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Poetry

Poetry of Jibonanada Das

(Translated by Suparna Sengupta)

BANALATA SEN

For a thousand years, am I trailing the paths of this earth --
From the oceans of Ceylon, amidst darkling nights, to the Malay seas
Much have I wandered; To Bimbisara and Asoka’s ghostly days
Have I been; even farther, to the distant dark Vidarbha wen;
I am a tired being, all around me foams life’s ocean,
A moment’s peace came only from Natore’s Banalata Sen.

Her tresses, dense and dark, unbeknown like Vidisha’s nights,
Her face, like Srabosti’s sculpture; in the seas distant,
Like the rudderless sailor, who loses way,
A land of green grass, in the cinnamon island, when suddenly he sights, 
So too, in the dark, I sighted her; She said, “Where, for so long, have you been?”
Like a bird’s nest, her eyes uplifted, Natore’s Banalata Sen.

At a long day’s end, like the drop of a dew
Comes duskfall; its sun-scented wings, rubs off the eagle,
All shades of earth dimmed, the manuscript prepares anew,
For then stories, like fireflies, glow and twinkle;
All birds come home--all rivers--emptied, all loss and gain.
Alone this dark remains, for a face-to-face with Banalata Sen.



      1946-47

Daylight casts thither on uncertain mortal racket;
On lanes-bye lanes, on broadways, tramways, footways;
Some stranger’s home will be auctioned right away—perchance,
At throwaway rates. 
Everyone tries to hoax to heaven
Beating everyone else, everyone you bet.

Many, perforce, rush breathless—yet
Those auctioned houses, those furniture—or what’s not for auction,
All those stuff --
Only a few, depriving others, can still purchase.
In this world, interests accrue, but not for all.
Doubtless, the treasury, rests with one or two.
The demands of all these lofty men, dominate
Upon one and all, women too left unsaved.
All the rest, in dark, like ceaseless autumnal fall,
Wishes to meander, somewhere to a river
Or maybe upon earth--within some germinating seed,
Themselves embedded.  Knowing this earth has had several lives, still
They return sun-scented, to dust, grass, to flowering elixir’s
Long-known bliss, to light, the humble heirs must reclaim them—

Musing thus, they submerge unto darkness. 
Disappeared thus, they are currently all dead.
The dead, to this earth, never come back.
The deceased are nowhere; are they?
Excepting some autumnal ways, some sauntering gentleman’s
Arterial trails, the dead might be nowhere else,
May be then, before death’s onset, light, life, liberty and love
With serenity, could have been better greeted.

Lakhs of Bengal’s hamlets lie drowned, hopeless, despairing, still and lifeless.
As the sun sets, a well-tressed night, as if
Comes to dress her braids—but by whose hands?
Vaguely, she stares—but upon whom?
No hands, no humans are here—lakhs of Bengal’s hamlet-nights, once upon a time,
Like hand-drawn designs, like vivid scroll drawings, had grown into 
Wide-eyed prophets—all extinguished.

Here, even the other day, new harvest they had scented;
Upon new-born paddy sap, sunbathed, so many crows met;
The flock from this hood replied to the chatter from that hood--
Airmailed they came, lapping up the sap.

Not a whisper now, even in those cauldrons;
Skulls and skeletons are not beneath human counting;
In Time’s hands, they are unending. 

Over there, on a full-moon night, in the fields, the farmers danced,
Drinking mystical paddy-sap, the majhi-bagdi’s
Divine daughter beside. 
Some pre-marital—some still extra-marital—presaging birth of a child.
Those children in today’s evil state, are muddled,
Drained, this society has stamped them out
Nearly dead; the predecessors of today’s rustic class,
In blissful ignorance, stacking the evil Zamindar’s
‘Permanent Settlement’ atop a charok gaach, have passed away.
Not that they were too well-off; still,
Today’s famine, riots, hunger and illiteracy
Have blinded the distressed rustic beings, such that 
A distinct, clearer world, in comparison, once there was. 

Is all in doubt today? To see through things, is quite problematic now;
In dark times, divulging half-truths
Has its own rules; consequent, in this murk,
Gauging the residue truth, is a practice 
That remains; everyone looks askance at everyone else.

Nature’s hidden truth seems malicious.
Nature’s hidden truths, in all our sincerity,
Draw upon the shadow of our own doubts, to 
Uncover our own pains. In Nature’s hills and rocks, in 
Her exuberant falls, have I discerned, how first waters flush red 
With a dead creature’s blood, thence the tiger hunts down the deer, even today!
Jibonananda Das

Often hailed as the most influential poet of the post-Tagore generation, Jibonananda Das remains one of Bengal’s most intimate and incisive observers. Born in 1899, at the cusp of change raging across India and indeed the world, Jibonananda started his poetic career as a Romantic celebrant of Bengal’s vast green fields, sun-dappled rivers, lush horizons, its minutest of elemental forces. As years rolled by, a variety of societal changes impacted this landscape and indeed his own life—colonialism, World Wars, the Bengal Famine, communalism and the dark days of Partition.  His poetry and sensibility gradually took a turn to the urbane introspection of existential loneliness, tradition and its clash with modernity, death, sickness, and the newly evolving concept of the nation. However, the theme that towered over his thought-process was the concern of human civilization, its evolution and achievements and the paradox of death, disease and violence that this civilization always was confronted with. Both the pieces translated, ‘BANALATA SEN’ and ‘1946-47’ capture these romantic/humanist approach. ‘BANALATA SEN’ is perhaps his most-quoted poem, where the enigmatic, eponymous damsel offers respite and peace to the world-weary traveller-persona. What is striking in this piece, is the catalogue of places that the persona travels to—all strung together by a distinct Buddhist civilizational motif. Perhaps, he is quietly reflecting on India’s departure from its ethos of non-violence, peace and tolerance, across ages.

BANALATA SEN

For a thousand years, am I trailing the paths of this earth --
From the oceans of Ceylon, amidst darkling nights, to the Malay seas
Much have I wandered; To Bimbisara and Asoka’s ghostly days
Have I been; even farther, to the distant dark Vidarbha wen;
I am a tired being, all around me foams life’s ocean,
A moment’s peace came only from Natore’s Banalata Sen.

Her tresses, dense and dark, unbeknown like Vidisha’s nights,
Her face, like Srabosti’s sculpture; in the seas distant,
Like the rudderless sailor, who loses way,
A land of green grass, in the cinnamon island, when suddenly he sights, 
So too, in the dark, I sighted her; She said, “Where, for so long, have you been?”
Like a bird’s nest, her eyes uplifted, Natore’s Banalata Sen.

At a long day’s end, like the drop of a dew
Comes duskfall; its sun-scented wings, rubs off the eagle,
All shades of earth dimmed, the manuscript prepares anew,
For then stories, like fireflies, glow and twinkle;
All birds come home--all rivers--emptied, all loss and gain.
Alone this dark remains, for a face-to-face with Banalata Sen.

GLOSSARY:

  1. Bimbisara: a 5th century BC king of the ancient kingdom of Magadha; remembered for his military exploits and his patronage of the Buddha
  2. Asoka: Celebrated as one of the greatest imperialists in Indian history, he is remembered in history for his dramatic conversion from an aggressor to a Buddhist who spread the message of non-violence and peace. 
  3.  Vidharba: The north-eastern territory of Maharashtra, on the banks of Godavari.
  4. Natore: a district in northern Bangladesh. Legend has it that a Zaminder was once travelling by boat looking for a suitable place to build his principal residence. While travelling through Chalan beel (lake), he saw a frog being caught by a snake. His astrologers interpreted it as a sign of the end of his search for a place of residence. The Raja called out to his boatmen: ‘Nao Tharonao’ as in, ‘stop the boat’. From a corruption of this exclamation, the place eventually came to be called ‘Nator’.
  5. Vidisha: Situated very to the Buddhist pilgrimage city of Sanchi, Vidisha was an important trade centre under Buddhist rulers in the 5th century BC.
  6. Sravasti: Currently in modern day Uttar Pradesh, the city is one of the premiere centers of Buddhism.

‘1946-47’ is a landmark poem on the history of violence and bloodshed that came in the wake of Partition. The poet is a chronicler of Bengal’s changing landscape, her ethos and values in the modern times. But above all, Jibonananda voices the subaltern, especially the Bengal peasantry, whose plight and suffering under colonialism is deeply etched on his mind.

GLOSSARY:

  1. majhi-bagdi: Denoting the caste of fisherfolk and tribal warrior communities of rural Bengal
  2. Permanent Settlement: A revenue agreement between the East India Company and Bengal’s landlords to fix taxes/revenues to be raised from land.
  3. charok-gaach: a maypole erected out of the stump of a tall tree during the season-end festival of the last month of Bengali calendar, Chaitra. On top of this tall maypole are tied bundles of jute and flags with which a merry-go- round is built. Congregants whirl around the top of the maypole, supported by the ropes and hooks.

Although he spent his early days in earstwhile East Bengal, yet he moved to Kolkata where he graduated with an Honours in English in 1919 and thereafter earned an M.A., also in English, from the Calcutta University in 1921. Following his tragic death in a road accident in 1954, a vast body of novels and short stories, written by him, were discovered. Throughout his life, he shied away from public attention as posthumously he emerged to be a modern poetic giant in the annals of Bengali Literature.

Suparna Sengupta lives in Bangalore, India and is a faculty, Department of English at the Jyoti Nivas College for more than a decade now. She has translated various poets from India and Bangladesh and has been published in literature magazines. Her translated poem has been published in “Silence Between the Notes”, an anthology on Partition Poetry (ed. Sarita Jemnani and Aftab Hussain). She also features in the Annual Handbook of “Words and Worlds”, a bi-lingual magazine (PEN Austria Chapter) as also in ‘City: A Journal of South-Asian Literature’, Vol 7, 2019 (City Press Bangalore).

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