The following conversation took place as a part of the CANTO Poetry Festival 2023, an international multicultural multilingual travelling poetry festival, which was held across New Delhi and Kolkata in March, 2023. Writers Alapan Bandyopadhyay and Avik Chanda and translators Alison James and Lina Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas spoke with one other.

Alapan Bandyopadhyay (AB): Today’s session is titled “The Inheritance of Loss: Deprovincialising Bengal’s Partition”. What is the “inheritance of loss”? I suggest that it signifies a very deep inversion of the way we think. Typically, in Bengal at least, we speak of the loss of our inheritance. How we have lost what we could normally, otherwise, inherit – our land, houses, ponds, water bodies, rivers, ecosystems, maybe our hills and mountains, and our community context. So we lose our inheritances when we get uprooted, partitioned and truncated, when we become refugees.

But, Avik, Lina and Alison have inverted this usual thing, “the loss of inheritance” becomes “inheritance of loss”. What would it mean to inherit loss? It probably means inheriting a sense of nothingness, inheriting a sense of void and death. How does one inherit a sense of loss, void and death? Since this is a poetry festival, an internationally organised and assisted poetry festival, I first quote from Shankha Ghosh, one of our more eminent poets from Bengal who, incidentally, was once trained at Iowa University which I find is one of the partners here.

Shankha Ghosh, a refugee himself and once a resident of East Bengal or what is now Bangladesh, an uprooted displaced refugee writes –

“Akhono Kirtonkhola, akhono ki achhe shei naam
Amar shorir shudhu jege othe, taar kachhe gele.”

“Is it still Kirtankhola (a river in East Bengal), does the name still exist?
My body gets aroused only when I go to her.”

So the displaced, partitioned, uprooted poet feels alive, aroused, awakened, and enlivened only when he thinks of or approaches that river of his childhood. That lost river of the lost land, Kirtankhola. When we inherit loss, we also inherit a desire to die – a desire to break, a desire break to lose, lose and further lose. Sunil Gangopadhyay, another eminent poet and refugee, writes –

“Amra shokolei bhangoner probokta
Dhongshei amader ullash.” 

We all are advocates of erosion,
in destruction, lies our euphoria.

“Ishwar theke Sudhindranath, Buddhadeb Basur chhondo porjonto
amra bhangte bhangte eshechhi”

From god to the prosody of the elder poets,
We have broken them all

“Krishnanagarer putuler moto bhengechi Baba o Maa ke”
We have broken our father and our mothers like the clay dolls of Krishnanagar.

“Prem ke bhengechi, otirikto shorir mishiye”
We have broken love by mingling too much of the body

“Shorir ke bhengechi atmohononer neshaye.”
And the body we have broken in the intoxication of self-destruction.

“Desh ke jara bhengeche, amra mahanonde bhengechi tader bhabmurti”
Those who broke our country, we broke their images with great glee.

“Kancher glaash bhangar moton, sumodhur shobde amader paayer tolaye gnuro hoyechhe ak akta mullyobodh”
Like a breaking glass, every single value has smashed underfoot with a sweet sound.

So the inheritance of loss signifies the inheritance of this kind of nothingness, but it also signifies a continued legacy of fractious fights, a dogged desire to keep on losing, to keep on being divisive. The partition of Bengal gives rise to partitions, partitions and partitions; yesterday, today and tomorrow. In our quotidian lives every day, these several partitions keep on truncating our lives, lands, peoples, camps, political parties, NGOs, communities, habits, and our habitats.

Nirendranath Chakraborty, another eminent poet and again displaced refugee originally from East Bengal, later rooted in West Bengal, writes his famous poem “Bhagabhagir Khyala” (The Game of Partition). He finds that people even today, in Nandigram and Singur during the political fights of 2006-07, get partitioned not because they wanted it but because the intoxication has entered our blood. The poet watches the game, he knows that he has seen the partition once as a child, and now he sees these partitions of our everyday lives incessantly –

“Morini bolei ei khyala ta amio dekhe jachhi”

Since I’m not dead, I keep on watching the game

“Dekhchi aar bhabchi Satchollish thekei bodhoy ei bhaga bhagi khyalar ei nesha ta amader rokte dhuke gyachhe
Dekchi aar bhabchi je bhaager maa Ganga nai paak, ei bhaga bhagir neshai amader Gangajatra koriye chharbe” 

I’m watching the game and thinking probably it is since 1947 that this intoxicating game of partition has entered our blood.
Watching and thinking that even if the Divided Mother does not reach the holy Ganga, this intoxication of partition will ensure our corpses reach it.

Thus, we feel destined...Some would let us say in their prose (short stories, plays, novels) I’m not discussing them here as this is a poetry festival. Some would say that we play like Oedipus, who keeps on destroying his parents, himself and his children. We also, in an Oedipal mode, keep on destroying our parents, ourselves and our children, almost in a destined mode.

But this is still a provincial story. We are discussing the partition of Bengal in the Bengali language as encapsulated in Bengal’s poems. I had requested Avik, Lina, and Alison to deprovincialise this experience of ours. The question is how to deprovincialise this sense of loss, this sense of overwhelming erosion, this sense of self-destruction – how to situate our particular provincial thoughts and feelings globally?

Avik Chanda (AC): Since we’ve started by talking about partition, let’s first talk about the fact that the Partition didn’t just affect Bengal but the partition also occurred in West Pakistan and Punjab. And this is one of the things that you had, in fact, asked me...that if we are looking at the poetry of the late ’40s and even the ’50s, we see this absolutely searing impact of the partition completely transforming and transfiguring the literature of Bengal. Are there any parallels when we go to Pakistan or particularly Urdu poetry in Pakistan? One of the pre-eminent poets of that particular time, hailing from what soon became Pakistan, is Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

“Prem bhengechi...”, as you said. The implosion, the breaking away of the finer and subtler sensibilities of love in particular, I hope we’ll get to talk more about that. That plays a very important part in Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

There is this famous ghazal –

“Mujhse pehli si mohabbat, meri mehboob na maang” 

O beloved, do not ask of me that love of old.

Because those notions are gone, those sensibilities or subtler feelings are gone. This is where Faiz has the genius of transforming the banal, the quotidian into something much deeper. His answer is that it has gone into a sense of nothingness where it’s not dark, not light, not day...

I’m just paraphrasing and then I’ll just say a few lines in Urdu, it’s a very short poem. That is the external thing which is being mirrored here. There’s no love, no sensibilities, no feelings and even not lust. There is no belongingness.

He says –

“Is waqt to yunh lagta hai ab kuch bhi nahin hai
Mahtaab na suraj, na andhera na savera
Aankhon ke darichon pe kisi husn ka chilman
Aur dil ki panaahon mein kisi dard ka dera
Mumkinn hai koi wahm tha, mumkin hai suna ho
Galiyon mein kisi chaap ka ik aakhri phera
Shaakhon mein khayaalon ke ghane ped ki shaayad
Ab aa ke karega na koi khwaab basera
Ik bair na ik meher na ik rabt na rishta
Apna koi tera koi na paraaya koi mera”

In times like these it seems that there is nothing left
Neither moon nor sun, neither darkness nor the dawn
It’s as if beauty has dropped a veil over the oriels of sight
And sorrow has pitched its tent in the glade of your heart
Perhaps it was just imagination, or perhaps hearsay
That retreating pad of footsteps taking their last turn
No dream will now make its nest, perhaps
There on the branches of the dense foliage of thought
Neither malice nor kindness, neither intimacy nor kinship
None belong to you, nor are estranged from me

Alison James (AJ): I can say something but I perhaps have a comment that is coming more from my point of view...I teach French literature so I’m thinking of literature I’m more familiar with, which is post-war European literature in the wake of the World War, the holocaust and the experience of genocide, incredible destruction on a huge scale, and displacement. I was perhaps a bit puzzled by your emphasis on the desire for loss or this ongoing self-destruction because, from my point of view, the writers I’m thinking about – people like Charlotte Delbo, Georges Perec, and a few others, their emphasis is on a kind of seeking repair or seeking to find some way of recovering traces through testimony or finding points of anchoring.

Responding to displacement by appropriating space which could be an urban space, through projects that are grounded to the city, artistic projects describing cities but this is a response to loss. You’re trying to recover a space that you’ve been told are not yours or space that was not originally yours.

I would perhaps emphasise the other side of the coin, not the desire for loss but the desire for repair or recovery, a form of resistance that comes through the work of memory, remembering and gathering together the threads of the past. I could say a bit more about the writing I have in mind later, but I just wanted to raise that point.

Lina Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas (LFC): To the point you bring up, there is a desire to sort of make amends and make whole. Alapan’s question is about whether then we are drawn to the losses or the loss itself. I think there is a way to breach the gap between these two ideas.

The present is a living organism that wishes to preserve itself no matter what. And there’s only one way to look back and, that is, linearly. Everything in the past has always led to the present and the present must be meaningful and you can only look back directly at the past. Every time we talk about these moments of breach, these breaking moments of partitions or moments of war or displacement...these breaks create cracks in that linear timeline when we look back.

We’re trying to make meaning of the present which is to say that we do not know what could have been. When we do not know what could have been, we do not know if it would have been better or worse. And the present continuously tries to preserve and maintain itself as a viable meaningful place to exist. It wishes that there is nothing else, that there are no other breaks and that all other alternatives are not as meaningful as the one we have now. Because then we would necessarily be less meaningful, by extension, and that is a very difficult reality to grapple with.

I think we have the bad habit of attributing the courage of the survivor to that with which they survived. If the oppressor hadn’t been there, then perhaps they never would have had the cause or the opportunity for heroism. As if the blade that cuts through the skin of the hero has within itself the germ of heroism rather than the hero being able to rise. If he hadn’t had that cut or been attacked or had not been oppressed, perhaps there wouldn’t have been any heroes. Then, the present tries to reassert itself by returning to the question of isn’t there some glory in heroism? Isn’t there any glory in surviving these terrible things that happened to us?

But, in the words of Ursula K Le Guin, “This is the betrayal of the artist...if it hurts, repeat it.” We have forgotten how to describe a happy man because peace is not the opposite of heroism. To be whole and have meaning isn’t the opposite of the songs that can come. Because, history may be written by the victors but the songs are sung by the survivours. And the footnotes are perpetually written by the sons and daughters of the survivours.

I think that it is very difficult to parse through the reality that the present can be continuously meaningful whilst not rejecting that the alternative, without a break, would also have been meaningful. Perhaps more filled with meaning because there would have been more people to give meaning to it.

AC: When you’re talking about displacement and being uprooted, I am interested to know about the trials and tribulations of that experience from a Latin American perspective. Something that you have probably grown up with or you’ve seen and known. That doesn’t need to be partition; it could be civil war, insurrection or anything else.

LFC: Certainly. Now, I would like to mention that I myself am an incredibly privileged and protected person.

So, I’m from Colombia, born and raised. My entire family has always been Colombian for as long as Colombia has existed as a country. This also means that we have been there for every single one of those wars until my generation. My parents looked around and decided that it was just a bit too violent to bring up three girls. I have two sisters. They had three daughters and they decided to send us to the States which, they thought, would be much safer, which hasn’t always been true though. Just for the record.

It was done in response to a particular period of violence. In Colombian history, there is a period called “the Violence”. For the record, I grew up in the ‘80s and the ‘90s which were more violent than the period that the history books called “the Violence” in Colombia. That should give you some context for the number of deaths, tolls and the many permutations of that civil war. It was very difficult, in my teens, to watch hundreds of thousands of people being moved from the countryside into the capital city where I lived. They would be holding signs, trying to explain their situation in as few words as possible with the marks of crayons and crayola markers.

At the same time, I knew that the education in the place where they were coming from was not enough perhaps to make those words make sense. All of these signs weren’t well-written because, before the war, there was always a lack of education. To consider all of the poetry that was lost, you have to first consider the reasons of the war. And before you do so, you have to consider that to have a war you have to be hungry. And you cannot have poetry if you cannot write at all.

It was a very difficult period for the country and continues to be so. But, up until that moment of displacement, Colombia had the highest number of displaced people in the world on a per capita basis. We’re not a very large country so that should give you some context. I think this is what Alapan brings up and it is very meaningful. It is that a lot has been written and continues to be written. More importantly, a lot has been done to try to counter that. A lot of people have stood up in ways that they never would have if they hadn’t encountered such a catastrophic situation of humanity.

Nevertheless, there are so many more that cannot stand than those who are able to stand up given the circumstances. It is a very difficult devil’s arithmetic to begin to really try to comprehend the state or creative space or any possibility after the displacement when you consider that the worth of a human life cannot be contained in numbers, in days or breaths taken. This is because a human life is infinite in its possibility for the things that it could have created.

So when we talk about souls, even if you aren’t religious...we’re not talking about purely religious metaphysical concepts here, what we’re talking about is that when we encounter each other, life is so much more than what words can contain. Metaphors are the admission of the failure of language. When we use a metaphor what we’re really saying is that we do not have enough words to say what life is really about.

When we encounter each other and when we say soul, it’s a metaphor for the greatest metaphor of all – the human life. How are we to say what a life could do and what it could be? One life being snuffed out could be every Sufi poet that ever lived. We do not know because they never came to be. It is very difficult, I think, as one of those Colombians who “made it out”...I went to the States, got an education and I’ve published a book. I have to carry the notion and the weight of all those who couldn’t. As a person who grew up in the moment of displacement, I can tell you that I can never live up to that. I would trade anything to not have to think about that.

AB: Could there be a literature of despair? There is a famous phrase used by Albert Camus that there can be no literature of despair. I’ve often wondered whether displacements, migrations, exoduses can be of varied types. In some cases, hope remains alive. Typically, the Jews would think that next year we’ll meet in Jerusalem. Typically, they would think that probably they’ll be returning to their promised land. In the case of many migrants from Europe, America was a promised land. In the case of many poor people in South America, migration to North America would be a partial but nonetheless substantial journey.

But, what happens to a community when they think that they’ve lost two-thirds of their original land? They’re now confined to one-third of their original land, densely inhabiting a land which cannot afford any further agriculture. Full of unemployment, sliding down the hills fast and irresistibly, thinking only about a glorious past where they cannot go to. Thinking about the bloody ordeals that their forefathers or parents or relatives faced...then probably becoming aggressive but without having a sword to wield, the aggression is confined to their tongues.

So our toxic heart, an aggressive tongue and always resorting to verbal duels remain the only pursuits of that palpably vanquished displaced community. Is such a sense of despair commonly known in other parts of the world? Or is it a typical Bengal phenomenon? Something which carries a sense of overwhelming loss from which there is almost no redemption. Do others necessarily see such things? Or have others managed to see redemption from out of these Nadirs, if we may put it like that.

AJ: I would say that, in the post-war literature, there is a literature of the “absurd” which is often treated as a metaphysical abstraction. But, I think it has to be seen as a response to a world that has lost its meaning because of the experience of violence and rupture. I would say that there certainly are similarities. To that extent, perhaps we can generalise...

Obviously, there are different kinds of experiences of loss, on different scales. There is often literature that tries to grapple with this. I think it is always very tricky because often this literature coming from trauma is very fraught. It’s often literature that runs up against the limits of representation, naming...I think this is part of what Lina was gesturing to as well, in the sense that writing will never be enough.

Writing is, in some ways, necessary as a response to the experience. At the same time, it’s never going to suffice and never going to completely repair the loss. I’m thinking of a phrase from the writer Georges Perec. He was a French writer but his parents were Polish Jews who had moved to Paris. They died during World War II. His father died on the battlefield and his mother in the holocaust. He wrote in his autobiography, to quote Perec, “Writing is the memory of their death and the affirmation of my life.”

I think there is always this doubleness to writing. It’s a kind of scar that bears a mark of this loss that can’t be repaired. It’s always a kind of trace that is insufficient while, at the same time, it’s a kind of self-affirmation. Maybe this is coming back to Lina’s point as well about the force of the present and how we have to affirm who we are in the present. I don’t know if this is a way of replying to your question but there’s always a kind of doubleness to the writing of despair which is sort of between this affirmation and a sense of irreparable loss.

LFC: I’m so glad you brought up that quote. It does connect so well. Again, when I think of myself and my sisters...can you think of yourself differently? It’s almost impossible. It’s always wishful thinking. But, more importantly, coming back to your point, I’m thinking of Art Spiegelman and his phenomenal work of graphic memoir Maus. He is a second generation inheritor of loss, terming it specifically back to Alapan’s question. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work but his father is a survivor of the holocaust and Art Spiegelman takes an enormous amount of time and effort to record his father and illustrate it graphically to create this graphic memoir of his father’s loss and, by extension, his own loss.

He won the Pulitzer with this work which is an extraordinary feat if we’re talking about literature. In addition to that, he is very candid about his own misery and the questions he has about what to give his son. He drew one comic over and over again, where he is holding a box and he’s giving it to his very young son. His son asks, “What is it?” And he says, “It is trauma”.

This is the thing that we have in our family, this is what you have. His son opens it and a thousand snakes, monsters, and everything come out. Art Spiegelman asks the question of what is the purpose of trauma and what should we do in the context of something as horrific as the Holocaust. The Holocaust is horrific and we should remember it continuously. But, we should also remember all of the other events of horrific displacement and genocide. It is not unique to one group of people in the world. Art Spiegelman phrases it in the question when he is being interviewed by the German media. They ask him, “What should we do with this?” The same box, the same gift of trauma...are we supposed to feel guilty forever?” And he answers, “Yes, maybe.”

Maybe we do feel guilty forever. If some groups are going to be passing down this box with monsters, trauma and guilt forever, wouldn’t it be better if we all felt guiltier together rather than having one group feel trauma occasionally? And wait for the next genocide for us to then have something to write about, make movies about and give awards for.

AC: I was thinking about not just the responsibility of the survivor or successful person who made it out, to be a representative or standard bearer of their community, clan, region, or their world...but also the guilt of survival. I was thinking specifically about poets in Europe who were in labour camps. I was thinking particularly about Primo Levy in Italy and Paul Celan in Germany. One of the things that come up very strongly in the poetry of both Levy and Celan, even other people who were displaced such as Ingeborg Bachmann and Nelly Sachs, is that feeling of being not just dispossessed but uprooted.

You know you have roots, anchors and memories that are embedded in the soul, and that is being uprooted. That, I think, is quintessentially “Bengali”. It’s not just in poetry. Look at the poetry of celluloid, all of Ritwik Ghatak is that. It is the poetry of being uprooted. I’m just reminded of this particular line or two from Paul Celan. One of his later works called Die Niemandsrose which means “no man’s rose”. He’s going through this period where he’s actually de-conjugating, de-coalescing everything. He’s writing German almost in the way Samuel Beckett wrote his last text, very reductive, elemental, and powerful.

There’s a line which goes like this –

“In der Luft, das bleibt deine Würzel, da
In der Luft.”

In the air, that is where your roots remain,
Up there, in the air.

So what he’s presenting is a very potent symbol which, in fact, was made into a sculpture or installation at one of the main Jewish museums in modern-day Germany. He is suggesting that the way traditionally German poetry or European poetry would be written, the language and motif of that poetry itself has to be upended, with the roots going up.

AB: The Holocaust was a tragedy inflicted, let us say, by the bad upon us. The Bengal Partition was a tragedy which was collectively manufactured by all of us through our collective sins. The difficulty in the case of the Bengal Partition is that there is no villain which comes to the fore in order to give us a chance of redemption by contrasting ourselves to that dark character. We are all villains, we are all victims. We all realise that it was through a collective guilt of ours that our land was tragically divided and, as a people, we couldn’t stay together. Unlike in West Pakistan and Punjab, there was no moment of dramatic exodus or moment of bloody swapping of people. It kept on bleeding, bit by bit. That slow, tortuous, gradual cancerous bleeding made us weaker, weaker and weaker.

We realised that we made this tragedy for ourselves through our sins in the last several hundred years. It has been our own making. There is no redemption and this cancer will go unstopped. And the dejection and despair, this feeling of being uprooted, probably legitimately, and the feeling of being lost, probably irreversibly…

Since we were incapable of showing the greatest amount of empathy for the multitudes of our society, they revolted and threw us from much of the land that they now occupy. The old aristocrats’ sense of guilt vis-à-vis their erstwhile serfs. The Empire’s guilt, the coloniser’s guilt…how do the empire-building people and the colony-building people reconcile themselves with them shrinking to their own native land.

So I would say that the tragedy of the holocaust, the sense of guilt that a coloniser has, makes a blend which exists in Bengal. We knew that we had once made a society where everyone didn’t get equality. Those who were getting unfair treatment rose in revolt and, hence, the land got partitioned and, in turn, many of us had to recede. And the tragedy continues, as historian Ranajit Guha said, because of our own original sin. When a tragedy occurs due to our own original sin, the despair looks a bit beyond redemption. Does this have any resonance globally? That was my question.

LFC: I think it’s a fascinating question and I’m glad that you’re posing it. I got as many books and anthologies of Indian poetry and history as I possibly could. And I know only that I know nothing about this incredibly long and complex history. So I will not pretend to know many of the details of which you speak. As a result, I will speak just to your question – is this unique or is this general?

The only answer that can be true is yes to both. It has to be unique in order to be universal and it can only be universal if it is unique. If I may add to that, the essence of that answer, which sounds very much like avoiding the question itself, only exists as an evasion because we have the notion of the “them” and the “us”. So when you talk about this region betrayed itself in a way, created its own tragedies; I can relate to that very much.

Colombia hasn’t been fighting other countries, we’ve been fighting ourselves. But, I can relate to that far more when I think about the fact that, as a human species, we haven’t been waging war against lions but against ourselves. So, the “we”, the “them”, and the “us” what make this universal. The person itself within it is what makes it personal. When we talk about the universality, we talk about the tragedy. But, when we talk about the person, we talk about poetry. Because the person creates the poetry, not the circumstances.

AC: Particularly in the case of the British, there are many archetypes but the predominant amongst them, clearly, has been Kipling with “Gunga Din”. It’s the archetype of the white coloniser assuaging his guilt for exploiting, for whipping, for depriving the native of that which is their own. All out on paper, like blood on paper. “Gunga Din”, you should read this. It reads a little dated but it really epitomises what you’re talking about.