In the world of his own – Jibanananda Das

The pre-eminent and best loved Bengali poet after Tagore was an elusive, deeply private writer, reluctant to make himself better known, reluctant, in some crucial instances, to publish his own work… Jibanananda Das.

‘Jibanananda’ is a Tagorean name; its meaning, ‘the joy of life’, recalls, for me, the lines from a famous song in the Gitanjali, in which Tagore’s defiant Nietzschean mood is contained, as it almost always is, by decorum and serenity: ‘Jagate ananda jagne/ Amaar nimantrana’ — ‘I have been invited/ to the world’s festival of joy.’ Of course, Tagore had to earn those lines’ triumphal affirmation, and also their irony; by the time he wrote them, his wife was dead, as were two children, a son and his favourite daughter, Rani.

Das found himself invited to the ‘festival of joy’ in 1899; from the evidence of his poems and fiction, it doesn’t appear that he thought life — ‘jiban’ — an unqualified benediction. There is, not infrequently, a note of bewilderment in the way Das’s poems speak of earthly existence, the bewilderment of a person who wakes to find himself in a place of transit from which he must soon move on. The nameless speaker in the poem ‘Banalata Sen’ begins wearily:

For thousands of years I roamed the paths of this earth,
From waters round Ceylon in dead of night to Malayan seas.
Much have I wandered. I was there in the gray world of Asoka
And Bimbisara, pressed on through darkness to the city of Vidharbha.
I am a weary heart surrounded by life’s frothy ocean.
To me she gave me a moment’s peace — Banalata Sen from Natore.

The translation is Clinton B Seely’s, of the Department of South Asian Languages at Chicago, from his superb literary biography of Das, A Poet Apart. From the beginning, Das, an elusive, deeply private writer, reluctant to make himself better known, reluctant, in some crucial instances, to publish his own work, has had his champions, who attempted to bring his work to the attention of the Bengali, and now the Anglophone, reader. The most important of these was the poet and critic, Buddhadeva Bose, Das’s contemporary, probably the most influential Bengali writer of that bristly, fascinating post-Tagorean generation, whose generosity in supporting a fellow poet was, and still is, as unusual in the republic of Indian letters as was his critical shrewdness and acumen. The poems are now part of the Bengali consciousness, on both sides of the border dividing India from what was Pakistan and is now Bangladesh; it’s safe to claim that Das is the pre-eminent and best loved Bengali poet after Tagore. Those who know his work first-hand are convinced that he is among the twentieth century’s great writers, and so the process of recuperation continues, now in English. Like some of those writers — one thinks of Pessoa and Kafka — Das felt, for some reason, compelled either to suppress some of his most important writings, or to locate them in a secret life. Seely’s excellent work, as translator and biographer, represents a sustained effort that’s been ongoing for a few decades now, a project, however, dogged by the sort of inexplicable delays and impediments (his translations have still to find a publisher), the sort of nebulous cloud, that occasionally seemed to keep Das’s contemporaries (despite the enthusiasm of Bose and some younger writers, and Tagore’s qualified but genuine admiration) from seeing the true value of his work.

Now the English poet Joe Winter’s translations, collected in two slim but not insubstantial volumes, Naked Lonely Hand, a selection of some of the most well-known poems, and Bengal the Beautiful, which contains the sonnets that were published posthumously and made him a household name in Bengal, give the process of dissemination, and the cause of Das, a fresh impetus — a small but significant contribution which will not be, hopefully, scuppered by Saturn.

(Source: Outlook)


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