I was introduced to Jibanananda in 1999. In December of the penultimate year of the last millennium, I became 18; Jibanananda Das had just turned 100 in February. At a crossroad of life, my first bitter-sweet taste of adulthood was marked by the feeling of losing oneself completely at the altar of love, only to be followed by the empty feeling of love lost. I cannot recollect the 'tingles' of first love, not even the moments most people seem to cherish; burdened with the suffering of dejection for something that I knew was pure in my heart, I cannot seem to relive the moments — neither blissful, nor utter disdain. I still carry Porna with me, or the image of her in my heart, not through the moments shared, or the sleepless nights of displeasure. but through the words of Das. I am not a critic; I shy to even call myself a lover of poetry. But Jibanananda struck a chord in me, who seemed all alone in a battle that cannot be won. It was something I could relate to. Almost two decades have passed since the introduction of a naive 18-year-old with the literary giant, but life still throws its tempestuous blows, and moments of glee, and till this day, the conversations between Jibanananda Das and I, continue.
Jibanananda Das is a name unparalleled in Bangla literature; unfortunately, as has been the case of most Bengali poets, his works still remain to be translated for a wider, global audience. The scanty translations available often fail to convey the flavour of his wordplay, and the vivid imageries that he draws in his lines. Perhaps, that is true for all poets, but being 'lost in translation' has been the fate of most of his works.
Bangla literature is rich, and its first step toward reaching a global audience was through Tagore. Yet, even after being one of most iconic of Nobel laureates, Tagore himself is not as widely read as one would assume.
Although immortalised through his poetry, Das's entire gamut of literature is beyond belief. The prolific author penned poetry and prose, much of which was published posthumously. The shy Jibanananda never published in his lifetime any of the proses he had written, and unfortunate as it seems, his short stories and novels still remain overshadowed by the majesty of his poetic prowess. That, however, does not mean that his literary works in other forms are any inferior.
My introduction to Das was through poetry, and I perceive him as a poet still. While critics compare him to the likes of Tagore, Nazrul and a few others — to me, he is truly the 'purest poet.'
All his life, Das disdained such generalisations. But even I, as a Jibanananda aficionado, cannot help but label him as such!
In the preface to 'Shreshtha Kavita' published in 1854, he wrote —
My poems or the poet of these verses have been called the lonely poet of the loneliest of poets by some; some have said that these poems are primarily of nature or full of historical or social consciousness, others have labelled them as poems of resignation; still others consider them to be exclusively symbolic; completely derived from the unconscious; surrealist and so on. I have noticed many other labels. All of them are partially correct — they do apply to some poems or some phases, but no one of them explain all of my poetry.
JIBANANANDA, & I
It was taken that I would first seek to discover Jibanananda's poetry through the most celebrated love poems. For me, that was a disappointing start; my limitation!
As someone passing a watershed moment that marked my introduction to adulthood, I found his romantic poetry simple; his heroines lacking the panache.
The image of Porna overpowered Bonolota when it came to seeking solace in my heart. The images of her engrossed in a hearty conversation with her male friend, overwhelmed the jealousy Jibanananda felt for Suranjana's male acquaintances.
True, I was solitary in my discovery of Das; my only companion 'Jibanananda Dasher Shreshtha Kavita [Edited by Abdul Mannan Syed]. But I knew there was something more to the words, it was clear that the embarrassing language barrier made it impossible for me to fully grasp what he was saying.
I knew poetry is something that should be read and re-read until the imageries become clear and the conceit reveal themselves. And re-read a few times more. And I never gave up.
I am neither a poet nor a connoisseur. I struggle with meter or rhyme, or what separates Shakespearean sonnets from Bangla ones.
Two decades since those December nights, I still read the same poetry and find new meaning every single time. But I still cannot let him be, and not conceptualise his works in any one of the 'labels' he despised.
It is possible that his disdain of being restricted under an umbrella was primarily because of the poor response he received from fellow poets, readers, and critics. In his lifetime, Jibanananda could never imagine what his works will mean to the generations that followed.
While commenting on the influence of Das in our modern lives, renowned academician Abdul Mannan Sayed wrote —
“Why do people read poetry? And why do poets pen their poems? There are no plausible answers to these questions…His life — both the inner identity or the outward self, is shrouded in mystery. Yet, to this current generation of Bangalis, there is widespread interest surrounding this very poet. In the turbulent sixties, when we were immersed in an effort to re-discover and re-define our identity, he was our companion.”
Syed spoke my mind. In my quest of self-discovery, and in an attempt to pin an identity for myself, I too found him an honest companion.
NO DREAM — NO CALM — SOME OVERWHELMING SENSATION
It is difficult to describe what I found while unearthing the treasures of Jibanananda's poetry; a rattled mind, a stirred soul, and a voice that created an overwhelming sensation through his wordplay —
I move towards a twilight world — in my head
No dream — some overwhelming sensation is at work!
No dream — no calm — no love…
I cannot evade it,
It takes me by its hand. Everything becomes irrelevant —
All my thoughts become futile.
All prayers meaningless,
Das has a cult following, mostly by the youth, who, without exception, carry on for the rest of their lives. As a first time reader, I could not evade from the reality that he clairvoyantly termed — 'Bodh' (sensation/or consciousness).
The poetry did little to assuage the pain; much to my anguish, it aggravated it. Yet, for my bipolar mind, and a soul torn between modern living and the resulting injustice it creates, it came as an assurance that in this fight, I am not alone — and in such a manner, these taunting lines seemed like words of comfort.
For once, I could understand what Das was all about; there is more to him than the poetry that depicts the picturesque setting of Barishal; or the tranquillity he felt for Ms. Sen. As I dug deep into the abyss that is Jibanananda's consciousness, I realised there is so much more to him than those oft repeated works.
While explaining his own stance to life and poetry in general, Jibanananda said —
A mature artist — does not propose to evade the riddles around him…He arrives at his own philosophy and builds in his own world, which is never a negation of the actual one, but this is the same world organised more truly and proportionately by the special reading of it by the special poet.
This, I feel, is a universal statement. As a poet, Das was touched by what he saw, and the words expressed the emotions that the images evoked in him. He had led a large part of his life in pastoral Bengal, and a fair share in the modern metropolises of India under the crown.
This gave him a unique insight, which many authors – his contemporaries or his predecessors – lacked.
Jibanananda has always been honest in his expression. The fact that his published work does not reflect the timeline, or the development of his poetic vision, makes it difficult for us to see how he evolved as a poet. But once viewed in the gamut of his entire work (much may remain unpublished still), one finds a 'thinking poet'; one who interacts with society and living. At this point, whether he talks about the romantic setting at the bank of the Dhanshiri, or socialites of Calcutta and their clubs with tennis courts, becomes irrelevant, simply because he is just penning what he felt whenever and whatever he saw.
What I gather, his definition of a poet is a universal statement for all mature souls. As we age, we arrive at our own philosophy and build our own world — and never a negation of the actual one. The 18-year old me found some more answers in his words.
— Who can keep going on as simple-minded people would!
Who can get off in this twilight station
As the simple-minded would! Who Can
Speak in their tongues anymore? Who knows
Anything for certain anymore? Who knows
Anything for certain any longer? Who bothers
To relish bodily desires now? Who can
Taste again, as every man once did, the soul's delight?
It would be wrong to say that at the pivotal moment of life, I was confronted with the affliction of love alone. Far from it! The societal pressure on a boy thought to achieve greatness in life, but falling far short, has to bear a load that one simply cannot offload. The spiralling effect of a bipolar sinking in quicksand was, and still is, a haunting feeling that stays with me.
Walking along beaches — crossing shores
I try to shake it off;
I want to grab it as I would a dead man's skull
And dash It on the ground; yet like a live man's head,
It wheels all around my head!
How it possesses my heart!
If I move, it moves along with me.
If I stop —
It stops too;
Acclaimed translator of Das's work, Professor Fakrul Alam noted an interesting point. As a footnote to the poem, Bodh, he wrote —
“People...have described him as a man who often seemed to be in a trance.” And he goes on to say, “This it seems to the translator, is a poem about a man overwhelmed by the poetic fit and, indeed consumed by it.”
Professor Alam's assumption is based on a comment by none other than Das himself —
The desire to create artworks, the thirst for them…this life-long curse of the artists has destroyed all possibilities of being a social success. Nevertheless, I have not tried to abandon the fate of the artist for the haven of the family; no artist can do so.
LOVE — THE UNIVERSAL EMOTION
Scholars are divided on facts surrounding his personal life. While many agree that he had fallen in love at a tender age, he was to marry someone else. It is quite clear that his marital life was chequered with afflictions.
The restless Jibanananda found it difficult to settle in any position, and his wanderlust took him from the remote region of South Bengal to the metropolis of West Bengal. This itself is enough reason for some marital discord.
His heroines are often described as vicious and full of guile. At times, the heroines are dead and dreadful. Yet, after his quest for solace of a thousand years, he finds peace in Natore's Bonolata Sen! But how does he consolidate his consciousness and love?
He writes —
I had looked at a woman lovingly,
I had looked at her uncaringly,
I had looked at her hatefully.
Every worn soul can relate to this. The initial days of separation or dejection is a haze where feelings of love and hate collide; the overwhelming consciousness throwing the heart into the deepest, darkest abyss of guilt. And more so, when one starts to doubt himself —
She had loved me,
She had ignored me —
When I called her lovingly again and again
She had gone away hating me;
But once I could restrain myself — rein in my love;
Her words of contempt
The intensity of hate
I was able to ignore once — whatever the stars had decreed
Again and again as obstacles to my love
I had forgotten;
Still my love — dust and grime —
Jibanananda's love is often platonic, and at times, full of lustful overtones. Some hint on a carnal desire set so loose that it leads to incest. I find Jibanananda as a poet far from being confused, but troubled by the multiplicity of human emotions; its strength in harnessing and cherishing the beauty of love, and then again often succumbing to pure lust.
Of gazing at the face of a man!
Of gazing at the face of a woman!
Of gazing at the face children!
This sensation — this very desire
So immense — overwhelming!
A FULL CIRCLE?
Perhaps, there is truth to the fact that Jibanananda himself was the architect of his death; others vehemently protest that this was sheer accident. The myriad troubles in his life, and the trauma of the dreadful partition that forever took him away from his beloved Dhanshiri possibly made it impossible for Das to reconcile with. Some say, he felt alien to the land that he had to now call his home.
Now standing older and taller, perhaps wiser too, I wish I had thought of life differently when I met Das. My world view has changed, and as I now read him, I cannot pause and wonder, what if his life was different? What if our lives were different?
Did my naive teenage love forever break my heart, or did it teach me to seek and cherish all the love that life throws at me?
In the late autumnal grassland blue flowers bloom —
The heart flutters who knows why,
“I loved” — embers — guilt ridden — memories
Why do they confront me still?
Perhaps, that is because we are human. While some simply sigh and move on, others find themselves drowning in quicksand, yet desperately trying to stay calm. Maybe those who see themselves get drawn into quicksand in the first place, never can.
Did she — had Sujata fallen in love with me?
Is she in love with me still?
Electrons hurl about in the orbits on their own;
In which purged fading sky will the answer resound?
Such thoughts are perilous and redundant if one wishes to lead life positively. It is trivial to ponder over Porna after two decades, when in all certainly, she has moved ahead as I have. And even after being immersed in a bottomless pit of sorrow, Jibanananda often does have an affirmative view of life.
Sujata is in Bhubenshwar now;
Is Amita in Mihijam?
Not knowing where she has been is a good thing — in every way!
Blue white flowers bloom in the grass in the late autumnal scene;
Its placid course in one aspect of time;
And yet it is never completely still;
Every day new life forms take root again.
Truly, new life forms take root again. Sometimes I wishfully think, only if I could show Jibanananda, my one true friend, how beautiful the flowers still bloom, and will always bloom.
By Mannan Mashhur Zarif
Excerpts taken from the translation of Jibanananda Das's poetry — 'Bodh' and 'Loken Boser Journal' (translated by Professor Fakrul Alam).