Among the books I received as a prize from my school in one of my senior years, there were three by Subhash Mukhopadhyay, whose birth centenary is today. The first, Jato Durei Jai (However Far I Go, 1962), was the book of poems that had won him the Sahitya Academy Award in 1964. The second was Amar Bangla (My Bengal, 1951), a collection of journalistic sketches, while the third, Bangalir Itihaas, was an adaptation for youngsters of Nihar Ranjan Roy’s monumental history of Bengal’s society and culture by the same name.
As a child growing up in an old-fashioned communist household, I was not unaware of Mukhopadhyay’s name or his work. And yet these books were a revelation. Was the poet who wrote the eponymous poem in Jato Durei Jai the same militant activist who had been a member of the party since his teens, who indeed had spent years in Budge Budge, one of greater Kolkata’s industrial ghettoes, organising, agitating, writing leaflets and pasting fiery posters on curfew-bound walls?
However far I go
with me goes
the name of a river
strung in a garland of waves –
However far I go.
On my eyelids lingers
of a courtyard scrubbed clean
and on it
a long row of the marks
of Lakshmi’s feet.
However far I go.
Nothing from Mukhopadhyay’s earlier poetry that I had been familiar with – Padatik (The Foot Soldier, 1940), Agnikone (The Abode of the Fire-God, 1948) or Chirkut (The Parchment, 1950) – though written between 1951-57, the poems of Phul Phutuk (Let Many Flowers Bloom) were not anthologised in a separate book before 1990 – had prepared me for something quite like this.
The unrelenting intensity of tone and the stark vividness of imagery of my favourite piece from Agnikone – ‘Ekti Kobitar Jonyo (For the Sake of a Poem)’ were still fresh in my young mind:
A poem is about to get written. For its sake
the sky, like a blue tongue of fire,
seethes in 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…
How could I, then, help being struck by the very intimate tone, the very soft-focus images, of ‘Dur Theke Dekho (You Can Look on From a Distance)’:
I will keep
stirring up my thoughts with a spoon –
you can listen to them
from another table.
In front of me will stand a cup
and on my lap two fingers
like two knitting-needles will go on
weaving a pattern of many memories –
you can look on as you sit
at another table.
Even when the poem transitions from the very private world of two individuals to a landscape in ferment, it manages to retain the very personal tone of its voice:
when time will have gone cold
noisily will I get up from my chair
and without looking back even once
I will walk away
to where lightning
is striking houses like a whip-lash
where pulling giant trees by their hair
the wind is driving them to the ground
where a fierce torrent of rain
is scratching on window-panes
with its claws.
You can look on from a distance.
Clearly, the diction was a lot mellower here, the tone softer. The clever turn of phrase, the irrepressible wit of the Subhash Mukhopadhyay of the Padatik days still show up now and then, but they had fully shed the somewhat harsh urbaneness of the poet’s vocabulary (“My love, now’s 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 backside bakes”):
His money grew on trees
in his backyard.
came to his house on stilts,
in double-quick time.
A tall wall mounted with spikes
so that the churlish wind
of lowly birth
did never get an entry.
as he was busy
gulping down big mouthfuls
through the fingers of his hand
life fell off
and rolled away from him.
The man never knew
Mukhopadhyay’s worldview, his politics, could still be divined by any attentive reader of his verse. But its compelling quality now derived from a clear stream of universal humanism from which men of different ideological and cultural sympathies could slake their thirst.
The belief in a new dawn which was to come, in a future which would light up the horizons, still steeped in the darkness of misery and unfreedom, was no less ardent. But that belief no longer felt the need to declaim, or speak in strident tones.
On the giant slab of jet-black stone overhead
busy sharpening its claws
seethes in blind rage.
Tiny ants, on their tiny feet
scramble for cover in the safety of their nests.
The storm is just about to break.
Terror hangs over the open field.
Blades of grass quiver,
and somewhere nearby
the restless flapping of wings
of birds who lost their way.
Well, let the storm come—
after all, it will pass sometime, surely?
We will keep standing
just where we happen to be,
our heads pushed back, high –
and our roots
deeper still inside the earth.
With Flowers of Stone, his elegy on the novelist Manik Bandopadhyay – whose life had been cut short at the tragically early age of f48 – Subhash Mukhopadhyay’s verse had achieved an austere beauty of cadence that was as moving as it was graceful:
Oh, take the flowers away –
Garlands pile up
to become mountains.
Flowers pile up, one heap on top of another,
till they all turn into stone.
Take the stone away, please –
Because men make flowers
tell so many lies,
flowers did never much appeal to me.
I would rather that I had sparks of fire –
no can make masks with them……..
Night after long night I sat awake to watch
when and how it becomes light.
My days passed
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,
the final destination of all our names,
the earth, the water, and the wind —
I wish now to be one with all of them.
Yes, put me down now,
loads of firewood embrace me.
Let an ineluctable spark of the fire
allow me to forget for ever
all the pain that flowers bring.
The sparseness of Mukhopadhyay’s diction in Jato Durey Jai, I soon made out, was deceptive. I could see that he used the spoken word with a verve and flexibility I had not encountered yet. Colloquialisms, ‘rustic’ turns of phrase, even colourful street lingo – he could harness all of these to fine poetical use, and they provided his poetry with a dynamic that had few parallels in Bengali literature.
He wrote prolifically for nearly 40 more years after Jato Durei Jai – talking of poetry alone, and not counting the many books of translations from other poets that he authored, he published 11 more anthologies after this – but his poetic idiom had pretty much taken shape by then.
His craft evolved after this also, of course, but no more did he push the boundaries of his craft. Both Kaal Modhumas (It’s Spring Tomorrow, 1966) and Chheley Gechhe Boney (The Exiled Son, 1972) sparkle with Mukhopadhyay’s flair for using the unassuming spoken word to dramatic effect:
I know that the moment
I sit down to a game of chess,
a million touts, leaving whatever they were doing,
will crouch low near my shoulder
and try to tell me my every move
much as one would teach a parrot how to talk.
I don’t know for sure
if, after this,
I should not tell them with folded hands:
please sit quietly and watch,
be so kind as to go back to your seats.
And, for god’s sake,
let me play my own game
as I please.
The late 1960s-early 1970s were traumatic years for the Indian Left, with both official repression as well as deadly fratricidal battles inside the movement maiming its soul. Mukhopadhyay engaged with these turbulent times with alacrity and intensity.
Leaving me alone to grapple with my chains,
my son went into banishment.
Though they knew very well
they would find nothing,
two truckloads of policemen
at gunpoint last night
turned the house upside down.
They little knew they were stoking
the fire that silently smoulders
in a man well past forty.
Even now, as a procession goes by,
silently I stand by the road.
To every rally I still make my way
and listen to all that people say.
For whoever that does something good,
my hand always goes up in support.
But then, with my nose to the grind,
I no longer have
fire on my mind.
Leaving me behind in my chains
away went my son in banishment.
And yet, in his hands unfurled,
I see but my own ensign
the Prince of our time.
Another poem from Chheley Gechhe Boney memorably captures the devastating effects of the squalid internecine battles that the Left was waging against itself in those terrible years. Two erstwhile comrades who had gone their own separate ways meet up accidentally after many years. A lot of water has flown under the bridge and the euphoria of the ‘revolutionary’ years is now a distant memory. The friends reminisce about those years enthusiastically, but then the time comes to talk about the present:
we realised we had been touched by fear,
both of us.
We fell silent for a while,
perhaps neither of us wanting
to give anything away.
Then, suddenly, as we began to let it all out –
where we stood, on which side
we stood now
A monster wave
came screaming in, and in its two hands
picked us up high
and dashed us down in fury.
Suddenly, before our eyes,
rose a sheer wall –
and leaning against the iron door
stood the dark night.
With a start, we realised
we stood once again
in two cells
next to each other.
Caught in our own web, back in the prison
That we had built ourselves.
From the late 1980s onwards, Mukhopadhyay’s politics began to shift focus. One imagines that the dismantling of the Soviet Union played its part in this transformation. At any rate, all across the world there was loss of faith in radical socialism – in its familiar incarnations, at all events – and India could not be expected to buck the trend.
Mukhopadhyay’s own health began to fail him, too. He continued to write, at times desultorily, at others with great skill and feeling about things that still moved him deeply. We will close with a look at one of his last published poems – ‘Aranye Rodan (A Cry in the Wilderness)’ from the book Chhorano Ghunti (Flying Dice, 2001) – which is animated by some of the themes that always exercised his sensibility with great force:
The dust of roads
that I walked on long, long ago,
chases me around in my sleep
and swaying its sinister head
like the hood of a cobra,
a flag – raised high in the sky –
is discharging its load of poison
on to the ground.
in dark fear.
Saroj Roy, who could
catch a snake with his bare hands,
Robi Mitter, who in ‘forty-two,
had plunged in
with his bow and arrow,
Satya Ghosal, that wizard of words,
who could cast a spell
on whole crowds of men —
From Garbeta to Keshpur,
from Keshpur down to Chandrakona,
I go around, calling out names
in vain –
my cry in the wilderness
upon a dark night.
These lines from nearly 20 years ago, when India was still a very different country from how we find her today, stare back at us despairingly, with great poignancy. Mukhopadhyay, then, was not only looking back to his past, to our collective past: he was anticipating also the shape of things to come.
That is the marker of a true poet. Zeitgeist – the spirit of the age – takes hold of his mind and he gives expression to that spirit for the benefit of several later generations. Mukhopadhyay had set this task for himself, and he seldom strayed from it.
Anjan Basu is a literary critic, commentator and translator of poetry. As Day is Breaking is his book of translations from the work of Subhash Mukhopadhyay. Basu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.