The right to exist with freedom to choose is threatened when dictatorial regimes try to erase a culture or linguistic group as we can see in the current conflict that rages between Russia and Ukraine. In 1971, Bangladesh came into existence over a similar issue. The colonials had divided the Indian subcontinent on the basis of religion — not culture. Before this division, Bengal was a whole. In 1905, Tagore had marched against the British directive to divide Bengal and Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India. In 1911, Bengal was reunited to be slashed again in 1947 and made a part of Pakistan with Urdu as its national language. Bangladesh fought a war to find the right to exist as an entity outside of Pakistan — adopting their favoured language Bangla. Throwing off the yoke of Urdu, Bangladesh came to its own. On 16th December, the battle against cultural hegemony was won with warplanes drawing to a halt.
Celebrating freedom from oppression, we have an article by Fakrul Alam giving the historical background of the struggle. A musing from across the border about the 1971 refugee exodus into India has been written by Ratnottama Sengupta. Asad Latif muses on the need to identify with a culture. We have translations of poetry by Nazrul to add a dash of seasoning.
Rakibul Hasan Khan explores death and darkness in Fakrul Alam’s translation of Jibanananda Das’s poetry
Literary translation is a creative work, and the literariness of a translated work reflects the creativity of the translator. From a reader’s perspective who does not know the language of the “original”, the more the translated work reads “natural”, the better is the translation. But it is very intriguing from the viewpoint of someone who has access to both the original and the language of the translation. Reading the translation for such a reader is sometimes like reading the same poem in two languages at the same time, which is often a very enriching and exhilarating experience. But it is not always the case, for such readers may show a critical attitude to the translation for having a “bias” towards the original, especially if the latter is written in their first language. Then their reading turns out to be more an evaluation of the translation than enjoying the work in translation. It is a difficult task for such readers to overcome this predicament.
I also face this predicament while reading Fakrul Alam’s translations of Jibanananda Das’(1899-1954) poetry in Jibanananda Das: Selected Poems with an Introduction, Chronology, and Glossary (Dhaka: UPL, 2nd Ed, 2003). To keep aside my evaluative concerns, therefore, a middle course was necessary, while still comparing the translations with the originals. To this end, I read some of the most “popular” poems by Das in Alam’s translations with a particular focus on the latter’s recreation of the images of death, dread, and darkness.
There is a personal preference for my choosing of the dark images, for I always find Das’ grotesque or dreadful images as appealing as the beautiful ones, but more important reason for my choosing of the dreadful than the beautiful is to underscore the experience of a poet who lived under the dark shadow of colonial rule. Initially, I thought it would be very intriguing to read Das’ poetry postcolonially in Alam’s translations because of the latter’s reputation as an academic in the field of postcolonial studies. But while reading the translations, particularly the erudite introduction that he has included at the beginning of the volume to introduce the salient features of Das’ poetry as well as to offer a very insightful and resourceful discussion on others’ and his translations of the poet, I felt that Alam almost altogether suspended his postcolonial self and fully activated his own creativity to capture the sights and sounds of the works of a poet who is extraordinarily famous for the aesthetic and artistic qualities of his poetry. Alam seems to have embraced this challenge enthusiastically and has succeeded with flying colours, but his emphasis on the art may have cost him thematically on certain occasions, although it has not diminished the overall quality of the translations. His translations also continue to bear the mark of his academic background as a scholar in English studies.
In spite of discovering that Fakrul Alam does not highlight the postcolonial elements in Jibanananda Das’s poetry, I did not abandon my initial plan of reading his translations through postcolonial lenses. Therefore, I resort to Edward Said, whom Alam considers his “guru”, to adopt the former’s concept of “contrapuntal reading” and apply it on the latter’s translations.
Said theorised contrapuntal reading as a technique of reading the texts of English literature, particularly the novel, to unravel the unrecognised and unarticulated elements of colonisation which are ostensibly absent in those texts. I adopted this technique for reading Alam’s translations to examine the images of death, dread, and darkness in Das’ poetry as the expressions of the poet’s experience as a colonised person. To view translation as an act of interpreting a text, I invoked Frederic Jameson’s formulation that interpretations of literary texts could bring to surface the repressed political unconscious in the narrative. Although Jameson’s theory is essentially a Marxist reading strategy, for my postcolonial materialist reading of Fakrul Alam’s translations, a reworking was necessary. Alam’s translations brought to light the repressed political unconscious in Das’ poetry, giving clue to the poet’s rendition of the grotesques as a result of the material realities of his time under the British Empire.
The first poem of Jibanananda Das that I read in Fakrul Alam’s translations is “An Overwhelming Sensation” (“Bodh”) – a deeply engaging poem that highlights the extraordinary sensibilities of a poet that separate them from the multitude. There are two “dreadful” images in this poem, and the first one is as follows:
In my head!
Walking along beaches – crossing shores
I try to shake it off;
I want to grab it as I would a dead man’s skull
And dash it on the ground; yet, like a live man’s head,
It wheels all around my heart!
(26-31, p. 30)
The image of death and dread in the above quotation reminds me of Shakespeare’s the “grave diggers scene” in Hamlet as well as “Lady Macbeth’s persuasion scene” in Macbeth, although the original poem does not allude to Shakespeare so noticeably. Similarly, the second dreadful image of the poem resonates a Shakespearean diseased imagery in Alam’s translation:
Eyes whose nerves have dried up,
Ears which cannot hear,
And like that hump – a goitre erupting on flesh
Rotten cucumber – putrid pumpkin –
All that have grown rank in the heart –
(101-106, p. 32)
Is it a mere coincidence that Alam’s translations of the above images of death and dread remind me of Shakespeare? Do they have any connection with his academic background of English studies that must have included Shakespeare? It is also not a coincidence that Das himself was a student of English literature, who also pursued a teaching career in English. The colonial connection of English studies in the Indian subcontinent is a historical fact, which occasioned for the poet, the translator, and me to study the Bard, but more important is to note on how the presence of Shakespeare becomes more obvious in Alam’s translation than it is in the original. To me, the dreadful images recreated by Alam reflects the tormented mental state of the colonised poet. If we keep in mind that the original poem was written around the death throes of the colonial rule in India, we cannot overlook the link between these images and colonisation.
“Camping” (“Campe”) is another poem that contains some extremely poignant and dreadful images. In Fakrul Alam’s translation, this poem’s connection with colonisation becomes more recognisable than it is in the original. The poem describes a hunting night in a forest where the speaker of the poem is camping: “Somewhere deer are being hunted this day; / Hunters have moved into the heart of the forest today” (6-7, p. 32). The night for the speaker is both enchanting and mysterious – “a night full of wonders” (60, p. 34), but it turns into a horrible one due to the presence of the hunters. In Alam’s translation, the anxiety of the speaker reflects an acutely sensitive mind of a person who is restless by what is happening around him:
I can sleep no more;
I hear gunshots;
And then more guns firing.
In the moonlight the doe in heat call again.
Lying down here all by myself
I feel a heaviness in my heart
Hearing the doe calling.
(42-50, p. 33-34)
Alam’s use of the words, “gunshots” and “guns firing”, perfectly captures the dreadfulness of the night and clarifies the heaviness of the speaker’s heart. He makes the anxiety of the speaker palpable. As he informs the reader with a footnote at the beginning of the poem, Jibanananda Das wrote this poem as an expression of “the helplessness of life” (p. 32), the above lines represent that helplessness of the speaker.
Interestingly, this is a love poem – seemingly. The speaker compares himself with the fallen lovers of the doe who tempts the stags to come out of their hideouts by calling them passionately but deceivingly to be shot by hunters. According to the speaker, the doe has learnt this art of deception and cruelty from humans: “Lessons she has learnt from humans!” (51-54, p. 34). In Alam’s translation, the cruelty of hunting and the agony of the speaker become obvious:
I hear a double-barreled gun thunder,
The doe in heat keeps calling,
My heart can’t get to sleep
As I lie down all by myself;
(79-82, p. 35)
Here the doe is a symbol of deceptive love. The speaker himself is also a victim of such love. His heart bleeds at the sound of gunfire. The innocent death of the stags reminds him of his own wretched state, but he is aware that he needs to learn how to negotiate with this wretchedness: “Still I must learn to forget sound of guns going off” (83, p. 35). This realisation gives the speaker the composure to reflect on the identity of the hunters:
They who own the double-barreled guns that destroyed the stags this day,
They who brought the relish of deer flesh and bones to their dinner
Are like you –
Lying in camp beds they are drying up their souls
Reflecting on their feast – reminiscing – remembering.
(84-88, p. 35)
The hunters are those who “own the double-barreled guns”. Does it ring a bell? Although the first Mughal Emperor Babur introduced guns in India in the sixteenth century, it is the British who made use of guns the most in the Indian subcontinent. Thus, there is a strong association between the British colonisers and the hunters in this poem.
Alam’s translation brings to surface the repressed political unconscious of the poem. If the poem is an expression of “the helplessness of life”, he heightens that helplessness, demystifying some of the obscurities of the original poem in the process of translating it. He succeeds in recreating the atmosphere of horror that does not let the speaker sleep. The anxiety of the speaker over the helplessness of his fellow people and of the animal world as a whole make us think about the time and place of writing this poem.
The dreadful images of death and dread recreated by Alam using words and phrases like “gunshots”, “guns firing”, and “double-barreled gun thunder” present before us a troubled world where the serenity of the natural world is shattered by the sound of gunshots. Yet, the speaker realises that he needs to negotiate. The colonised also had to negotiate with the colonisers. Therefore, if we situate the poem against the backdrop of its writing during the colonial period from a colonised location, can we overlook its colonial connection? Does Das portray the tormented state of the colonised through this allegorical love poem? This allegory of the hunted existence of the colonised becomes more perceptible than the original through Alam’s interpretative translation – translating as interpreting. Alam’s translated version of the poem reveals the material realities of the poet’s time which are largely concealed by symbols and imageries in the original poem.
To write on the theme of darkness, the poem “Banalata Sen” first comes to my mind, for I consider it as one of the darkest poems by Das. The poem’s darkness is very subtly camouflaged by a tapestry of extraordinary images. Its astonishing popularity as a love poem also often hides the darkness. Alam’s translation largely unveils the camouflage, and brings to light the overwhelming darkness of the poem. In the Bangla version, Das deploys the word “darkness” by somewhat screening it with other associated images and allusions. Alam also does so without using any synonym for “darkness” in his English translation, understandably for not affecting the poetic quality of the poem. As a result, the word “darkness” appears as many as five times in his translation, which is the same number as in the original. Here, the recurrent word has been put on bold typeface.
From Sinhala’s Sea to Malaya’s in night’s darkness,
Was I present; Farther off, in distant Vidarba city’s darkness,
Her hair was full of the darkness of a distant Vidisha night,
Did I see her in darkness; said she, “Where had you been?”
What remains is darkness and facing me – Banalata Sen!
(2, 4, 7, 11, 18, p. 61)
Fakrul Alam does justice to the original while translating this “difficult” poem, and exposes the dominance of darkness in it. Probably any other translator would also keep the word “darkness” the same number of times, but Alam’s success lies in his maintaining a similar artistic sublimity that we find in the original poem. It is evident in his coining or use of the phrases like “the ways of the world”, “ash-grey world”, “foaming ocean”, “the soft sound of dew”, “fireflies light up the world anew”, and “life’s mart close again”. His successful recreation of the images of darkness opens up the opportunity to explore the political potentialities of the poem.
“Darkness” (“Andhakar”) is another poem of overwhelming darkness. Fakrul Alam’s translated version of this poem also testifies my claim of his interpretive translation. He also explains in the introduction of the volume the process of his using self-explanatory words for retaining Bengali names to honour Jibanananda Das’s preference for this: “[t]he sensible option, it appeared to me, was to use Bengali names when an exact English equivalent was not available, and then to use a Bengali word in such a way that the meaning could be conveyed where possible within the line” (p. 21). Alam’s explanatory use of two Hindu mythological rivers’ names in the following lines of “Darkness” may also clarify my point:
I looked up and saw the pale moon withdrawing half of its shadow from that river of death, Vaitarani,
As if gesturing towards the river of mutability, the Kirtanasha. (2-3, p. 72)
Alam supplements the meanings of the rivers by using the phrases “that river of death” and “the river of mutability” before Vaitarani and Kirtanasha respectively, while in the original poem, there is no such explanatory “notes” preceding the rivers’ names, assumingly because the Bengali readers of the poem are supposed to know the names of these mythological rivers, although I think many Bengali readers are also not fully informed of the significance of these rivers. Therefore, Alam’s innovative use of these rivers’ names becomes self-explanatory, without undermining the poetic quality of the lines. Similarly, the following line of the same poem is another example of his explanatory translation: “O Moon whose brightness has faded to a faint blue” (6, p. 72). In this line, the part following “O Moon” is clearly an attempt by the translator to explain the faded colour of the moon. However, Alam’s translation of this poem, like “Banalata Sen”, enhances the deep darkness manifested in the original.
If we go back to the time of publication of the volume Banalata Sen (1942) where the two poems “Banalata Sen” and “Darkness” were included, we can get an explanation to the poet’s obsession with darkness. It was indeed the darkest time for the people of the Indian subcontinent under British colonisers. The colonial rule affected the Bengal province (where Jibanananda Das is from) so severely that it resulted in the worst famine in the subcontinental history in 1943. The Bengal famine of 1943 has been called a “man-made holocaust” by Gideon Polya, for which the then Prime Minister of England Winston Churchill’s policy of hoarding food supplies for the British soldiers fighting in the Second World War by depriving the colonised. Apart from the effects of the famine and the World War, communal conflicts also ravaged the peacefulness and harmony of life in this region. The optimism of anti-colonial movement was soon to be marred by the proposal of partitioning India on the basis of “two-nation theory”. All these must have affected Das while writing “Banalata Sen” or “Darkness”, and Alam’s translations give us a clear view of the unfathomable darkness that engulfed the poet’s world.
In this section, Fakrul Alam’s translations of the poems of Beautiful Bengal [Ruposhi Bangla], one of Jibanananda Das’ most loved poetry collections, will be discussed. The poems of this collection reflect the poet’s deep attachment with his land as well as his meditations on death and reincarnation through picturesque and sensuous portrayals of the flora and fauna and the landscapes of rural Bengal. The first poem of this volume that appears in Alam’s translations reveals the poet’s musings on death. The very title of the poem, “Knowing How These Fields Will Not Be Hushed That Day” (“Shei Din Ei Math”), alludes to the day after the poet’s death. In Alam’s translation, the poet’s sense of grief imagining the day when he will be no more becomes as poignant as it is in the original:
Because I will disappear one day
Won’t dewdrops ever cease to wet chalta flowers
In surges of soft scent?
(4-6, p. 43)
These lines demonstrate the poet’s wistful imaginings of the time after his own death, but at the final stanza of the poem, he perceives death from an objective viewpoint. Alam perfectly captures this transition from subjective to objective, and presents it as authentically as possible:
Quiet lights – moist smells – murmurings everywhere;
Ferryboats moor very close to sandbanks;
These tales of earth live on forever,
Though Assyria in dust – Babylon in ashes – lie.
(9-12, p. 43)
In Alam’s translation, the poet’s contemplation of the inevitability of death and the impermanence of everything, including great civilizations, appear in a perfect state of semblance and equipoise as in the original poem.
“Go Wherever You Want To” (“Tomra Jekhane Shadh”), one of the most famous poems of Beautiful Bengal, bears evidence of the poet’s deep desire to stay eternally in the lap of Bengal amidst its unique beauties, refusing the prospects of moving to elsewhere, especially to any foreign land. The poet asks those fascinated by the attractions of foreign lands to go wherever they want to, but he himself wants to remain in Bengal eternally, justifying his decision by describing its bewitching beauty. Fakrul Alam is at his best as a translator in recreating the sights and sounds of the poet’s beautiful Bengal, where the sestet of the sonnet implies the poet’s eternal connection with this land:
Ready to take her grey-coloured duck to some storyland –
As if the smell of Paran’s tale is sticking to her soft flesh,
As if she has risen from her underwater kalmi reed abode –
Silently leaving herself in water once – then disappearing
Into the fog far, far away – but I know I’ll never lose sight of her
Even in the press of the world – for she is in my Bengal evermore.
(9-14, p. 44)
Apparently, this poem is free from the heaviness of death imageries, but a close examination may bring to surface the poet’s embedded desires for death and rebirth. His yearning for remaining in Bengal eternally is only possible through his reincarnation in this land after his death.
The poem “I Have Seen Bengal’s Face” (“Banglar Mukh Ami Dekhiyachhi”), another sonnet of Beautiful Bengal, further justifies the poet’s decision to stay in Bengal for good and to go nowhere else. In his translation of the poem, Alam shows outstanding artistic skills to emulate the aesthetic and poetic beauty of the original. The octave quoted below may clarify my point:
I have seen Bengal’s face, and seek no more,
The world has not anything more beautiful to show me.
Waking up in darkness, gazing at the fig-tree, I behold
Dawn’s swallows roosting under huge umbrella-like leaves.
I look all around me and discover a leafy dome,
Jam kanthal bat hijol aswatha trees all in a hush,
Shadowing clumps of cactus and zeodary bushes.
When long, long ago, Chand came in his honeycombed boat
To a blue Hijal Bat Tamal shade near the Champa, he too sighted
Bengal’s incomparable beauty.
(1-9, p. 49)
Alam’s innovative use of native tress and legends appear as spontaneously and effectively as possible to make the piece apprehensible to non-native readers. The poem gestures to the poet’s desire to glorify his land and culture, and Alam’s translation further accomplishes that glorification.
The poet’s desire for rebirth in Bengal is emphatically expressed in the poem “Beautiful Bengal” (“Abar Ashibo Phire”). Since the poems of the Beautiful Bengal are untitled, the first line of each poem is mostly accepted as the titles of the poems in Bangla original. Fakrul Alam also mostly follows this tradition, but often makes use of his freedom as a translator to change the title. The title of this poem “Beautiful Bengal” in Alam’s translation is another example of his applying that freedom. Perhaps he translates the title so differently from the “original” title, which could be something like “I Will Come Again”, to emphasise the extraordinary popularity of the poem that could easily be rendered as the titular poem of the volume. While I agree with this position, I feel it is deviating from the sense of reincarnation that the “original” title evokes. However, Alam does not deviate from the idea of return used as a refrain in the whole poem, and maintains the same stature as a translator that I find him in most other poems. I quote first few lines of the poem to support my view:
I’ll come again to the banks of the Dhanshiri – to this land
Perhaps not as a human – maybe as a white-breasted
shankachil or a yellow-beaked shalik;
Or as a morning crow I’ll return to this late autumnal rice-harvest laden land,
Wafting on the fog’s bosom I’ll float one day into the jackfruit tree shade;
(1-4, p. 51)
This poem can be read as a companion piece to the two other poems I have discussed above: “Go Wherever You Want To”, and “I Have Seen Bengal’s Face”. The idea of reincarnation and the feeling of an inseparable connection with the homeland reverberate in these poems with exquisite descriptions of the beauty of Bengal.
The poems of Beautiful Bengal are perhaps most passionate “postcolonial poems” by Jibanananda Das, where he glorifies his native land and culture as an attempt to recuperate the damages done to those by colonials. Fakrul Alam’s translations bring to surface the repressed postcoloniality of these poems by making the poet’s postcolonial sensibility more prominent than they are in the originals. Das’s deep rootedness in his land and culture expressed in the poems of Beautiful Bengal exemplifies his unequivocal stand on the question of belonging. During a time when the colonial effects occasioned for many of his contemporaries to leave their homelands and embrace diaspora identities, Das’s unwavering utterance like “Go Wherever You Want To” reflects his resistance to colonization. It remains as a source of inspiration for many in the days to come, particularly at the wake globalization when the lure of a transnational identity complicates the questions of home and belonging.
In the final section of the essay one of Jibanananda Das’ most overtly time conscious poem entitled “1946-47” will be discussed. As the title suggests, this poem reflects Das’ deep observations on the contemporary sociopolitical issues of his time during and preceding the year of partition of India. Fakrul Alam adds a brief note to the poem to brief his readers the poem’s background. I find that note as a very helpful starting point for those who are not informed of the history of the Indian subcontinent. I quote it entirely to demonstrate how meticulous Alam is to make his translations comprehensive as well as comprehensible, particularly for non-native readers:
” “1946-47” is the longest poem by Jibanananda Das that I have translated and is one of his most impressive meditations on contemporary history. In it, he broods on the communal strife, chaos, and diasporas that accompanied the partition of India in general and Bengal in particular. Das himself had been uprooted by historical events, and had moved from the Muslim majority district of Barisal to Calcutta, where Hindus were in a majority. But Calcutta too was in tumult and riven by religious riots; the names and places mentioned in the poem represent Hindus and Muslims and localities associated with these communities.“(p. 115)
With this note, the translated version of the poem becomes self-explanatory and more transmissible than the original, but it may surprise one that neither Das nor Alam directly mention the culpability of the colonization for the tumultuous historical events that the poem foregrounds. Perhaps both of them skip this deliberately, for the role of the British colonisers is too obvious to mention.
The long history of colonial rule culminated in the partition of India, which was preceded and followed by communal riots and dispersion of people from their homelands, resulting in deaths, dreads, and destructions. Therefore, the poem is replete with images of dead, dread, and darkness that best describe the time it represents. In Alam’s translation, the horror of human atrocities becomes as poignant as in the original:
Somewhere someone’s house will be auctioned off now,
Possibly for a song!
And so you must cheat everyone else
And be the first to reach heaven!.
Thousands of Bengali villages, drowned in disillusionment and
benighted, have become silenced.
The children now are close to death, trampled
By ignorant exhausted rulers of an era of misgovernment;
Their ancestors had once laughed and loved and played,
And had gone to rest in dark after raising permanently
The swing landlords had them make from tall trees for charak festivals.
They were not that well off then; yet compared to present-day villagers,
Blinded and tattered by famines, riots, darkness and ignorance,
They lived in a distinct and clear world.
Is everything indistinct today? It is difficult to speak or think well now;
The rule is to keep everyone in the dark, full of half-truths;
The practice is to infer the other half of truth
All by yourself in the dark; all are suspicious of each other.
(3-6, 31, 49-60, p. 115-17)
The implications of the lines I have quoted above from Fakrul Alam’s translation of the poem “1946-47” are so obvious that they do not require further explanation. Das’ political consciousness is relatively more apparent here than his most other poems. In Alam’s translation, that political consciousness resonates very loudly. Like a typical postcolonial poet, Das highlights the miseries caused by colonial rule, comparing the present with a “better” past. While making this comparison, he refers to the exploitative system called “Permanent Settlement of Bengal” introduced by Earl Cornwallis on behalf of the East India Company in 1793 to settle a deal between the Company and the landlords, causing enormous oppression and deprivation for the peasants and those at the margins. Fakrul Alam aptly explains this reference with a footnote that “[t]here is an allusion here to the system introduced by Lord Cornwallis in colonial Bengal in 1793 which created a class of landlords and let to the impoverishments of peasants” (p. 116). Notes like this and the glossary he has added to the volume makes the poems very much accessible not only to the non-native readers but also the native readers of the translations.
In fine, I repeat that translating is a process of explaining a text, and often it is on the discretion of the translator how explanatory the translation would be. In the case of Fakrul Alam’s translations of Jibanananda Das’ poetry, sometimes his attempts to explain the texts are explicit. He even points out where the intertextuality of a particular poem is quite obvious by quoting some lines from the “original” poem that inspired Das to write that poem. In my discussion, I have so far deliberately avoided this point of intertextuality because I find those poems so authentic in expression that the “originals” seem to replicate those, but it is an important point that I cannot avoid altogether. The Western “influence” on Das’ poetry indicates the Western education and culture in which he was exposed to through colonization. As a poet, he and his contemporaries of Bangla poetry were “benefited” from that exposure, which makes it clear that to oppose European colonisation or Western imperialism does not necessarily mean to reject their artistic, cultural, literary, or scientific achievements. But it is also not to be forgotten that the artistic, cultural, or literary matters were often used by the colonizers to maintain their hegemonic dominance by relegating the same originating from the native societies to an inferior status. In Orientalism (1978), Edward Said categorically explains the basis of cultural supremacy of the European that prompted them to colonize. Therefore, a critical awareness is necessary to approach those even at this age of the so-called postcolonial period. In the case of Jibanananda Das, whereas he mostly succeeded in maintaining his originality while writing poetry being inspired by Western poets, many of his contemporaries merely imitated them as blind devotees, which makes him truly “a poet apart”. However, Fakrul Alam’s all-encompassing translations help his readers to access the poems with much ease than it is in the case of the originals, foregrounding the repressed political unconscious of the poems. And in spite of this “explanatory translating”, he succeeds exceedingly in maintaining the poetic qualities of his translations, and that makes the volume so special.
Ratnottama Sengupta recaptures a time when as a teenager she witnessed a war that was fought to retain a culture
I was startled by the greeting. I was sixteen-going-on-seventeen and — en route to Darjeeling — I was visiting Malda, my ‘Mamabari’ where my mother lived until she was married at sixteen-just-turned-seventeen. I had just finished my school finals in ‘Bombai’ and was enjoying the long summer break with my school friend Swapna, my paternal didi, Tandra, and my maternal didi, Nanda. My Mama’s son, Shyamal, and his friend, Subhash, had graciously taken upon them the onus of taking us around Gaur, Pandua and Adina. All these are relics of the historical capitals that hark back to a glorious Bengal long past and — for most Indians – lost in oblivion. And here, in the 12-gate mosque of Baroduari, they were singing paeans to the Shahs and Sens and Pals of a medieval Bengal!
I was soon to face history-in-the-making. For, the rectangular brick and stone structure with three aisles, eleven arched openings, and so-many-times-that domes, built sometime in the 16th century and now in the care of Archeological Survey of India, was teeming with barely-clad men women and kids who were fleeing on a daily(or hourly?)-basis the gola-barood of the Razakars – the paramilitary force General Tikka Khan had unleashed in the eastern wing of Pakistan. This was May of 1971 and, even in the apolitical clime of the tinsel town in Bombay, we knew that the Pakistani President Yahya Khan was hounding supporters of the Awami League leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
I was therefore thrilled to hear the boom-boom-boom periodically rupturing the hazy horizon in the distant. Was it the spiteful army goons or was it the guerrillas fighting back? “How wonderful it would be to meet some of them!” the romantic in me spoke aloud to the red-eyed men and women who had greeted me with ‘Joy Bangla!’
“Don’t!” Shyamal Da and Subhash drew me aside. “Don’t get close to them – don’t you see they have all got ‘joy bangla’?”
“So what?!” I retaliated, “They are all infected with the love for their country – that’s why they are saying ‘Joy Bangla’! Isn’t that good!”
“No, they are all infected with conjunctivitis – it is highly infectious and spreading rapidly in the camps. So now, not only in Malda but all through West Bengal, ‘joy bangla’ is the name for conjunctivitis.”
Mangoes. Raw, green, going yellow-orange-red. Stretch out your hand, pluck them off the tree, hit hard on them with your fist and bite into the sour-sweet flesh… But we girls failed to emulate what Shyamal and Subhash could do with such ease on our way to Singhabad, the last stop for our trains this side of the border in that part of Bengal. Nevertheless, the fragrances of Amrapali, Moutuski, Kishanbog and Fazli remain fresh in my memory years after Shyamal, Nandadi, Swapna, Tandradi have all followed Bangobandhu to a borderless land beyond the clouds.
Singhabad is where my mother Kanaklata owned some 27 bighas of cultivable land inherited from her father: Chandrakanta Ghosh had, in 1940s, apportioned plots to his city dwelling daughters, Malati and Ranjita too, worried that they might face difficulties if their ‘job-dependent’ husbands lost their all to the Partition! He had reasons to worry. He had exchanged most of his land in Dinajpur but the daughters were married into families that had their base in Dhaka, Munshigunj and Kustia. Before you turn to your Google Guru let me tell you – all these were part of East Bengal and are now in Bangladesh.
Much later, in 2001, I would understand my grandfather’s angst when centurion Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal told me in Delhi: “This part of the subcontinent has seen three partitions – in 1905, 1947 and 1971.” The doyen of modernism in Indian painting, who had moved from Calcutta to Lahore in his youth and from Lahore to Delhi in 1947, had brought alive another chapter of history that most of us in India or Bangladesh don’t often recall. Yes, in 1905 the ‘territorial reorganisation’ of the Bengal Presidency by Lord Curzon was said to be for “better administration” since Bengal, for centuries, was spread right up to Burma in the East and well into Assam and Tripura in the North-East, into Bihar and Jharkhand in the West and in the South to Odissa. Noted: but why did it have to be along religious lines, separating the ‘Muslim-dominated’ areas from the ‘Hindu-majority’ ones? Because together the Hindus and Muslims had taken up arms against the goras in 1857, and starting from Barrackpore the mutiny had spread to Lucknow, Jhansi, Gwalior, Meerut, Delhi… After 1857, the last Mughal Badshah, 82-year-old Bahadur Shah Zafar, had to be exiled in Rangoon while in 1885 the last emperor of Burma, Thibaw Min, was forced to live in exile at Ratnagiri…
If it were not so tragic, it would have been ludicrous, this ‘exchange’ of emperors.
Nandadi’s brother, Nirjhar, now 79, vividly recalls crossing the newly defined boundary to come away for good from Meherpur, in Dinajpur of East Bengal, to Malda with his mother — my aunt — Pramila, his three-year-old sister, Nanda, and a just-born brother, Nirmal. “We were coming in three bullock carts: the first one driven by a certain Mongra carried our eldest Mama, his wife Charulata and youngest son Subrata; and the last had our younger Mama’s wife Gayatri, son Suvendu and daughter Maitreyi. Many people were coming just like us, there was no knowledge of the word ‘Passport’ and no concept of ‘Visa’. Since our Dadu – maternal grandfather Chandra Kanta – had to stay back to wind up things after us, he took us to a dear friend of his, a Muslim named Sukardi Chowdhury, in Anarpur and asked him to accompany us since he had a gun.
“He was to reach us to Jagannathpur where Dadu had built a house on the newly exchanged land just six kilometers away from Meherpur. Sukardi Chowdhury lived two kilometers from the border but we had to cross river Punarbhaba on a boat and then we followed the road along the railway line. All of a sudden, we were startled by a piercing cry in a female voice. ‘Who is this? Who goes there?’ demanded Sukardi Chowdhury. He climbed on to the railway track and witnessed some miscreants harassing a woman. He fired his gun in the air and the rascals fled. He walked up to the woman and found that the malefactors had bitten off the nipples of the woman who was bleeding and writhing in pain.
“Sukardi Chowdhury had a gamchha tied around his head like a bandana. He took it off and wound it around the chest of the victim. He advised her companions to go along the railway track straight to Singhabad station, take a train to Malda and seek medical aid there. ‘That will save your life,’ he assured her. I will never forget.” Incidentally Nirjhar’s father, Makhan Chandra Ghosh, did not cross the border until 1980. Along with his ageing mother he had stayed back to care for his widowed sister since their land further inside Dinajpur could not be exchanged.
This 27-acre land in Singhabad adjacent to the No-Man’s Land on the Bangladesh border was so dear to Kanaklata that she would not hear a word about selling it off although she lived far away with her husband, Nabendu, who was busy scripting films. “One should never forget one’s roots,” she told me in 1971 when she went around with a donation-book raising chanda for the Bangla refugees. She was delighted when – later – the government of India issued Refugee Relief stamps that had to be affixed to every letter, be it a postcard, an envelope, or an inland letter. Was it because deep within she identified with the uprooted people who were forced by history to cross borders?
Ma’s love for her land had, perhaps, infected us. When she passed on in 1999, we dispersed her ashes in the pond on this land. In 2007, before my son, Devottam, was to depart for higher studies abroad, he visited this innermost corner of his land. In 2017, when Ma would have turned ninety, my husband, Debasis, celebrated by planting mango trees around the pond and released fish, the sales of which now pays for a Durga Puja on the land. Yet, just last December, we severed our formal ties by selling off the ‘two-acre land.’ But no, Kanaklata is not forgotten by the men and women – many of whom studied in the school she helped set up long before government aid came their way. They are setting up a temple in her memory…
But hang on friends, that’s not the end of my story, “picture abhi baaki hai!”
On December 13, 1971, Tandra’s elder sister Chhanda got married. She came from Patna where Nabendu’s brother lived; the groom, Animesh, came from Delhi. But Kanaklata had organised everything in Bombay, in the same house in Malad where our family has lived since 1951. This Goan-style bungalow had a garden surrounding it and this tiny ‘lawn’ was to be the wedding venue. However, ten days before the event when the invitations had gone out and the baratis had already booked their tickets, aerial strikes on Indian air stations led to an all-out war with Pakistan.
This was ominous for many reasons. Six years before this, during another war with Pakistan, my grandfather had passed away in August 1965. This time around, the mighty Seventh Fleet of the USA had entered the Bay of Bengal to support Pakistan in the war. Sirens were being sounded at regular intervals and we joked that – since both the bride and the groom were trained musicians – these sirens were ‘replacing’ shehnai by Bismillah and party. Why? Because the police showed up to warn us that no conch shells or ululations that mark traditional revelry at Bengali weddings were to be sounded — and not even a single ray of light should evade the black-cloth-wrapped pandal that had to be erected to cover the house!
Ill omens? Never mind. You can’t stop a wedding because a war was on! All the Bengali families of Bollywood united that evening to celebrate with bated breath. And on December 16, when the bride was being formally inducted into the groom’s family in Delhi over the sumptuous meal of Boubhat, news came that General Niazi of Pakistan had surrendered to General Jagjit Singh Arora of India.
So Vijay Diwas is one day that unites India and Bangladesh in celebrating its actual secession from Pakistan. “Joy Bangla!” – we all said as Chhanda and Animesh led a chorus that sang,
Aamar Sonar Bangla, aami tomay bhalobashi!*
Oh my glittering Bengal, I love you…
Didi – elder sister
Mama – mother’s brother
golaa-barood — ammunition
Amrapali, Moutuski, Kishanbog and Fazli – Varities of mango
bighas – acres
goras – whites
Badshah — Emperor
chanda – donations
picture abhi baaki hai – The movie is still not over
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
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