In one of his most celebrated poems, Shakti Chattopadhyay happened to link death to ‘the tram tracks of Rashbehari’. He was thinking of the passing of one of his great literary forebears, the poet Jibanananda Das, whom a speeding tramcar had knocked unconscious on south Kolkata’s Rashbehari Avenue, near the poet’s home, in the evening of October 17, 1954. Jibanananda succumbed to his injuries a few days later. It was, of course, a freak accident, but not everybody believed it was. Indeed, not a few in Kolkata and elsewhere were convinced that it was death by suicide. Here was a poet who, while he had lived, had looked distant and inscrutable to many of his countrymen. In his death, he seemed scarcely less of an enigma.
To be fair to those who believed Jibanananda Das had willingly embraced death, hadn’t the poet himself invoked a serious yearning for death at least once? Consider these lines from the ineffably beautiful poem ‘One Day Eight Years Ago’ from his 1944 anthology Mahaprithivi (‘The Whole Wide World’):
It’s to the morgue he had been taken, they said.
The moon had set, darkness had reared its head again
Last night, the fifth night of the moon, when sudden he felt
A rush of desire for death.
The desire so possessed the man that, spurning his bed in which lay his sweetheart and his child, he grasped at a piece of rope to hang himself with and drifted into
The sleep of the plague rat, foaming blood at the mouth,
Neck squished into a sunless crack in the earth,
Never, never to awake again.
And now, lying spread-eagled on the morgue table, the dead man bears testimony
That neither love nor the heart of woman,
Nor the press of a child’s warm body, nor even the warmth of home
Suffice unto man; that beyond money,
And accomplishment, and high renown, lies a treacherous precarity
Which courses through our blood,
To drain us of all that we have,
Wearies us, empties us from within.
But death is a familiar enough theme with Jibanananda, a motif that runs right through his oeuvre: from his 1934 selection of poems, Dhusar Pandulipi (‘The Greying Manuscript’) to the last anthology published in his lifetime, Sat-Ti Tarar Timir (‘The Dark Night of the Seven Stars’), 1948. And death comes not merely, nor always, as deliverance, as the cessation of the pain of living. It shows up in altogether very different incarnations at different points in time. “What else need we know before death?” – asks the poem ‘Before Death’ from Dhusar Pandulipi – we, who have watched “morning arrive easy and fresh as a sheaf of corn”? The reply here is more nuanced than the agonised recognition of ennui and sterility that underpins ‘One Day Eight Years Ago’:
What else need we know before death? Have we not known
How at the edge of every flaming desire rises the palisade
Of death’s chalky face? The dreams and the gold of the earth
Reach a serene symmetry, ending an enchanted need?
What else need we know, then?
Have we not heard the cries of birds fall upon the dying sun?
And watched the raven fly across the darkening mists?
Then, again, there was this sparkling tanka-like composition (‘The Orange’, from the 1942 book Banalata Sen) reminiscent of Garcia Lorca, bitter-sweet and evocative:
When I am dead,
Shall I ever come back to earth again?
If it so happens that I do,
Let me return on a winter’s night,
As the frail, cold flesh of an orange, half-eaten,
Set on a table, by the dying man’s bed.
And then there is ‘Epitaph’ (in the Bengali original simply called ‘Saptak’, a word with no overtones of death or loss), from Sat-Ti Tarar Timir, which begins unobtrusively, matter-of-factly, not immediately giving it away that it is talking about a dead woman:
Here lies Sarojini; (I do not know
If she does lie here still); she has lain here for long;
Maybe she got up and melded with the cloud
Which is lit up at darkness’s edge.
From this tonal ambivalence, this little poem moves through a second to the third and final stanza that provides an altogether different perspective on the inconsequentiality of death on the cosmic scale:
A parched, yellow light lingers in the sky
Like an invisible cat
On whose face sits a cocky smile
Of hollow cunning.
Clearly, here was a poet never disposed to responding to anything in a formulaic fashion – least of all to death.
The reason why Jibanananda Das appeared so remote and impenetrable to many contemporary Bengalis is simply this: no other poet was more unlike all that had come before them in their native literature. Not for nothing has he often been described as the ‘loneliest’ poet. He seemed verily to stand outside tradition – and, as a poet who wrote after Rabindranath Tagore, it was a quite formidable tradition that he came out of but seemed to have nothing to do with.
Jibanananda stood like an enchanted island – isolated but magnificent – even as the broad stream of Bengali poetry flowed sedately by that island, lapping, it is true, at its shores, but seldom breaching them. And the aloneness of his poetry happened to be reinforced by the fact that he was an intensely private and shy man who possessed few of the usual social graces that make a person popular in their community. Indeed, his personal angularities often precipitated crises in his professional calling – he was a professor of English – that saw him lose his job more than once, obliging him to start looking for a new opening now and then – an experience that could hardly have been comforting at a time when jobs were particularly scarce.
Among the aspects of his craft that set Jibanananda so firmly apart from every other Bengali poet before or contemporary to him, the most notable is his incredibly sensuous poetic diction. In a very real sense, he was the least ‘spiritual’ or ‘philosophical’ of poets, and so one of the most ‘physical’. His extremely capacious imagination expresses itself not so much through ideas or even thoughts as through sensations, through shapes, forms, smells and colour that wash over his senses all the time. He was a virtuoso word painter, and the pictures he drew with such consummate skill come alive with a startling sense of immediacy. Rabindranath Tagore, who died before Jibanananda had reached his prime, once spoke of the younger poet’s work as ‘soaked through with vividness’. For immediate context, Tagore had ‘Before Death’, which we have looked at above already, and he was referring to such sparkling word-pictures as these:
We’ve seen the green leaf turn yellow in the autumnal dark,
Sunlight and the sparrow play in the lattice of the Hisal’s branches,
The mouse’s silk-like fur caked in husk on winter night,
The musty smell of rice wafting all day long on rippling waves
On to the eyes of the solitary fish in ever newer forms.
Across the pond the duck, in the gathering darkness of the evening,
Scents delicious sleep – borne on soft womanly hands.
This is a veritable feast of the senses, and it is remarkable how tactile and olfactory stimulation meld so fluently with visual experiences in such verses. Sound is absent here altogether: nature is unspeaking here, or, at any rate, hushed, restful, tranquil – very nearly still. The reader stands transfixed before the unfolding panorama of a landscape steeped in twilight, or caught in a dream, and she can feel the green wind blowing in her face or kissing the limpid waters of a tiny river even as she picks up the fragrance of sleep and the heady smell of cricket whistling in the dark.
The ancestry of this unmixed and uninhibited celebration of the senses cannot be traced to anything within the Bengali poetic tradition. Parallels can only be sought in the early Keats, or Swinburne, or the Pre-Raphaelites. It must be said, however, that Jibanananda’s poetry is seldom circumscribed by the somewhat self-conscious aestheticism of the Pre-Raphaelites’ or Swinburne’s work. His poetry is graceful and light-footed, never glib or facile. And though it rarely sets out to make a point or give a message, it yet engages profoundly with the human condition – with pain and heartbreak, joy and exhilaration. And in no Pre-Raphaelite’s work could you pick up vignettes such as these:
Lepers open the hydrant to lap some water
Or may be that hydrant was broken already.
Now at midnight they descend upon the city in droves….
Three rickshaws trot off, fading into the last gaslight,
I turn off, leave Phears Lane, defiantly
Walk for miles, stop beside a wall
On Bentinck Street, at Tiretti Bazar,
There in the air dry as roasted peanuts.
For the land they go to now is called the soaring river
where a wretched bone-picker and his bone
come and discover
their faces in water – till looking at faces is over.
Jibanananda could also be cuttingly ironic when he wanted to, as in this withering commentary on the professional poetry critic who is
….. no poet, only a toothless professor
Seeking eternity, drawing fifteen thousand a month
For picking to the bone fifteen hundred poets,
Once living, but now altogether dead,
Scattering the flesh and the wriggling worms
To the four winds…..
In Jibanananda’s work, intense sensory experiences convey themselves to the reader in such magnificently vivid images and often via such a personalised vocabulary that his poetry presents some of the toughest challenges the translator’s craft can come up against, which is primarily why he is so little read outside Bengal. The bar for the translator is also high because this poetry is firmly rooted in the earth of Bengal’s countryside – more particularly in the geography now identified as Bangladesh. A related difficulty is that his poetry makes the most extensive use of such rhetorical devices as alliteration, irony, metonymy and bathos, besides of similes, metaphors and conceits, which it is often quite impossible to transliterate. His poetry, therefore, suffers even more in translation than many of his contemporaries’. Most Jibanananda translations necessarily miss the extraordinary lightness, fluency and limpidity of his verse. And yet, if some of the flavour of the original is still captured in the more competent translations of his work, this is a tribute as much to the translator’s skill-sets as to the almost elemental power of his poetry. Here is a transliteration of what is perhaps the most widely-read piece of poetry in the entire universe of post-Tagore Bengali verse – the poem ‘Banalata Sen’ from the eponymous 1942 anthology, the translator being Chidananda Dasgupta:
For aeons have I roamed the roads of the earth
From the seas of Ceylon to the straits of Malaya
I have journeyed, alone, in the enduring night,
And down the dark corridor of time I have walked
Through the mists of Bimbisara, Asoka, and darker Vidarbha.
Round my weary soul the angry waves still roar;
My only peace I knew with Banalata Sen of Natore.
Her hair was dark as the night in Vidisha,
Her face the sculpture of Sravasti.
I saw her, as a sailor after the storm
Rudderless in the sea, spies of a sudden
The grass-green heart of the leafy island.
“Where were you so long?”, she asked, and more
With her bird’s-nest eyes, Banalata Sen of Natore.
As the footfall of dew comes evening;
The raven wipes the smell of the warm sun
From its wings, the world’s noises die,
And in the light of fireflies the manuscript
Prepares to weave the fables of night;
Every bird is home, every river reached the ocean.
Darkness remains – and it’s time for Banalata Sen.
A native speaker of Bengali with even a passable familiarity with Jibananada’s work is likely to miss the wonderfully fluid and graceful movement of the original verse here. The metrical structure also sounds somewhat clipped, even a little halting. Yet it is remarkable how, in its English avatar, ‘Banalata Sen’ remains a strikingly beautiful poem. The images of the concluding stanza are among the most memorable evocations of the day’s end to be found in modern poetry in any language.
This most alone of poets rarely found anything in his proximate environment worth commentating on. And yet, miraculously, he wrote this exquisite little poem, titled ‘A Strange Darkness’, which shines an unforgiving light upon the dark times that seem now to have laid siege to his, and our, own country:
In this strange darkness descended upon the day
The clearest vision belongs to the blind.
The world is led by the counsel
Of the loveless, pitiless ghosts;
And upon the hearts of those that yet believe
In light, in the undying flame of man’s enduring quest,
Hyenas and vultures feast.