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.
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,
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
Peace still reigns: deep green grass, grasshoppers
today envelop her thoughts and the taste
of her dark questions.
You will never come to hear
this song –
tonight my call
will float in air along
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
yet the song comes to heart.
You water, you wave – your
body paces like sea-waves –
mind floats by the surge of sea
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,
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
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
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
today their hearts are food
for vultures and jackals.
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,
(Translations by Manash Bhattacharjee)
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.