Moonlit Rats and Owls

On October 22, 2014 by admin

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Manash Bhattacharjee

Today is the sixtieth death anniversary of Jibanananda Das (17 February 1899 – 22 October 1954). Shaking himself off Tagore’s Victorian and mystical influences, Jibanananda made the most distinctive mark in the early modernist phase of Bengali poetry. There was as much a new, naturalist lyricism in his poetry as much as new ways of describing time. Time in Jibanananda’s poems was not an abstract, contemplative category, but an optical one, visible in the passing of seasons and the activities of birds and insects. It is through time one measures two intimate aspects of human life: waiting and memory, and Jibanananda’s poetry is replete with imageries where the lover waits and remembers through the passing of time, most intensely captured through naturalistic images. Nature in Jibanananda’s poetry does not resonate with the exuberant charms found in Tagore, but appears, rather, in slow, terrible images of decay. The birth of each new season and activity in nature also marks an end, a death of the previous season. There is also ‘human’ nature, and Jibanananda’s sensibility is equally tilted towards the harsh, primitive naturalism of ‘human nature’. The sexual ‘nature’ of feelings is often described in predatory terms, through the dangerous lures hiding in the dark belly of nature. This created controversy around his poems.

Jibanananda was a master of bleak images, and the shadow of pessimism haunted his poems. The effects of early industraialisation and the moving away from village to city life disturbed him. This theme would become the preoccupation of many later poets from Calcutta. To conclude with a word on his most celebrated and well-known poem, Banalata Sen: Today the poem reads like an allegory imagining an impossible juxtaposition—a Bengali woman from a mofussil town of Bangladesh, belonging to the ‘vaidya’ caste, being emblematic of a Buddhist era that flung across ‘national’ boundaries, mapping a geography and time most palpably remote. The poem is perhaps still as enigmatic as ever because it manages to violently juxtapose the petty everydayness of contemporary life with a longing for a place, an era and a pair of eyes that no longer exist.

 

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After the Harvest

 

The harvest was over who knows when – hay,

leaves, various remains, broken eggs scattered

in the fields – snake skin, nest-like cold.

Beyond all these, at the heart of the field,

sleep a few familiar people,

strangely inert.

 

There someone else sleeps too – day and night

the one I used to meet for a long time.

With heart-games, so many misdeeeds I committed

on her.

Peace still reigns: deep green grass, grasshoppers

today envelop her thoughts and the taste

of her dark questions.

 

 

Simple

 

You will never come to hear

this song –

tonight my call

will float in air along

the pathway,

yet this song comes to heart.

Yet I do not forget

the language of calling –

love still stays alive

in the heart,

I still sing

into the earth’s ear

into the star’s ear;

I know you will never

hear it –

tonight my call

will float in air along

the pathway,

yet the song comes to heart.

 

You water, you wave – your

body paces like sea-waves –

your simple

mind floats by the surge of sea

waters;

some wave she doesn’t know

touched her in which darkness;

a wave she doesn’t know

searches her in the dark;

you are Sindhu’s night-waters,

Sindhu’s night-waves;

who loves you, does anyone

carry you in his heart.

You go along the surge

of waves and far-flung waters behind

call you back.

 

You are only a night’s single day;

A crowd of men and women

Call you far away – so far away –

To some sea coast, forest – field – or

A sky where floats a make-believe

Light of falling stars,

Or a sky where the bent

Moon like a crescent

Raises up – sinks – your life’s taste

For you are them, all;

Where tree branches shake

In a cold night – like the white

Bone of dead hands –

Where the forest takes dark

Primal smells to heart

And sings a song.

You had come like a

Night’s wind to the solitary

Heart‘s song

And gave whatever a night could.

 

 

After Twenty Five Years

 

For the last time when I

met her in the field

I said, ‘One day at such

hour come again – if you

so desire – after twenty five years’.

Saying this I returned home.

Later the moon and stars died so

many times in the field, in the

moonlight rats and owls in search

of paddy fields came and went; with

eyes closed on the left and right

so many people fell asleep; I alone

stayed awake; though

times arrives faster than the

flight of stars,

twenty five years don’t get over.

 

Then – one day

the field is again full of yellow

grass; dew drops float on leaves,

dry branches, everywhere; the

sparrow’s broken nest is wet

with dew; broken bird-eggs on

the road, cold – stiff;

cucumber flowers, one or two rotten

white cucumbers, broken spider webs,

dried-up spiders over leaves and stems;

the road is visible in the

bright moonlight;

a few stars are seen in the

cold sky – rats and owls

roam over the fields

their thirst even today

quenched by seeds,

twenty five years however

were long over.

 

 

A Strange Darkness

 

A strange darkness has set

upon this world.

Today the blind

Are the most clear sighted

Those without any love,

friendliness or stirrings of pity:

the world today is paralysed

without their advice.

 

Those who still have deep

faith in human beings;

even now before whom

great truths, art and piety

come naturally:

today their hearts are food

for vultures and jackals.

 

 

Banalata Sen

 

A thousand nights I have walked this earth.

From the Singhalese sea to the Malaya ocean

in the dead of night I travelled far.

I was there in the dusty era of Bimbisara

and Ashoka, and in the further dark of Vidharba.

I tired soul, amidst life’s frothy ocean,

granted peace awhile by Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

Her hair, hoary darkness, Vidhisha’s nightfall,

her face, Sravasti’s artistry; beyond many seas

like a shipwrecked sailor sights plentiful grass

in a cinnamon island, I saw her in the dark.

“Where were you all these days?”, asked she,

her nest-like eyes lifted, Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

At the entire day’s end, dusk comes like the sound

of dew, the kite wipes away the smell of

sunlight from its wings;

when all earth colours are extinguished,

the manuscript, with the shimmering glow

of fireflies, is prepared to tell a story.

 

All birds return home – all rivers too –

all life’s give-and-take comes to an end,

only darkness remains and to sit face to face,

Banalata Sen.

 

(Translations by Manash Bhattacharjee)

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Manash Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, translator and political science scholar based in New Delhi. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems, was published by The London Magazine.

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