A Glimpse into the World of Contemporary Bengali Poetry – Himalaya Jana

Jan 15, 2022 | Bookworm | 0 comments

 

Bengali Poetry Underground

 

 

Chaudhuri, Rajat, trans.
The Great Bengali Poetry Underground
Singapore: Kitaab. 2021,Pages: 140

The perennial question that plagues anyone putting together an anthology of contemporary poetry, and even stirs up controversies at times, is whom to include and whom to leave out. While we cannot expect such selections to conform to our individual tastes and predilections, what we can and should expect is a well-defined principle of selection, which Rajat Chaudhuri —who is also the translator of all the poems in the anthology — has clearly spelled out in his introduction to The Great Bengali Poetry Underground. The key to his method seems to be contained in the word ‘underground’, which he construes firstly as the realm of ‘radical creativity’, and secondly, as a realm of interiority. The poems included in this anthology may have their own merits but are hardly ‘radical’ insofar as formal experimentation or thematic novelty is concerned. Most poets here tread on familiar ground, some with considerable grace, others falteringly. There are further complications to the question. Even if we accept the opposition between ‘undercurrents’, which this anthology aspires to represent, and a mainstream, the relationship between them is dynamic: what constitutes the ‘undercurrents’ today may very well be appropriated in the so-called mainstream tomorrow. The other sense in which Chaudhuri employs the term ‘underground’— as an epithet of poetry that reveals ‘our deepest and most secret thoughts, so private that they are easily universal’— is so broad that it effectively renders the term useless as a category. He, however, has done a commendable job as a translator, producing very readable English versions of a wide range of Bengali poetry from which non-native readers will get a fascinating glimpse into the world of contemporary Bengali poetry.
Mitul Dutta, the first poet in the anthology, captures the rhythm of urban monotony and infuses it with a lyric grace. She weaves the sights and sounds of the city into a dream-fabric, giving a strange inwardness to the quotidian and the familiar.
Have chewed up dumb dreams. Towards words balanced in
compound usage,
I’ve looked away. Because having entered the shoe shop, you
won’t emerge again
This city, like one distracted, has headed
Towards Sealdah station.
[…]
Familiar streets light up, go dark again.
Whose song, like contagious sadness? In the charmed water—
Whose shadow makes you start with surprise,
Make you open the door, close it twice?
(From ‘Cross Stitch’)

Novera Hossain’s lyrical, haunting and strangely evocative poetry is a delight to all the senses. A poem like ‘Sikia Jhora’, where desire is embodied in timeless yet poignant images, simultaneously awakens all the planes of time and reality that we inhabit, often unknowingly, and gives one’s fleeting experience a meaning beyond itself. Waiting recurs both as a theme and as a structural principle in Novera’s poems: she heaps image upon image, often juxtaposing them with each other, and builds up a tension which is never really resolved or brought to a closure. The poem ‘Being Sharpened’ is a perfect example: it unfolds in a space we can name ‘waiting’, because waiting designates both a lack from which desire springs and also the anticipation of something about to happen.
The chrysanthemum waits
The milk-white beli, the night jasmine
The wait for flowering—
A little ahead at the crossroads
Thousands of vehicles waiting for long
Truckloads of green vegetables
Farmed red-meat
Muslin saris soft like mihidana
All are waiting
At the main ghat, lines of steamers, launches, boats
A bunch of youngsters waiting for a post-mortem
At the morgue
Piles of books at the printing press
It’s being sharpened at the sharpener’s
You too are waiting
To draw blood
(‘Being Sharpened’)

Pratyush Bandopadhyay navigates the urban space with a mix of wry humor and seething anger. He has set out with the ‘infallible obligation to dream’ in a hostile world and his poetic ruminations read like a desperate effort to hold the ‘teeming desert’ of ennui at bay. His longer poems, driven by the breathless logic of associations, make us encounter the chimeras of contemporary reality.
Caught in cross-currents
They shunned the slippery road, one and all

Standing tall, I remained –
Yama, under the burning-ghat’s frangipani

Not a beast of burden but,
The infallible obligation to dream, I
Bear easily
(‘Slippery road’)

With a disarming directness Atanu Chakraborty’s poems will bring you closer to the heaving bosom of the earth and its eternal processes. His poetry is a reckoning with the elemental aspects of life: death and desire, the elusive search of the embattled ego for freedom from its cares. Poems like ‘The Egg-Seller’ and ‘Harvest Festival’ are made of simple and startling images which have a freshness about them. In the following poem, he alludes to an utterance from a famous Bengali novel and then turns it on its head, complicating in an agile move the age-old binary of the body and the mind:

The body is very lonely. The body is alone.
Sleeps amongst carcasses. Vultures are its own.

While it is sleeping, does it not want to die
Doesn’t feel the touches hard as I try

Body, oh body, do you not have a mind?
The mind is very lonely. The mind is alone.

(‘Body’)
The poems of Tanmay Mridha dwell on the absurdities and ironies of life with a delightfully unsettling sense of humor. The nonchalant, conversational, meandering prose in which the poems are written is uniquely suited for his comic vision. He can make poetry out of the meaninglessness of life:
What will remain in your hands
When wet winds have flown from the verandahs of winter
No kindness, no compassion—
No easy money—
The beggar sings his own songs
To his own wife’s tune
I do drugs in the old castle
On the silvery foil of sunbeams
This impossibly embarrassing wish
For whatever it was I’d wanted to say
For which, water the colour of death
Comes rushing for my heart-line
(And) instead of some wondrously unhurried truth
Seems to speak of repetitions, all across the river’s mouth.
(‘Untitled 2’)
Gouranga Mondal is adept at weaving symbols together in poems which are suggestive and rich with layers of meaning. His poems are self-enclosed artefacts, mirroring worlds which are either too far off or too close for us to grasp.
’Cause there’s no restraints—the river can descend so low
Everyday a window peeps at another house, another window
Drenching the afternoon, the cloud pretends purity besides the sunset
A nameless bathwater stymies, the psalm of the forest
’Cause there’s no restraints—the night indulges in banter
Wayward moon and moonlight’s white mourning—it’s the widow of sunlight.
(‘Crime’)

Shapla Shawparjita explores the labyrinths of desire in exquisite love lyrics. The following is a particularly elegant, if a bit stylized, specimen:
Certain nights the moon slips in through the window
Entering this coffin of mine
With cupped hands, I collect, holding god’s face aloft
That too slips through my fingers
Like moonlight…
(‘Privation’)

I did not find particularly captivating the poems of Arpan Chakraborty, Aysa Jhorna and Agni Roy included in this anthology. Disappointing too is the cover design by Saumya Kalia which hopes to lure prospective readers into the realm of Bengali poetry by showing images of a fish and the smoldering eyes of a tiger, presumably the Royal Bengal. It is ironic for a book claiming to represent ‘underground’ poetry to reproduce cultural stereotypes on its cover.
It is, however, impossible to exaggerate the importance of a project like this in foregrounding the rich diversity of our literary traditions. It can also be a step forward in the direction of bringing readers and practitioners of poetry from all Indian languages together. Both the translator and the publisher deserve praise for their efforts.

Himalaya Jana has published four volumes of poetry. He teaches English literature at Raghunathpur College, West Bengali, India.

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