Kamal Chowdhury's journey through the Unreal City | The Daily Star
12:17 AM, June 03, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:21 AM, June 03, 2013

Review Essay

Kamal Chowdhury's journey through the Unreal City

Ahmed Ahsanuzzaman and Shuvo Ahsan

Kamal Chowdhury's journey through the Unreal CityIn the tradition of poetry—Bangla poetry, to put it more incisively—where will Kamal Chowdhury stand as a poet? If the question seems naïve, let the quest that his poetic oeuvre has made thus far since its nativity explain the conundrum periphrastically. It appears that the poet's parched soul relentlessly kept meandering about on the lookout for a destination, where he can finally be at repose, although the poet himself is much aware of its illusive nature. The terminus is more like the “unreal city”, which is surrealistically present to the poet now and again; he roams around its streets reflexively; still, he cannot reach it, as if it slides between his conscious effort and quiescent stupor. The tantalizing effect of this soulful journey finds its pathway in due course. It is the identical alleyway towards which are also driven the speakers of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, bearing elusive and fragmented identities. The shifted speaker peers out over a fake modern city (the unreal city, that is), whose dismal surroundings suggest that the city is no more at its prime, even if so, it has been spiritually dead for long:
Unreal City.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
The remnants of the once profuse city are now a bygone chimera, and in the heap of the relics, people wander around like the dead, who fix their eyes at their feet, and hardly interact with each other with ardor. Such a cerebral layout of an apocryphal city dates back to the French symbolist poetry, which substantively abounds in a world-counteracting escapism, the bait of exoticism, and a violent egoism rejecting conformist ethical, religious, social, and moral standards. Concisely, such poetry characterizes a hermetic as well as heretic subjectivity, a deep-seated interest in the esoteric, and a pining to detain the subsistence of a transcendental dominion of being where one could communicate with the inherent but enigmatic core of existence. Here stumbles upon us the idea of an “unreal city”, a spectral destination where the transcendental form of life yearns to reach, but fails in the face of unforgiving reality. Subsequently, there arises a sort of compromise, much like the “Victorian Compromise”. The compromise is a combination of both negative and positive aspects of life as delineated in some verses of Kamal Chowdhury:
While I thought deeply of the spring, the winter came
With its bare boughs and topless trees
There's a world of dreams in the brown leaves and dust
Before the leaf-gatherers come and the Shaliks take over,
A morning has lost its way in the dense fog
I too am standing on the way
Deep inside me there's a tall bare tree
Spreading out green boughs for a new poem.
(“For a new poem”, trans. M Harunur Rashid)
In the myriad of cynicisms there is still traceable a glimpse of hope rising out of the ashes of mundane compromises.
Reminiscent of the Bangladeshi poets of the sixties of the bygone century, Kamal Chowdhury is split between the distress and despair stemming from the loss of expectations and contradictions of the time and the innate desire of liberation at his heart's moorings. The first phase of the poetic endeavor of Shamsur Rahman bathes in the ideation of an eccentric life of the middle-class torn apart by a disputed and non-philosophical trauma. Such trend is overtly distinguishable in the days of fluorescence of Kamal Chowdhury as a poet:
I live in this country, in this city soaked with blood,
I see thousands die here everyday,
Yet undaunted I am, a fair non-Aryan youth,
I shatter the the hand-cuffs with ease,
The sky, nature and darkness know me,
But men with sight do not, for they haven't seen
The prowess of my hands.
(“Blood-stained verses”, trans. M Harunur Rashid)
Kamal Chowdhury's journey through the Unreal City Freed from the colonial rule of the British Empire, the newly born Pakistan rests on feudalistic principles and the economic laws thereof rely upon coercion and suppression. Against such a malicious setting Rahman's personal world becomes maimed, introvert, nostalgic, solitary, completely sequestered from the majority, and indulgent in the pleasure of self-copulation:
The new youth is much heard to use
The illuminated language akin to life
The grandfather wanders to his surprise:
Who is it that strolls in that antique house?
(“Tanapoden”, Niraloke Dibboroth)
The self-afflicted verses of Kamal Chowdhury resonate those of his predecessor's in the wake of a newly born country in the individualized style adopted by the poet:
Last winter I trembled like this
Traveling from port to port in a weather below freezing point
Gathering experiences galore
But you know during the ice age
When I was returning to your earth
I had warm blood in my veins.
The bird with a straw in its beak was my friend too. . .
(“The floating ark”, trans. M Harunur Rashid)
However, as the poet matures, his unstable spirit sedates at the gallows of interrogation, self-expansion, and self-purgation. Shamsur Rahman seems to attain a sort of multilayered consciousness in the quest of introspection and soul-searching:
From one pole to another, echoing
The burning enunciation, waving the new flag, and
Blowing the fanfare across the Bengal
Must you come, o freedom!
(“Tomake Pawoar Jonne, He Shadhinota”, Bondi Shibir Theke)
Such exploration is also palpable in Kamal Chowdhury's verses:
O my darkness, o my childhood asceticism
O rage, o my adored wildfire
Today I've come back to reclaim my entrance. . .
(“Aj Fire Pete Eshechhi Probeshadhikar”, Mukti O Shadhinotar Kavita)
Shahid Quadri is thoroughly an urban poet. His poetry images the malformed and parasitic city and its half-crazed inhabitants. His transformation in his later poetry takes a trajectory towards a positive sensation; still, his dispassionate curiosity for nature mirrors his apathy to urban life, though he is hesitant how the city will receive him back once he leaves it behind:
You are in the boat with an angling pole,
On the other side of the river smile mustard and green peas
I've never seen
(“Dadao Ami Ashchhi”, Kothao Kono Krondon Nei)
This complex state of an urban poet is much distinct in the later poems of Kamal Chowdhury:  
I walked on for miles and realized, the green where I was born
Has an attraction for stones too,
In this robotic world there's no raincoat except
The metallic bang of its own.
(“Advertisement”, trans. M Harunur Rashid)
Art is different from the life it derives its inspiration from. It has what Boris Eichenbaum says an “autonomous value”. Practical language differs from poetic language in the sense that poetic language creates a sensation, which is perceptible and not knowable. The sensation thus created is unfamiliar and lingers over time for the reader to perceive its relish. The familiar phenomena of life become unfamiliar through this procrastination in the literary world. Victor Shklovosky terms this technique defamiliarization:
Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important. . .  
Defamiliarizing technique is a poetic tool Chowdhury has used abundantly in his poems. Like the French symbolist poetry, his poems are fanciful, inscrutable, esoteric, and somewhat synesthetic. In a short poem “Ochena Postar” (Unknown Posters), the ever-increasing inevitable distance between two lovers has been made unfamiliar by drawing on conspicuous imagery:
The times I asked you to extend your hands
The clang of a coin erects the ancient wall

Algae know no ethics—however I
Whitewash the parasitic plants
I watch your heart cover with unknown posters.
(Panthoshalar Ghoda)
Kamal Chowdhury's journey through the Unreal City Another technique which dominates Kamal Chowdhury's poetry is motivation. Tomashevsky calls the smallest unit of a plot a “motif”, which we may understand as a single action. He distinguishes between a “bound” and “free” motif. A bound motif is what a story requires, whereas a free motif is dispensable from the standpoint of a story. Nevertheless, the “free” motif is embryonically the hub of art. Though much applicable to the narrative theory, “motivation” finds its roots in many poems of Kamal Chowdhury. He artfully inserts the “free” motif of recounting the ghost story as is traditionally known. The aim he serves is to arrive at an analogy between the mythical ghosts and the modern street hooligans and thus to relegate the mythical creatures to the background once the hoodlums take over their place. The retelling of a ghost story in the poem “Bhooter Gwalpa” is apparently gratuitous, because it does not set in motion the bound motif the poet wants to achieve; it is rather used to create an esthetic effect.
Albeit heavily burdened with intellectual complexity, enigmatic plexus and inaccessible subject-matter, the Chowdhury poems never lose the sight of Bakhtinian dialogic trend, polyphonic voice and heteroglossic traits. His verses are rich with social diversity of speech types; his characters never merge in the authoritative unified field of vision, rather either contextually or diachronically his poems celebrate the carnivalesque:
What then will keep you awake with dreams to dreams?
Those who were alive with an idea of light—
They too are blowing out their little lamp
The air heavy with the stink of snuffed out flame makes the dust bleed,
Yet the crying and uproar is not audible
And the abiding earth and life contained in our civilized bags slung from our shoulders
Have fallen asleep.
(“Without the sky”, trans. M Harunur Rashid)
The affluent variety of poetry over the time has transformed the psychically tormented and introvert poet unfailingly representing the middle-class and its plethora of multileveled predicaments into a mature poet, one who has posited himself in the streak of traditional boulders. The poet may not be unique, but his creation has transfigured him into an individual note in the collective voice of Bangla literary tradition. Once started, his journey through and into the “unreal city” is incessantly ongoing, as the idealistic destination and the past glory pass by the poet, who cannot quench his thirst in consequence of more expeditions: the quest he makes is never ending, because the nearer he approaches the further remains his much-anticipated city:
There a new word is my illusion
A gentle push cracks the bridge apart
Imperiled cities on both sides

Underneath is water, miseries, poser on the way!
(“Oddhash”, Panthoshalar Ghoda)

*Unless indicated otherwise, all translations of the verses are by Shuvo Ahsan.

Ahmed Ahsanuzzaman is professor and the Head of English Discipline, and the Dean of Arts & Humanities School of
Khulna University.

Shuvo Ahsan is lecturer in English
at Khulna University

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