‘The Great Bengali Poetry Underground’: More poets than crows

These are the years of anthologies. Everywhere you look, a new book has come out, compiling sleuths of writings along with a series of adjectives in their blurbs. If the editor or publisher is feeling ambitious, you’ll notice some of them in the title. These books are important, urgent, deeply felt, cataclysmic, apocalyptic, dystopian, beautiful, luminous – you get the idea. While all of these signifiers certainly make excellent marketing material, they are often of no help to the reader, especially yours truly, as he was asked to examine one.

The book in question is The Great Underground Bengali Poetry (Kitaab, 2021), edited and published by Rajat Chaudhuri. What is underground poetry, you might be wondering. Chaudhuri sort of offers an answer in a sparse introduction. In the late 90s, he spent a terrific portion of his time mingling with a few poets in Kolkata. Above all, they wrote for the love of form and what the language made them feel. But then things changed as they often do, life went on and these poets never quite reached the mainstream of Bengali poetry publishing. They had to take jobs to earn money. They had to earn money to survive. There is hardly any patronage for writing, let alone poetry, that too in Bengali, a name that represents both the language and the land. And as the saying goes here, there are more poets in Bengal than crows. I suspect there is some truth in that. As a people, we are shaped by the experience of reading poems to some degree. Our parents shared rhyming life lessons in the form of bedtime stories. In school, we would be required to memorize them and write them down in exam scripts. While some certainly develop a hostile relationship with the medium, understandably, many of us see its power and what it can do. Think of all the protest poems, some of which are presented as songs, think of the influence of Rabindranath Tagore or Kazi Nazrul Islam. Then think about the time you fell in love and wanted to profess it, but instead of writing a novel or a story, you wrote a poem. It was probably a bad poem, but nevertheless, even you are aware of the value of form and what it can accomplish.

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Chaudhuri chooses some of those poets from both sides of Bengal, who despite the trials and tribulations that life has thrown upon them, have never stopped writing. Unlike us, they continued to perfect their craft, publishing on the avenues like little magazines. And then came the social networks which gave them a kind of second life. Chaudhuri locates the underground like these spaces, away from the mainstream and deep within the grounds, one that does not support but nurtures writers and their writings. And in an effort to honor their spirit and passion, and in hopes of a new audience and greater engagement, he selected some of their poems and translated them into English. The result is interesting, but with the absence of the Bengali originals, the overall experience of reading the poems to a bilingual reader is limited.

What shines through in the translations, from the start, is the distinctive Bengali origin of the poems, in the way their atmosphere was constructed, the elements that were borrowed. Arpan Chakraborty writes about nostalgia, his first encounter with the summer storm – Kaalbaishakhi – in a poem titled “I Wish”. As with many of his poems and this collection, there is nothing to say about the technique. Like almost all of them, this one is also in free verse, written in a compact way, its architecture is built on the image, one on the other. But what makes this one memorable is the way it measures the body and its immediate response to the different senses. The writer hears the clouds rumble, is afraid, silently dazed and remembers the past when he walked in the rain. There is an undeniable desire to return to a state of innocence that is no longer available, yet success, as indicated in the last line – “Today you are in the spark of light that breaks through the darkness / Don’t you remember!” is in pursuit of convincing the mind to travel to childhood through memory.

Atanu Chakrabarty’s poems feature a wide range of characters, from the mythical – Drapuadi – to the ordinary everyday man. But his primary concern seems to be the corporeal body: its various functions and ornaments. The poem titled “Body” brings Jibanananda Das to mind. Perhaps it was intended as an homage, or at least any conscious reader of Bengali poetry will take it as such – the body being one of Das’ favorite subjects to explore, and vultures feature prominently in his work. While it would be unfair to compare anyone to Das’ powerful and singular talents, in the context of the book, this poem offers very little. Its rhyme seems forced, perhaps due to the clumsy translation. “The body feels lonely, the body is lonely” is a line that is repeated twice in a six-line poem. Whatever effect I was looking for, it didn’t work on me.

In terms of “formal experimentation”, the collection brings some prose poems to the table. That of Novera Hossain entitled “Hollbill pierced with arrows” takes advantage of the form. The result is long and winding. It’s eerie in its tone, achieved through short, clipped sentences. called a – about birds, nature, the city, their existence and their place in the world. But it also acts as an allegory, a wake-up call about death, decadence and destinations. Nonetheless, he seems to suffer from the same malady as most. He uses his economy to create simple images that are at best mildly interesting, and at worst repetitive and boring.

If this collection proves anything, it’s that Bangaleans will indulge in poetry like flies to freshly cut mangoes on a hot summer’s day. The same can be said of anthologists – you leave a writer on this ground long enough, and you’ll find yourself in front of a collection of something, with its blurb on the back proclaiming its greatness. either, can he? Poetry is meant to be a performance of language. It is an unlimited form with infinite possibilities. And reading those poems, most of them anyway, just made me wonder about the possibilities, and not experiment with them.

Minhaz Mohammad is a contributor.

Bonny J. Streater