The celebrated Bengali poet Nirendranath Chakraborty died at the age of 94 on December 25, 2018 leaving behind not only his family and fans but also an aura of authenticity that was unmistakably the hallmark of his poems. Born in a remote village of Faridpur district in erstwhile East Bengal, Chakraborty shifted to Kolkata at a very early age. He recounts his memory of East Bengal, its lush green, tumultuous rains, and the loving affection with which he was brought up by his grandparents in his autobiography Nirbindu (Drop Of Water).
But Chakraborty’s senses were also nurtured by the streets of Kolkata, where he was a native and stranger at the same time. He had said on several occasions that poetry is not something which can be crafted as and when one wants – a surge of emotions is necessary to give voice to one’s innermost feelings. “Shahid Rameshwar” (“Rameshawr The Martyr”) was such a poem. It was written to protest against the brutal killing of a student leader in 1945, and became instantly popular among the masses, bringing the poet into the limelight.
Because Chakraborty could blend high seriousness with a sense of wicked fun or black humour, his writings were never for the highbrowed alone. They received enormous recognition and appreciation from general readers as well. His immensely popular poem “Ulanga Raja” (“The Naked Emperor”), where a young boy asks the monarch where His Majesty’s attire has gone, turned into an anthem of sorts – so much so that the poetry collection of the same name sold more than 20,000 copies within a year of being published.
‘The Naked Emperor’
Everyone sees that the emperor is naked, but still
Everyone cheers. Well done. Well done.
Some out of tradition, some out of fear
Some have pawned their brains to others
Some beg for food, some are
Favour-seekers, lobbyists, frauds
Some think royal robes are indeed so fine that
Even if invisible, they exist
Or, at least, it’s not impossible that they do
Everyone knows the story
But in this story
There weren’t just some eulogy-mouthing
Complete cowards, tricksters or idiot
There was a child too
A truthful, direct, courageous child
The emperor in the story is in the real world now
Again the applause is continuous
A crowd of flatterers
But nowhere in the mob today do I see
Where has the child gone? Has someone
Hidden him in a
Secret mountain cave?
Or has he, playing with pebbled and grass and mud,
Desolate, distant river, or in the shade of a tree in the wild
Go, somehow or the other
Let him appear before this naked emperor
And stand boldly
Let his voice be heard but once above this applause
Where are your clothes, emperor?
(1971)— Translated from the Bengali.
Several other poems of Chakraborty’s such as “Kolkatar Jishu” (“Jesus Of Kolkata”), which narrates the simple tale of how an infant, a beggar’s child, brings the traffic to a halt while crossing a busy street; “Kolghore Chiler Kanna” (“The Hawk’s Wailing In The Bathroom”); “Hello Dumdum”, a poem in which a flood in the city leaves human beings and dogs equally stranded; or “Sapne Dekha Gharduar” (“Homes Seen In Dreams”) have entered the realm of daily conversation and left their mark on Bengali culture. They have been lapped up by readers and critics alike because in them we find the cohesiveness of great novels, combined with moral intensity.
Chakraborty found ways to engage with the world the way it is, without capitulating to a perceived demand for renouncing any alternative sense of reality. His collections of poetry, from “Kholamukhi” (“Open Fist”) through “Pagla Ghanti” (“The Alarm Bell”) and “Samoy Baro Kam” (“Time Is Scarce”), to “Jangole Ek Unmadini” (“A Mad Woman In The Jungle”) reiterate his commitment to lucidity and alertness against even the slightest imprecision. Yet at times his words and imagery assert that full comprehensibility is a chimera, an obstacle to true understanding. He preferred a foreplay between clarity and obscurity, to help to identify the truth that no order can suppress, no ordinance can impose.
Poetry is not something which one can sum up, but if we want something to remember Chakraborty by, it can be aptly said that he was a realist and fantasist at the same time, and that his poems, at their best, obliterate the line between the two.
You were so very depressed today, chimpanzee
At the zoo. You were by the lake.
Sitting morosely. Not once did you
Climb on the iron swing-set made for you
All the bananas and peanuts and chickpeas
Were untouched. You didn’t throw them a glance
Like a miserable man you sat there alone
Burying your face in your knees
Why were you so depressed today, chimpanzee?
What saddens you? To be just like a human being
You climbed a staircase stretching across
Millions of years, only because you missed the final steps
Did you not be human. Was this regret what kept you
Sitting unhappily by the lake?
You were so very downcast today, chimpanzee
You were almost there, but you didn’t become
Human, perhaps it was this despair
That kept you away from the swings today
You did not perform tricks like a half-human
To please young and old, maybe you didn’t notice
Or you did, that just like apes the audience
Tittered at you and went off to the tiger’s cage
(1969)— Translated from the Bengali.
Apart from poetry, Chakraborrty wrote detective novels whose central character, Mr Bhaduri, was quite popular among readers. And, the master craftsman that he was, he wrote a hugely popular book titled “Kobitar Class” (“A Classroom For Poetry”), which have taught the rules of Bangla meter and rhyming to innumerable budding poets.
Another significant contribution of Chakrabarty’s was the book “Bangla: Ki Likhben Kano Likhben” (“Bengali: What to Write And Why”) which has helped Bengali journalists and writers alike for many decades now. A great grammarian, Chakrabarty was equally great as an editor, under whose watchful eye the Bengali childdren’s magazine Anandamela reached great heights and became a storehouse of an immense variety of children’s literature.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Chakraborty’s superb translation of the Tintin series and other comics into Bengali opened a gate to the West and broadened the spectrum for young readers. It can safely be said that he augmented the Bengali language with fresh plasticity, often shaping it into new configurations.
Nirendranath Chakrabarty could be said to have fired from multiple cylinders all his life. After his death he has left behind a legacy of sharp poignancy and a layered simplicity, to say nothing of the bittersweet vulnerability which constituted the crux of his time and writings.
‘Jesus Of Calcutta’
There was no forbidding red light
But still Calcutta, rushing at breakneck speed,
Has stopped suddenly
Desperately regaining their balance
Taxis and cars, trucks, double-decker buses with tigers’ faces
Those who ran up screaming from both sides
Of the road
Porters, vendors, shopkeepers, customers
They too are still like images pinned on
The artist’s easel
In silence everyone watches
A completely naked child
Crossing from one pavement to the opposite one
On tottering feet
It has rained just a while ago in Chowringhee
Like an extra-long spear, the sun has again
Pierced the heart of the clouds
Calcutta is bathed in a magical light
My face framed in the window of the state-owned bus
I look alternately at the sky and you
Child of a beggar mother
Jesus of Calcutta
You have stopped all traffic with your spell
The shrieking crowds, the grinding teeth of impatient drivers
You care for nothing
Death looms on either side, between them
You wobble forward
Like personified humanity, you want the entire world
In your hand
From the joy of learning to walk. That’s why
With teetering steps, you
Are going from one corner of the universe to another
(1969)— Translated from the Bengali.
Binayak Bandyopadhyay is a poet and fiction writer in Bengali.