Please, no more snippets of memories. Please, we don’t want to hear anymore about portrayals. Allow us a respite from the very refinements of “hearing”.
The first literary work of Kamalkumar Majumdar [Lal Juto] was published approximately in 1937. His signature-novel Antarjali Yatra saw the light of the day in 1959 but we had to wait till 2005 for the first comprehensive analysis of Kamalkumar’s literature (which arrived with Raghab Bandyopadhyay). Yet we are very much embedded within the practice of biographical criticism as far as this man is concerned. It is high time that we liberate the spirit of Kamalkumar from the spectral-coop of biographical criticism. We know that a certain kind of grove about him had already been prepared even before the initiation of this particular campaign. A certain aperture initiated from the heading itself, on the printed pages through a assiduous back-end lattice: and we can name that as “Kamalkumar Majumdar”—a tautology, a name unto himself. About which more shortly. A signifier, a referent which has been sealed inside the insulated box of Bengali culture haunts us; a signifier that continuously shuttles from one alleyway of a Bengali cultural hub to another—like an industrious, engrossed rabbit.
And from such an avowed thesis on Kamalkumar, numerous questions constantly trail such writing. Why Kamalkumar? Why Kamalkumar again? Is it his birthday today? The centenary of Antarjali Yatra perhaps?
If nothing, then why read him;why this out of season tease with l’affaire Kamalkumar? Yes, can’t we simply disregard these questions? No doubt these questions have merit; they come from sundry fountainheads. We can look for and garner an assorted arsenal of replies. We can posit counter-questions too: Why always make neat little boxes of our reading of literature? Why this exigency of a classroom or a birthday or a performance for literature to arrive? Why are our habits of reading so purposeful (and therefore so woefully regularizing)? Besides this, in the case of Kamalkumar, there are other disquiets as well. After the birth centenary of Kamalkumar Majumdar, his (alchemical) cult turned truly popular. Is such an untimely remembrance falling into the trap of populism? If not, then why such brisk, hurried commemorations everywhere? Or is it a celebration of an essentialist, Bengali chauvinist, religious figure—trying to force an ally for our inner selves? Undoubtedly, things are not so simple.
It is an attempt to conjure up an unseasonable, inexpedient entry.
The writings of Kamalkumar require an untimely meditation, simply and foremost to establish that his work did not arrive from Mars. Perhaps quite unfortunately, he wrote within and about our society, our world. A stupid array of adjectives like isolated, irreplaceable, incomparable, unparalleled, unknowable, and incomprehensible (therefore untouchable) and a consistent, restless exercise of non-analysis gradually converted Kamalkumar into a myth, like the Mayan civilization—we sometimes forget whether it was historical or mythical! As if there is no possibility of dispersing Kamalkumar within the hubbub of everydayness. And without being a bunch of hypocrites, let’s admit that certainly we never wanted to get him into that hubbub. As we do to an introverted-bachelor—shun him and make him special at the same time! People just love to say: don’t disturb him, ‘let him be alone’ (ah, make him ‘untouchable’). And then essentially, as in our past, we have kicked Kamalkumar again and again on his arse. Nowadays we are also doing the same in a sophisticated manner by making him into some kind of God. Can you imagine how banal and blunt our habits are? And after this whole pseudo-progressive callousness of decades, we still have a desire to appropriate his singularity within the high conservative environment of the classroom of Bengali literature. In addition, in the classrooms, inane literate clowns with clever faces repeatedly try to understand him as some extraterrestrial phenomenon. And as they do so, I really think that they should not forget that cutting statement of Kamalkumar – “শিক্ষকতা একটি ছিনাল জীবিকা” (the act of teaching is a whorish profession).
No, this is not only about Kamalkumar but also about the mountebank reading public of Bengal. We do need an untimely reading of Kamalkumar’s writing in order to take on the humbug morality of the Bengali reading public. Our entry points could be many. One could start from a not so well known articulation from Suhasinir Pometom:
‘সুহার কোলে স্তূপীকৃত দারিদ্র – ইহা হইতে চোখ তুলিয়া সে অন্ধকারের প্রতি চাহিল, রাত্রে আয়না দেখিতে নাই, অধুনা তাহার ঐ অন্ধকারের প্রতি চাহিয়া কেন জানি – গ্রাম্যবালকদের মত বলিতে সাধ হয় “ওগো ডাক পিওন করি নিবেদন মালিক ভিন্ন চিঠি দিও না কখন”…’
‘Poverty, bunched up, accrues in Suha’s lap – and from there, towards the darkness, she turns up her eyes. At night no one should look at the mirror. Presently, gazing at the darkness, who knows why, like callow village youth she wishes to blurt out “O my postman, an appeal: hand over this letter to none except the master.”
If we had not begun from these phrases, we could have started from an infamous preface of a novel by Pierre Guyotar, titled Eden Eden Eden, which was published in 1970. The preface was written by Roland Barthes:
‘A single sentence which never ends’… said Barthes, about that work.
Or we could start from—
‘সময়কে flattery করা তোমারও যদি মনোবাসনা হইত, তুই আমি সকলেই অন্তত দারুণ কথা শিল্পী হইতে পারিতাম – তোমার ও আমার মত নগণ্যর এই দোষ যে আমরা পাঠককে ভোট-দাতা বা ইউনিয়ান করে বলিয়া ভাবি নাই ‘।
“If you had also willed to flatter our time, at least you and I could have become great wordsmiths; the mistake that poor people like us made was that we didn’t imagine the reader as a voter or union man.”
‘কৃষকচৈতন্যের অন্বেষণ নয় – কৌমজীবন মন্থন করে লুপ্তপ্রায় সাংস্কৃতিক চিহ্নগুলি, তার সাংকেতিক লিপি উদ্ধারও কমলবাবুর অন্যতম কৃত্য’। (রাঘব বন্দ্যোপাধ্যায়)
‘Not a hunt for peasant-consciousness, but the salvaging of the obsolete signifiers of community-life and its scriptures through the excavation of it is Kamalbabu’s chief contribution’. (Raghab Bandyopadhyay)
Or some utterly well-known phrases which never could be the entry-point of this writing:
‘আলো ক্রমে আসিতেছে’ / ‘কোথাও মায়া রহিয়া গেল”।
‘Light appears unhurriedly’/ ‘Somewhere out there traces of maya still remain’
It would be a vacuous pronouncement to say that the Kamalkumar’s literary output is heterogeneous and that there could be various points of entry to his world. One must articulate and analyze some of those entry-points to substantiate the said heterogeneity. Let us start from the last quotation for a possible beginning.
In 2005, Raghab Bandopadhyay published a book called, Kamalkumar, Kolkata: Pichutaner Itihas. This was the first book which devoted itself entirely to the criticism of Kamalkumar’s literature. It deals with the discourses of history, memory, the vernacular, modernity and so on. The major part of this book has been invested in building up the central argument of ‘being drawn back’. According to Bandyopadhyay, turning back doesn’t mean stepping back or dabbling in nostalgia, hankering for an absolute past; rather it is something which is constant and eternal. Something which stays underneath and along with us. And renews itself. In Kamalkumar, a magnetic pull from the past doesn’t lead to the ideology of returning to some magical past. ‘Past’ is a particular combination of certain historical events which has already been passed by like a distant presence, but at the same time, it is also always, already an unreachable point of time.
According to Bandyopadhyay, Kamalkumar’s attitude to ‘being drawn back’ is a desire to craft those moments of the ‘unreachable’ again by a certain act of re-inscription of cultural codes. As if Kamalkumar took one step into the past and another into the future. As if within his literature, the concept of time constantly oscillates between the present and the past. When Bandyopadhyay discusses the novel ‘Khelar Prativa’, he intends to forage a social dimension of these tendencies of ‘being drawn back’ and he reads it as a symbolic, socio-historical return to the pre-modern past of (non-individual) collective society. He also says that the consciousness of collective pre-modernity of Kamalkumar’s literature is different from the modern political consciousness of peasant movements: more domestic, shyer and mostly unfamiliar with the colors of modernity.
Here one can say that in his essays about Bengaliness, in the name of culture and heritage, Kamalkumar was trying to fix exactly these tendencies as a terribly essentialist discourse of ‘pure (fatnamanaska) Bengaliness’. But simultaneously, we can see that in one of his remarkable stories “Teish” (Twenty Three) a peasant, Alam possesses the charge of a revolutionary spirit of a modern peasant movement, standing up against the burden of pre-modern cultural codes. We shall find a similar motif in another story: ‘Jol’. But of course in these stories too we find those cultural codes in a blurred form. Bandyopadhyay shall surely argue that though we can find both pre-modern and modern elements simultaneously meshed in these stories, pre-modern cultural heritages are vivid and prominent. But Kamalkumar’s literary return is a kind of a ‘reverse-call’ which can be defined, I have already said—as an eternal proneness to ‘turning back’ from within the present moment. But whether this prank was culturally constructed by the finest literary crafting of Kamalkumar as a production of the modernist intellect or was it really a return to the original heritage of the collective life of pre-modern Bengal—would be an old and exclusive (extra- factual) question of history. This debate, which always leads to pure speculation and a dead-end, is frankly not my cup of tea. For me, the sense of the ‘autochthony’ or the ‘originary’ must be questioned undoubtedly and we always should remain skeptical about it. Maybe in Bandyopadhay’s discourse the two concepts are overdetermined with each other unconsciously: one is of course ‘modernity’ and the other, ‘progress’.
So, if we move into the context of Kamalkumar’s letter (to Sandipan Chattopadhyay) – it is clear that Kamalkumar was criticizing the established norms of progressiveness of his time. He had a problem with this fact that knowingly or unknowingly the definitions of literature and the politics of literature are centrally becoming electoral (vote-centric) and functional. According to him, big banner writers should criticize the values of contemporary society, but they are refraining from doing that. Now, if we read his position of ‘being drawn back’ as a criticism of his contemporary time and its values – maybe we could find some political relevance for his position as a writer? So, when we consider his positions as gestures of subterranean criticism, we could manage to move our focus from his essentialist polemics of Bengaliness to the making of the aesthetics of the ‘past’ (as Bandyopadhyay said: like Marcel Proust and others).
Maybe the word ‘making’ is a very modernist word, but to read Kamalkumar we need this word badly because it is never important to seek the kinds of ‘older’ values that he was injecting in his writing; rather the important thing is mark how and why he was willing to do so. Akin to many great writers, we also find in Kamalkumar that the moment you start to investigate how he crafts his contents, everything becomes automatically ready to unfold itself. When a kind of literature refuses to inscribe its time and rather desires to become a critique of contemporaneity, it gradually becomes unfit for the contemporary and naturally flows towards all the so-called ‘non-contemporary’ things of its time. And I repeat: this critique has nothing to do with the persona of Kamalkumar Majumdar. It is not a question of the nostalgia of an individual psyche. Though I also have a genuine problem with Bandyopadhyay’s articulation of the ideological return to the pre-modern past as an origin of Kamalkumar’s present (because most of the time it reduces Kamalkumar’s literature to an essentialist and religionist babble and bunk and undoubtedly we should not forget that there was a ‘religious Kamalkumar’, who was a real joke). I know Bandyopadhyay will not derive this from the discourse of ‘personal Kamalkumar’. Rather he will textually glean his conclusions from elsewhere and that is the most significant thing that he has done within the little trajectory of Kamalkumar-criticism: bravely he has discarded the presence of the author from his text.
In this context, we should say something about another essentialist comment of Kamalkumar on the issue of practical politics:
“যেহেতু তোমার সেই ‘প্রতিবাদ পত্রে’ সই না করাতে তোমার নিশ্চিত মনে লাগে, আমি একটি ঠিক আমার বিষয়েতে বলিয়া থাকি, যাহাতে আমার বিশ্বাস, যে কোন রাজনীতিতেই আমি বিশ্বাস করিনা, (নিশ্চয়ই রাজনীতি লইয়া গল্প শুনি বা করি) উহা পাজী বলিয়া আমার গ্রাম্য ধারণা”।
“Since surely it hurts you that I do not sign your “protest letter” I usually tell this truth about myself which I trust, that I do not believe in any kind of politics (though I certainly talk and hear about politics) which is a scamp and an imp, that is my country belief.”
In the 1970s, Sandipan Chattapadhyay and his friends wrote a petition of protest against the increasing state violence upon the writers and the artists of that time. Kamalkumar refused to sign that petition and said that he doesn’t believe in any ‘politics’ (practice of politics). According to him, he has a country-man’s conception that ‘politics’ is not a good thing. This will immediately evoke a retort from the political busybody: well, we always knew that Kamalkumar is apolitical and therefore a reactionary and so on. One could politely say: my dear, your banal and obvious remark is predictable and if we are talking about the person Kamalkumar, you are partly right; but if you are talking about his literature, I have to say that you are not exactly a nuanced reader of his works. Is the gender-politics of ‘Mallika Bahar’, the nuanced underlining of Brahmanical politics of ‘Antarjali Yatra’, the slum question in ‘Nim Annapurna’ and such other interventions in his other writings – not ‘political’ enough? Apart from the politics of language –questions of religion, sex, gender, caste, city & village, slum and poverty—all form parts of his enormous canvas. Only a pedagogue or an obtuse conservative can think of Kamalkumar as an apolitical writer. At least in the context of modernist writers, if you just follow the versatility of Kamlakumar’s contents, you can see his distinctive take on matters social and political, comparable to the best of modernist writers from around the world. But my business here is not to cull evidence of his social and political involvement.
One important aspect of Kamalkumar’s literary politics was the particularization and deepening of Bengali culture. It was both a brutal battle and a deep camaraderie with/against the West. Kamalkumar’s exclusive (perverted to some extent) Bengali-prose was borrowed from a lot of the early traditions of Bengali prose-writing. In his book on Kamalkumar, Soaib Gibran has extensively compared his prose alongside those traditions. We all know about the debate of French syntax with respect to Kamalkumar’s prose. His knowledge about the French language had nothing to do with the politics of his sentence constructions.
In 1970, Piyere Guyotat published his novel, Eden Eden Eden. As I have mentioned before, Barthes wrote about it. Barthes was really excited about the newness of it, which is visible in that preface of his:
‘Eden Eden Eden is a free text of all subjects, of all objects, of all symbols, written in the space (the abyss or blind-spot) where the traditional constitutes of discourse (the one who speaks, the events recounted, the way they expressed) would be superfluous’.
And he directs our attention towards the form of the novel. He singles out the novel as ‘a single sentence which never ends’. Suhasinir Pometom has many differences from the Guyotat’s novel (both in terms of content and form). Guyotat’s novel is firmly minimalistic, fragmented, discontinuous whereas Pometom is violently modernist, maximalist, overwritten and wide. If we just take a look at the beginning of these novels we could immediately feel the difference:
‘Soldiers,helmets cocked down, legs spread, trampling, muscles drawn back, over new-born babies swaddled in scarlet, violet shawls : babies falling from arms of women, huddled on floors of G.M.C trucks; free hand pushing back goat thrown forward into cab ;/Ferkous pass…’
‘সে আপনার অতীব শ্রীযুক্ত মুখমণ্ডলের খাসা সিম নাসার বেসর সেখানে ঝুটাপান্না – মনোলোভা পান্নার ইহকালের অচিন সুদীর্ঘটা বহু সন্তরণে অতিক্রম করত আসিয়া স্থির মূর্ত, উহাতেই দোমনা অঙ্গুলি প্রদান করে এবং এই অঙ্গুলিতেও নির্ঘাত, অবশ্যই, তাহার, সুহার – সুহাসিনীর দগ্ধ তীক্ষ্ণ রাত্র…”
But still we can’t miss a small but significant bit of similarity: both these novels are but an extension of a single sentence. And we know that when Guyotat was publishing his novel, Suhasinir Pometom had already been published (1965). A Bengali chauvinist and a nationalist will immediately take it as an issue of winning over the West, a most trite and vapid balderdash. I would rather consider this similarity as a mere coincidence. Coincidence of the times? Even if we consider that as a consequence of Kamalkumar’s critical understanding/knowledge of French literary culture; and even if we consider that he had most accurately predicted a new turn of the twentieth century French novel, Suhasinir Pometom shall remain a singular novel, different in its own way. Generalization of this novel within the framework of Bengali prose would be also very difficult – even if we try to locate his writing on the plane of a change in the tradition of Bengali novel writing.
This is because it is almost impossible for Pometom to join any meaningless battle against Eden Eden Eden in the contextual, historical sense of the term. It is only possible within the realm of the textual. The quotation that we have borrowed from Suhasinir Pometom, as a possible beginning of this kind of writing, is not a very well known one. But I think this is the most urgent task for us to do. We should pick such kinds of marginal sentences from Kamalkumar’s writing and make those our fulcrum of analysis and argumentative framework.
In addition to analyzing such exemplary marginal utterances and statements, perhaps one can also fruitfully think about reader-response approaches vis a vis his writings:
The postman is someone who carries the message to the owner/master (of that message). There is a desiring subject who has a request to the postman that the postman should give the message to the owner (of the message) and no to anyone else. Now, who is this master? Does the master belong only to a certain upper class? (Those who want to establish Kamalkumar’s work as a production for the upper class sentiment and morality should read at least his short stories carefully. I can assure you that in his stories, you will find a sophisticated, classic consciousness and criticism.) This ‘postman’ metaphor could be read as a twofold one. First, as I have already said, the message should be sent to the owner of that message but who is the owner? Here comes the second turn: the owner is a reader who can construct a message/reading from the text. This act of construction is deeply hidden and a significant fold in this metaphor.
The fundamental allegation against Kamalkumar is that his writing is incomprehensible. For example, Suhasinir Pometom – is undoubtedly one of his most arcane writings in Bangla, but I would like to read it as an unfolding romantic-suspense narrative, where the chemistry of relationships between certain characters is apparently fixed, normative and within those stable structures of relationships a pometom ( magic cream) arrives. Consequently, at the conclusion every fixed bit becomes dismantled and the story reveals a different chemistry: the verity and grace of those pre-fixed relationships. That’s all. Just like his other stories. The difference is that here you have scope to read another dynamic story from the over-refined literary craft of the writing. For Kamalkumar the ‘craft’ constitutes the story.
But, we can still read this novel as we are used to reading his other popular novels—as we are accustomed to do with Shyam Nauka, Khelar Prativa or Shabari Mangal. His novels are full of darkness – nihilism, death, encountering unknown people, a deepening community, style-ethics, linguistic craftsmanship – these are all important features of his literature. But these features are nothing exceptional that makes him Kamalkumar. We must not make him as a person exceptional. These are almost the basics requirements of literature and by foregrounding these basic elements again and again he actually showed us the poverty of our reading; the normativity of our reading habits. If he is exceptional – he is exceptional like other exceptional modernist writers who have invested their whole lives in order to critique their time.
Whenever we try to understand Kamalkumar’s individuality, loneliness, singularity – we stupidly end up putting him into the enclosure of an isolated totality of his own. If we do that, eventually a tautology becomes the langue of Kamalkumar-criticism: ‘Kamalkumar is Kamalkumar.’ This is lazy. As if there is no possibility of understanding Kamalkumar in the public discourse of literature.
At the beginning of my writing, I was talking about a certain ruling ethics of the Bengali reading public. It is not only about Kamalkumar; not even merely about literature. It is about a certain moral policing, censorship of the imaginative concept of the dogmatic ‘practical’ which censors everything which is experimental, something which is against the norma. This ethics is nothing but a mix of egoism, idleness, inferiority and paranoia. But on the other hand, if we try to totally distinguish Kamalkumar from this writer/reader complex, we fall into the same structural trap, of uncritically constructing a binary opposition between popular and high art.
So at this point, all we need is just an attempt at reading Kamalkumar within different problematics, different discourses. Most importantly, in different contexts outside of the context of ‘Kamalkumar’ himself. The problematics could be the relationship between society and literature, or could be the context of colonialism, cast, feminism, religion or anything (even ‘storytelling’ itself can be a problematic). In his book, Kabyabij o Kamalkumar, Birendranath Raxit said that he read only Kamalkumar during the time of a riot in Assam (1980-82). Again the popular opinion would be to pronounce that Birendranath was exceptional (insane) since how many people read Kamalkumar in such a situation? I just have one question for them: how many people read Premendra Mitra, Manik Bandyapadhay, Jagadish Gupta, Akhtarujzzaman, Said Waliwallah or even Tagore’s writing?
Most of the population does not read literature seriously but that is a completely different problem. It creates a certain violence if you posit the same question against a single author. And even within the so-called reading public, there are numerous instances of ‘non-reading’. That is another level of hypocrisy to which I do not want to get into here. The reader of my essay, I beg to you: let’s just burn your masks and stop reading Kamalkumar through the myths-memoirs or the blindness of pigeon-holing him. And please read Kamalkumar firsthand. Save him from the tautological reduction of Kamalkumar to himself.
Debraj Dasgupta did his M.Phil work on Kamalkumar Majumdar at CSSS,Calcutta. He is now reading for his Ph.d on the discourse of ‘work of writing’, in the context of Bengali culture from the same institution.