Jiban+ananda means “the joy of life”. His poetry does celebrate the joy of life, but he was an unhappy man trapped in a fractured marriage. He fought poverty through his life and oscillated between Barishal, a district town in East Bengal, and Kolkata, often in search of a job. He taught English at a number of colleges, but in most of them, he didn’t survive beyond a few months.
An anthology of his unpublished poems brought out three years after his death bears the title Rupasi Bangla (Beautiful Bengal). Much of his poetry is about rural Bengal. But it is not an overt celebration of her beauty. Rather, it is about the subliminal sadness, helplessness, love, and sexuality of its people.
Later, in the second largest metropolis of the British Empire, Jibanananda observed the “deep malaise” that had gripped the city, and “drank tea at a tavern in hell”. About the city, he wrote:
A leper opens the hydrant tap to lap up water
Or maybe, the hydrant had been leaking.
Now, midnight descends on the city like a raiding hoard.
An automobile goes past, coughing, like an idiot
Spluttering restless petrol; it seems despite taking every care
Someone has fallen grotesquely into water.
Three hand-pulled rickshaws rush away,
And merge with the last gas light as if by magic.
I too left Fears Lane at a reckless moment
And walked miles before stopping in front of a wall
In Bentink Street, at Teritty Bazaar;
To breathe in air that’s dry as parched peanuts.
The tune is her very own, but still, a Jewish woman
Sings through her slumber from a second-floor window;
The dead smirk from above, ‘Is that music?
Or a mine of gold, paper and fossil fuels?’
The young feringees walk away, smart and neat,
An ancient African smiles through his sagging jowl
And cleans the briar pipe in his hand
He trusts the world much as a gorilla does.
To him, the noble night of the city
Looks like a jungle in Libiya
Where the animals are unique and overpaid,
In fact, they put on clothes out of shame.
Who has fallen grotesquely into water despite taking every care? Was he talking about the city and its people?
Three hundred million Bengalis today would have been a different people had Rabindranath Tagore not been born. And millions like me would have been different persons if Jibananda hadn’t written his poems. But sadly, he will at best be partially known to the rest of the world.
Jibanananda’s poetry is seeped in Bengali ethos and his language, in nuances that are typical of the place, people, and their history and mythology. Much of Jibanananda is untranslatable. Here is another of my unsuccessful attempts to translate him. The poem, Banalata Sen (written in 1934/35), is a milestone in Bangla literature.
I’ve been walking the paths of this world
For a thousand years. Much have I travelled
From the waters of Ceylon to the Malaya seas;
In the withering worlds of Ashoka and Vimvisara,
Where I lived in the still more distant city of Vidarva.
A tired soul am I, spindrift raging all round me,
I’d but moments of quiet, with Banalata Sen of Natore.
Her hair was like the distant dark nights of Vidisha
Her face – sculpted lines from Sravasti!
Like a ship-wrecked sailor who’s lost his compass
Finds a green patch of Cinnamon Island on a faraway sea,
I’ve seen her in darkness. Said she,
‘Where have you been so long?’
Looking up with her bird’s-nest eyes,
Banalata Sen of Natore.
As the day drifts to an end, darkness descends
Like the sound of dewdrops.
Kites wipe the smell of sunshine off their wings.
As the colours of the day fade, manuscripts take over.
And then the glimmering fireflies gather for tales.
All the birds come home, all the rivers;
All exchanges come to an end. Darkness reigns
And there remains, to sit before me – Banalata Sen.
[Published in the Indian Literature, July/August, 2008]
Kolkata / Thursday, 22 October 2009