Sukanta Bhattacharya was 21 when he died on May 13, 1947, just a few days after his first collection of poems, Chharpatra, was published. Hunger and rebellion had preoccupied him for much of his short life. Very often, the two were entwined.
During the Bengal famine of 1943, he was involved in relief work, trying to ensure rations reached the starving poor of Kolkata. The famine is now widely believed to be a result of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s policies. Whether these historical causes were recognised at that time is up for debate. But images of people dying on the streets would have sharpened anger against the imperial regime. In 1944, Bhattacharya edited an anthology of poems called ‘Akal [Famine]’ for the Anti-Fascist Writers and Artists Association.
The plight of the working class is a running theme in poems by Bhattacharya, a committed socialist. There are poems in Chharpatra that speak of rebellion by the faceless millions of this working class. They are invoked in Deshlaiyer Kathi, for instance, where match sticks come together to light fires that engulf fields and cities.
But it was Hey Mahajibon [O Great Life]’, a short poem which rages against poetry, that became anthemic. The time for poetry is gone, it says, the time for unadorned prose is come. Hunger dissolves all metaphor. It ends with the famous, richly visual, line: To the poor, the full moon is like scalded bread.
Hey mahajiban, aar ei kabya nai
Ebaar kotheen, kathor gadyo aano,
Pad-lalitya-jhankar muchhe jaak
Gadyer kada haatudike aaj aano!
Prayajan nei, kabitar snigdhata –
Kabita tomaye dilam aajke chhuti,
Kshudhar rajye prithibi-gadyamai
Poornima-chand jeno jholshano ruti.
[O great life, no more of this poetry
Now bring the hard, harsh prose,
Wipe away the poetry-softened chimes
Strike the stern hammer of prose today!
No more need for the tenderness of poetry
Poetry today I give you leave
In the realm of hunger, the world is prosaic
The full moon is like scalded bread.]