Deep underneath the monolith of Bengali canonical poetry, much read, rehearsed and appreciated, lies alternative, hushed voices that prefer to serve the muse in silence and secrecy. This is not exactly subaltern poetry, but the poets brought together in The Great Bengali Poetry Underground, an anthology published by the Singapore-based Kitaab, thrive on the periphery, preferring to remain in their psychic wilderness, content with publications in little magazines and often maintaining a distance from mainstream Bengali verse-writing – perhaps to sharpen the claws of their alternative perspectives.

I came across an excerpt from The Great Bengali Poetry Underground quite by accident while browsing the internet, and the flavour of these poems, as well as translator, Rajat Chaudhuri’s excellent introduction, immediately drew my attention. Chaudhuri has brought together ten poets from India and Bangladesh, from cities like Kolkata and Dhaka to villages in Bankura or Purulia, to present a hard-to-find flavour of a culture in ferment.

The hundred poems grouped as underground poetry cover a spectrum of feelings and world views. From Pratyush Bandopadhyay’s vitriolic lines to Novera Hossain and Aysa Jhorna’s lyrical accomplishments, there is really a lot on offer. Life and death, passion and disenchantment, philosophy and dark laughter have come together in The Great Bengali Poetry Underground to draw readers along the course of a nether stream where the absence of spotlights is a blessing for art.

Chaudhuri deserves kudos for the excellent translations, which brings to life the subtle nuances of Bengali culture, ethnicity, linguistic variations and a network of varied perspectives that go on to create a rich tapestry of diverse poetry, both delightful, sardonic, humorous, and profoundly epiphanic. I haven’t come across any recent effort in this country to dig into the undercurrents of a literary culture, and that in itself makes this a notable endeavour.

There are many memorable lines in this powerful book, and almost every poet had something to say that remained with me. Let me mention a few.

Arpan Chakraborty’s words emerge from the self-realisation of one who had seen a lot in life and experienced even more. In “If this Road” we find how the poetic persona hails the marble-hearted “She”, the Medusa or the Muse, numerous times throughout his life – “Day and night he had been calling her...”

In another poem, “Use Me”, Chakraborty writes, “Sorry like this I want to remain”. It is as if the poet is speaking of his determination not to attempt to enter the hallowed chambers, and we can even sense a resistance towards ideologies, groupings and the mediocre. In the final reckoning Chakraborty is a meditative philosopher-poet.

In Agni Roy’s exquisite prose poems, the poet shows how the quotidian can be employed to fashion memorable lines, where the high and the low, the erudite and the banal, can fuse in perfect harmony. These lines are from “Diary of a Delirium”. and throughout the collection he shows originality in the use of metaphors and word images that still resonate in a new language:

“The auto jerks to a halt at the top of Jamuna bridge. The driver’s piss jet, guilelessly innocent like a south Asian sun. Is he doubled over with sugar in his body? In this premium city, there’s not a chance for such aimless musings...”

Pratyush Bandopadhyay’s verse seethes with angst and anger and we feel his lines will scald us with their heat if we dare touch them. In “Electric Corridor”, as in his other poems, he shows us the face of the cannibal inherent in nature and within us. What if the food we consume daily decides one day to make meals out of us?

“The nights of the world get deeper
The nights of the world like nurturing a viper in one’s bosom
The nights of the world the days of the world
The afternoons and mornings of the world slice up
Divide and eat
All the watermelon men and women of the world...”

From the angst-ridden to the lyrical, Shapla Shawparjita’s verse leads us on journeys of love and loss and the quest for women’s emancipation. “Letters to the Wind” beautifully portrays a character who could be a scarlet woman from the manner in which she envisages the petals of the night but she also calls her “conflicting dark feminine”. Shawparjita evocatively writes:

“The leaves are swaying to the rhythm of the mandakranta metre
The snow on the branches, melting in the gentle darkness
The house, shimmering in water that’s delicate like a woman’s self-respect”

Mitul Dutta’s “Comrade” seems to address the trials and tribulations of the “comrades” of the world, who must chew and digest every bit of the reality to emerge victorious in a future revolution. Dutta skilfully marries the darkness of urban wastelands with an inner music that is the soul of her accomplished poems. She writes:

“Comrade, a stale smell of corpses
Rises from our rose garden
Comrade, what flowering season’s this, no flowers
Hermit, what sort of spring is it then?
Comrade, fellow-travellers roam around, who to trust
In the horizon of hatless heads
Where to go on holiday, the sea or jungle, or else
Return to the room that suffocates?...”

In “Sikia Jhora” Novera Hossain conjures up apocalyptic doom:

“Fresh blood is flowing. In Najd’s heart-tearing emptiness
A desert storm within, while it’s calm outside
Torn books, Aztec masks.
Sikia jhora let me be your eyes
And you my heart be
Let us see each other again at the meeting point on the same street, in solitude...”

The rhythm of Hossain’s verse, the meandering lines imbued with a magical energy, are very special, including a long poem about climate change. In a different way this is also true for Aysa Jhorna’s poems.

Gouranga Mondal, a younger poet, shows great maturity in poems like “Overcoming” as he speaks of inner and outer voyages that one must undertake for self-discovery and finding the Muse. Elsewhere in Atanu Chakrabortty we encounter a delicate sensibility which can turn iconoclastic in poems like “Draupadi’s Disrobing”, while Tanmay Mridha grabs attention with his sarcasm and dark humour.

I cannot avoid mentioning the uniqueness of the cover art, which shows a Royal Bengal tiger and Bengal’s favourite hilsa fish against the backdrop of what looks like a pit, which could be a nod to Edgar Allan Poe. Indeed, one likes to imagine the poets gathered in this anthology as surreptitious felines, lurking in the shadows and blind spots of mainstream culture, wary, alert and ready. The cover design brings this out quite evocatively. Also, the black and blue stylisation of the dark backdrop, almost a blue monochrome, seems to symbolise the struggles that forge good verse, far from the gibberish echo-chambers of high culture.

Indeed, this galaxy of underground poets of Bengal emerge from this book as truth-tellers and myth-busters, almost reminding us of the Beats through their beatitudes. One looks forward to more volumes of this book in future with the hope that the commendable effort that has gone into this maiden venture will be consolidated in a new wave of underground creativity that has been flowing unheard and unseen to many, till now.

Parthapratim Dasgupta teaches English language and literature in a Kolkata college where he serves as the Principal. He has published two novels.

The Great Bengali Poetry Underground

The Great Bengali Poetry Underground, translated by Rajat Chaudhuri, Kitaab.