Sometime in the late nineties I made my first acquaintance with a group of poets writing in Bengali, who were my introduction to the turbulent undercurrents of Bengali verse-writing which like a secret heartbeat animates the literary sphere of this language. The setting was a little curious. These young men and women had gathered on the rooftop of a dilapidated Calcutta mansion to share their work and discuss poetry and life over clay cups of tea and the local brew, whose popular name stands both for the language and the land.
Amidst heated debates about good and bad poets, angry lines splitting the evening apart and some mesmerising stanzas drifting through the falling winter light where thick clouds of tobacco smoke floated like apparitions – congealing around fairy lights from a recently concluded festival – the ghosts of Calcutta, refusing to forgo a taste of the city’s enticing madness, I made some friends. These were among the first of my poet friends working in Bengali. I would soon become a frequent visitor to these rooftop addas.
Now in two decades and a bit more, I have come to know many more poets. Somehow, they are not the ones you will often see in festival circuits or newspaper headlines. More probably they are to be found behind the tabletop counters of “little magazine” stalls, at coffee house addas or in some urban fantasy where every night they shapeshift from unimaginably mundane and ill-paying jobs to war-paint wearing, manifesto writing magicians of words, wielding their blood-dripping biros with pride.
Their work is rarely available in other languages and if Facebook hadn’t been around, few beyond a small and dedicated readership would have known their names.
Unless you are prepared to keep track of ‘little magazine’ publications, unless you are determined to navigate intoxicated evenings in some hole in the wall in central Calcutta where fights may break out on questions of rhyme and metre and without the doggedness to hunt down readings organised within their closely-knit groups all across Bengal, you would find it difficult to tap into this creative stream that flows unnoticed.
Being fortunate enough to be introduced to the work of this variegated and passionate bunch of creators who represent the rich undercurrents of Bengali poetry or what we will call “the underground”, I felt it is of utmost importance that these voices and this growing body of work reach out to a wider audience. Also, there are good translations of well-established poets and writers but hardly any of emerging and new voices. This collection of verse was born primarily from these realisations.
However the immediate problem was to decide whose work to include. How to select the poems for translation, what poetic themes or creative experiments will this collection embody and convey? We have often heard in Bengali literary addas a tongue-in-cheek remark segregating the poets and writers of West Bengal into one of three camps – those who are apparently close to and supported by the so-called establishment (with insinuations of political affiliations stamped on these creators), those who are patronised and nurtured by one of the major media establishments headquartered in Calcutta (with insinuations of pandering to the market stamped on these creators) and finally an alternative or third group of poets who are branded the “rebels”, the “alternative”, the “fiery”, “the hungry” and so on and who often find and express their creative voices in alternative media from blogs to little magazines.
As with most such taxonomies, this story can only be partly true. There is always an osmosis between groups, a movement from here to there and often there will be those who belong to more than one. But where does all this leave poetry?
Is it really true as some would contend that the last of the three groups is the place to look, for the best in verse being written in Bengali today. Perhaps not. Such a simplistic analysis doesn’t take us anywhere and it ignores the rich tradition of poetry coming from Bangladesh and places further afield.
So instead of trawling for great poetry using a taxonomic approach, I decided to look for words where they are born. I decided to plumb the depths, the undercurrents or the underground. The underground – the place where words and lines are forged, often secretly, with compassion, with a challenge and sometimes with unheard of courage and a fulminating passion to present poems that disturb, disconcert, scare, appeal, declaim and finally strike at the roots of the ordinary in all its aspects. It is an emotional route to take no doubt but the underground one believes is the place where almost all great art is born.
From its mid-twentieth century origins in Britain and the US (inspired by the Beats) as a vehicle for protest and indicative of aspirations for an “alternative”, their use of free form, performance and their preference for little magazine publication, the underground literary movements found resonance in Bengal in the work of the Hungryalist poets. But underground radical creativity just does not vanish with the waning of one movement or another. Like a subterranean stream these undercurrents of the literary continue to flow sometimes unnoticed, sometimes bursting out into full public view.
And everywhere, this literary underground continues to be a place for experimentation, for risk-taking, for walking naked under the neon-glow of global commerce, for rebelling against all kinds of orders. It is a place where the high priests of literature can be pilloried for their conservatism while inspiration can be drawn from the gibberish of a dying drunk. From the musical to the literary to the political and other spheres, the underground is where ideas break out of the shackles of orthodoxy and immobility to strike out into the wider world.
In another sense underground poetry is poetry that travels deep inside, revealing our innermost beings with honesty on the page – our deepest and most secret thoughts, so private that they are easily universal. Underground poetry is also the site where language spurts venom as it soothes with the balm of words, it is a chamber of whispers, magic, signs, hieroglyphs and impossible algebras.
In curating this volume, assisted by a very efficient grapevine and supplemented by critics, poets, academics and readers, I aimed for all of the above senses and locations of the underground. One hopes to have put together a rare assemblage of voices that will present before English speaking audiences a glimpse of the fiery mysteries and the music of the hidden torrents of Bengali verse.
The poets included in this anthology may not have a manifesto like radical literary movements do. A couple of them have also received awards and enjoy wider audiences in the Bengali-speaking world but in all of them one has discovered new visions, new structures and fresh and ingenious ways of engagement with the poetic language.
While reading these poems at our selection meetings and also while translating, I have noticed three broad themes emerge. For the purposes of this introduction, with the caveat that such classifications are inherently hazardous, especially when we are dealing with landscapes of dynamism and experimentation, I have found the poems in this volume could be labelled as those dealing with “Death, Darkness and Effuvium”, “Nakedness and Honesty” and “Magic, Sorcery and Madness”. I leave it up to the reader to decide which poem sits best under which of these categories and if at all the categorisation that follows is justified.
We have presented ten poets covering India and Bangladesh in this first volume of The Great Bengali Poetry Underground. I would urge the reader to have a look at the biographies, which accompany the poems, to get an idea about the terrain where from these shadowy riders of Bengali literature emerge.
Excerpted with permission from Rajat Chaudhuri’s introduction to The Great Bengali Poetry Underground, translated by Rajat Chaudhuri, Kitaab.
Awake in this chilling winter, like an owl
Who are you prepaid disenchantment?
Swaying like a drunken bear
Behind you the urban symphony’s dhin-tinak-dhin!
Who are you that crawls out of a broken home
Each night, from under the rail bridge
Holding hands with the glowing drunk
Into communal new-moon nights
Hasn’t been possible in all this time to get cured
of sorrow and moonless nights
Your association’s suspect.
In a single life, how much longer can one keep
building shelters like columns of ants
Or accept a wind driven sound or watery detachment
You cringe from the fear of anonymous letters
Or remain locked-up in the hot suffocating dark.
Dangling like bats and writing all those stories
Of being irresistible!
Niranjan is not such a bad guy
Though he is mad, he’s quite neat and tidy, Like madmen
He doesn’t have tousled hair and beard
Or long nails on hands or feet
The verandah outside the Party office,
Where he stays at night – he has set it up
To his liking.
He has only that one foible, dirt
He totally dislikes it! And
That’s why, if ever, someone, gives him a shirt even
He checks, whether it has a pocket or not!
Because, compared to the rest of the shirt, dirt accumulates more in the pocket
Remains there even after washing.
That which spreads roots in the soil
For a short while – is called a tree,
That which, for some decades
With myths of shadow and shelter
Keeps us engaged,
With numerous knots on its roots
Is an ancient tree,
Whatever expecting to be uprooted
Waits for a merciless hand
And we who in very cold blood
Keep faith in such rumours
The light of blind women. A zari shop of a dream.
Winter like a promise. Handful of alms all morning.
Because you’ll walk away trampling on pain
Roads curved away towards tuneless songs.
You place stones upon stones. Arranging monochrome sadness.
From the verandah of slumber tumbled
Someone worshipped by Death. What severe punishment
Like a yellow bucket floats
In the waters of this town. What a hard nut between your teeth
Like this patience of mine, you’ve chewed and eaten yesterday.