Shankha Ghosh (5 February 1932 – 21 April 2021) was an Indian poet and critic. Ghosh taught at many educational institutions. He won many awards including Jnanpith Award in 2016, highest Literary Award in India. Among the most respected names in contemporary Bengali literature, Ghosh gave poetry a new identity to the Bengali literary world.
Shankha Ghosh made an immense contribution to the world of Bengali poetry. ‘Days and Nights’, ‘Babar’s Prayer’, ‘Face Covered in Advertisement’, ‘Gandharva Poems’ are his notable books of poetry.
Selected Poems by Sankha Ghosh
Translated from the Bengali by Dilip Kumar Chakravorty
Sankha Ghosh’s identity as a political poet works like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has raised the bar for the language of the loud protest placards in the woke circle by lending a good amount of rich irony; the identity, on the other, has overshadowed the part of his works that do not have “social relevance” in the direct sense of the term. Dilip Kumar Chakravorty’s selection of Sankha Ghosh’s poems in the English translation starting with the poet’s early-period writings from his third book, Nihita Patalchhaya (1967), moves further into his later works till his twenty-fourth, Samasta Khsater Mukhe Pali (2007), wisely acknowledging the wide range of variety in the essence of the poet in totality.
Comparing a poem’s original in Bengali with its English translation is a rare opportunity indeed, but as it proves, it is no less challenging, and, of course, rewarding a task. For instance, “House”the short poem this selection opens with, shows everything about the scope and limitation of translation; the spirit wafts to a different language with some possibilities of the original text tamed and adjusted.
I have been searching for a house for long–
In my mind.
Soon I may be swept along the water of light!
Have you got a house?
Indeed, I did get a house long ago–
In my mind.
I need one in the world outside.
Any translation comes with a risk of displacement from the original. That is the price the readers of world literature, without being aware of the possible loss, have to pay. We can’t forget, this particular translation does not target the Bengali audience. So, certain nuances, that can only be followed by the ones who are acquainted with the original, don’t threaten the translated text. And, the vantage point of discovering the soft rhyming in the original poem that only a Bengali can enjoy had to be sacrificed here. This compromise has to be accepted with a note of thanks as it is almost impossible to own every bit of the original in translation. The translation of the phenomenally acclaimed poem “Baburer Prarthona” (Babur Prays) misses the psalm-like presentation with the absence of the rhythm. There, for instance, is another case with a poem from Baburer Prarthona (1976). The famous poem’s essence is translated quite successfully; though here too the rhyme has to be sacrificed, the chief dilemma pops up while dealing with a particular word in the title—“sentiment” in “A Beggar Boy’s Sentiment”. In the original, the word is obhiman, an almost untranslatable word in Bengali, which, of course, means “sentiment” and connotes simultaneously so much more too. Yet, there is no single word that can go this close to the spirit with which the word is used in the title.
First you’ll say, “Sing, little boy,”
And next, “Excuse me,
Go away from here–
Clear out, will you?”
So I won’t sing.
First you’ll say, “Exert yourself,”
Then you’ll kick me;
First you’ll spin a lot of words,
Then clench your teeth.
No more will I sing.
Good that I am faking now,
I save my life this way.
Now I can see from far
The others’ loving kindness.
No more will I sing now
No more will I sing.
This is undoubtedly a poem of protest. A beggar, exploited for the amusement of the solvent ones, is raising his voice against the popular demand for his song which goes unrewarded most of the time. Sankha Ghosh is famous for this voice, this resistant tone, this commitment to the community of the human species. His trademark irony sometimes appears redolent with the style popular in the leftist progressive literature, but, there is a tellable difference between that school of poetry and his. The difference lies in the execution itself. The word “sentiment,” which no matter how insufficiently stands for the original word, carries the angle that fetches the focus on the emotion of a singular character—the beggar boy. Perceiving self-awareness as sentiment shifts our reaction from that of anger to something much more tender. In this respect, does the poem, “House” not become a more political poem—in its depiction of the basic human yearning to find shelter in the world?
Dilip Kumar Chakravorty’s finest achievement about the book lies in his judicious selection of thirty-four poems from Ghosh’s works. He prepares a wide range of audiences through this book with a pertinent question about the very validity of the different tags used for poetry. A “love poem” like “Revenge” (Nihita Patalchhaya, 1967) is also a “political poem”—of course, politics not in the ignoble sense of the term:
The young girl knows nothing, only
by speaking of love
she adorned my body
with ancient bark.
I too in return
Kept my word:
Poured in her body
This haunting poem about passion is titled “Revenge”; there is subtle humor, and the mood is steeped in dark, primitive instincts. There is a poem Chakravorty picks from Adim Latagulmamoy (1972) for this selection titled “A Poem’s Make-up”. It is especially important in Ghosh’s body of work, as it drives our attention towards the underlying politics of writing: a poem’s social appearance, its not-so-simple relationship with the world around.
On most days
the features remain unseen
under cover of the garrulous face.
back in the room after a bath
I suddenly see
you in striking make-up.
This poem is a poem about a poem’s profile. Like truth, the real appearance of it is seen in a flicker only. In our daily drudgery, we often remain oblivious of our true faces. We talk, but all these words sound devoid of honest utterances. Here, the last line in the translation moves away from the suggestion made in the original poem. According to the last line in the original, it is: “you seem to be in striking make-up”. The weight is put on a sort of assessment by the poet, it “seems” to him that the poem is in a lurid make-up, whereas, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is in one already. This subtle part is omitted in the English translation. Lapse like this, however, can be excused as a minor glitch. The book serves a greater purpose. Some of the best poems on urban isolation are written by Ghosh. Many of those texts have attained cult status, proverb-like stature, the status of a weapon for a resistant individual standing erect against the engulfing consumerist culture. In a way, they become globally relevant.
I’m standing all alone
On the alley’s corner for you
I think I’ll show you my face
My face is hidden by hoardings…
This stanza is an excerpt from “The Face Is Hidden by Hoardings”—the eponymous poem of his book Mukh Dheke Jaay Biggapone (1984). It was necessary to get this essential message through. The world was never a better place, nor will it ever be. Let the protestors across the world in their demonstrations, sit-ins have their fair share of life, love, and a voice like this.
Excerpts from the book
I am lying in a cremation ground. Tell them,
so much jangle is not good
at the time of making a funeral pyre.
Above my head, at my feet, beside my hands
all of them are your slaves
Tell them, let the void stand on my breast,
spread her ankle-length hair,
let the stars light up her crown. Let them run away
And, from the unknown necklace of skulls
Let it drop, let dharma drop
on my cold face, on my cold breast, cold!
Foolish, Not Social
Returning home do you feel you talked too much?
Cleverness, do you feel tired?
Do you feel like sitting quiet in the blue cottage
Burning incense, after a bath, on return?
Do you feel like wearing a human body at last
After taking off the demon’s dress?
Liquid time carries moisture into the room.
Do you like an ananta-shayana on her floating raft?
If you feel like that, come back. Cleverness, go away.
Does it really matter?
Let them say— foolish, let them say unsocial.
The Waves within Emptiness
Did I never say?
I thought it had already been said.
Thus standing stoically before you
The routine cajoling
Because there is no other language
Superior to this mute body
Because there is no curtain longer
Than the way of the world
That the body knows how to expunge
In its non-corporeal upsurge.
Because the falling hair, silvern ashes of the pyre,
the speeding last tram
All longed for shelter
Didn’t I say that? Then how for so long gazed
The low-lying hibiscus by the waterside?
Do you know emptiness only? Don’t you know
There are so many waves within emptiness?