The poetry of Jibananda Das

When the Indian subcontinent was divided in 1947 to create a new country called Pakistan, the founding fathers, uncles and midwives in all their wisdom didn’t notice that it was a cartographic absurdity. The two wings of the new country were to be separated by a massive land mass (India), without any corridor or any connection other than religion to link those living in the two distant parts of Pakistan. According to its dictionary definition, religion is supposed to bind people together, but in this case, the bond turned out to be fragile.

In 1948, Mohammad Ali Jinnah visited Dacca and announced his diktat that Urdu would be the national language of East Pakistan. (This was ironic because Jinnah, a Kathiawadi Khoja Muslim, did not know Urdu himself.) The Bengali-speaking people of East Pakistan refused to fall in line. They wanted Bengali as the language of administration as well as medium of instruction in this part of Pakistan. They resisted and so a movement was born out of a love and sense of identity born of language.

Over the next few years, things became increasingly tense as the ruling elite of Karachi refused to oblige those in East Pakistan. On 21st February 1952, the police fired on a peaceful student demonstration in Dacca, killing four students and injuring many.

This incident acted as a trigger that would eventually bring to Bengali the status its Bangladeshi speakers had demanded. In 1999, commemorating that struggle, UNESCO declared 21st February the International Mother Language Day. Across the border, in Bengal, we still do our bit on 21st February. Last night, there was a procession from midnight to dawn near Bangla Akademi in Kolkata, interspersed by baul songs and folk dances, accompanied by a dinner of maach-bhat and alu-posto. Bongs, like soldiers, fight with their minds and stomachs!

Jokes apart, the language movement of 1952 carried within it the seeds that would ultimately lead to the creation of Bangladesh two decades later. The spring of ’52 inspired many myths and poems, and my favourite one is Abdul Gaffar Choudhury’s song:

Amar bhaier rakte rangano ekushe February,
Ami ki bhulite pari?
(“Can I ever forget 21st February, the day dripping with my brother’s blood?”)

It puts a different complexion to the idea of a ‘red letter day’.

When Bangladesh’s war of liberation started, I was studying in Calcutta University. It was not at all difficult to come across young muktijoddhas (freedom fighters) who were waiting for a call to go across the border. Young men, barely out of their teens, unshaven and ungroomed, rucksacks on their backs, the melody of Rabindrasangeet in their hearts and lines from Jibananda Das’s “Rupasi Bangla” (“Beautiful Bengal”) on their lips.

By a strange coincidence of history, the man who penned the unforgettable sonnets describing the beauty of Bengal was born in February 1899 and had a deep-rooted connection with ‘East Bengal’. He was born in Barisal, at the heart of today’s Bangladesh. He grew up there and came to Calcutta when he enrolled in Presidency College as a student. After that, he spent most of his life in Calcutta. So technically Das was not a refugee, but Partition and the loss of his ancestral home affected him deeply. “Beautiful Bengal” is basically a volume of sonnets, describing the natural beauty of Barisal. Das was not particularly comfortable in the urban jungle of Calcutta, which is evident from the menace and ominous gloom radiating from descriptions of cities in his poetry. After Tagore and Nazrul, Das, with his love for the countryside of Bengal as well as his distinctively modern writing style, was a favourite of the muktijoddhas in Bangladesh.

Das was the first Bengali poet to come out of the shackles of Tagoreana and he remains vibrantly relevant even today, 60 years after his death. No contemporary poet has been able to break the spell that Das cast over Bengali poetry. For instance, his “Banalata Sen” remains till date a quintessentially Bengali romance (not that Das was a romantic poet, by any means) and no one so far has reimagined the conventions of poetic love that he laid out with that poem. Unlike the muses and love interests of his predecessors’ poems, Das’s beloved is not a shadowy, nameless beauty. She is Banalata Sen of Natore, a woman with a distinct identity. Usually love poetry relies upon the reader to fill in the details and create the image of the beloved, but Das created an ideal.

I also think Das was the first poet to really depict the existential ennui that so many felt but hadn’t put into words. It was much more than simple melancholia, which has been the subject of so much verse and prose.

I know, yet I know
A woman’s heart, love, a child, a home
These are not everything,
Neither wealth, nor fame, nor creature comforts
Some perilous wonder frolics deep in our blood.
It exhausts us –
Fatigues, exhausts us.
That exhaustion is not in the morgue.

From “A Day Eight Years Ago”

Yet amidst the crowd—along the Harrison Road—persists a deeper concern.

A world’s wrong; from a beggar’s blunder; a world full of flaws.

From “The Beggar”.

Das described himself as a poet of historical consciousness. To him, history didn’t mean chronicles that spoke of kings or queens, but the march of civilization witnessed by people, which lingered in the human imagination. So ancient cities like Babylon, Ninev and Vidisha surface in his poetry, as do references to histories that seem distant from the present and yet inform it.

A certain vanished city comes to mind,
In my heart wake outlines of some gray city palace.

On shores of the Indian ocean
or the Mediterranean
or the banks of the Sea of Tyre,
Not today, but once there was a city,
And a palace —
A palace lavishly furnished:
Persian carpets, Kashmiri shawls, flawless pearls
and coral from waters round Bahrain.
My lost heart, dead eyes, faded dream desires
And you, woman —
All these once filled that world.

From “Naked Lonely Hand”.

These stories of the earth will live on forever,
Although
Assyria has turned to dust and Babylon to Ashes.

From “Beautiful Bengal”.

But it wasn’t just the urban setting or the present that Das described so evocative. Among his sonnets are brilliant odes to nature that don’t follow the familiar, pastoral route.

I shall return once more to the banks of the Dhansiri, to this Bengal
Perhaps not as a man, but in the guise of a white hawk or shalik
Perhaps as a dawn crow to this land of autumn’s new rice harvest
… I shall return – loving this Bengal’s rivers, meadows and farms

From “Beautiful Bengal”

All across Das’s poetry, there is death and decay within the beautiful imagery. The temples are broken, the buildings are abandoned, trees are dying, water has dried up. It is the land of cremation, a wasteland of sorts. There’s something shadowy and mystical about the scenes he depicts in his poetry that renders the familiar unfamiliar.

In “On City Sidewalks”, which is set in Calcutta, Das wrote,

As I walk along, my life’s blood feels the vapid, venomous touch
Of tram tracks stretched out beneath my feet like a pair of primordial serpent sisters.
A soft rain is falling, the wind slightly chilling.
Of what far land of green grass, rivers, fireflies am I thinking?
Where are the stars?
Have those stars been lost?
Beneath my feet the slender tram track – above my head a mesh of tangled wire
Chastises me….

A little more than 15 years after Das wrote that poem, he met his end while crossing tram tracks. It was an autumn evening when Das added his name to the statistics of those who suffered a lethal encounter with the Calcutta tram. It is still not clear whether it was an accident or suicide. He’d been suffering from acute depression and I’ve heard stories that the tram conductor had insisted that Das had actually leapt before the tram.

Most of Das’s poems were collected and published posthumously. After his death, literally trunk loads of manuscripts containing stories and novels were discovered after his death. In life and death, Jibanananda Das remains an enigma wrapped in a mystery. But what is beyond question or doubt is his love for the Bengali language and the modern elegance he brought to its literature. On a day that would have us celebrate mother tongues, Das seems like the perfect poet for the occasion.

This is the tale of their fields: if the story is ended
Much still remains which
You know – does this world know it, too?

From “The Story of the Field”

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