I fear my progressive friends will be voluble in their criticism. They will say that my words betray escapism, my wish to flee reality, my ivory-tower mentality; they will see me as the ragged remains of nineteenth century’s whimsical romanticism. They will mince no words in expounding my uselessness. My defence is only this: if a handful of politically-themed poems had been sufficient to avoid charges of escapism, I might have complied. But when I see that even Rabindranath, much of whose work is strongly political, is similarly defamed, I do not hold out much hope for myself. In any case, who can escape life, life that is all-encompassing. A person is best judged within his own compass. My task as a poet is to create good poetry, and just that; poetry is my way of relating to life. If I am stupid about matters of commerce or politics, if I know nothing about football or horse-racing, what does it matter? I even do not mind admitting that I do try hard to secure for myself a life that is conducive to poetry. That is not escapism, but merely good sense. Even in this quest for a convivial life, poets will differ; some will want a solitary inward-looking existence, others will be inspired by ‘marches that scintillate with students and strikers’---most will lean sometimes this way and then the other. No one is entirely immersed in either the self or the outside world, but they do have individual predilections; fodder for literary creation is strewn everywhere. To brand people escapists just because they do not adhere to a particular way of thinking is hardly a valid assessment of their literature. By such narrow definitions, it would be easy to discover escapist symptoms in the greatest poets, and I suspect the poets themselves would not care. But in truth, no poet is escapist, nor can be; his worth as a poet hinges on his ability to express through his poetry a deep and genuine understanding of life’s many splendours. The poet chooses what to write about; the prerogative of rejection lies with the reader. Greater the poet, bigger the realm from which he draws his inspiration; it is for this reason that Shakespeare or Dante is so revered. A small poet works within narrow confines; though thus limited, he remains a poet. I derive the same pleasure from a bit of good poetry by an unknown poet, as from a stanza penned by one of the greatest. Often the fames of great poets hinge on only a handful of their creations; even the best literatures of the world cannot afford to discard a single piece of good work. A poet finds fulfilment when a single poem comes out well, nothing else matters then.
For ultimately it is literature we are discussing. To me the term ‘escapist literature’ is nonsense, for what qualifies as literature does so because it carries a specific message about life, one that springs from its deep recesses, and by that virtue alone cannot be escaping life. There are people who seek refuge in that word as soon as they take a dislike to a piece; they may be learned and successful, but literary criticism is not their forte. They judge a work by its theme, but they fail to appreciate its quality. They have in their minds a definite social aim, and they are unable to recognise anything that does not fit. Whatever fails to serve their purpose is immediately discarded as escapist or romantic. I will not fail to acknowledge the nobility of their aims, but it is a mistake to think that art or literature could be a means to an end. The creation of art and fashioning of a social order are completely unrelated. When we were young, we were often asked, “What good can ever come of your writing? Will it bring freedom to our country? Why not learn to make lamps or sew vests at home—you will be doing better service to the nation.” We laughed then, but now again we hear the same words--- only they are couched in erudite arguments. Shorn of inessentials, they say that literature must attempt what might be achieved with vest-making machines. What is of concern is that these criticisms now originate from people who are not easily disregarded. It was easy to ignore those who would have snatched away our pens and made us take up hammers; but I think those who believe in the power of the pen and yet want us to turn our pens into hammers may be open to reason; with this hope I write these words. They want us to speak out, to make literature a direct weapon of social change; this is futile and in the process only literature is denigrated. They praise sky-high propaganda garbed as stories or theory served up as poetry; these compositions might have merit, but not literary (an editorial too has its value). I would like to believe that the desire for social change burns incessantly in the hearts of these people, but if that were so, they must surely know that penning stories and poems will achieve nothing, and they must also know what will. Then why do they waste pen and ink? Or is it that possessing neither the will nor strength for a long weary struggle, they write a fiery piece or two and pretend to be engaged in revolution? If so, it is they who escape— from the killing fields to the safety of the literary arena, and their propagandist writings are their means of escape. Certainly, they flee the demanding constraints of good writing.
Well, I have digressed enough. To go back to what I was saying. That I did not have to endure feverish daily bulletins about the progress of the war contributed much to the pleasure of my stay in Santiniketan. I do not comprehend politics, I have no clue about strategies of war; nor can I profess myself interested in the bitter back-biting and elbow-jostling for a few government jobs that pass for politics in this unhappy enslaved country. When I meet the many military strategists who frequent tea-tables or offices of periodicals, I am reminded of a friend whose every waking moment is given to the war. He has the terrains by heart, everyday he tracks the location of the various armies with pins on paper, his conversation is peppered with military terminology, he spends hours devouring the newspapers; at night his dreams are so hideous and bloody that his cries and the flaying of his limbs in his sleep give his wife a very real taste of the battlefield. Psychologists say all wars are driven by the universal neurosis of the modern world. I do not know about that, but for us Bengalis, who have not set eyes on any kind of weapon in a couple of centuries, whose bravest battles are enacted out in the playing fields, it seems likely that the zestful accounts of the great wars serve to feed some psychotic depravity. I can always argue that since the conduct of the war is in no way my responsibility, it is better to keep myself silently and gainfully occupied otherwise rather than waste my breath. If we each recognised our boundaries and respected them, and thought best to strive within our own spheres—then there would not have been cause for so much bickering. If I fancy myself a freedom fighter, my country is unlikely to be freed, but it will likely be the end of me; my abilities lie elsewhere. On the other hand, if the Bengali work-enthusiast Nalini Ranjan Sarkar began to write poems, it could only be bad for him and the country. It is best not to attempt what one is incapable of, it is stupid to dabble in something for which one has neither a genuine interest nor understanding. The poet must devote his entire energy to nurturing his poetry; the work-aficionado will devote his life to incessant work. I do not say that the two abilities cannot come together in a person, but they will be played out in different arena; the heady abandon of poetry does not serve the real work world, and the devious and interminably callous predicaments of work may be fodder for philosophical treatises but not literature. A poet can easily savour the spark of enthusiasm that one feels at the beginning of an undertaking, but to deal with the humourless hard convolutions that follow require a scientific temper, and is hardly likely to appeal to an imagination-prone poetic sensibility. On the other hand, work-zealots possess a genius for work, devote their time and energy to difficult drudgery, and have no hesitation in leaving literary discussions to those better suited. The abilities of those workers who spend time parrying about literature appear to me doubtful; their own creations bear witness to their limitations as litterateurs.
The farmer farms, the poet makes poetry, the politician politicks—what can be a happier situation? In a free and sane world, no normal person has cause or time to agitate about the state of the world, for people are engulfed by their own obligations and their personal joys and sorrows. If ever there should come to be a society where everyone is healthy and free, happy with the work they do and valued adequately for it, then politics as we know today will probably cease. No, not an indolent mind’s idyll, such paradise on earth would be the fullest enunciation of man’s desires, his ultimate aspiration. Cannot what never has been, ever be? At peace-time, the common man’s life is filled with duties, his little joys and little sorrows; but when normalcy departs, peace is disrupted, disasters hover in the horizon, it is then when apprehension casts its long shadow over every life that the politics of the day grips the minds of the entire population. Today, a sense of calamity looms large over every nation; societies’ latent conflicts are starkly and diabolically evident. One might say that in these times, art and literature are but dispensable luxuries. I cannot take affront at that, for when there is sickness in the house, any poet might be obliged to suspend creativity. But that does not make poetry inconsequential. In times of such all-engulfing despair, not only art and literature, but even the pursuit of knowledge or scientific inquest might be impaired, or even abandoned; many young English poets laid down their pens and took up guns to fight the war in Spain, and in doing so gave their lives. But remember, they went to war not as poets but as ordinary men; at that moment, the battle-cry overpowered all poetic instincts. As the poet writes poetry, so has he other more mundane duties. When I keep vigil beside my sick child, I do so not as a poet but as a father. During illness, the doctor’s prescription is of greater significance than a poem; so is bare propaganda rather than art at times of disaster, I agree. But I hasten to add that we should recognise propaganda for what it is and not take it for literature. If I write down the symptoms of a malady to rhyme, it does not make poetry, nor cure sickness. If ever poetry comes to my pen as I sit beside the sick-bed, I want it to be great poetry. My sick child is irrelevant to the demands of literary critique. If the worries of the temporal world so distress a poet that he stops writing altogether, that is a different matter. But if he writes, we cannot let our judgement be clouded by the direness of the times; the writing must be judged by its objective literary merit. He who is a poet will write good poetry even when he writes from the battlefield; we have seen again and again that he will not let his standards lapse. Accolades are not called for as soon as I denounce in my writings the evils of a capitalistic society, nor brickbats if instead I write of the magic of my beloved’s eyes. At any time, and also in these times, both are acceptable themes, what matters is artistic merit. No purpose or reason, only art justifies itself-- to forget that is to lose a sensibility of the priceless.
Illustration: Melar Jatri (On the way to the fair), by Nandalal Basu; taken from Sudhiranjan Das's Amader Shantiniketan.
Published November, 2008
Send us your feedback