Sriniketan: Tagore’s “Life Work”: In Conversation with Professor Uma Das Gupta, Tagore scholar, author of A History of Sriniketan, where can be glimpsed what Tagore considered his ‘life’s work’ as an NGO smoothening divides between villagers and the educated. Click here to read.
These stories are written by youngsters from the Nithari village who transcended childhood trauma and deprivation. The column starts with a story, Stranger than Fiction from Sharad Kumar in Hindustani, translated to English by Grace M Sukanya. Click here to read.
P Ravi Shankar takes us through a breakfast feast around the world. Click here to read.
Musings of a Copywriter
In Life without a Pet, Devraj Singh Kalsi gives a humorous take on why he does not keep a pet. Clickhere to read.
Notes from Japan
In Bridging Cultures through Music, author Suzanne Kamata introduces us to Masaki Nakagawa, a YouTuber who loves Lativia and has made it big, playing for the President of Lativia at the Japanese coronation. Click here to read.
Ratnottama Sengupta writes of a time a palace called Bardhaman House became the centre of a unique tryst against cultural hegemony. The Language Movement of 1952 that started in Dhaka led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In 1999, UNESCO recognised February 21 as the Mother Language Day. Click here to read.
As the world celebrates Valentine’s Day, one pauses to think how far commercialisation has seeped in over time that the very concept of a tender emotion was questioned by Tina Turner in a song called, “What’s love got to do with it” nearly four decades ago.
This was written even before Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) published a nostalgic memoir of 1930’s Santiniketan in Bengali in 2001. She raised her pen to ask the very pertinent question that is quoted above. Why is education in love not a part of our curriculum anymore? She was reminiscing about her days in Santiniketan where children were brought up with rigorous academics while discipline was coloured with love and affection. They nurtured a love for nature in students too. This has become a rarity for many and perhaps needs to be revived as the Earth struggles to continue habitable for humankind. In the process of educating students to love and give, Santiniketan threw up many greats like the writer herself. We are delighted to host an excerpt from the start of Our Santiniketan translated beautifully by Radha Chakravarty.
Santiniketan was only the very visible part of a huge project taken on by Tagore (1861-1941). The other part now united with Santiniketan under the banner of Visva Bharati University is Sriniketan, a group of villages where Tagore experimented with raising consciousness and standards of villagers to integrate them into a larger world. He brought in new techniques in agriculture and crafts into the villages under this programme involving many prominent scientists, artists and humanists. And the project has blossomed. Did you know Tagore thought of himself as an NGO and his ‘life work’ he felt was developing villages (Sriniketan) and educating young minds to build a world where borders of knowledge, poverty and ignorance could be smoothened?
He wrote: “I alone cannot take responsibility for the whole of India. But even if two or three villages can be freed from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established.
“Fulfill this ideal in a few villages only, and I will say that these few villages are my India. And only if that is done, will India be truly ours.”
All this can be found in a book called A History of Sriniketan (Niyogi Books), written by Uma Das Gupta, a major authority on Tagore who moved from Oxford to Santiniketan and made Tagore’s work in these two institutions her own life’s work. We have featured her and her book in our interview/review section.
Raised out of such ashes of poverty that Tagore sought to dispel, are youngsters from the village of Nithari, where ceaseless efforts by volunteers of organisations like Saksham and pandies’ has given a new lease for life to those who have been exposed to violations, violence, divides, poverty and deprivation. One of them, Sharad Kumar, now studying to be an engineer, kicks off our new section called Pandies’ Corner with his story in Hindustani translated by a volunteer, Grace M Sukanya. His story learns from history and shows rather than tells.
A similar approach to view the present through lenses focussed on the past at a much grander scale has been taken by Shazi Zaman, an author and journalist, who has stepped into the Anglophone world with the transcreation of his own novel from Hindi to English, Akbar, A Novel of History (Speaking Tiger Books). He has brought to the fore how in days when sectarian violence based on religions killed, Akbar (1542-1605) tried to create a new path that would lead to peace so that he could rule over an empire united by administration and not broken by contentious religious animosities which often led to wars. In his interview, he tells us of the relevance of the Great Mughal in a period of history that was torn by divides, divisions so deep that they continue to smoulder to this day and date. That history repeats itself is evident though our living standards seem to improve over time. Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Growing up Jewish in India: Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin, edited by Ori Z. Soltes, also reinforces these divides and amalgamations in the modern context. The other books that have been reviewed include The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloudby Indrashish Banerjee, and Gracy Samjetsabam has introduced us to an intriguing murder mystery in Masala and Murder by Patrick Lyons.
Ratnottama Sengupta has also paid a moving tribute to the music legend, Lata Mangeshkar, who died at the age of 92 on 6th February, 2022. The choral symphony of multiple voices that hums through the paean recreating the larger than life presence of Lata reinforces that her lilting voice will stay embedded in many hearts and lives forever. Her perfect honing of musical skills delivered with the right emotions make her an epitome of human excellence. She gave the best of herself to the world.
Wrapped in more dry humour is Devraj Singh Kalsinarrative on why he does not want pets. Meredith Stephens, on the contrary loves pets and sails the seas of West Australia with her camera, words, seals and dolphins. Luke PG Draper also speaks for animals — for the intrusion of pollutants that harm creatures like whales in his short story. Hop all over the world with Ravi Shankar breaking nightly fasts with food from different cultures. More colour is brought in by Suzanne Kamata who starts a new column, Notes from Japan — introducing us to Japanese sensation, Masaki Nakagawa, who has sung his way to hearts with Lativian songs that he loves, so much so that he got to perform at the Japanese coronation and has pictures with the Latvian President.
The time has come to let you discover the mysterious pieces that have not been mentioned here in the February edition — and there are many.
Before I wind up till the next month, I would like to thank our fabulous team who make this journal possible. Keith Lyons has now become part of that team and has graciously joined our editorial board. Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious deserve a special kudos for their fabulous artwork. Our grateful, heartfelt thanks to all our wonderful contributors and readers who keep the journal alive.
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.
Commemorating fifty years of Bangladesh which struggled for the right to freedom from oppression and succeeded finally on 16th December, 1971
Bengal went through three Partitions, the final one being in 1971, when Bangladesh came to be its own entity. The first Partition of Bengal was in 1905, when Lord Curzon sliced it along the lines of faith, which as Ratnottama Sengupta points out in her musing was the result of the colonial policy of divide and rule implemented along religious lines for earlier when Hindus and Muslims had combined forces against colonials, it took a year to quell the revolt of 1857. Due to opposition from many, including Tagore, the colonials were forced to revoke the Partition in 1911.
In 1947, the subcontinent was again divided along religious lines. So, technically, there was Pakistan and India. Pakistan included East (Bengal) and West. As Fakrul Alam tells us in his essay, the Bengalis resented the imposition of Urdu by Pakistan. After a struggle of three decades, and a war in which India supported East Pakistan and America supported West Pakistan, Bangladesh gained complete independence in 1971 with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of the country, at its helm.
We present to you a glimpse of this part of history as told by various contributors on our forum.
Professor Fakrul Alam, the translator of Bongobondhu (friend of Bengal) Mujibur Rahman’s autobiography, to takes us on a journey to the inception of Bangladesh and beyond. Click here to read the interview.
Aruna Chakravarti reviews Golden Bangladesh at 50: Contemporary Stories & Poemseditedby Shazia Omar, bringing to focus the Partition between 1905-1911. She also explains the story of the creation of Aamar Shonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal, the Bangladesh National Anthem) by Tagore around this period. Click here to read.
InBridge over Troubled Waters, academic Sanjay Kumar tells us about Pandies, an activist theatre group founded by him that educates, bridging gaps between the divides of University educated and the less fortunate who people slums or terror zones. Click here to read.
In Lessons Old and New from a Stray Japanese Cat, Keith Lyons talks with the author of The Cat with Three Passports, CJ Fentiman who likes the anonymity loaned by resettling in new places & enjoys creating a space for herself away from her birthplace. Click hereto read.
With Christmas at our heels and the world waking up slowly from a pandemic that will hopefully become an endemic as the Omicron seems to fizzle towards a common cold, we look forward to a new year and a new world. Perhaps, our society will evolve to become one where differences are accepted as variety just as we are fine with the fact that December can be warm or cold depending on the geography of the place. People will be welcomed even if of different colours and creed. The commonality of belonging to the same species will override all other disparities…
While we have had exciting developments this year and civilians have moved beyond the Earth — we do have a piece on that by Candice Louisa Daquin — within the planet, we have become more aware of the inequalities that exist. We are aware of the politics that seems to surround even a simple thing like a vaccine for the pandemic. However, these two years dominated by the virus has shown us one thing — if we do not rise above petty greed and create a world where healthcare and basic needs are met for all, we will suffer. As my nearly eighty-year-old aunt confided, even if one person has Covid in a remote corner of the world, it will spread to all of us. The virus sees no boundaries. This pandemic was just a start. There might be more outbreaks like this in the future as the rapacious continue to exploit deeper into the wilderness to accommodate our growing greed, not need. With the onset of warmer climates — global warming and climate change are realities — what can we look forward to as our future?
Que sera sera — what will be, will be. Though a bit of that attitude is necessary, we have become more aware and connected. We can at least visualise changes towards a more egalitarian and just world, to prevent what happened in the past. It would be wonderful if we could act based on the truth learnt from history rather than to overlook or rewrite it from the perspective of the victor and use that experience to benefit our homes, planet and all living things, great and small. In tune with our quest towards a better world, we have an interview with an academic, Sanjay Kumar, founder of a group called Pandies, who use theatre to connect the world of haves with have-nots. What impressed me most was that they have actually put refugees and migrant workers on stage with their stories. They even managed to land in Kashmir and work with children from war-torn zones. They have travelled and travelled into different dimensions in quest of a better world. Travelling is what our other interviewee did too — with a cat who holds three passports. CJ Fentiman, author of The Cat with Three Passports, has been interviewed by Keith Lyons, who has reviewed her book too.
This time we have the eminent Aruna Chakravarti review Devika Khanna Narula’sBeyond the Veils, a retelling of the author’s family history. Perhaps, history has been the common thread in our reviews this time. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Anirudh Kala’sTwo and a Half Rivers, a fiction that focusses on the Sikh issues in 1980s India from a Dalit perspective. It brought to my mind a family saga I had been recently re-reading, Alex Haley’s Roots, which showcased the whole American Revolution from the perspective of slaves brought over from Africa. Did the new laws change the fates of the slaves or Dalits? To an extent, it did but the rest as fact and fiction showcase were in the hands that belonged to the newly freed people. To enable people to step out of the cycle of poverty, the right attitudes towards growth and the ability to accept the subsequent changes is a felt need. That is perhaps where organisations like Pandies step in. Another non-fiction which highlights history around the same period and place as Kala’s novel is BP Pande’sIn the Service of Free India –Memoirs of a Civil Servant. Reviewed by Bhaskar Parichha, the book explores the darker nuances of human history filled with violence and intolerance.
That violence is intricately linked to power politics has been showcased often. But, what would be really amazing to see would be how we could get out of the cycle as a society. With gun violence being an accepted norm in one of the largest democracies of the world, perhaps we need to listen to the voice of wisdom found in the fiction by Steve Davidson who meets perhaps a ghost in Hong Kong. Musing over the ghost’s words, the past catches up in Sunil Sharma’s story, ‘Walls’. Sharma has also given us a slice from his life in Canada with its colours, vibrancy and photographs of the fall. As he emigrated to Canada, we read of immigrants in Marzia Rahman’s touching narrative. She has opted to go with the less privileged just as Lakshmi Kannan has opted to go with the privileged in her story.
Sharma observes, while we find the opulence of nature thrive in places people inhabit in Canada, it is not so in Asia. I wonder why? Why are Asian cities crowded and polluted? There was a time when Los Angeles and London suffered smogs. Has that shifted now as factories relocated to Asia, generating wealth in currency but taking away from nature’s opulence of fresh, clean air as more flock into crowded cities looking for sustenance?
Humour is introduced into the short story section with Sohana Manzoor’s hilarious rendering of her driving lessons in America, lessons given to foreigners by migrants. Rhys Hughes makes for more humour with a really hilarious rendition of men in tea cosies missing their…I think ‘TrouserHermit’ will tell you the rest. He has perhaps more sober poetry which though imaginative does not make you laugh as much as his prose. Michael Burch has shared some beautiful poetry perpetuating the calmer nuances of a deeply felt love and affection. George Freek, Anasuya Bhar, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Dibyajyoti Sarma have all given us wonderful poetry along with many others. One could write an essay on each poem – but as we are short shrift for time, we move on to travel sagas from hiking in Australia and hobnobbing with kangaroos to renovated palaces in Bengal.
While mostly we hear of sad stories related to marriages, we have a sunny one in which Alpana finds much in a marriage that runs well with wisdom learnt from Kung Fu Panda. Devraj Singh Kalsi has given us a philosophical piece with his characteristic touch of irony laced with humour on statues. If you are wondering what he could have to say, have a read.
In Nature’s Musings, Penny Wilkes has offered us prose and wonderful photographs of the last vestiges of autumn. As the season hovers between summer and winter, geographical boundaries too can get blurred at times. A nostalgic recap given by Ratnottama Sengupta along the borders of Bengal, which though still crossed by elephants freely in jungles (wild elephants do not need visas, I guess), gained an independence from the harshness of cultural hegemony on December 16th, 1971. Candice Louisa Daquin has also looked at grey zones that lie between sanity and insanity in her column. An essay which links East and West has been given to us by Rakibul Hasan about a poet who mingles the two in his poetry. A Bengali song by Tagore, Purano shei diner kotha, that is almost a perfect trans creation of Robert Burn’s Scottish Auld Lang Syne in the spirit of welcoming the New Year, has been transcreated to English. The similarity in the content of the two greats’ lyrics showcase the commonalities of love, friendship and warmth that unite all cultures into one humanity.
Our first translation from Uzbekistan – a story by Sherzod Artikov, translated from Uzbeki by Nigora Mukhammad — gives a glimpse of a culture that might be new to many of us. Akbar Barakzai’s shorter poems, translated by Fazal Baloch from Balochi and Ratnottama Sengupta’s transcreation of a Tagore song, Rangiye Die Jao, have added richness to our oeuvre along with one from Korean by Ihlwha Choi. Professor Fakrul Alam, who is well-known for his translation of poetry by Jibonanda Das, has started sharing his work on the Bengali poet with us. Pause by and take a look.
There is much more than what I can put down here as we have a bumper end of the year issue this December. There is a bit of something for all times, tastes and seasons.
I would like to thank my wonderful team for helping put together this issue. Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious need double thanks for their lovely artwork that is showcased in our magazine. We are privileged to have committed readers, some of who have started contributing to our content too. A huge thanks to all our contributors and readers for being with us through our journey.
I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful transition into the New Year! May we open up to a fantastic brave, new world!
Hasan Azizul Huq (1939-2021), one of the leading Bangladeshi writers, passed away on 15 November 2021, leaving behind him an exceptional body of works. He was mainly a short story writer, but he also wrote three novels and many essays. His first book, Samudrer Swapna (Dream of the Ocean), Shiter Aranya (Winter Garden) a collection of short stories, was published in 1964. Each volume he published since then contributed to cementing his position as one of the most powerful writers of Bangla literature. Therefore, he is supposed to be remembered for long, at least as long as there will be those who care about the lives of the people whose stories he wrote. I wish I could say that he will be always remembered. I sincerely wish that, but the grim reality is that the number of those who care about the lives of the people whose stories he narrated is disconcertingly decreasing. Whose stories did he narrate? Simply put, he wrote the stories of suffering humanity – the oppressed, people at the margins, the outcasts, and most prominently, the victims of the Partition of India.
Huq was not a popular writer in the typical sense; rather, I would say that he was one of the most “unpopular” writers of Bangla literature. This statement may sound outrageous to those who hold him dear to their hearts for the irresistible attraction of his writings, but I consider them the most endangered species as readers, precariously hanging on the verge of extinction. My premonition is that Huq will be mostly forgotten within a not-so-long-time because there will be very few readers left worthy of his works.
On the other hand, the type of society we are heading towards will consciously and cunningly make him irrelevant, and this process has already started. Huq will soon be considered as a dangerous writer, neither because he is extremely revolutionary nor because he is uncompromisingly rebellious, but because his writings make people think, and thinking is a very dangerous activity. Thinking people are considered dangerous for social harmony and progress, and in future they will be treated as criminals. Even so, there will be some such criminals who will try to read him, but ultimately they will throw his books away with utter disgust and horror because his writings, be it a short story, a novel, or an essay, will inevitably fill their minds with profound shame and guilt for being complicit in perpetuating the suffering of those whose stories he wrote. Since hypocritical and insensitive readers will not be able to read him, gradually his works will lose readership in the days to come.
I can imagine how disbelievingly and contemptuously such a dark vision of the future will be received by Huq’s present readers, admirers, and family members. Huq himself would definitely disagree with me, for he had faith in people and their indomitable spirit as we can see it in so many of his characters, perhaps most notably in the character of the old woman in Agunpakhi (Firebird). But I am very optimistic about my pessimism, and think that such a dispassionately passionate writer like Huq will hardly find any reader in future. Some of his works, of course, will be read, especially those which have already got “classic” status in Bangla literature, but his overall readership will be miserably poor contrasting with his greatness. The smart generation of the smart age will spend their time smartly on their smartphones, smart TVs, smart cards, and all the other smart things that the world has to offer them, rather than troubling themselves with the works of a writer who is not that smart. They will hardly find any interest and time to read an “unsmart” and “unpleasant” writer like Huq.
Huq is in his distinct way a truly unpleasant writer, and he never tried to please anybody by his writing, neither readers nor the people in power. This quality makes him different from many writers. Another reason of his unpopularity is his persistence in using Partition as a recurring theme. Probably this particular feature of his works draws more attention in West Bengal than in Bangladesh, for partition is largely a subject matter of distant past for most Bangladeshis, grossly overshadowed by the more recent memories of the liberation war in 1971.
The oppressive rule of Pakistan period from 1947 to 1971 and the struggle for national liberation of the then East Pakistanis resulted in the general amnesia of Partition memories for the post-liberation generation. This is why, many of Huq’s readers, especially those who are a product of the de-historicising process that dominates our culture and curriculum, struggle to connect with his themes. The paradox that pervades the national imagination of the Bangladeshis in general is that they imagine Partition as a distant and altogether different phenomenon residing outside of their “national” issues. Against this backdrop of the general amnesia of Partition memories, Huq’s writings on the theme are like slaps of words to recuperate a recall of the bitter past. And who likes to be slapped?
Yet, there are those who know how overwhelmingly enchanting Huq’s writings are, and they can derive pleasure from the “unpleasant”. Probably here lies the hope. The future of Huq’s readership may not be so bleak after all! However, the opposite of what I feared will not happen automatically, unless some conscious effort is made by those who really care about his works. We should bear in mind that Huq is a type of writer who “educates” his readers in the process of reading him. So, if a reader can overcome the primary challenge of dealing with his unique style of writing and his “weighty” subject matters, they will eventually emerge as a competent reader to relish his works. Therefore, it is important to create an atmosphere that general readers might become more interested in reading his works.
To this end, it is immensely important to create a culture of critical engagement with the works of Huq. Academics and literary critics are the first who should come forward to invest their time on his works and communicate their readings with general readers. Along with them, translators are those magicians who can really give an appropriate afterlife to his works. To prove ourselves worthy of what he has left behind for us, we need to read him, remember him, and try as far as possible to establish an egalitarian and happy society he envisioned through his works.
A riot of colours starts the day
with happiness, vibrancy and hope,
dispelling the winter of discontent
with whispers of new lores…
Devi (The Goddess) is a 1960 Satyajit Ray film, based on a story by a writer called Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, that showcases nineteenth century India, where the silence of a young girl who is deified, wreaks havoc in her home, village and life. In an interview, Satyajit Ray contended that the film was to make people rethink ‘messiahdom’. The exact words he used to state this was that the film was against ‘religious dogmatism’ as the film and story literally dealt with the deification of a young bride. Tagore had similarly questioned blind deification in a number of his poems and plays. These (as Ray spelt out in his interview) did not address religion per se but malpractices, among them, the tendency to worship an idol to a point where flaws are justified, accepted and emulated. Satyajit Ray and Tagore were both Brahmos — which can be seen as a reform movement. These two were not criticising religion but talking of rising above gawky hero worship to think logically and arrive at logical conclusions. When we talk of characters from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, other mythologies or substitute the adulated with stars, writers, politicians and businessmen who run huge concerns, we tend to idolise them. But these were and are all characters with flaws, whether fictitious or real. We can well learn from their mistakes, rather than deify and worship them to justify bad behaviour by quoting instances from lives of past legends or prominent persons in the current world.
Akbar Barakzai, a poet exiled from Balochistan, talks in a similar vein in his interview. You can see it in his poetry too — some of which can be found translated by Fazal Baloch in our pages. Barakzai talks of transcending barriers we draw for ourselves in the real world, of writing with honesty and sincerity. He has shared vignettes of his life as he changed countries to continue his work. Baloch has also brought to us another excellent poet in translation, Munir Momin. A major poem by Nazrul (the ‘bidrohi kobi’), ‘Bidrohi or Rebel’ has wound its way to our pages translated by Professor Fakrul Alam. We are honoured and grateful that Prof Alam chose to share this excellent translation with us. We have more translations: Jibonananda’s ‘Motorcar’(1934) by Rakibul Hasan Khan, a Korean translation by Ihlwha Choi, another short story from Nepal and Tagore’s powerful poem, ‘Morichika or Mirage’, which is a wake-up call for the inert affluent who hold themselves aloof from common masses. We have also interviewed a major prose translator of Tagore, Professor Somdatta Mandal. With much to share on Santiniketan, Nabanita Deb Sen and many interesting anecdotes, Mandal talks of her extensive work with her translations spanning many more writers from the past.
We have a colourful ensemble this time almost as vibrant as the autumnal colours that have invaded nature in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Michael R Burch has given us beautiful poems on autumn, including the autumn of life. We have a poem in a similar vein by George Freek whose work continues influenced by Liu Yong (1719-1805), an influential minister and calligrapher in the Qing Dynasty. Ryan Quinn Flanagan touches on Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in his poetry. Rhys Hughes has given us humour in both his poetry and his column. Our other humorist, Devraj Singh Kalsi has given us darker, more caustic black humour in his narrative. We have lovely photographs from Penny Wilkes with her verses in Nature’s Musings. It is amazing the way she photographs birds in flight. Stories from Malaysia, Bangladesh, India and America add to the richness of our oeuvre. Sunil Sharma has given us an avant-garde telling of Odysseus’s voyage in the modern world, transcending the borders of time and ethnicity.
A well-known senior journalist, Ratnottama Sengupta, has also travelled through time to give us a recall of her experience at the 35th Cairo Film Festival one November, nine years ago. Her narrative about the time that the Shariat law was adopted by Egypt reminds me of the way things moved in Afghanistan few months ago and what is even more stunning is the way in which organisations dubbed extremists earlier are allowed to run countries now. Is it really not yet time to get rid of messiahs and look for one world?
Do pause by and find many more authors who dot our November edition. As usual, naming each one will keep you away from our delectable reads for longer. We thank all our readers for their continued patronage, and I would like to thank my fabulous team who are now even providing visuals to brighten our pages. A huge thanks to Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious, who write as well as they paint. Thanks to all our wonderful contributors for making Borderless a reality.
Jibonanada Das (1899-1954) was a Bengali writer, who now is named as one of the greats after Tagore and Nazrul. During his life he wrote beautiful poetry, novels, essays and more. He believed: “Poetry and life are two different outpouring of the same thing; life as we usually conceive it contains what we normally accept as reality, but the spectacle of this incoherent and disorderly life can satisfy neither the poet’s talent nor the reader’s imagination … poetry does not contain a complete reconstruction of what we call reality; we have entered a new world.”