, 1969), Kshoma Nei (‘There’s No Forgiving’, 1971) and Abar Dak Banglar Dake (‘Bengal Calls Again’, 1981) are notable works of this genre.
These comprised not impressionistic sketches drawn by a poet alone. Often, they were detailed studies of how Bengal’s (or West Bengal’s) political economy evolved, how it struggled to cope with the tasks of reducing hunger and want, and how communities took on state repression and unbridled economic exploitation.
A variety of style
Kshoma Nei is a narrative built around the resistance against genocide in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971, an angry narrative that invited the ire of a well-known Bengali authoress who accused Subhash of hate-mongering and incitement to violence, accusations that the writer angrily, very publicly, repudiated.
Hungras (1973), Ke Kothai Jai (1976), Ontoreep, ba Hansener Asukh (‘Hansen’s Disease’, 1983), Comrade, Kotha Kao (‘Comrade, Speak Up’, 1990) and Kancha Paka (‘Raw and Ready’, 1989) are, however, best described as novellas/novels. They span a fascinating range of themes: a long-drawn-out hunger strike by political prisoners seen through the eyes of two different protagonists in parallel to each other; a young couple, disenchanted with social revolution, rededicating themselves to social change in the course of a train journey where an elderly co-passenger, a battle-scarred old-school communist, recounts his hopes and his disappointments to them; a colony of lepers abandoned to their ‘fate’ where a newly-arrived patient, a one-time political radical, tries to come to terms with his future; an industrial township torn between conflicting loyalties coming apart in the end; ‘reminiscences’ of a rootless wanderer who doesn’t know where he belongs and yet becomes part of a bustling community living at life’s margins.
Subhash works with different narrative styles in these books. Some of the stories are told as conventional third-person accounts, some speak in the first person while some others employ a mix of both voices. The common thread that runs through these diverse tales is that of compassion intertwined with a yearning for a less unequal world. In this, these stories link up unmistakably with everything else that Subhash Mukhopadhyay ever wrote as an adult – whether in verse or in prose.
And yet, he was far from being a doctrinaire communist. After Stalin’s death, Subhash wrote an eulogy which does not ring very convincing today, but he also translated into Bengali Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich at a time (in 1965) when the Soviet Union still denounced Solzhenitsyn as a renegade. (Dr Serebriayani tells me how the Soviet authorities were scandalised to hear that Subhash Mukhopadhyay, the Lenin Peace Prize-winning communist intellectual with a large readership in the USSR, had had anything to do with Solzhenitsyn.)
With equal elan, he translated the Rosenberg letters, Hugh Toye’s The Springing Tiger, Anne Frank’s Diary, Azad’s India Wins Freedom and Sher Jung’s Tryst with Tigers. Even when he wrote frank travel diaries – Vietname Kichhudin (‘Travelling around Vietnam’,1974), for example – they were in a crisp, lively idiom that has come to be identified as his signature style. His politics essentially remained the same throughout – though his political affiliations changed colour in the later years – but his cultural tastes were always eclectic, not hidebound.
Let us end with an excerpt from Amar Bangla (‘My Bengal’), his first-published book of prose. This is the book’s concluding piece, called Haat Barao (‘Lend Him Your Hand’):
The Teesta is a river that barely wets your ankles in winter. If you turn your head back as you walk across it, you will see the great hulk of a giant hunched over his knees, his back pressed against the sky. In truth, it is not a giant, it is the Himalayas.
And, in a little village in Nandigram that no one seems to have heard of, what do you see on the far horizon, beyond the rows of salt-eaten palm trees? Something that is first only a tiny dot but keeps growing bigger and bigger, till it is as tall as a palm tree? The mast of an approaching ship. And beyond the sand dunes in front, the vast sweep of the blue ocean. The Bay of Bengal.
This, then, is my Bengal, stretching from the mighty Himalayas to the endless sea: the mountains are its watch-tower, the ocean the moat protecting it.
The train to Faridpur was a long time away yet. I was sitting in the Rajbari market yard, waiting for the train. It was a mist-laden early morning during the time of the great famine of the forties. A little distance from us, beside the army camp on the road to the train station, I spotted a weird creature. It was approaching us slowly, on all fours. It didn’t look like any animal I had known before. Its two eyes glinted even through the fog’s veil. Had I been alone, I might have blacked out from fear. Because there was something in those eyes that chilled you to the bone.
The creature came closer. It was picking out clumsily little somethings from the dust, eating them. Its flaring eyes were searching for something in the mist. Its two front paws looked quite like a man’s hands. Only the fingers seemed to be scrawnier, longer. It had no hair on its body. What animal was this?
I shuddered as it came near me. Man—the son of god. It was a boy twelve or thirteen years old, with not a stitch of clothing on him. His back was broken. He couldn’t walk any more. So he crawled about on his hands and feet. In the market yard he picked up grains of rice and gram from the dust and ate them.
I ran away from him to the railway station. But even today those two burning eyes fix me in their maddening gaze now and then. As I look out on the wide and deep rivers that dispense bountiful harvests all round, I hear him breathe hard. With his wasted, spindly fingers, he is pointing at those murderers who in towns and villages and cities and ports are fastening the noose of death around the necks of the living. Who won’t let men live a life fit for men.
Those two blazing eyes seek peace. Let there be peace all across Bengal, in her green fields rippling with golden corn, in the farmer’s barns bursting with paddy. Let peace twine hands with countless men rising in protest in factories and mines. No more war, no more death from starvation. Let there be a life of freedom, of happiness, a new life built by millions of strong, willing hands. A life of peace.
Amid the darkening shadows of war and famine, those two blinding eyes watch over this land that stretches from the Himalayas to the seas. They are the eyes of someone who is struggling to get up on his feet. Give him your hand. Help him stand up again.
Nothing quite like this had been attempted in the Bengali language before. Subhash just turned 27 when he wrote this piece. The audacious simplicity of prose has intensely lyrical underpinnings, something perhaps only Tagore had achieved in his 1940 memoirs, Chhelebela (‘My Boyhood Days’).