The Deceased Deer, Spring Moonlight and Shahaduz Zaman’s Jibanananda

On August 15, 2020 by admin



# 1927: a young Jibanananda Das musters courage to send his first collection of poems—Jhara Palok—by post to Rabindranath Tagore, requesting the great man for his opinion. Tagore reads the poems and replies to the accompanying note. Few people knew Jibanananda at that time as a poet.  But Tagore’s sincerity to respond to his interlocutors is legendary. What Tagore writes can be summed up somewhat like this: “There is no doubt that you are blessed with poetic sensibility. But I do not understand why you should announce a war—jabardasti-with language and words. This eccentricity of gesture becomes needless ostadi. In all large compositions there is always some kind of shantih—surpassing calmness. Wherever I see that element missing, I feel worried about the staying power of such an art form. To show force is not exactly a thing by which one achieves power. Often the opposite happens” (Shahaduz Zaman, 2019).

Such a note was surprising coming from Tagore, especially since he was unusually polite or quiet, even with his detractors. Besides, Jibanananda’s ostadi with language did not even begin at that stage! Jibanananda was just an unknown mufassil poet at that time. Anybody would be devastated with such a rude letter, and that too coming from Tagore! Jibanananda did not flinch. With great composure and self-confidence he replies to Tagore:  “I am honoured to merit your response. Indeed, young Bengali writers are blessed to have such a great savant-like you blazing bright over the firmament. I am in no way fit for such large bounty coming from you. But I worship a certain writerly shakti and try to connect that to all that is benevolent in the cosmos. Your note has set me thinking. In much high art, I often notice a great thirst for happiness or dukhha—sorrow. The poet often strives to achieve surpassing truth by travelling to the jyotirlok or in the poison infested netherworld—paataal. But even in such places, it does not seem that poetry could achieve calmness or composure. Indeed, serenity is a thing in the Greek universe. But I do not see much of that in Dante or Shelley. Does that make them lesser poets or their art temporary, I wonder? There could be various moods. The sky has so many colours—sometimes darkness deep, flushed with light at other times; endless blue now, earth’s green reflected in it at other moments. Can we say one such hue is more beautiful than the other?  Sometimes the changing colour of the kites plays with sky’s changing hues. That seems permanent to me. Perhaps there is some inward tone and lilt to creation?  If true creativity is absent, can shantih make such art timeless?  I write here what I feel. You will forgive my talkativeness with your largeness of soul. My bhaktipurna pranama to you” (Shahaduz Zaman, 2019).

This description appears in one of the most powerful creative biographies written in Bangla in recent times: Ekjon Kamolalebu (Someone, an Orange) by Shahaduz Zaman. The work follows a chronos, but time is weaved through an inner, creative story. The vicissitudes of the poet’s life is woven within the experiences of a most troubled and moving time. And yet there is a constant return and renewal of phrases and ideas, inner turmoil and psychic conditions—as if everything comes together to create a rich palimpsest over the narration. In young Jibanananda, who was financially in a precarious situation at that time and temperamentally deeply taciturn, we detect a man well adept to argue, especially equipped to cite Western instances of artworks in defense of his position. He was an itinerant professor of English literature. We see a man who nurtures a strong sense of creativity and self-confidence about his capacities, though still not recognized and acknowledged by the world. But most importantly, here is a battle that has erupted between two differing sensibilities. A new and restive existential quest is about to interrogate all that is estimated as surpassing, harmonious, and in order in the cosmos. Jibanananda has deftly transferred the onus of art to a variety of frames and dispositions that the artist may nurture with reference to the changing natural and ambient circumstances. The subjectivity of the artist is deeply material and pantheistic. He wants poetry to renew its bonds with blood and grime, with ennui and sexuality, hunger, cruelty, and despair. Following this, there are meanderings through difficult pathways in order to emerge from such states, though not necessarily unscathed. And always: attempts to forge a new language, sieved through the uncanny-everyday, to express such restive thoughts.

# Upon acquiring a master’s degree in literature, Jibanananda joins as a junior tutor in City College, Kolkata. Not very adept in the ways and attitudes that the big city demands, he lives in Presidency College boarding house; reads sundry magazines and books. And he writes in his diary “We have no taste for enjoyment…nor have we any instinct for aesthetics. We are content with fourth-hand men and materials…we have no complaints if the chair is bug-ridden and creaking if we can manage to sit on it somehow….We have lost the iconoclast’s spirit” (Shahaduz Zaman, 2019). He feels Kolkata is akin to a prison, where people, zombie-like, move about with no destination. And at this time he loses the City College job. His first book of poetry has not been well received. Jibanananda begins to feel he ‘shall survive’ to see himself ‘impotent and forgotten.’ He begins to come closer to his self.

At that point he receives an unexpected piece of news from his father at Barisal: that with the help of a mutual contact, he had managed to procure for Jibanananda a job in the English department of Ramjas College, Delhi. Having no choice as an unemployed man, Jibanananda rushes to Delhi. Delhi proves to be even more inhospitable to him. The chilly winter and loneliness make him go inward. And the Principal and his colleagues are most distant and unforthcoming in nature.  Perhaps few were prejudiced against him owing to his learning and introverted nature? His dhoti-clad self felt small in the midst of the smart and articulate teachers of the college. Besides, the students were not at all warm to him. He was not a particularly effective teacher perhaps? The students often booed him off the class. But he stuck to the job.

He was, by this time, in love with his cousin Shobhona, with whom he had spent sundry sweet hours in Dibrugarh, a few years ago. But his love stutters. And this state of mind he calls ‘torment incarnated.’ Meanwhile, one morning Jibanananda receives a letter from his mother Kusumkumari, a poet in her own right, to come back to Kolkata for there is a match for him: her name was Labonyo. He agrees to the marriage after a brief meeting with the prospective bride. But back in Delhi, he was again pined and tormented for Shobhona. One day, a colleague cajoles him to visit the brothels and he writes about the first impression of that world and then abruptly ends with—‘everything, Namaste.’ He seems to have been struck by the ritualistic aspects of a transaction that was otherwise most blasé and natural in its pedigree. Eventually, he travels to Barisal for marriage. Shobhona too makes an appearance—casual and offhand. He had taken leave from Ramjas College for the ceremony but one day he receives a letter from the college administration that he has been terminated from the job. The letter is signed by one Lala Rai Kedarnath, who was the proprietor-principal of the college at that time. Only a strange, half-hearted letter of recommendation follows, written by the same man who terminated him from the job. A line in the letter reads: “He proved himself useful and efficient in the English Deptt. & his conduct and bearing have been satisfactory” (Das, 2009, Vol 4, p 1972). A ‘useful man of literature’ becomes unemployed for the second time in life. This time, just after his marriage. The marriage soon turned bitter and he writes poignant entries in his diary that the marriage was a scam.

And he is in the throes of acute poverty: “moneylessness, like a dirty wallowing pig.” Days are much soiled and he feels like is pariah: “degraded in soul [I have bowed before every cat and dog]” (Shahaduz Zaman, 2019). At the point of time he turned into writing stories and novels, many of which are autobiographical in spirit. It is as if Emil Cioran’s favourite Romanian expression comes to life: n-a fost sa fie–literally, “it wasn’t to be.” He left those in trunks, unpublished, and to be discovered much later. Failure became too familiar, and he nearly develops a kind of flair for it. And failure always seeks company in humiliation. Failure reveals us to ourselves. In his diary entries and fiction, he gives a direction to this failed, parasitical existence.

During this time, a particular poem by Jibanananda—titled In the Camp, was especially targeted by his detractors—like Sajanikanta Dey. This poem dramatized the notion of the hunter and the hunted and the idea of the tragic trap that we are in. In fact, the interplay between desire to hunt and the exposed assailability of the hunted is a constant and recurring motif in his writings. The carpers frame charges of obscenity against the poet. And the whole episode turns into a little scandal. Jibanananda takes up the quill and laughs at the dismal level of aesthetic sensibility among the Bengalis. What is the supposed condition of existence which is being evaluated as obscene?  These people, the evaluators—are prurient within, he decries. To such people, even the sky and the stars are not undefiled. Prurient critics shall forever miss the angst and imagination of creation. Had such poems been sent to the literary circles of Europe, true appreciation would be forthcoming.  He recalls Robert Browning delineating Muleykeh, a mare in these words, in the long poem with an eponymous title: ‘she was the child of his heart by the day, the wife of his breast by night’ and wonders about the reaction of the prurient to such lines. His angst-filled but confident note would be published after his death in Shatabhisha magazine.


It is all a trap—that is what exposure to frangibility instructs Jibanananda night and day. The lovers in his stories are like insects being drawn towards drosophila. In every turn of life, brutality awaits. A great hunter plans and executes our daily degradation and downfall. There is no dodging, no respite. Fortune, through its many deft agents, lurks in the wings to extract a steep price for our daring to fulfill desires. The wings of the beautiful butterfly are mindlessly torn off by the truant schoolboy.  The stag in the spring moonlight is first trapped and then killed effortlessly by the hunter. Agitation and passion lead to expectations that are bound to lead to vulnerability. Doleful absurdity is the truth of the hunted and the hunter, each bound by his own trajectory of anxiety and terror. No wonder he despises all cosmic order of regulated movement. Does this condition of being embroiled in desperation also devise its own release?

# Early 1930s.  Pangs of unemployment swallow up Jibanananda’s morale and increases domestic strife. He writes “I wish I was a bachelor again—aghast when I think of future domestic life” (Shahaduz Zaman, 2019). Someone taunts him about his state and he responds in his dairy that the unemployed “stand & run & throb & palpitate, it is only the well-placed who merit the eternal charm of the easy chair or cushions” (Shahaduz Zaman, 2019). To stand sentinel every waking hour to one’s fate was too much for him. Such was the nature of the manifest darkness that he preferred sitting in the dark for hours—which he calls sleeping within the womb enmeshed, like death.  In one of his poems, he describes the world is infected with sunlight and millions of hogs are wailing and thumping around in festive spirit.  Love and marriage eluded him. The last resort was literature. He notices that some of his mates have learnt to ‘sing well’ and are achieving literary fame too. He observes some others hankering for recognition. He is tremendously shocked to find his name missing in one of the new anthologies of Bangla poetry. He hopes to maintain his composure. But inevitable mood swings happen: “Everything is old, musty, worn out & second hand about me: literature, liberty, catalogue—Even in poetry, thrust back, my anthologies and cuttings don’t help me…nobody, nowhere & the corruption, bulging flesh &washing away…to die thus…” (Shahaduz Zaman, 2019). An old student wants to help him with a job as a railway guard. Later, in one of his novels, Jibanananda would dramatize the event by suggesting that he had a dream that even after his death he keeps a vigil of railway stations with a green flag in hand, donning a white cap of the railway guard and an even whiter pair of shoes to match.

Shahaduz Zaman ponders that it may well be inquired as to the reasons for his not being able to land up a job. One was that in the late 1920s and in the 1930s the Great Depression took a huge toll on the prospective job seekers. Britain too suffered and consequently, slashed financial expenses towards the upkeep of its colonies. Workers were being retrenched from offices and factories. Besides, Jibanananda had a second class MA degree and many of the new applicants had a first. That did not help his cause. Another reason was his mien and temperament. He was well aware that people who make it in life are often articulate to the extent of being able to sell themselves to prospective employers. Their demeanor is also full of confidence, unlike his own state of affairs. Having a degree is never sufficient insurance. One also needs to be adept at keeping up with significant networks.

Not only that, he often suffered from issues of his own making. For instance, Jibanananda would not travel outside Bengal for a job anymore after the abortive Delhi experience. He was plain scared. The choice was between genial acquaintances and interlocutors on one hand and money on the other. But he needed the dough. Even as a teacher he was not exactly first-rate. He tried out his hand in small enterprise—selling insurance and even umbrella handles. Again his introverted nature and lack of agility were not conducive to such ventures. Labonyo writes in her autobiography that more than not bagging a job, Jibanananda was not inclined to be drafted into the drudgery of a pen-pushing clerk or even be a tutor. It is telling that in one of his short stories (Poetry, Poetry and Still Poetry), the protagonist, upon inquired about his liking, says, “A little single storied house in the far corner of the city, a carpeted reading room, a few tables and chairs made of mahogany wood and lots and lots of books to my taste—days and nights of reading and smoking cigar” (Shahaduz Zaman, 2019). This was his dream: to nurture an absolute contemplative life and keep writing.

This brings Shahaduz Zaman to reflect upon the underlying cause of Jibanananda’s reticent nature. Like most of his fictional characters, he was constantly grappling with the idea of an aesthetic realization of the self and failure in worldly ways. This tendency he named—karubashona—the inclination and intense desire for the aesthetic. It is a condition of insatiable thirst, an existential craving. Those who are afflicted by karubashona have no other route available to them to square with life’s travails and punishments. Beyond all the din of the world rings the peals of imagination and dream. In the throes of karubashona, perception is creation itself and not a mere receptive faculty. Perception of this nature is neither a matter of intellect nor that of affect. But a mode of establishing a sense of the relational—with time, nature, the palimpsest of history, other human beings, and with an ever insistent creaturely angst. There develops an acute attention to pain. To have this sense, he felt, was an inherent sin to the world and a curse that the artist carries along with him. Who would buy books of poetry—filled deeply with the malady of karubashona? Is there an eternal battle between Lakshmi and Saraswati, never to be truly reconciled? The artist is an unnatural, illegitimate being. He cannot run away from the mundane world for that is what nurtures art; nor can he come to terms with its demands and with the common measures of success.


These tidings might well be read as pure indulgence on the poet’s part. To keep pace with such a level of self-absorption may even be tiring at times. But that is not the point. It was a difficult time globally and we notice how a highly imaginative and sensitive being is buffeted by circumstances and by his temperament. Circumstances do alienate him, but they also strengthen his resolve about the genuine vocation of the artist. An artist may be intensely implicated in the conditions of living; but he is also psychically tempted to read his circumstances and his time through a special filter which only he is able to take into several directions in future days and years. And there is a powerful and stark realist-materialist sense in Jibanananda’s ways. What is immediate and raging is also fleeting. And this disconnect simultaneously creates cravings and disappointment. One of the characters in his novel Karubashona says: “God has not given us nirvana. He has given us memory. And desire like the sea. But he has constructed the body with a speck of rotten wood” (Jibanananda Uponyash Samagra, Karubashona). There is a constant play of finitude and abundance in his very notion of karubashona. This can be noticed even in despair; especially triggered by despair. The desire for art—karubashona—came across as an edict to him; it came to him as karunirdesh, which must be obeyed by the kobimanash—the horizon that the poet inheres (Ghosh, 2000).  And a notable form of amoralism suffuses his works: “Like a static snail every person has his treasure, each operates within the ambit of social dharma and neeti. Only my eyes elude such immobility. I visit illegitimate roads, have illegitimate thoughts, ask illegitimate questions” (Jibanananda Uponyash Samagra, Karubashona). The free artist must shun the dicta of legitimacy.

# Poised at such a nadir, Jibanananda’s heart and soul begins to respond to the natural bounty of Bengal. In nature he seeks a fresh beginning. His delineation of nature is remarkable for its tactile and sensuous details, its lazy and bountiful forms. There is nothing ethereal, everything is felt. Yet, in his writings, nature distinctly harbours a geological dimension—as if the foliage and waterways of Bengal speak daily to the stars and the ancient planets. Uncanny presences of creatures—algae and moss, insects and luscious fruits, hundreds of species of birds and plants, cattle and the wide fields speak through his living, throbbing quill. Shahaduz Zaman calls this “a drowning man’s plea, his manifesto for a primitive love” (Shahaduz Zaman, 2019, p 107). But it is here that we also detect his difficult attempt to forge a restorative relationship between the particular gifts of wonder and the pangs of despair that life throws at each one of us, and the universal traffic between immersion in nature and a planetary-geological sense of history. Jibanananda nurtures a world-historical sense of human-creature, placed within the historical, the natural and the cosmological like the one conceived philosophically by Giambattista Vico or Wilhelm Dilthey. Association is the copresence of continuity and contemporaneity as the likes of Hartley, Coleridge or Thomas Mann have shown us, in their own art practice. (Incidentally, Jibanananda was a very meticulous reader of Mann). And imagination gives shape to such unicity. He was aware of such a characterization of his art but refused to acknowledge that he was consciously attempting in any such project. He would always consider himself to a lyric poet. At the level of singularity, therefore, Jibanananda realized that drowning is the first real step towards emergence. A fragile and despondent time is also uncanny and mysterious. Consequently, the poems written in this period are a goldmine for those trying to appreciate the planetary condition. But such an appreciation is never divested of the singular aching of the body and soul that is able to perceive the manifestations of crushing power and excruciating pain that contingency must bring about in the creature. This running dialectic between the individual and the singular on one hand and the geologically informed creaturely condition of the human and its universality on the other marks his many utterances; as if two parallel lines sometimes touch each other explosively only to return again to their respective trajectories. The poems of this phase would be anthologized much later under the rubric Ruposhi Bangla (Beauteous Bengal).

# 1935: Happy tidings. A new job. Lecturer at Brajamohan College, Barisal. Once again—days and nights by the bends of his favourite river, Dhanshiri. The domestic scenario also improves. The students are friendlier here than what he had encountered in Delhi and Kolkata. It is during this period that Jibanananda receives a letter from Buddhadev Bose, his old backer, that a new magazine called Kobita is about to be launched and Bose would be delighted to have poems from Jibanananda.  He stopped writing poetry altogether. But the letter galvanizes him. He comes out of ennui and begins to write a series of remarkable poems on the subject of love.

Shobhona was always his muse but now love takes a very different dimension in his poetry. It is about loss, recovery, and a renewed sense of loss. Love is about perennially waiting like a country owl for one’s beloved.  The loss is a strange sorrow—“the world possesses another being only once and never again.” Love is like grass germinating over his beloved, who is like loamy soil. It is, as it were, the embodied grass that rises up to the heart which turns grassy too. And then there are layers and layers of wind and sky. But love is full of danger too; it especially teeters at the threshold of jealousy and death. Under the spring moonlight the lovers experience eternity through piston-like wings. The energy is palpable. And then—a gunshot. His winged creatures sometimes transcend death through love in this manner. But often they succumb since human life is not sufficiently attuned to the secrets of existence; unlike the lives of other creatures. Couldn’t living be less or more than the humanly?

Jibanananda has been interrogated about the European inspiration in his poetry. His response was an acknowledgment of anxiety of influence. Reading other works, experiencing the flow of life, associations of immediate nature, social changes—everything bounces off against each other, an intricate tapestry develops, and gradually art happens. The poet or the translator has to reinvent a language and work creatively, with the medium that he engages with. Digesting diverse influences is of foremost importance for a creator. The past years of acute despair and poverty and his immersion in literature meanwhile is now converted into a powerful dialectic: between life and death, mirth and sorrow.  The whole cosmos now he can sense in the particularities of the everyday. The universe seems to revolve like zebras and vultures; the roar of ferocious lions comes to his home through open windows. At this point, with some egging from Bose, Jibanananda decides to publish his second book: Dhushar Pandulipi (Ashen Manuscript). The collection shall alter the fortunes of Bangla literature.

What he had once called bipponno bishmoy (enchanted vulnerability) actually never abandons him. Now he once again returns to those ontological concerns; and marries those concerns with stark and uncanny poetic imagery. There have been endless speculations about death and suicide in his landmark poem—Eight Year Ago a Day. The conundrum of creaturely action, the facticity, and finitude of living are marked by an equal and powerful attraction to bring life to an end, having felt in the veins the excesses of sensual bounty.  Creatures of such nature burn themselves off—there are no other alternatives left. But he also satirizes such a sentimental and self-indulgent way of looking at living. He repeatedly refutes the charge of being a poet of despair just as he had refuted the charges of obscenity earlier. Perhaps life’s success may lie in living fully by taking on life threats and beauties first-hand, as other animals and insects do? And by immersing in a certain life-force that moving history provides. In fact, Jibanananda was fully aware that his poetry is not a luxuriant indulgence to death or a passport to the spillover of the sensuous excessive. The stairs to heaven must pass through the purgatory. Therefore, to history, nature and love he brings the principle of evil directly and a libertarian romantic sensibility to boot that horrified the humanists and the genteel liberals. As a reaction, they charged him with writing counterfeit poetry and for creating an immoral cult and cautioned the young and the aspiring to keep away from such spurious influence. What they failed to notice is that the darkest of realizations for Jibanananda was his secret and sole path for emergence. A sense of creaturely vulnerability takes us headlong into the ferment of life, not away from it. We shall forget at our peril that bountiful marvels of life and nature forever awed Jibanananda’s sensibilities. He has captured the condition of such recompense in a gratuitous phrase: life’s endless granary. At his heart, he knew that from the depths of the most ominous caverns of sorrow, a hundred cataracts cascade like soothing care-givers. This is what Buddhadev Bose has called ‘renascence of wonder,’ scattered within the subdued and haunting tone of his poetry (Bose,1959).


# At this stage in his life Jibanananda does not solicit the evaluation of his poetry anymore from the critics and interlocutors. He is done with beseeching. He understands that apart from the kind and forthright Buddhadev Bose (and later, Sanjay Bhattacharya) he is surrounded mostly by detractors. Instead, he responds to the criticism about his writing and also gives his own viewpoint about poetry through sundry essays. The opening lines of one of his essays—Kobitar Katha (About Poetry) therefore famously announce, what has now become an adage in Bangla literary circles: “Not everyone is a poet; only a few are” (Das, 2015). He feels that amalgamation of imagination, thought, and experience, which when sieved through centuries of poetic utterances and through other contemporary forms, turns into poetry. It is not that poetry does not take cognizance of society, nation, or humanity, but any prior idea, ideology, or conclusion in the poet’s mind cannot give body to the skeleton of poetry. Such thoughts rather remain hidden like veins and blood particles within poetry. In another memorable utterance, Jibanananda says how he had felt sometimes that “the heart begins to burn like a candle in darkness and silence, and one can then feel the birthing process of poetry” (Shahaduz Zaman, 2019).

Through his prose and poetry he ponders about wars, famines, bombing, black-marketeering, and the rapid augmentation of greed and narcissism that constituted the world of the 1930s.  During these times, the progressive writers’ movement began to take shape and hope was being sown in order to take up cudgels against fascism. Socialist realism was in the air. And Subhash Mukhopadhyaya, a leading progressive voice of the time, attacked Jibanananda’s poetry of being a drug which destabilizes the sense of contemporary politics and history among the reader. Can hope be thus jejunely contrasted with despair, especially for those who pass through the severity of extreme times? Shahaduz Zaman sums up the situation: he is now squarely been pilloried by the progressives, the traditionalists and leading modernists of Bengal.

This issue—that Jibanananda takes us inward and by doing so, foments inertia, ennui, and stasis, in an old charge. Shankha Ghosh has responded to such an allegation in two ways. One, he has looked closely at the poetics (swarabritta), the rhythmic patterns, and the nature of suggestibility in Jibanananda’s art and found out a form that follows a certain tradition in the poetic practice in Bengal. So, Jibanananda’s relinquishing of the ornamental actually brings his creations closer to the everyday following such a tradition. It is not that Jibanananda wishes to look beyond the contemporary upheavals of history. His works are rather testimonials of the diurnal, placed within the frame of a larger totalization of creaturely acts. Such art practice provides a certain sonorous and rhythmic density to the passing tabloid of the contemporary. Art enframes every significant passing act. In the words of Ghosh, we discover an echo of Jibanananda himself, expressed in the latter’s essay on Poetry: “Therefore he wishes to imagine a certain distinct water by relinquishing every drop of earthly water, by abandoning every available lamp he begins to imagine another lamp. At such moments, he does not wish to see water but waterness, not the lamp but a certain luminous lampness. And in order to visualize such a truth, the poet requires a secret tunnel. From such a tunnel he can see the incandescence that irradiates life, illuminating its kernel and crux” (Ghosh, 1991).  The artists-creator simply refuses to rely on any superficial and disconnected sense of optimism.

It is pertinent to remember here how, right from the early days of his writing, Jibanananda was acutely conscious of the working class, especially the urban poor, the humdrum cycles and drudgery of the clerical class and generally about those who are hungry and unprovided for.  In one of his early poems, he thunders against the practice of retrenchment that was routine at that time, owing to the fallout of Great Depression and states that the power of the poetic self can only then be realized and one can sing paeans on behalf of the world if the hungry belly is sated. A memorable character sketch of the same period is Shital muchi (Shital, the Cobbler, Das, 2004), whom he imagines as a figure about whose dire state all statisticians and policymakers are silent. Yet another poem is addressed to Haridas Ghosh, the postal clerk who loves life in penury. He imagines life as a piece of meat. In an ironic temper, Jibanananda says the more he would discover poetry the more others will say that the time of poetry is gone; that they had enough of such things. These set of poems were composed much earlier, in the 1920s.

But being shunned by the progressives, he now begins to write about poetry. There is no pressure or responsibility upon poetry, he writes. Poetry irradiates the naturalness of the stark and it does not follow any set direction. Honest poetry comes to humiliation and daily grind through a holistic understanding of the vigour and force of life. Honest poetry is the poetry of revolution and that of the mightier time that arrives after the revolution.  There cannot be any universal panacea nor can there be any universal solution to the creaturely condition. And yet he is acutely aware of the daily humiliation of the working class and the lowest strata of the society. But as an artist, he would keep away from the totalization of the social and reveal time through the particularities. Shahaduz Zaman writes that Jibanananda would actually keep away from both the extremes of blind belief and pure rationality; and hence he was attacked by both sides.  Golam Mustafa’s translation of his poem Of 1934, A Poem on Motor Car, for instance, makes it evident that Jibanananda believed in the ferocity of slowness: “I do not want to go anywhere so fast. Whatever my life wants I have time to reach there walking” (Chowdhury and Mustafa, 2008).


# As the Second World War raged, one day Jibanananda receives an extraordinary letter. The sender’s name is Prabhakar Sen. He says that he has just received an MA degree in Economics from the University of Calcutta. He wrote a few paragraphs about how as a lay reader he grapples with and feels about Jibanananda’s poetry. He further states humbly that his literary knowledge is limited and therefore it is impossible for him to do any justice or fully savour the rasa of Jibanananda’s poetic utterances. Nevertheless, he writes to find out whether his hunches and surmises about Jibanananda’s poetry are correct.

The first observation is about Jibanananda’s writing style and method. Sen feels that unlike numerous other poets, Jibanananda does not pick up his pen whenever he is saddened. The realm of the poet is not a triage centre for the wounded. Instead, he lets the bhava to permeate throughout the form of the poem. Each part of each poem is related to the other in such a clear manner even as each remains in its metaphoric or revelatory state. Owing to this method, sometimes single stanzas may appear as weak, but overall the pattern stands illuminated to the reader. Each letter therefore corresponds and becomes equal partner to the immersed state of the poet.

Second: a speculation about the inspirational source of Jibanananda’s poetry. Sen feels that each of the poet’s contemporary articulations is rooted in the grey perennial. Time consciousness is crucial here. There is a crisscross of diverse time-space within each utterance though this factor is not easily visible to a naïve reader. Such a sensibility of time also demands an equal investment by the reader who must place the passing moment as palimpsest over multiple frames. Not too many readers can or will take this trouble. Only a few will travel through the light-years to reach another galaxy or glean pearls from the deep sea.

The third observation is about historical sensibility in Jibanananda’s writings. Sen astutely observes that since Jibanananda was intuitively tuned to the passage of time and its twists and turns, it was impossible for him to hold on to any ideology, temporality, system or even to human beings; that the poet will and have tried to latch on to such things but they slip and elude him. And therefore a residual desire for the earth, the female form (manushi), and so on is projected sometimes to the future in his poetry. The rhythm of time oscillates back and forth and these birthings of temporality appear as history to Jibanananda.

After going through the letter, Jibanananda felt, Shahaduz Zaman tells us, that he is encountering and knowing his self in a new manner.  He replied to Sen with a lot of commendation and love and even hoped that he should use such a sharp analytical mind to review the poet’s works.  That bit never materialized. But the two turned into good friends, though Sen was much younger to Jibanananda. Much later, after the Partition of India, when Jibanananda and his black trunks (filled with manuscripts, mostly unpublished) will forever be part of Calcutta, the two would often meet at Indian Coffee House and discuss novels and novel writing. They also used to discuss Jibanananda’s unpublished works and their prospects. At this stage, he also begins to write more novels. The company of the young economist was like a lease of fresh air to Jibanananda’s despairing self.

A line from Jibanananda’s response to Sen’s initial note is worth quoting in full: “The poems that I have composed till date is not mere tableaux that illustrate my acceptance of some universal source of origin (utsa-nirukti) of humanity by placing that within the intersection of nature and temporality. Can anyone ever find such a thing? If such a thing was possible, the concentrated intensity of the lyric poet would then turn into the purity of the dramatic-narrative form. It is necessary for a narrative poet to seek such a space-time. But I still remain a lyric poet. In this path their lies another perplexing purity” (Das, 2017). It is absolutely clear that the primacy of the vulnerable and the fragmented lyric self and its many relationalities are important to him as an artist. It is also worth noting that instead of dramatizing evil or loss, he emphasizes ‘another perplexing purity’ in the lyric form. What was he trying to recover from despair? The response to this query can be found in and through his creations of course, but sometimes he has also directly addressed the issue. For instance, in a short essay titled About Poetry, Jibanananda has emphatically suggested that the lyric poet too travels through the three-worlds (tribhubhanchari), but the manner of his journey is unique: “Poetry can permanently put the mindscape under a certain catastrophe, and by doing so make it purer and transparent, effected through an economy of words and clues…The temporal world gets an opportunity to be reconceived in this manner” (Das, 2015).


# The Partition and relocation in Kolkata proved disastrous to Jibanananda though. He lost his job in Barisal and had to accept an appointment in a small magazine called Swaraj. Humanyun Kabir was the proprietor. The salary was meagre and he had to work day and night. The office ambiance was forever crowded and hustling, very different from his college staff-room. The thought of committing suicide along with his family flashed before his mind and he often wrote about euthanasia. But he also hoped to write more, in case he did survive. A sense of finitude lurks. He writes in one of his diary entries: “I find mother the way I used to see my blind father. Groping, shaking with palsy, incapacitated, unable to do anything. Before reaching such a stage one will have to finish ‘everything’ that may give one the satisfaction of a Tolstoy or a Goethe” (Shahaduz Zaman, 2019). The level of confidence is stunning.

Shahaduz Zaman writes how his mother, Kusumkumari, had always felt that God would come to her son’s rescue if he holds on to the Almighty. But the son had little faith in faith. Instead he believed that an inner spirit, which he called bodh (sometimes neetibodh) that propelled creatures. In his novel Bibha, the eponymous protagonist buys a mynah bird which unfortunately suffers from a boil under its wings. Bibha is empathetic to the bird’s condition since God has sent her the bird. But as the mynah jumps off Bibha’s lap to the carpet, a cat arrives out of nowhere and breaks her neck. The bird’s head is gone. No God could save the mynah. At that point, we realize the servant has killed the cat with an iron rod. At this Bibha’s father says that now he would finish off the servant and Bibha would in turn kill the father figure. That is the cycle of devouring. So Bibha ought not to see benevolence in God’s ways. It is sufficient if one is able to spend life in a relatively harmless condition. We do not have the power to provide solace or support to others.

Shahaduz Zaman reminds us that in another novel, Purnima, his skepticism is even more pronounced. There is nothing worked out or semi-hazardous here, no god or devil. If there was a blueprint, one could at least complain or revolt or accept fate. All methodological systems break down in some random manner. Beneath the created universe of the stars, there is no empathy, no attention, no help, no power of our own, no sudden miracles here, no faith in bidhata, dharma or sanyas; no solace or support here. The artist restores creation by recreating anew from the tiniest of dead insect, but once again everything disintegrates. The artist keeps trying. Jibanananda had therefore conceived the artist as ‘keetnirmata’ (insect-creator).

Radically alienated—with no friends, no relatives to go to, Jibanananda often now turns suspicious of people’s motives. So he would refract his view of the humans through birds, insects, fish and foliage. Creating intricate tapestries by placing a chain of creatures within the willful play of fortune, he would try to recreate the cosmos anew.

#1954. The final year of Jibanananda’s life. One of his favourite quotations was from Andre Gide: “I do not write for the coming generation but for the following one” (Gide, 2000). Perhaps this is the manifestation of a certain irreverent strain on his part? But it was strange that he turned most active during this late period: landed up a job in a college once again, his collected poems got published and he even began attending meetings and poetry reading sessions. But Shahaduz Zaman also tells us that he would sometimes visit the zoo and stare for hours at the rhinoceros, the giraffe, and the elephant. Did these creations arrive from some other galaxy to meet and greet him on earth? During mid-October, for a couple of days, he mentions to some close family members that he has heard someone to have come under the tramcar that passes by his residence. He himself would take evening strolls in the neighbourhood. The following day, he falls under the tramcar and is taken to the nearest hospital.  At the hospital, he asks for an orange. Perhaps as he lay on his death bed, the din of life flowing past the hospital precincts seemed like fleshy fruit?

In the city of Calcutta, barring a handful, no one had the time to care about the passing away of an unalloyed, Neolithic failure who wanted to feel and express the power of vehemence, working incessantly within the wholeness of time.


Select Bibliography

Bose, Buddhadev. ‘Jibananada Das Smarane.’ Probondho Sankalan. Calcutta: Dey’s Publishing, 1959.

Chakrabarti, Arindam. Deho, Geho, Bondhutto: Chhoti Sharirik Tarko. Kolkata: Anustup, 2008.

Chaudhuri, Sukanta (ed): A Certain Sense – Poems by Jibanananda Das. Translated by Various Hands. Calcutta: Sahitya Akademi, 1998.

Chowdhury, Faizul Latif and Golam Mustafa (ed.). Beyond Land and Time. Dhaka: Somoy Prokashon, 2008.

Chowdhury, Faizul Latif (ed). Aprokashito Ekanno (tran. Unpublished Fifty One Poems of Jibanananda Das). Dhaka: Mawla Brothers,1999.

Cioran, E.M. On the Heights of Despair. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Das, Jibanananda. Dinolipi—Literary Notes. 4 Vols. Compilation & Analysis, Bhumendra Guha and Gautam Mitra. Kolkata: Protikkhon, 2009.

Selected Poems. trans. Chidananda Das Gupta.  New Delhi: Penguin Books. 2006.

— Nirbachito Kobita. ed. Tapodhir Bhattacharyya. Kolkata: Bangiyo Sahitya Sansad.

Patralaap–Letters ed. Prabhatkumar Das. Kolkata: Ebong Mushayara.2017.

Jibanananda Daser Uponyash Shomogro.

Kobitar Kawtha. Kolkata: Signet Press, 2015.

Chhaya Abchhaya. Kolkata: Pratikshan, 2004.

Ghosh, Shankha. ‘Shomoyer Shomogrota.’ E Shohorer Rakhal, Kolkata: Paschim Banga Bangla Academy, 2000.

—‘Shato Jaljharnar Dhwani.’ Chhander Baranda. Kolkata: Aruna Publications, 1991.

Gide, Andre. Journals. Volume 2: 1914-1927. trans. Justin O’Brian. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Ginsberg, Allen & Lawrence Ferlinghetti (ed.). “A Few Bengali Poets,” San Francisco: City Lights Journal. 1964.

Mitra, Gautam. Aprokashito Jibanananda Das. Kolkata: Saptarshi Publications, 2015.

Shahriar, Abu Hasan (ed.). Jibanananda Das: Mullayon o Patthodhhar (tr: Jibanananda Das: Assessment and Critical Readings. Dhaka: Shahitto Bikash.2003.

Winter, Joe. Jibanananda Das – Naked Lonely Hand 2003, London: Anvil Press Poetry.

— ‘Bengal the Beautiful’. Anvil Press Poetry Ltd. 2006.

Zaman, Shahaduz. Ekjon Komolalebu (Someone, an Orange). Dhaka: Prothoma Prakashan, 2019.


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