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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 11 New Delhi March 2, 2019

A Centennial Tribute - Subhas Mukhopadhyay

Sunday 3 March 2019

The birth centenary of the eminent Bengali poet, Subhas Mukhopadhyay (February 12, 1919-July 8, 2003), was held recently with a three-day function (February 13-16, 2019) in Kolkata. It was organised by the Bengali periodical, Saptaha; Subhas Mukhopadhyay happened to be the Chairman of the weekly’s Editorial Board. While remembering him and offering our sincere homage to his abiding memory on this occasion, we are reproducing the tribute to Subhas Mukhopadhyay that was published in the Mainstream issue of July 12, 2003.

Subhas Mukhopadhyay

SUMIT CHAKRAVARTTY

Subhas Mukhopadhyay is no more. On July 8 the eighty four-year-old outstanding poet of Bengal breathed his last after considerable physical suffering. He passed away at Kolkata’s Belle Vue Nursing Home at 6.55 am, leaving behind his ailing wife Geeta Bandyopadhyay and three daughters, apart from his countless friends, associates and admirers.

The news of Subhas-da’s demise (he was “Subhas-da” to all of us belonging to the younger generation of poets and writers influenced by his poetry) hardly figured in the pages of ‘national’ dailies. But then wasn’t that the case when he received the Padma Bhushan award on January 26 this year? As I mentioned to a high-profile journalist at that time, well-known politician-journalist recipients of such awards hog the headlines regardless of their contributions to society whereas one has to strain one’s eyes to find the names of a Subhas Mukhopadhyay or a Sitakant Mahapatra in the list of awardees. Creativity has little or no value in today’s money-making market-oriented commercial world where Mammon reigns supreme.

When he received the twenty-seventh Jannpith Award for 1991 for his contribution to the enrichment of Indian literature through creative writing in Bengali from 1971 to 1985, I wrote the following lines (besides reproducing his “My Calcutta” from the India International Centre Quarterly) in Mainstream (June 13, 1992). When he received the issue he wrote me a post card saying he had liked and appreciated the piece.

“One of the most striking poets of post-Tagore Bengal, Subhas-da is a man of deep commitment. A Marxist by conviction, he has, however, severed connections with the Communist establishments having seen through the hypocrisy of mouthing slogans of democracy while discarding in practice the democratic essence of functioning of the party or the administration. An outspoken supporter of Khrushchev’s policies, he was the first to translate Solzhenitsyn in Bengali. His other translations include Nazim Hikmet’s poems and the Rosenbergs’ Diary. Naturally drawn towards the Gorbachevian revolution, he was the first Leftist poet to openly denounce last year’s August coup in erstwhile USSR even before it was crushed by mass resistance. Wedded to nationalist values and committed to the welfare of the depressed and the disprivileged, his reportages on the Great Bengal Famine of 1943—subsequently compiled in Amur Bangla (My Bengal)—exerted a powerful influence on a whole generation of Bengali writers.

“Since the late fifties Subhas-da’s poetry took a new turn, his expressions acquiring greater depth and appeal with the frequent use of the colloquial language and metaphors. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award for 1965 for his Jato Durei Jai (Wherever I Go). In 1977 he received the Afro-Asian Lotus Prize and in 1982 he was honoured with the Kumaran Asan Award (of Kerala). Always reflecting the voice of the nation and oppressed humanity, he has been devastatingly sarcastic of the party apparatchiks even while agonising over the massacre of innocents propelled by ultra-Leftism in the seventies.

“His prose is as exquisite as his poetry. He edited the foremost literary journal of Bengal, Parichay, and later was the joint editor of the popular children’s magazine, Sandesh, with the late Satyajit Ray revealing in the process his calibre as a storyteller for children.

“In September 1971 was published his Ei Bhai (Hey Brother). The book contains of poem, ‘In Our Hands’, excerpts from which appear( most appropriate today:

The more our eyes open up,

the more the fists gain strength.

They wanted to sell it in dollars,

we have bought it

with our life-blood.

They had thrown it away,

we have picked it up.

Look, the banner of freedom is

now

in our hands. 

“Subhas-da, now 73, has traversed a long distance. But his love for India, Bengal, the Bengali language, the people of this majestic country—one of his poems, ‘Proclamation’, written at the height of the freedom struggle, remains one of the best expositions of the patriotic radicalism of the forties steeped as it is in profound admiration for our death-defying toiling multitudes—has not in the least diminished with the passage of time. So also his love for Calcutta, the city of his creativity.”

At a personal level Subhas-da-’s demise is an immense loss for me in particular. He had deep affection for me and encouraged and inspired me to write Bengali poetry as few have done. Indeed Subhas Mukhopadhyay and Sukanta Bhattacharya have been our role-models in the field of Bengali poetry besides the unparalleled Bishnu Dey though we did acquire a lot of sustenance from Jibanananda Das and Sudhindranath Dutta as well. As a matter of fact Subhas-da was quite fond of my verses. The last time I met him he prodded me to bring out a collection of my poems. I was instantly reminded of our evening walks through the dingy Kolkata streets in the sixties with Subhas-da reciting my verses in a bid to dissect them. Those were unforgettable occasions one would cherish forever.

The last time we met was on a winter evening at his Sarat Banerjee Road residence. As usual he warmly greeted me. By then he had completely lost his sense of hearing, one of the attributes of old age. I wrote a few lines on a slate with a piece of chalk.

My query was as follows:

In one of your poems you had written several years ago: ‘Quicken your pace, brother, the century is coming to a close..’ When you wrote those lines world socialism was at its peak. Today at the turn of the century and millennium the scenario has completely changed: socialism is on the retreat worldwide and what has emerged in its place is indeed frightening. What have you to say to these unfortunate developments?

Subhas-da smiled and then said something that once again mirrored his boundless optimism. In his own words,

The world has definitely changed for the worse since I wrote those lines. But then if you go back in time, did anyone imagine at the dawn of the twentieth century what spectacular developments the world would experience in the next hundred years? What was the situation at that time? Colonialism was holding sway, imperialism had firmly established itself. Did anyone even think of the sun setting on the British empire in the year 1900? And the plight of the oppressed nations was epitomised by what was happening to China due to the colonial machinations, the kind of barbarism it had to suffer. But then didn’t the world undergo a sea-change in the coming days?

Subhas-da’s words remain etched in my memory. I recalled that rewarding discussion at a recent meeting in Delhi University’s Department of Chinese Studies to bring out the significance of what Mao Zedong had declared after the October 1949 Revolution: “China has stood up!” It is the historic transformation of countries like China and Russia in the twentieth century that lends such magnificence to it, despite all that humanity had to endure during the same period.

The best tribute we can offer to Subhas-da is to remember him through his poetry, some of which are being presented here for the benefit of the readers. Though he was essentially a Bengali poet, these renderings in English (the first by Chinmohan Sehanavis and the rest by Sunil Kanti Sen) have tried to capture some of the essence of the original Bengali:

For the Red Rose

Look at our love,
deep in the silence of grief,
stretched from the snowcapped mountains
to the edges of the sea,
the brow bent,
rivetted on the flowering earth.

The wounds left by the chains
are yet to heal.
The cords of the heart
are yet to be turned.
The world is yet to move back for ever
from the brink of the catastrophe.

The time is broken, uneven,
like a furrowed field.
It’s a strain to walk through.
Yet, I know, the seeds lie hidden in its womb.
Our sorrows for this day,
hopes blighted, inconsolable, turbulent,
will shed tears
and join in the festival of the new harvest...

It’s our fight now
for the red rose,
our hearts steeled in courage.

Don’t Call Me a Poet

I want my words
To stand upright on their legs,
I want every shadow
To be open-eyed,
I want every still picture
To walk.

I don’t want to be called a poet.
Till the last day of my life
I want to walk with my comrades
Shoulder to shoulder.

I want to put my pen down
Beside a tractor,
And say,
Brother I wish to call it a day,
Give me a small spark of fire.

Search for a Face

I saw a face in a procession,
A steely arm with a clenched fist
Raised towards the sky,
Dishevelled hairs waving in the wind
Like tongues of flame.
Amidst the crowd
The face glowed like phosphorus,
On the crest of a storm-tossed seawave.

The meeting ended
And the crowd dispersed.
With arms down,
The face disappeared in that moving forest.

Morning and evening I wander around
I stand and watch any moving crowd
And search for that face.

I may like a girl with a sharp nose,
The glance of a fawn-eyed girl
Charms me,
But their arms are not raised
Towards the sky,
In vain I look for a face
Glowing like phosphorus
On the crest of a storm-tossed seawave.

When I see a synthetic face
Trying to hide its ugliness
With costly cosmetics,
Or a perfumed body
Trying to smother the stench of a corpse,
That peerless face
Flashes before me
Like a sword unsheathed
Waking me up.

When the day grows dark,
I thrust banned pamphlets
Into hands outstretched,
And call on them
To tear down the crumbling edifice,
Hoping that in the midst
Of a surging crowd
A face will take shape,
And the unfettered love
Of the whole world
Will bridge two hearts.

Current Thoughts

Looking back I can still see
A raging sea rearing its waves,
Like the dark swollen mane of a lion.
Bullet marks on walls
And streets strewn
With torn shoes, broken slates of children
And splatter of blood.
My life staked its youth
With a many-hued yearning for freedom.

Far ahead
(I wonder how far)
I can still see
A splendid day with a golden promise
Beckoning me with a song.
Standing amidst a lush paddy field
I can see its strong arms.
Before I fall fighting
I would like to pass on to it
The deepest desires of my life.

Wherever I Go

Wherever I go,
The name of a river
Wreathed with waves
Goes along with me.
Wherever I go,
A cottage yard
Neatly plastered with dung,
With footprints of Lakshmi
Is glued to my eyes.

(Mainstream, July 12, 2003)

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