Time does not pass; we pass. So writes Bhartrahari. “kaalonayaatah, vayamevayaataah”. Utpal Kumar Basu, having lived for the last decade or so in an entirely undeserved public oblivion (though his last book of poems “Piya Man Bhabe” got the Sahitya Akademi award last year), passed away a few weeks back.
I came to know him quite accidentally when I found an elderly gentleman, studiedly unkempt in attire, but with a pair of sleepy but large and scintillating eyes, attending my lectures on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, week after week—as if he needed to take a test on that text—at the Kolkata (Patuli) Center for Study of the Social Sciences. That was about eight years ago. He never introduced himself to me, but I came to know that he was Utpal Kumar Basu, a poet’s poet who was awarded the Ananda Puraskar. When I started reading his work systematically, I marveled at how incomparable his depth, subtlety and precision were in relation to all the celebrated poets in Bangla of our times. And yet, this extra-ordinary mind moved about and sat in obscure corners of literary, philosophical or social science seminars, in ill-washed kurta-pajama and a pair of boots, as if he was a retired banker’s clerk getting interested in literature, philosophy and anthropology late in his life.
A well-traveled geologist who read amazingly widely, Utpal Kumar had an insatiable appetite for knowledge which was never satisfied by information. Sitting in his own flat one evening in 2009, I had debated the complex relationship between scientific and historical knowledge and poetry. I tried to provoke him by idolizing Binoy Mazumdar and making the kind of divine insanity that Socrates traces poetry to (for example in the Platonic dialogue called “Ion”) a necessary condition for good poetry. He laughed in disagreement and claimed modestly that he had never been insane, though he had often been angry and lustful. His progressive politics was never on display. Even in bitter disagreement, he maintained a good-humoured smile and a warm friendliness which have become vanishingly rare among intellectuals and prize-winning poets in India. For all his amicability, Utpal Kumar’s political irony never missed its target:
“There is very little time, now let us mingle in the crowd of all those knowers of politics/ who get their food from shooting their guns on the shoulders of starving peasants.
(The untranslatable original here goes “chaashider maathaay kanthaal bhenge”)”. Autobiography and cosmopolitanism, relentless protest against economic inequality and a lyrical aloneness, uncanny Jibanananda-like sensitivity to touch and smell of every body-hair, every “smell of sunlight on the kite’s wing”, every drop of sweat of corporeal animal existence combined to stamp each of Basu’s poem’s with an unrepeatable perfection. Chaitrye Rochito Kobita, Lochondas Karigar, Khando baichitryer Din,Dhusar Atagach, Salma Jorir Kaaj, Night School, Tusu Amar Chintamoni: just some of the titles of his books make a unique catalogue of phrases that remake the Bengali language, quietly but radically by the sheer juxtaposition of the classical and the contemporary, the rural and the urban, the plain and the ornate, the exotic and the quotidian.
Some of his imagery defies all literary critical taxonomy:
“ And then, in the grass-forest are left behind your personal sandals of Spring time/ The sky today is as real as the blue shirt and shorts of the children of gods/ A lonesome peacock is roaming in that first floor room/ Sajal used to stay in that room/Sajal’s wife and daughter used to stay…. Getting down to the furrow of the promiseless river two men are looking for copper and mica// You lost your private sandals of Spring time in Badampahar/ I lost my personal writing style in Badampahar//”
A couple of years back he published a short poem in the magazine Anushtup. Eshechhe Bedonaa. Those days I happened to be struggling with some physical pain and also was lecturing in my classes on Buddhist and Wittgensteinian philosophies of pain. The poem was so personal and so universal in its unsharable acuteness of suffering of an aching ageing body that I wondered how it could even be written in Bengali or any language at all. It is clearly about chronic pain which no words can ever express. Yet the personification of recurrent pain and the tragic humour about such unbearable pain made it a delight to read. The more it hurt the more it charmed. I tried to translate it and failed. Well, now that the eternally inquisitive Utpal-daa is personally busy interviewing death, Nachiketa –style, I offer my failure as his translator as a tribute to his memory.
Pain has come.
As if on a well-planned pilgrimage at his own expense.
He will go to Varanasi, go to Mecca, and in between,
Now and then,
Will also visit me.
How much has your right hand healed?
Hope you have not missed
Taking proper diet regularly, though it will be fine
If some such trifling memories lapse,
In the midst of all those goings away and comings back
For, his itinerary follows his own calculations.
Yet, it remains a bare fact that on some moonlit nights,
The stray street dogs call him,
And Pain, he too responds, and together
They tear apart these insomniac muscles and flesh,
Lacerate the drugged up vulnerability of my sleep.
Has our agony arrived yet?
Arindam Chakrabarti is Rajni Kothari Visiting Professor of Democracy, CSDS Delhi and Professor of Philosophy, University of Hawaii Manoa, USA.