Three poems by the leftist Bengali poet Birendra Chattopadhyay seem to be conversing from the past with our beleaguered, volatile, bloodthirsty present. They are not so much about war or conflict per se as they are about man’s insatiable and ironic capacity to ponder upon and perpetuate his own destruction.

Birendra Chattopadhyay (1920-1985) was a poet of socialist causes and small presses, of lived humiliations and unsung ironies. Marxist to the core, he was one of the most prominent Bengali poets of the 1950s and 1960s, writing in the wake of the Second World War, the global rise of communism, and the ambiguities of the new Indian state. Never the tendentious peddler of agitprop, he was a poet of the political, rather than merely a political poet.

Against War

Let us all go to the nation of the moon.
While there is time, let’s plant the towering
Flags of our nations on moon’s highest peak,
And make its soil more valuable than gold.

On Earth is left no river, mountain or sky,
Or even six feet of land to find sleep.
The tiny speck needed to shelter a bird’s nest,
For one stalk of grass to stand erect, are
History’s memory, or grandmother’s oral tale.
It is a sham that men, on radio and television want
To clinch the light by bickering across the table,
It is a sham that men keep boasting about
His nation and his team to himself.
Actually, no sign of land is left under his feet,
To even build a colony measuring just six feet.

Let’s go to the moon, and if time permits let us
Gift it our nation’s anthems, dearer than gold.
Then, when the moon shuts down and
When tales of our ancestors conclude,
We can start new calculations, and like Agasthya
Suck in the land of Saturn, Uranus and Mars.
We, the peace-loving, just need six feet of land to survive.

In the Absence of Light

There is a ban even on breathing, because
Man, in the darkness, in the
Middle of this slaughterhouse,
Sits quiet and still, below six feet of land,
So that he can hide his face.
There are no windows,
Doors can’t even be thought of,
Cause, if the air enters, one has to become
A Hindu, and another, a Muslim,
Cause inside or outside the room,
There is endless, infernal hatred.

Land of Birth

Take a look at this land
Then, take a look at man.
The night is yet to end,
Darkness, like a heavy stone, still
Weighs on your chest, you cannot breathe.
A fierce dark sky looms above your head
Like a tiger with its paws raised.
In whatever way you can,
Put aside the stone, and go tell the

Ferocity of the sky, in a quiet voice, that you aren’t afraid.
If you do not know how to harvest,
The land will breathe fire;
If you forget the incantation to bring rain,
The land will be a desert.

One who does not know how to sing,
Turns mute and blind at the advent of catastrophe.
Take a look at this land, it lies in wait.
Hold man by his hand, he has something to say.

The poems have been translated from the Bengali by Sayandeb Chowdhury.

Sayandeb Chowdhury teaches in the School of Interwoven Arts and Sciences, Krea University, India. He is the author of Uttam Kumar: A Life in Cinema (Bloomsbury, 2021). His most recent translation was published in Modern Poetry in Translation (2022), which was also of a poem by Birendra Chattopadhyay.

The poems have been published with the permission of the family/estate of Birendra Chattopadhyay.