Monday, 22 March 2010

Contemporary Indian Poetry and Sunil Gangopadhyay

"...In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered; the structure can be followed, 'run' (like the thread of a stocking) at every point and every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced; writing ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systematic exemption of meaning. In precisely this way literature (it would be better from now to say writing), by refusing to assign a 'secret', an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypothesis-reason, science, law...."
Roland Barthes: Image, Music Text
Sunil Gangopadhyay was born on September 7, 1934 at Faridpur in what is now Bangladesh. Sunil got his Master's degree in Economics from the Calcutta University in 1954. He is currently associated with the Ananda Bazar group, a major publishing house in Calcutta. Author of well over 200 books, Sunil is a prolific writer who has excelled in different genres but declares poetry to be his "first love". Sunil was the founder editor of Krittibaas, a seminal poetry magazine that became a platform for a new generation of poets experimenting with many new forms in poetic themes, rhythms, and words. His Nikhilesh and Neera series of poems (some of which have been translated as For You, Neera and Murmur in the Woods) have been extremely popular.
Sunil Gangopadhyay lost his father quite early and had to struggle hard to support the family. They lost their ancestral home in the partition and settled in Calcutta. He took his masters from the Calcutta University. Poetry was his first love. He spearheaded a poetry movement, started a poetry journal, which had a long life of twenty-five years. In 1966, he tried his hand at fiction and made a mark overnight. Since then he has been writing novels and short stories at a prolific rate and is now considered one of the most outstanding of modern writers. His novels enjoy tremendous popularity because of the racy style and the contemporary themes. Two of his novels have been made into films by Satyajit Ray. He has been widely translated in major Indian languages including English. He has won many prestigious awards in the country.
As in poetry, Sunil is known for his unique style in prose. Arjun, Pratidwandi, filmed by Satyajit Ray (English title: The Adversary), Aranyer Din-Raatri (also filmed by satyajit Ray - The Days and Nights of the Forest), Ekaa ebong Koyekjon are some of his well known works of fiction. His historical fiction Sei Somoy, translated into English by Aruna Chakravorty as Those Days) received the Indian Sahitya Akademi award in 1985. Sei Somoy continues to be a best seller more than a decade after its first publication. The same is true of Pratham Alo (also translated recently by Aruna Chakravorty as First Light), another best selling historical fiction. Sunil has written (and still writes) in many other genres including travelogues, children's fiction, short stories, features and essays. Among his pen-names are: Nil Lohit, Sanatan Pathak, and Nil Upadhyay.
In his poem “This Hand Has Touched” as given below may be considered for evaluation and perusal of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s poetic sensibility, aestheticism and modern metaphorical diction.
This golden figurine--- oh dear, will she ceaselessly crumble away, In the night , in the sun, in the rain in the arms of another man? Her nipples two bared switches,--- switches? Hands tremble at their touch.This hand has touched worms, pillows bound to chest, blood, In a greedless drowning to death in the blood's mucus, This hand has touched the shriek of tearless eyesThis hand has touchedThis handA tunnel-like alley--- running through it lightning-fast, small change clutched....sounds of boots behind, a cigarette in the sleeping mirror's mouth, this hand!
No steam builds in my heart. Yet,we meet in the darkness of a mist, eyes flash like a gold coin hid in an ancient chest.The nipples two bared switches, hands tremble at their touch,Even this hand!
There are some billion doctors on this earth. Like Parashuram I shall kill them all and wake to life in a pool of their blood. Moonlight, like shadows of trees. Within it none alive. Anymore.Trees under the sky. Darkness, leaves bunch. A stream within the leaves.Within the stream's every vein cruelty; For the present, cruelty gathers her aachal away and says, There are the lights, my cousin waiting at the gate, I have to go now....
Go, but never again alone in the dark turn your neck to me, go, I shall for long stand in watch here and hold the dogs at bay, go today without fear, but never again. Today, go without fear. I shall stand in watch. 1

Sunil’s poetry has begun to provoke quite a harvest of academic studies, in India at least. With the translation of some of his major poems, He can be considered to have been officially "discovered" in Bangladesh, too. There still remains, though, considerable doubt as to the critical approach most suited to his poetry. More broadly, Sunil’s work is a paradigm of all the literature produced in modern India, and elsewhere too: it is often difficult to get into, and the busy reader cannot help wondering if it is worth the effort. This paper introduces a few recent studies, tries to characterize Sunil’s work, and in particular its world-view without Metaphysics. “This Hand Has Touched” has often been read as a nostalgic poem regretting a vanished Indian way of life. The Bengali aesthetics of the poem evokes love memorials; the detailed descriptions seem to suggest old photographs, but on closer examination they prove to be evocations of a kind of collective imaginative image of that period (the children's names, the pubs). Some of the details are so specific that footnotes will be needed outside of Britain, or even inside, now! The poem's rhetorical strategy disconcerts; the whole poem is one sentence, there is no main verb. The multiple present participles serve to evoke a smooth onward flow of life in time, while the poem's voice ironically hints at the sudden violent break that is about to occur, quite unsuspected by the people out in the streets . Rather than being a hymn of sentimental nostalgia, the poem is dark with the shadow of unexpected death.
In the poem a variety of voices join, to form a narrative with inset dialogues; the language is at times extremely colloquial British English, at times it might come from Marvell (the bestial visor) or some such earlier writer. Here again, the theme is dark, the tone bleak with disappointment at the discovery that the passage of time does not bring with it those fulfillments that youthful expectation seemed latent with. The characteristic Larkin tone of disillusionment is strong.
Rabindranath Tagore was himself the first post-Tagorean. But it is customary to commence the story of modern Bengali poetry with the gifted generation that followed him: Jibanananda Das, Sudhindranath Datta, Amiya Chakrabarti, Bishnu Dey, Buddhadeva Bose and their compeers. Even that generation has achieved a somewhat removed, classic status. It now makes sense to do what this collection has done, which is to begin with the next generation — poets who began writing around Independence, but came into their own in the 1950s and 1960s. We find a refreshing presence of young and recent poets. There are one or two serious omissions as well. If Arun Mitra, why not Samar Sen? And surely Sukanta Bhattacharya deserves a place, if not for his ideology then for his impact. Nor is it clear why some poets should have three, others four or five pieces of roughly the same length.
The token inclusion of poets from North Bengal, Assam and Tripura is well intentioned, but has little point in view of the exclusion of Bangladeshi work, or indeed that of Bengali poets based elsewhere in India. There is a serious call for one or more anthologies bringing together all Bengali poetry across the world: as Sunil Gangopadhyay reminds us in his Foreword, Bengali is the world's fifth most-widely spoken language. But such a collection is not to be lightly attempted. It involves an exceptional challenge in co-ordinating two distinct bodies of work, besides a number of ancillary foci.
To return to the present volume, the editor must be complimented for having drawn on a large pool of translators. (One wishes they were better introduced: there are notes on the poets and illustrators, but not the translators.) Not one translation in the book is downright bad. That may seem faint praise; but anyone with experience in the field knows how hard it is to achieve even this modest end, and what demands it makes on translator and editor alike.
Many renderings, in fact, are particularly fine: not only by old hands like Samik Bandyopadhyay, Kalyani Ghose or Madhuchhanda Karlekar, but by relatively new or infrequent practitioners like Sriparna Basu, Malabika Sarkar or Sudeshna Banerjee. (This is not meant as a complete list of Alpha scores.) Other successful pieces are scattered through the book: Vijaya Mukhopadhyay's "All This Play-Acting" as rendered by Sutapa Neogi, Amitava Gupta's "Arjun: to Karna" by Sunandini Banerjee, or Bhaskar Chakrabrty's "Death" by Bidisha Basu, for instance. Generally speaking, all the translators are sensitive to the original text, and recognise the need to preserve its values in English instead of churning out a quickie approximation.
Nothing at all, some of the time; but all too often, a lack of fine-tuning, maladjustments of idiom or register, or — to out with the sad truth — simple lapses of grammar. The creative translator may deliberately seek freedom in these respects, especially to reflect a freedom taken by the source-poet; but the instances I am talking of match neither the one case nor the other. They serve no conceivable aesthetic point, but are solely due to slipshod revision and editing.
Hence even serious and sensitive translations threaten to go off the rails, or at least lose much of their potential impact. This applies to pieces by such major poets as Sankha Ghosh, Arun Kumar Sarkar, Benoy Majumdar, Sunil Gangopadhyay and Sarat Kumar Mukhopadhyay. The simpler poems by these poets retain their impact: Sunil's "For Che Guevera" or Benoy's "Last Evening". But in more complex pieces, the tangles are never quite sorted out, but rather compounded through syntactical slips. The reader may work out the sense and even deduce something of the original form, but he is left dissatisfied by the total impact of the translation.
This can be said of Santa Bhattacharya's not insensitive version of Manibhusan Bhattacharya's powerful poem, "The Story of the (sic) Martyr's Day". Elsewhere, the very meaning might be lost. "Dr." Partha Ghose (why the academic title in such a context?) ends a piece from Subhas Mukhopadhyay thus: "Pass me the fire." Ghose may have had some Promethean nuance in mind, but he has obscured the basic sense, "Give me a light". The erstwhile Marxist poet wishes to share a smoke with a tractor-driver. And of course Sankha Ghosh did not write about "cornfields" and "twelfth night" (used here to mean the twelfth phase of the moon) in a tribal and rural setting.
The embarrassing truth is that the book needed much more editorial care and honest-to-God desk editing. It is impossible to rule out error in a collection of this sort, but Signposts doesn't really try. Sunil Gangopadhyay's Foreword focuses too little on Bengali poetry, too much on his current concern with the politics of language. But what really jolts the reader is the unacceptable quality of the language (presumably Englished by someone else from the writer's original Bengali), commencing with two grammatically grotesque sentences. The editor's own Prologue is perfunctory in content and equally slipshod in style.
The notes are unsatisfactory in more than phrasing. The Baul is described as a "Hindu stoical devotee," "Espahan Bukhara" (sic) as "two pre-historic places in Iran", and atar (sic) as "Indian perfume generated from the state Uttarpradesh" (sic). Lalgola becomes "a remote place in Murshidabad". (Remote from where? Kolkata?) Dhubulia in West Bengal's Nadia District, the site of a notorious camp for East Bengal refugees, is said to be a health resort in Bihar, Amritabazar (sic) is described as a Bengali newspaper. (It was indeed once, but so long ago that only its English reincarnation matters here.) Sari is explained but not "25th Baisakh" (Rabindranath's birthday). The bidi becomes "a local cigarette", and a noolia, incredibly, "Natives who help the uninitiated to take a bath in the sea." 2
The poem is beautifully designed and produced, with a set of striking illustrations (but not individually ascribed to the distinguished artists, who are merely gathered in a list at the end). This makes it all the sadder that the text should be so badly proofread: whole lines and stanzas are made mystifying by typos. There is no policy of transliteration: the same Bengali word is spelt differently in the text and the notes. To talk about lapses in punctuation may seem niggling, but they are endemic. It becomes hard to disentangle some pieces as a result. One is left guessing whether essential marks have been omitted simply through carelessness, or designedly for a mock-modern effect. In either case, their absence can seriously impede one's understanding of a poem.
It is depressing to note these pervasive shortcomings in a rich and serious collection. Even as it stands, it will provide readers outside Bengal with a rewarding overview of Bengali poetry since Independence. The pity is that a task so worthwhile should not have been better accomplished, avoiding the numerous and entirely avoidable defects. The publishers should think of a radically revised second edition.
Works cited-
1. Published May 5, 2002 Translated by Nandini Gupta [nandinI gupta] - Nandini Gupta is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands.The original poem [ei haat chhu.NYechhilo* by Sunil Gangopadhyay*] appeared in the collection of poems Ami Kirokombhaabe Bneche Achhi, first published in 1966.
2. Signposts: Bengali Poetry since Independence, edited by Prabal Kumar Basu, Rupa and Co., 2002, p.275,

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