It was to be a celebration of Bengali culture performed upon a proscenium stage at a local high school; a celebration in Chicago by the Bengali-American community residing here; a celebration for themselves, primarily, but also for any and all of their appreciative friends. And that is what it ended up to be, with performances of dance, of singing, of poetry recitation, and of an original drama in Bangla (the name for their language preferred by many Bengalis these days) to conclude the evening's festivities. In between those rather typical expressions of Bengali high culture, the audience was treated to what can only be called a tasteful synthesis of "voguing" and "lip-synching," wherein young couples, high-school- and college-aged young women and men, acting out--a more apt description might be "striking poses"--and miming duets to the accompaniment of the sound track from contemporary Bangla films, films of the wildly popular Bollywood sort.
At what is frequently called a "Rabindra-Nazrul Jayanti" or "Joint Tagore and Nazrul Islam Birthday Celebration," often organized to coincide with Tagore's birthday on the 25th of Baishakh (May 9th), diasporic Bengali communities in many cities gather to commemorate these two cultural icons, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976), one Brahmo (read: Hindu in this case) and one Muslim but both inclusive of, and accepted by, the entire Bangla-speaking world. Chicago is no exception. Rabindra-Nazrul Jayanti comes around annually, but the celebration referred to above was conceived of as something special on the eve of the approaching second millennium. The program itself resembled a Rabindra-Nazrul Jayanti, though held in December, not May. Stage decorations included two huge free-hand portraits of those traditional giants of Bengali culture, Tagore and Nazrul Islam, poets both, and both prolific song writers. Works by one of these two men comprised the majority of the songs sung and the poetry recited. Even the several dance numbers that evening were, for the most part, performed to Rabindra-sangit, the rubric by which Tagore songs are known. The "voguing" skits, of course, form an obvious exception to this. Another exception appeared in the form of a danced interpretation of a poem by Jibanananda Das (1899-1954), his "After Twenty Years" (included in this volume). The young woman, to a background of instrumental music and a reading of "After Twenty Years" in Bangla, danced the poem with what could be described as expressive, and at the same time recognizably Tagorean, dramatic gestures.
Jibanananda was not the only Bengali artist other than Tagore and Nazrul Islam to be represented in this millennial celebration, but he appeared prominently throughout the affair. (The Bengali convention is to refer to persons by their first names, with no disrespect implied or inferable; Tagore, the exception to this rule, is so familiar to readers outside of Bengal that the English, not the Bangla, term of reference seems most appropriate in English; be assured that in Bangla, he is referred to respectfully as "Rabindranath," not as "Tagore.") On a huge banner displayed across the back of the stage that bridged the two large portraits of Tagore and Nazrul Islam were the words "banglar mukh ami dekhiyachi" ("I have gazed upon Bengal's face"), the opening of one of Jibanananda's sonnets from the Bengal the Beautiful cycle (see below in this volume). Not only that, the same hemistich served as the quasi title for the entire occasion, heading the program's printed list of events. Jibanananda figured centrally--quite physically, graphically, emblematically, in the form of that bridging banner--in this Chicago Bengali-American committee's concept of what Bengali culture is all about. And, as if the banner and the danced poem were not proof enough of the centrality of Jibanananda to Bengali cultural identity, one of the song offerings consisted of another of Jibanananda's Bengal the Beautiful sonnets (also in this volume) set to music of the singer's own creation. Jibanananda's portrait may have been absent from the stage; his presence was clearly felt throughout the events of that evening.
Jibananandawas born in 1899 in the town of Barisal, part of what has been since 1971 the independent country of Bangladesh; he died in 1954 at the age of 55 in Kolkata, India. But for a few months at a college in Delhi where he continued his lifelong career as professor of English literature, Jibanananda passed his days either in Kolkata, the metropolis of Bengal, or in the small town of his birth. Fame came to him slowly. By the start of the 1950s, however, he had gained considerable success among the poetry-reading Bengali public. With the republication in 1952 of a volume of his poems mostly from the 1930s, he became acknowledged as one of the foremost poets of the day. When in 1955 the Sahitya Akademi, India's then recently formed national literary academy, bestowed its first-ever set of prizes for works of literature in the various Indian languages--prizes, in principle, for living writers "to encourage men of promise in letters"--the Bengali-language award went posthumously to Jibanananda, further proof of the stature he had by then obtained. His poetry remains today extremely popular, thoroughly appreciated.
During much of the year 1971, when from the end of March through half of December, there raged in Bangladesh a war of independence from Pakistan, lines from Jibanananda's Bengal the Beautiful sonnet cycle served to remind the freedom fighters, many of them educated, of what it was they were sacrificing and willing to die for. This was their Bengal, and this had been Jibanananda's Bengal, a place of birds and trees, a place that has a face, a place half human, woman, and, in the eyes of the poet beholder, beautiful beyond compare. Despite the disruptions that attend war, this book of poetry managed to get republished not once but twice during that period. As it turned out, Bangladesh adopted a song by Tagore as her national anthem, "My Golden Bengal"(amar sonar bamla). For a number of reasons, the choice of Tagore's lyrics and particularly the accompanying music makes sense. The melody for the Bangladesh anthem, as Tagore himself tells us, came from one of the eclectic, heterodox religious communities neither Muslim nor Hindu nor Buddhist nor Christian known as baul, whose songs are their religious offerings to a deity whom they ask to reside in their hearts. Jibanananda composed no music, no lyrics for song, no potential Bangladeshi national anthem. But his Bengal the Beautiful sonnets did and still do sing, and they sing of a Bengal more dear to their Bengali readers than, in some cases, life itself.
Life and death are slightly strange concepts in Jibanananda's poetry. Death is not necessarily final in his world, as we see in the initial poem in this collection, "Tangerine":
When once I leave this body
Shall I come back to the world?
If only I might return . . . .
And come back he does, again and again, hypothetically in a myriad of forms, but always to the one place, Bengal, as in the opening lines of one of the sonnets from Bengal the Beautiful:
When again I return to the Dhansiri's banks, to this Bengal,
Not as a man, perhaps, but as a shalik bird, or a white hawk,
As, perhaps, a crow of dawn in this land of autumn's new rice harvest,
Life seems worth living. It is fulfilling, if one can but live in Bengal--and live fully cognizant of that world, aware of the world as perceived through all the senses. Early on in his career he wrote "Before Death," a statement not so much on death itself but on life, robustly lived through observation of his surroundings:
Before death what more do we wish to understand?
. . . .
What more do we wish to understand? Have we not heard bird wings call
As the sunlight faded? Have we not watched crows fly off into fog-filled fields!
A number of years later he mused upon the suicide of an acquaintance in "A Day Eight Years Ago":
I know, yet I know,
A woman's heart--love--a child--a home--these are not everything,
Not wealth nor fame nor creature comforts--
There is some other perilous wonder
In our very blood.
It exhausts us--
Fatigues, exhausts us.
That exhaustion is not present
In the morgue.
In that morgue
Flat out he lies upon a table.
Why, indeed, would one choose death? In that poem the life-death divide appears far too firm, unlike in the excerpts cited earlier where reincarnation seems a distinct possibility.
Jibanananda has been described by fellow poet Buddhadeva Bose as "our most alone of poets," and alone Jibanananda seemed to be throughout his life, despite being married and the father of a daughter and a son. We see some of this loneliness is what became his signature poem, "Banalata Sen", the comforting imaginary woman who can give him solace:
I am a weary heart surrounded by life's frothy ocean.
To me she gave a moment's peace--Banalata Sen from Natore.
It is both his imaginary woman and nature herself, idiosyncratically perceived, that yield what peace Jibanananda experienced in life. And he looks at nature often and from odd angles. Similarly idiosyncratic is his take on women, his fantasized females, Banalata Sen being by far the most memorable with her comforting "bird's-nest-like eyes."Alone though he may have been, Jibanananda gives us in "Sensation" an account of the burden he bore, the creative process conceived of as a presence, a constant companion, and not always a welcome one:
Into the half light and shadow go I. Within my head
Not a dream, but some sensation works its will.
Not a dream, not peace, not love,
A sensation born in my very being.
I cannot escape it
For it puts its hand in mine,
And all else pales to insignificance--futile, so it seems,
As noted above, Jibanananda was born in Barisal, a rural town. It was the administrative center for the old Bakhargunge District, a riverine area in the Gangetic delta bordering on the Bay of Bengal and encompassing about half of the Sundarban jungle. Barisal resisted the best efforts of British engineers, whose oft cited legacy to India was the construction of railways. Alluvial soil proved too soft and shifting, the rivers and canals too numerous to allow for the laying of a road bed. Jibanananda deeply loved his home district, no trains and all:
Come back to the sea's shore,
Come back to paths through fallow fields.
To where the train stops
At a world of mango, nim, and jhau trees,
Come back. . . .
It was this semi-tropical regions of modern Bangladesh to which he himself came back again and again, in person and poetry ("Come Back").
His parents were educated, not uncommon among members of the Brahmo Samaj. That "reformed" Hindu sect was founded in the early 19th century, partially as a reaction to criticism Christian missionaries leveled at then current Hindu practices. From the Brahmo community have come a number of Bengal's finest artists, including Tagore, honored with Nobel's literature prize in 1913, and film director Satyajit Ray. Jibanananda's mother wrote a bit of poetry herself. His father taught school and preached in Barisal's Brahmo Samaj. It was the poetry and the teaching, not the preaching, which rubbed off on Jibanananda. He, like his younger brother and sister, never officially joined their father's beloved Brahmo Samaj. However, he did follow in his father's professional footsteps by going into education.
After growing up in bucolic Barisal, Jibanananda at age nineteen went off to the big city, earning in 1922 his MA degree in English from Bengal's prestigious Kolkata University. And though he stayed on, teaching English at the Brahmos' City College for nearly six years, his heart lay elsewhere. The metropolis, interesting to him in some ways, seemed for the most part to be a place of incarceration:
Dawn sky, blue of midnight,
You show yourself again and again in unbounded splendor
Above this forsaken city's prison walls
. . . . .
Hearts of countless travelers
Forever search in desperation, their way not found,
Their feet shackled by authority's firm chains.
O blue skies unblinking, O magician, you have with your magic wand
Cracked the very foundation of this prison of a thousand rules and laws.
. . . .
The preceding is from "Blue Skies," published in the late 1920's. But his attitude never changed. Years later, in "On City Sidewalks," he would write:
From one Calcutta sidewalk to another, from sidewalk to sidewalk,
As I walk along, my life's blood feels the vapid, venomous touch
Of tram tracks stretched out beneath my feet like a pair of primordial serpent sisters.
A soft rain is falling, the wind slightly chilling.
Of what far land of green grass, rivers, fireflies am I thinking?
Where are the stars?
Have those stars been lost?
. . . .
Ironically, while crossing similar streetcar tracks in Kolkata on his way home one evening Jibanananda was struck by an oncoming streetcar. Eight days later he died.
From 1930 until just before the British left their Indian colony, dividing it up into Pakistan and the modern state of India, Jibanananda remained in Barisal, for much of that time teaching English literature at the local Braja Mohan College. As independence drew near and partition of Bengal almost certain, he, like many Bengali Hindus then and later, left his home in the eastern part of Bengal and went to Kolkata. On August 15, 1947, Barisal became part of the eastern wing of the Islamic republic of Pakistan. West Bengal with its capital of Kolkata formed a state within the secular nation of India. The human flood gates had been opened. Muslims from West Bengal streamed into East Pakistan; Hindus from there poured into West Bengal, most coming to Kolkata itself.
Jibanananda had arrived in Kolkata during the latter part of 1946. Technically not a "refugee," he got none of the concessions extended to refugees. Housing presented a problem and continued to exercise him right up to his death. Jobs were scarce. He had come to Kolkata to try his hand at journalism. The attempt proved an utter disaster. When independence finally arrived, Jibanananda found himself in Kolkata, unemployed, and unable ever to return home to Barisal. For the last seven years of his life he struggled constantly to find and hold a teaching position to his liking in or around Kolkata. At the time of his death, he was head of the department and professor of English at the Howrah Girls' College, just across the Hooghly river from Kolkata.
It had been in the mid-1920's when Jibanananda began to write poetry. Kallol, an avant-garde journal, appeared in 1923 published throughout the '20s many of the younger writers and poets. The Kallol generation, as the writers coming of age then were called, struggled constantly to be modern and, more importantly, to be different from Tagore, who uncannily always seemed to be in step with, or one step ahead of, the times. They learned quickly the power of his influence, as from their pens flowed, much to their surprise at times, Tagorean diction. "For these [young writers and poets]," observed Buddhadeva, "it was impossible not to imitate Rabindranath, and it was impossible to imitate Rabindranath." From among the Kallol writers, only Jibanananda's voice remained from the outset exempt from Tagorean overtones, though few noticed his work in those early days.
With the demise of Kallol in 1929, Jibanananda in effect fell silent to the world for five years. That silence was broken only once, in 1932, when there appeared a somewhat controversial poem of his, "In Camp," containing the image, slightly shocking to some, of "a doe in heat" luring stags to their death. Then in 1935, when Buddhadeva and friends inaugurated the premier poetry magazine of the day, Kavita, whose title meant quite literally "poetry," Jibanananda once again found his voice. Buddhadeva more enthusiastically than anyone else championed Jibanananda, who became, in effect, featured on the pages of Kavita in the latter half of the '30s. Nearly half of the poems in the present collection first appeared in Kavita. They were for the most part lush poems featuring luxurious images in a world all his own, often of his own creating:
From the bosom of the skies came those lofty winds,
Whooshing, panting through my window,
Like so many zebras of a verdant land, startled by the lion's roar.
There was much orange sunlight,
Cockatoos and pigeons,
Dense, shady mahogany foliage.
There was orange sunlight,
Much orange-colored sunlight,
And you were there. ("Naked Lonely Hand")
During this same period "popular-front" politics was exerting an influence on writers in South Asia. Nineteen hundred thirty-six saw the formation of the All-India Progressive Writers' Association, a direct outcome of policies set at the World Congress of the Comintern a year earlier. From the perspective of the AIPWA, literature should possess "an impulse toward social reconstruction, the power to reflect the heard realities of life--in short we want a literature which may produce in us movement, change and restlessness." At the moment of its inception, Jibanananda was anything but committed to such a philosophy. From the late 1930s onward, however, we find in Jibanananda an increasing awareness of the political world around him, a world less and less comprehensible to him. That world differs markedly from his natural-folktale Bengal, from the fantasized worlds inhabited by imaginary women. But even then, in his more politicized phase, his observations retain some of that uniquely Jibananandian slant on reality as he focuses, for instance, upon the phosphorescent watch faces of fallen soldiers ("Wristwatches"):
. . . wristwatches on some of them
Whose hands of time perhaps yet slowly circle.
Beneath the moon's glow all these strange timekeepers
Will talk for a while--
. . . .
Their life's story will tick on a few moments more.
Dim, and growing ever dimmer,
They will wake to endless darkness of inexhaustible sunlight.
The oxymoron in the final line ("darkness of sunlight") signals Jibanananda's confusion. He is befuddled by the world at large. It makes little or no sense. Similar oxymora, often involving a forced synthesis of light and darkness, surface with some regularity in his poetry of the confusing 1940's replete with a world war, and the partition of South Asia, and his own abandoning of the ancestral home in Barisal to come to Kolkata permanently. A fairly constant criticism of Jibanananda's poetry of the '40s and '50s was that it could be understood only with difficulty, if understood at all. From one perspective, the incomprehensibility within his poetry mirrors the fact that the real world has become, for him, unintelligible. The final half dozen poems in this collection convey some of that confusion and loss of faith in the world. A beggar on Harrison Road is seen as "A world's mistake" ("Beggar"). A peasant "adds together two and two / And in his field comes up with three" ("Shadows"). And "They who are most blind now see" ("A Strange Darkness"). Clearly, from his vantage point, all is not right with the world.
Following Jibanananda's death, Kolkata's leading Bengali daily newspapers carried a poem of his entitled "Today," a fitting epitaph for one who spent a lifetime serving Saraswati, goddess of the arts, while searching his own poetic world as well as the real world for answers to questions of truth and beauty.
Always another path you seek: today I
seek no more.
I found in that void on the far shore something to hold at last
In my own heart, own mind. . . .
A note on translation: It has been said many times before, but I heard it personally from poet, professor, and erstwhile colleague, A.K. Ramanujan, so I shall give him the credit. As Raman would say, a translation is never finished but simply abandoned. I did just that with the translations I included in the biographical study of Jibanananda published in 1990 (A Poet Apart: A Literary Biography of the Bengali Poet Jibanananda Das [1899-1954], U. of Delaware Press, Newark; Associated University Presses, London and Toronto). More than a decade and a half later, given this chance to revisit select pieces of that poetry and my translations thereof for the present volume, I could not resist "tweaking" them, as they say in this technological age. And what a pleasure it has been to reexamine this poetry in earnest and to concentrate anew on the literal, the suggestive, and the reverberated meanings of individual words, phrases, and the poems as a whole. Once again, I have abandoned my translations to let them be published. They are in most cases slightly different translations from the ones I abandoned for the earlier book, and eleven of the thirty-four poems in this volume did not appear at all in A Poet Apart.