Guided by a Bengali Poet

Jibanananda Das’ death was not sudden. It was obscure. It began with the brutal force of a Calcutta tram, but took eight days to sway him. For a writer whose life sustained a torrent of poetry and prose, the slow death of Jibanananda shows either the tenacity or renouncement of this passionate force. It is beyond guessing. For one so prolific, he is difficult to uncover now.

Research into Jibanananda’s life and work, even without the barriers of language and geography, yields the same result. Here was a productive writer whose work was ahead of modernism and the posthumous reverence it attracted. Here was an Eastern Bengali who burnt ardour for his land into his verse. Here is a man most difficult to follow because already he is just beyond that bend of comprehension.

It is a usual snare, applying the vague nature of his death to the man himself. The baldest facts are among the second-hand second-language relics of Jibanananda’s life. Dates can be fitted to his birth in East Bengal to scholarly parents, his education in Barisal and Calcutta, his itinerant teaching appointments in Bengal and India, his marriage in Dhaka and the birth of his children, even the conception of his written work. Still, it is natural to render the man mysterious.

A blended selection describes Jibanananda as the “loneliest socially conscious symbolist nature poet of the subconscious states.” Instances of Jibanananda defending his work against misinterpretation show he was not as subject to poetic trances, nor as intensely shy, as legend suggests. Interpreters of incest into his poem Campe (Camping), which describes lustful stags heeding the call of their “soul sister” doe, were dismissed as prurient. Others decried the morbid mind at work behind such lines of Aat Bachhar Ager Ekdin (A Day Eight Years Ago):

Some other beguiling disaster

Frolics in our blood;

It wearies us;

wearies—wear us out;

But the morgue

Is free of weariness

And that is why

Flat out on the table in the morgue

Defeated, he will lie.

The author in rebuttal reminded his critics that verse could in fact be fictitious. It must have wearied him. In 1954 Jibanananda prefaced his collection Shreshtha Kabita (Best Poems) by finally demurring all classification. A particular poem or theme cannot be taken to represent my total work, Jibanananda wrote in May of that year. By October, he was dead.

More volumes of poetry, short stories and novels were printed after his death. Jibanananda was not there to provide the answer to why they remained unpublished during his life. Instead there were yards of manuscript to unravel and deconstruct to support every favoured image of him. How else could his life be deciphered? Jibanananda had to be inside his writing, it had to fill him out; his death left little else besides the impression of a private man.

Readers of Jibanananda were led in a new direction. With his work, Bengali literature moved away from Rabindranath Tagore’s traditionalism. Jibanananda wrote in an age of Partition and World War. He wrote for people who lived with him in this new world and would recognise angst of the middle-class variety:

These are things to be thought out when there is time,

One needs a lot of time;

One wants to roll up the universe into a ball;

Yet one will have to go out to tennis still;

Come back, and set out for the club at night again;

When will one have the time for all that?

He expressed cynicism, even at his own expense:

I find a copy of one of his books in my hands reassuring.

I wonder: does he make some money out them?

He possibly doesn’t

But surely he makes money out of his novels?

Never mind—

Let’s read his poems

Countless optimistic poems

Each like a goldflake cigarette

Popping out of the loaded slotmachine of his life.

He experienced the division of his country and crossed tangible borders from one place to another. He may not have felt a sense of belonging anywhere. He recalled, exaltedly, the place of his birth:

There is a land in this world—incomparably beautiful and sad;

There the banks green incessantly with sweet-smelling grass;

There, kanthal, aswatha, bat, jarul, and hijal trees grow;

There amidst morning clouds arises the nata fruit-like red sun;

There the goddess Varuni lives in the lap of the Ganges…

I respond diffidently to these last poems, while Bengali friends revere them. But then, total passion for one’s native land tends to block me out.

Calcutta is often a subject in the poetry of Jibanananda. Images of the city convey questions of existence, exploration and modernisation. It was also the setting for his death, which lack of fact makes difficult to flesh out. Nor is insight provided by the last work Jibanananda is known to have written, although older poems are matched to his final moments, like the wrong puzzle pieces. I use it to fill in what I know of Calcutta in October.

It was gentle weather, with balmy days coming into harmony with cooling nights. It was evening. Jibanananda was on foot, either because he was composing lines in his head, in one of his trances, wanted to avoid his wife, was on a short errand and didn’t need to take transport, or couldn’t afford to. My final imagining has him out on a stroll, catching a brief passage of leisure time to feel the air of the city, driven by obscure thoughts to walk alone:

…It seems to me I haven’t seen anything more peaceful

Anywhere: a Calcutta of innumerable stars and monuments?

I look down—my cigar burns silently, chaff and dust gust.

I close my eyes and move to a side—yellowish withered leaves

Fly by…

He moves into Deshopriyo Park and approaches the tracks of a Calcutta tram. He has always acknowledged them as part of the city and its moods, “primeval serpentine sisters” spreading a “poisonous vapid touch,” or as his guides:

Under my footsteps slender tramlines—over my head a tangle of wires

Hold me in their grip.

That night he must have drawn near without thinking, for a city tram knocked him down. Jibanananda could not have predicted his life would begin to end that way, just as he could not have imagined a building tumbling down on him. He died in hospital on the 22nd of October 1954, a time of burgeoning recognition for his work—with a new edition of Banalata Sen recently awarded, and his participation requested at poetry conferences at Calcutta University and on the radio.

Besides this there are many other tragic contexts to his death. It is my hope when I write that Jibanananda passed his last evening quietly before he was reborn in the public gaze as a visionary. Then, as all built-upon men must, he retreated.

You will not think of life as a beautiful green cold moth;

The owl’s song will not cause some star to drop off here like a

light-winged firefly,

The dew’s music will not cause some star to drop off here like

a light-winged firefly,

Your eyelids will not drop because you’ve viewed creation as a thick fog.

Jibanananda Das

When people ask what my Bangladesh life was like, I will say that at its best, it followed Jibanananda. From my sense of him and the sense of my own experience there are certain things we have shared, along the baldest lines: travel and re-invention (sometimes unconscious, often forced) in foreign cities, misinterpretation and losing the inclination to say careful things. Hearing and transcribing poetry, witnessing the same rosy sun on monsoon raindrops, the same great optimism, also despair, poverty, chaos and cruelty.

Lastly, the mighty pull against circumstance to keep alive something valuable—harmony with a community, a country, the closing of a day—and having it end with a vague immeasurable termination, in which we can’t account for what we left behind or will take with us. This much I understand, although Jibanananda spoke to me late; this far I am able to follow him down the path, where he is just now in the hollow of the hill, under the shadow of a cloud.

This final installment of The Bengal Gaze is dedicated to the following friends, however scattered, in appreciation and gratitude: Nubsy and the Pakster, M.W., D.A.T., R.A., Racks, C.H., D.N., S.M., K.O’H., Shapla, S.G., B.L., L.Z., S.F., the Original Running Man, E.F., A.B., P.D., B.H., J.Z., Z.M., the other K.H., J.G., T.C., the Lyonses, J.B. R.M., A.G., H.M., the staff at HFW & ‘The Office’ especially the fabulous M.A.

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