This collection of Bengali poems shines light on a forgotten literary universe

This collection shines light on the forgotten Bengali literary universe offering a rare insight into uncharted territories.
For representational purposes
For representational purposes

Whether it be linguistic oppression or political, the poets of the Bengali underground, pulsing with the forces of dissent and experimentation, have been pushing literary barriers for decades. In this collection of translated works by 10 such poets, translator Rajat Chaudhuri brings us into the quintessential adda to show us how. Social-existential cares are interwoven with allusions to local or national issues. Everyday images, such as buying vegetables from the street vendor and the colour of a sari, are granted a vibrant buoyancy.

The book opens with Mitul Dutta’s poetry. Her words are immediately poignant with unspoken worries that plague no one when participating in a larger cause: ‘I’ve reaped the bitter fruits of joining protest marches,/Nowhere a urinal on the streets, no cobbler’ (‘Chicken Feather’). Indeed, as she elaborates in ‘Cross Stitch’, it seems that societal mores ‘[h]ave chewed up dumb dreams’. 

Arpan Chakraborty marks off dates ‘in black and red’ from the calendars hung ‘[a]cross my walls …’ (‘Use Me’), which recalls Jayanta Mahapatra’s poem ‘Hunger’, where in a shack ‘the oil lamp splay[s] the hours bunched to those walls’. The dig at consumerist culture comes across vividly in the advice to purchase a pair of stick-on fairy wings to fly with from Amazon (‘Terms’).

Novera Hossain talks of an evening in ‘the city of memory [that] walks alone/along the street of the minaret’ (‘Silence’). Trenchant images are presented to us along the road, taking us from the minutiae of daily life to its broad sweep in a seeming instant: ‘Truckloads of green vegetables/Farmed red-meat/Muslin saris soft like mihidana …/At the main ghat, lines of steamers, launches, boats’ (‘Being Sharpened’). 

There is Pratyush Bandopadhyay alerting us to the rain start[ing] as we wait, ‘[f]rom all directions of the “Development and Company”/built bus shed’ (‘Rain Dog’), bringing in the capitalist model in an empty statement of branding while ostensibly assisting the common man. He continues the theme in ‘Canine Rituals’: ‘if someone does return,/does he come back with his shadow weighing the same…’

Atanu Chakraborty seeks life’s fundamental questions in its daily routines. The first line of his poem ‘Body’ echoes the last: ‘The body is very lonely. The body is alone.’ And then, ‘The mind is very lonely. The mind is alone’, recalls for me Devdan Chaudhuri’s existential novel The Anatomy of Life. Tanmay Mridha speaks about the pretensions that the self engages in: ‘[r]ows upon rows [of books], well settled on my shelf,/They try to enhance my respectability’ (‘Books’).

Gouranga Mondal plunges us into the heart of religious fundamentalism in the brave ‘Self-defense’: ‘They will raise your tail and tell your faith/They kill themselves for small change’ and Shapla Shawparjita builds on the tension with ‘A Million Dogs’, that had me remember Kunal Basu’s novel Kalkatta. She declares: ‘In the dog’s claws and teeth. Eternal beastliness./Man and beast’s uncivilised indecencies/Or is it reconciled civility!’

Aysa Jhorna has us flutter like a ‘Maple Leaf’ in the heart of the current global pandemic: ‘A storm is raging, a secret panic spreading through this city/virus-like’. She indicates how true intentions can be hidden in ‘Sand Dunes’: ‘Those ones dance, wearing masks of tigers, jackals, snakes./And they tell me too, “Come, put the mask on,/You’ll see, you’ll forget everything easily”.’ The telling words of Agni Roy conclude the collection: ‘Like an uninsured migrant labourer a jobless night returns following those signals of light’ (‘A Garland of Ragas’), ‘[h]ot air singe[ing] the stitches of work life’ (‘Diary of a Delirium’).

Chaudhari’s work in the curation of the poetry is commendable. Not only does he introduce us to poets who will now hopefully be better known in the mainstream, he also manages to translate into English sharp images that will stay with the reader and will subtly shift our perception as to the currents of Bengali underground poetry in particular, and the production of poetry in India in general.

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