The Barisal of Jibanananda Das
Jibanananda Das, widely regarded as the leading poet of Bengal after Rabindranath Tagore, was born on 17th February, 1899 in Barisal, then in East Bengal as part and parcel of the British empire. Though Barisal then was a small, mofussil, district town, distinctly considered to be in the backwaters (the whole of East Bengal generally was considered as underdeveloped and provincial, in stark contrast to the cosmopolitan power and money that radiated out of Calcutta and its environs), yet this modest town with its surrounding natural beauty and the influence of his family and their educational background all left a deep, formative impress on work. The environment, especially early environment, acts upon the artist in indefinable ways, and it would be not out of place to state here that without Barisal as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century there would be no Jibanananda Das the poet, none of the immortal poetry that Bengalis hold in our hearts.
So what was Barisal like in those days? Though it would be hard to reconstruct the historical Barisal without poring through district records, oral histories, and press reports, yet it is possible to glimpse it from Jibanananda Das's own poems and prose writings, as well as the biographical accounts of him given by others.
At that time, despite the coming short-lived partition of Bengal from 1905-10, Bengal was far more cohesive culturally, linguistically and territorially. Administratively, in terms of revenue collection, part of Barisal (Bakerganj), Khulna and Jessore districts of present-day Bangladesh, as well as the 24-Parganas of West Bengal were referred to as the Sunderbans. And as part of the Sunderbans, which at that time encompassed a much larger area, Barisal was lush green, and due to the absence of overpopulation, absolutely pristine. Nature was everywhere. At that time there were no clear-cut boundaries between town and village, and Nature invaded every field, every open space, every alley between the small houses. One small example of the fact that it was Barisal's smallness, its rural ways, that made possible the poet is given by one of his B. M. College colleagues (where he taught from 1935 to 1947) when he wrote that 'Our poet by nature did not like to socialize very much. I never saw him become close to anyone in the town of Barisal itself. Never was he seen at the gatherings of fellow professors of literature buffs…He used to take the path along the edge of a field to get to the college…Later he would take that deserted path back to his solitary home.' It is a way of life that would have been impossible in crowded, urban Calcutta, where Jibanananda Das could have been a solitary figure, but could never have taken village hard-packed, grass-bordered, open-skied paths to his college and back, pathways where he no doubt observed time and again the:
shankhachil or a yellow-beaked shalik;
and perhaps where he felt the sensation, the artist's creative shiver:
I move towards a twilight world
No dreamsome overwhelming sensation is at work!
No dramno calmno love,
In my heart an overwhelming sensation stirs!
I cannot evade it,
It takes me by its hand,
Everything else becomes irrelevant
All my thoughts become futile.
All prayers seem meaningless,
We who have walked deserted stubble fields on a December evening,
Who have seen over the field's edge a soft river woman scattering
Her fog flowers they all are like some village girls of old
We who have seen in darkness the akanda tree, the dhundul plant
Filled with fireflies, the moon standing quietly at the head of
An already harvested field she has no yearning for that harvest.
And there was water everywhere. No account of Barisal then can afford not to mention the fact it is located at the southern end of Bangladesh, which is the area where the country's three major rivers, the Brahmaputra-Jamuna, the Ganges-Padma and the Meghna combine to empty into the Bay of Bengal. This massive body of water drains through a system of interlinking smaller rivers, spill-channels, haors, beels, khals, canals, and in those days, especially during the monsoons, there was water everywhere. As Dilip Chakravarty has noted, 'If one is asked to single out the most important geographical element of Bangladesh, the choice would no doubt fall on its rivers…which give it a geographical character not matched elsewhere in the subcontinent. It is not merely the rivers which fill up during the rainy season, with the Padma, Jamuna and Meghna taking on almost a boundless proportion, but virtually any depression (and this is especially true of Barisal and other coastal areas of Bengal) in the ground becomes a part of a vast watery landscape in which a very great number of villages throughout the delta stand out as islands and throw their shadows in the surrounding water. If there is no high wind, this almost infinite expanse of water is very still, adding a fairy-tale quality to the landscape on moonlit nights.' And out of that watery landscape of a moonlit Barisal came the rivers of Das's poems.
I'll come again to the banks of the Dhansiri to this land
One day I'll lie down in a field in Bengal under a shriveled banyan tree
Next to a Jalshiri River bankthen red fruits will drop off softly
Rivers are embedded in the very grain of his poems, their waters and rain the very movements of his syllables, its lapping on banks, its dreams:
On one of your starry nights one day I will fall asleep,
Over me summers' white clouds from the other side of the river
Cowrie or conch-shaped peaks will keep looking on
Beneath bet creepers sparrow eggs lie all in blue
The river bathes its banks with the soft smell of its waters
And even later when Das left Barisal for good in the wake of the 1947 Partition and began to live in Calcutta, in an urban environment, when his poetry underwent wholesale changes in terms of voice and imagery, he could still write:
The day I leave this world…
…make my bed on that level land
that lush grass-green picturesque land
close to the smell of the Dhanshiri river water in this Bengal.
He first heard about rivers, and the destructive power of Nature, from his paternal grandmother, Prasanna Kumari Das, who on soft, hushed Barisal nights, when the crickets chirped and the darkness hid the red blossoms of the shimul trees, told stories about the ferocity of the river Kirtinasa to her grandchildren. Jibananda's brother Asokananda wrote that she used to sit beside the bed and tell us stories. We heard tales of the Kirtinasa from her…We were fascinated by her accounts of the rainy days there, of the Padma, and by stories about our ancestors…' Jibananda's ancestors had lived in Gaupara in Bikrampur near Dhaka, in one of the prosperous villages that had lined the banks of the Padma which later ravaged them and became known in legends as the dreaded Kirtinasha. They had been well-off, with a small zamindary, and also later went into government service. Later the ancestral lands had been destroyed by the river. Later Das's paternal grandfather, Sarbananda Das, left for Barisal. Bikrampur had been the political and cultural centre of ancient Bengal, and who knows if that sense of history, imparted in those tales told by his grandmother fused with Barisal's trees and grass, with its smells and air, to spark off the mythic element in Das,:
For a thousand years I have walked the ways of the world,
From Sinhala's Sea to Malaya in night's darkness,
Far did I roam. In Vimbisar and Ashok's ash-grey world
Was I present; farther off, in distant Vidarba city's darkness…
And made him aware of death, of man's existential terror, for death would always be present in his poems,
It was heard
They took him to the morgue.
Last night in the February dark
When the crescent moon, five days toward full, had set
He'd had the urge to die.
Barisal then was basically a town whose Hindus were traditional, rural middle and lower middle class. society. This fact can be glimpsed from the fact that as a child Jibanananda would wake up in the morning listening to his father reciting from the Upanishads, and where the domestic help were considered part of the family. It was from the latter that Jibanananda Das heard folk and fairy tales as well as acquired the extensive knowledge of birds and trees and wildlife that he so amply displayed in his later life. The Das family house where he brought his wife Labanya to live after his marriage--was Sarbananda Bhavan, named after his grandfather, and was situated at the corner of Bogura and Gorosthan Roads in Barisal proper. It was a traditional Hindu joint family, as Jibanananda wrote later on: 'Twenty-five, thirty, forty years ago there were a great many family members living in our Barisal house. I saw my aunt and my mother busy the whole day with housework. In those days our family's financial situation was not particularly good. But one is astonished today to think of how my aunt and mother, working tirelessly, and my grandmother, managing all, used to run a household so very successfully and energetically in the face of such adverse conditions…'
And it was a society where a brick mason named Muniruddin, wrote his brother Asokananda, 'wearing boots and a black coat, gun in hand, would set off with his bother for the Lakhutiya or Kasipur jungles…when he was doing his masonry work, during a break when he was in a good mood, we would hear all sorts of hunting stories from him.’
Somewhere deer are being hunted this day;
Hunters have moved into the heart of the forest today,
I seem to smell them
Here lying on my bed,
I can't get to sleep
This spring night.
All around me are wonders of the forest,
In the spring breeze,
Moonlight seems to be beaming its delights!
Bibir Pukur in the city
But Das' family being traditional and Barisal being a mofussil town by no means implied that he was not to have an intellectually challenging environment. His grandfather Sarbananda had been a member of the Brahmo Samaj, which was a rationalist Hindu social and religious reform movement that was opposed to idolatry, rituals and caste system. Satyananda Das, Jibanananda's father, a schoolteacher, was also a founding member of the Barisal Brahmo Samaj and along with his brother-in-law edited the monthly magazine Brahmabadi. His mother, Kusum Kumari Das, was a native of Barisal, who had been educated at Calcutta's progressive Bethume school. She herself was a poet, and critiqued Jibanananda Das's early poems. Jibanananda Das has written that 'there was a wonderful clarity about Mother's verse…she might be extremely busy with various domestic choresand at such a time Brahmadabi editor, Acharya Manmohan Chakravarty would come in and say: “I need one of your poems for Brahmabadi right away.” And Mother would take pen and notebook into the kitchen. There she could be seen wielding a cooking spoon in one hand and a pen in the other…almost right then and there she would give the poem to Acharya Chakravarty.' Barisal then had only the usual zilla school, but in 1884 one of its leading citizens, Aswini Kumar Dutta, established the B. M. Institution, and which later expanded to become B.M. College. Thus it can be seen that despite its rural location, Barisal was capable of providing advanced religious and social discourse and learning, and even though traditional Hindus were opposed to Brahmo ideas, the town and the society itself were tolerant and free-thinking enough to hold opposing sets of beliefs in perfect harmony.
And now we come to the final point about Jibanananda Das and Barisal. Critics have often commented on Das's language, which initially attracted hostile attention, as a revolution in Bengali poetic diction, that he wrote in a language all his own, a unique mix of shadu and kathya/chalit bhasha. Of course Das was a college professor of English who grew up in the formal Sanskrit Bengali tradition, was a poet who employed his language consciously, yet the question remains: did the fact of his having been born and lived a fairly long period of his life in rural, small town Barisal, where he was exposed to the speech of mofussil folks, where at a tender age he must unconsciously picked up, and retained all his life, the diction and rhythms of folk songs and expressions, the speech of their daily lives, later mould his uniquely hybrid turn of his own poetic Bengali? Just as it is impossible that he would have developed his feel for rural Bengal's beauty had he been born and lived in Calcutta and its environs, it seems highly improbable (and here it is the experts and scholars who have to find the connections) that he could have developed his Bengali speech, his poetic registers, without turn-of-the-century Barisal.
Barisal, however, is present much more directly in his prose fiction, where he prominently used the mofussil town setting and the writing is, especially the dialogues, in an extensively and sharply colloquial chalit idiom. In Jalpaihati, Das's last novel, the action takes place between Calcutta and Jalpaihati , the fictional mofussil town that looks and feels very much like the real-life Barisal. Both towns are by a river, both have district hospitals and a collector, and both have a nongovernmental college. Just like Jibanananda Das used to, Jalpaihati's main character, Nishit Sen, is a college teacher of English at Jalpaihati College. The year is 1948, when East Bengal was emptying of Hindus. Below is an excerpt that gives us an insight into what life in a mofussil college was like, the tug and pull of religious divides as Partition neared. Hariharan, the secretary of the Jalpaihati College's governing board, has called a meeting to discuss the concerns of Hindu teachers in a Muslim majority region.
'Hey, you little monkey, bring out another sofa, quick.' Sibanlal, the servant's son, went back into the inner quarters of the house to fetch one.
'There are sofas and settees all over the place. Why sit in one of those hard chairs, Dali Babu?'
'You can say that again. Terrible bedbugs, Harilal Babu. Tough to stay seated,' added Brajamadhab.
'These new wooden chairs are bug-free. Kali Babu is sitting pretty.' And the laughter began.
'Vicious bugs. Don't even think about shifting to a sofa. You're just fine where you are, Kali Babu,' volunteered Bankim Datta, attorney for the Ghosh-Mallik estate.
No sooner did Sibanlal and Purna, pushing and tugging, position a beautiful new sofa in that upstairs sitting room than Wazed Ali Saheb, having just entered the room, marched a bit arrogantly to and sat down with authority. Kalisankar Babu had the previous moment arisen from his chair and was heading toward the same sofa. On catching sight of Ali Mia, he returned to his wooden chair, and the room once again erupted in a burst of laughter.
'What happened, what's so funny?' questioned Wazed Ali.
'Nothing at all.’
The novel was written in 1948, just six years before his death, shows how much his Barisal remained a part of Jibanananda Das.
The author is literary editor, The Daily Star.
The following books, among several others, served as source materials for this article:
1. Clinton Seeley, A Poet Apart: A Literary Biography of the Bengali Poet Jibanananda Das (1899-1954). Translations have been reprinted from it as well as from Fakrul Alam's Jibanananda Das: Selected Poems with an Introduction, Chronology, and Glossary.
2. Abdul M. Syed, Jibanananda Das: Kabita Shomogro.