The Lives of Others: Jibanananda Das and Naseeruddin Shah

Last month, I took a weeklong holiday from the chaotic din of Kolkata and took asylum in a remote hamlet in the rough terrain of West Bengal’s Purulia district. Although the distance from the big city is merely 300 hundred kilometers, the place is eight kilometers from the nearest railway station, that last outpost of civilisation. The nearest town is 40 kilometers away and the only luxury you have is running water. Electricity is sporadic, boosted by a generator and connectivity. This made little difference to me to me as I generally do not carry laptop or tablets when I travel. All I require is a working mobile phone network and a couple of unread books. My hosts run an eye hospital and a school, which keep them busy round-the-clock. I was more or less left to myself and ponder over the improbable of life, as Jeeves might have put it.

Purulia is not a very fertile district, but in the glorious autumn light, I saw undulating waves of golden paddy right up to the horizon. This landscape is not one of mellow fruitfulness, but a dry, rough and rugged terrain. The man who really haunts you in places like this is the poet Jibanananda Das, whose life and works are perennially covered by the autumnal mist and shadow.

Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with Bengali literature knows Jibanananda was a great poet, but fewer know how he was perpetually haunted by ill-luck and misfortune. Penury was almost his lifelong companion. For almost quarter of a century, he lived without a permanent job, somehow eking out an existence. Worse, like so many artistic geniuses, he knew he was gifted and had to witness the prospering of those who didn’t hold a candle to his talent. An unhappy marriage and failed romances only compounded his woes. He also lived through the partition of India in 1947 and in one blow, he lost all everything, from property to his job in a college in Barisal.

Misery is supposed to fuel creativity, but this doesn’t seem to always be the case. My literary companion in Purulia was a biography of Jibanananda’s and in it, I learnt that in the last few years of his life, whenever an editor or a publisher approached him, his almost standard reply was, “For various reasons—both physical and mental—I am not able to compose any new poems.” Sometimes, he offered to brush up an old, unpublished one. He was also a perfectionist and every poem was revised so thoroughly that often in the final proof, it became a new poem.

In a career spanning over three decades, Jibanananda published only five slim volumes of poetry; a total output of 175 poems. From those and a few uncompiled poems, Srestha Kabita (Best Poems) took shape. It had 72 poems in the first edition (subsequent editions would raise the figure to 105). First published five months before his demise, this volume brought him the appreciation and recognition he’d dreamt of when it won the first Sahiyta Akademi Award and was judged the best book of the last five years. Tragically, all this happened posthumously. He knew none of this.

The heartrending loneliness that characterized is life also filled his end (he died of injuries sustained after he threw himself in the path of a Calcutta tram). At his deathbed, neither his wife nor children were present. The following morning, when the poet’s body lay at his rented residence and all the luminaries of Bengali literature came to pay tributes, his wife Labonya Das commented, “When all these people had come, he must have been a great writer who made a great contribution to the Bengali literature; but what has he left for me?”

But delving deeper into Jibanananda’s life during my holiday in Purulia, my diligently-constructed theory of the poet, his deprivation and the writer’s block simply collapsed under an avalanche of statistics. Jibanananda had the habit of writing in cheap exercise books (khata in Bengali) and after copying whatever he had written, would meticulously put the khata in a steel trunk. He did not allow anyone access to those trunks and there were at least half a dozen of them in his room. After his demise, his immediate family didn’t care about them and the trunks were shifted to his younger brother’s flat where the poet’s ardent fan, Dr Bhumendra Guha, started going through them. Guha was a medical student who had nursed the dying poet during his last days (Guha would later became an eminent surgeon). Guha discovered a treasure trove of about 350 exercise books, all manuscripts of various genres – 80-odd khata of poems, about 200 containing fiction and the remaining, a sort of journal written in both English and Bengali that Jibanananda himself called ‘Literary Notes’.

Over the next 50 years, these were regularly published.More may follow since his daughter absentmindedly left one box of khata in a local train. Perhaps one day, some dutiful railway employee might come across them, lying neglected in a warehouse or godown. At present, we have about 100 short stories, 15 novels and novellas and over 3,000 poems. His Pandulipir Kobita (Poems from Manuscripts) runs into thirteen volumes, excluding those published during his lifetime.

So, when Jibanananda was telling everybody he could not write poetry, he was actually doing the opposite: he was writing feverishly and furiously, not just poetry but also prose. It seems he was too scared to bring his writing out in the open. There are accounts of him asking editors, publishers and authors whether writing fiction and prose would be more lucrative. Perhaps they suggested fiction because that’s what Jibanananda went on to write, but he told no one about them and even denied their existence when anyone asked of them.

He may have been prescient. After all, the Jibanananda we adore is the poet of those few six thin volumes published before his death. Except students, academics and professional critics, I do not think readers at large have been touched by the posthumous publications, the solitary exception being Ruposhi Bangla (Bengal Beautiful).

The other book I carried with me in my self-imposed exile is the recently-published memoir by thespian, Naseeruddin Shah. These two personalities could not be more different, yet I somehow found a strange parallel between them. Shah’s And Then One Day ends with his marriage to Ratna Pathak, which happened approximately three decades ago and it made me wonder: does Shah seriously believe that nothing worth recording has happened in these intervening years? Not even his big ticket entry into Big, Bad Bollywood, Karma and Tridev? Or, on the other side of the spectrum, his experience of working with the demi-god of Indian independent cinema, Mrinal Sen, in Khandar and Genesis? Or his setting up of Motley and the work the theatre group has done? If he is not planning a sequel (which I doubt very much), this is a strange place to end a memoir.

But at the same time, is the artist a machine who must continuously perform and record? While Shah remains active – he has just started performing a one-man piece called Einstein on stage in which he plays the legendary scientist – reading And Then One Day and noting where Shah ended his memoir made me think about the difference between how an artist sees their work and how that work is viewed by the admirers. It’s that difference that perhaps decides how we’ll remember an artist and how an artist will try to be remembered. The pressure upon those talented isn’t simply that of earning money through their art, but of living up to the expectations in both themselves and those who believe in them. And so arises the question, what is the history that one considers worth recording? It takes a certain amount of ego to think one’s life and work are worth archiving. Jibanananda knew he was a genius but he didn’t have that confidence (in his writing? Or perhaps in his readers?). Shah has chosen to chronicle the early years, the ones that few remember, thus providing all of us a starting point that lets those who have followed his work see how far he has come, how far he will go.

For some reason, reading And Then One Day reminded me of another theatre great: Sombhu Mitra. After a meteoric rise in the Fifties, when Mitra was hailed as one the stage’s most luminous talents, he started fading out by the mid-Sixties. To the shock and dismay of legions of fans and devotees, he just sat back and relaxed at his Park Circus residence. For the last three decades of his life, Mitra did nothing. Yes, he had faced problems, like divisions within his theatre group, but they don’t seem insurmountable to an artist of his stature. Yet, Mitra chose retirement. In stark contrast, we have Rabindranath Tagore who, barely a week before his final departure, dictated a poem while lying on an operating table. Then there was Satyajit Ray, who stuck to his one-film-a-year schedule despite his doctors telling him to slow down.

Perhaps we demand too much from a genius. Or perhaps they demand too much of themselves..

JIBONANANDA DAS by Prabhat Kumar Das, Poschimbongo Bangla Akademi, 3rd edition, August 2013.
ALEKHYA:JIBANANONDA by Bhumendra Guha, Ananda Publishers,January, 1999.
AND THEN ONE DAY by Naseeruddin Shah, Hamish Hamilton, 2014.


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