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

These are the years of anthologies. Everywhere you look, there's a new book out, compiling sleuths of writings that are accompanied by a string 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, dystopic, beautiful, luminous—you get the idea. While all these signifiers certainly make for excellent marketing material, they are often of no help to the reader, especially to yours truly, as he has been asked to review one of them. 

The book in question is The Great Bengali Poetry Underground (Kitaab, 2021), edited and published by Rajat Chaudhuri. What is underground poetry—you may ask. Chaudhuri offers somewhat of an answer in a sparse introduction. During the late '90s, he spent a formidable chunk of his time mingling with a few poets from Kolkata. They were primarily writing for the love of the form and the way the language made them feel. But then things changed as they often do, life went on, and these poets never quite made it to the mainstream of Bengali poetry publishing. They had to take jobs to make money. They had to make money to sustain life. There's hardly any patronage for writing, let alone for poetry, that too in Bangla, a name that stands for both the language and the land. And as the saying goes over here—there are more poets in Bengal than crows. I suspect that there is some truth in this. As a people we are shaped by the experience of reading poems to a degree. Our parents would share life-lessons couched in rhymes in the form of bedtime stories. In school we would be forced to memorise and write them in the exam scripts. While some certainly develop a hostile relationship to the medium, and understandably so, there's a great number of us, who see its power and what it can do. Think about all the protest poems, some of which are presented as songs, think about 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 the form, and what it can accomplish. 

Chaudhuri picks some of these poets from both sides of Bengal, who despite the trial and tribulation life threw at them, never stopped writing. Unlike us, they kept honing their craft, publishing at avenues like little magazines. And then came social media which granted them somewhat of a second life. Chaudhuri locates underground as these spaces, far from the mainstream and deep within the terrains, one that doesn't sustain but nourishes writers and their writings. And in an effort to honour their spirit and passion, and in hopes for new audiences and greater engagement, he selected some of their poems and translated them into English. The result is interesting, but with the original Bangla ones missing, the overall experience of reading the poems to a bilingual reader is limiting. 

What comes across in the translations, from the very beginning, are the poems' distinctive Bengali origin, in the way their atmosphere has been constructed, the elements that have been 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's nothing to be said about the technique. Like almost all of them, this too is free-verse, written compactly, its architecture is built on image, one on top of another. But what makes this one memorable is the way it gauges the body and its immediate response to different senses. The writer hears the clouds rumble, feels scared, gets stunned in silence and recalls the past where he would walk in the rain. There's an unmistakable longing to get back to a state of innocence that's no longer available, yet, the success, as stated in the last line—"Today you're in the spark of light that crosses the darkness / Don't you remember!" is in the 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 adornments. The poem titled "Body" recalls Jibanananda Das to mind. Perhaps it was designed as an homage, at least any conscious reader of Bangla poetry will take it as such—body being one of Das's favourite topics to explore, and vultures feature prominently across his oeuvre. While it would be unfair to compare anybody to Das's mighty and singular talents, in the context of the book, this poem offers very little. Its rhyming feels forced, perhaps due to the clunky translation. "The body feels lonely, the body is alone '' is a line that is repeated twice in a six-line poem. Whatever its intended effect is, it failed to work on me. 

In terms of "formal experimentation", the collection brings a few prose poems to the table. The one by Novera Hossain titled "Arrow-pierced Hornbill'' takes advantage of the form. The result is long and meandering. It's ominous in its tone, achieved through short and clipped sentences. It's a story—in the way a poem can be called one—about birds, nature, city, and their existence and place in the world. But it also acts as an allegory, a warning bell about death, decay and destinations. Nevertheless, it seems to suffer from the same illness as much of the other poems. It uses its economy to create simple images that are at best mildly interesting, and at worst repetitive and boring. 

If this collection proves anything, then it's that Bangalees will take to poetry like flies take to freshly cut mangoes on a hot summer day. The same can be said about anthologists—you leave a writer long enough in this terrain, and you'll find yourself being handed a collection of something, with its blurb on the back proclaiming its greatness.. But then, this can't all be it, can it? Poetry is supposed to be a performance of language. It is a boundless form with endless possibilities. And reading these poems, most of them anyway, just made me wonder about the possibilities, and not experience them.

Minhaz Muhammad is a contributor.