Shakti Chattopadhyay, Modernity and Airabat
In the early 1960s, the Hungry Generation revitalized Bengali poetry in Calcutta, liberating it from the fetters of scholarship and the fog of punditry and freeing it to explore new forms, language, and subjects. Shakti Chattopadhyay was a co-founder of the movement, and his poems remain vibrant and surprising more than a half century later. In his ‘urban pastoral’ lines, we encounter street colloquialisms alongside high diction, a combination that at the time was unprecedented. Loneliness, anxiety, and dislocation trouble this verse, but they are balanced by a compelling belief in the redemptive power of beauty.
Below is an excerpt from distinguished poet Shankha Ghosh’s introduction to a collection of Shakti Chattopadhyay’s poems, titled Very Close to Pleasure There’s a Sick Cat and Other Poems. This book presents more than one hundred of Chattopadhyay’s poems, translated by Arunava Sinha, introducing an international audience to one of the most prominent and important Bengali poets of the twentieth century.
A young boy has come from the village to the city which is waiting with wide-open jaws to consume him. The boy feels unmoored, for ‘those who are heartless, those who do not tell the truth, those who do not have minds as open as flowers, those who always have their fists balled up close to their bodies, those who live amid constant noise and unresolved riots between Hindus and Muslims’ are the ones who live in cities, who live in Calcutta—he knows this only too well. Perhaps they are to be found everywhere, these people ‘whose hearts hold no love, no affection, no stirring of compassion’, without whose valuable advice today’s world would stand still. There is no attraction anywhere, no desire that anyone feels. Is this detachment ‘urbanity’, ‘modernity’?
The world of rockets and of megatons of destructive power is waiting to be turned into ruins, nowhere on it is the true north to be found, not one sanctuary remains to hold out hope or offer reassurance, and amid all this is our land, our city. All visible grandeur is but external, a patterned shroud over a rotting corpse. Is the mask that conceals everything urbanity, modernity? The boy cannot understand how he will touch this urban, modern Calcutta in his own way, how he will love it, how or from which directions he will ‘lay down, like a railway line, a line of love’ towards Calcutta. He wants to love, not to lose.
He does not want to lose, but he keeps feeling the city has not accepted him. He has remained primarily a village boy, ‘a rusticity purged of perspective’ is ‘pressing down on him’. But will the village take him back? He had been sent to the city so that he could ‘mature’, as society put it, so that he could ‘grow up’, in terms of practicality and pragmatism. Has he grown up? The city has not accepted him, and society has labelled him degenerate. Will he regain his old place if he returns to his village? Will he able to decipher the language of the people if he goes back? Will he not wonder, ‘What is this tongue they speak in today?’ People no longer seem to understand one another’s language, he seems to have become disconnected from everything. Where is his home then? Is it the city of Calcutta, or the village he has left behind? He does not know.
And then an adolescent indignation bristles against a hostile world in which man is perpetually alone, the indignation of not being able to bear this world. Brought face to face with this antagonism and its expansive void, some can be destroyed by its terrible blows, some can take the path of self-destruction, and some can confront them—feel the desire to confront them—with a retaliatory strike. Sometimes the weapon of this retaliation can be anger or derision, and sometimes an intense enlightenment that seeks to rip apart the crude camouflage and discover the truth. But sometimes it is also possible to stand up against these loveless times, so bereft of relationships, to say, See for yourself, love is my only weapon. That is all the boy had wanted to say—it is with this love that he had wanted to demolish the inert configuration of the city, for love was his mission, for ‘this bankrupt man has no ability but the one to love’. This was the calling of his soul, which he was afraid of being deflected from, and so ‘was trying his utmost to love Calcutta.’ With the village he had tried to demolish the city.
This can be the story of any young man or young woman. It can be the story of Nirupam, or of Abani, or of Nandini in Raktakarabi.* And most certainly it can be the core of Shakti’s—Shakti Chattopadhyay’s—entire flow of poetry. His poetry had wanted to demolish the city with the village, demolish death with life, demolish an ageing existence with adolescence.
*Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders, 1924), a complex and symbolic play written by Rabindranath Tagore, deals with the conflict between industrial mechanization and the freedom of human spirit. Nandini, the central character, is often considered a representation of vivacity and undying love.
He had wanted to demolish them with the fierceness of a deluge.
We have all read in the epic Ramayana the story of the descent of River Ganga from the heavens. Having flowed as far as Mount Sumeru, Ganga remained trapped in its cavern for a long time and needed the services of the mythical elephant Airabat to be freed. Airabat was very proud of being the one who would split the mountain to free Ganga. Realizing this, Ganga swept the elephant away in her current. Airabat was numbed by the buffeting of the waves.
When I read Shakti’s poetry, I am reminded of Airabat being swept away helplessly by the torrents. It is not a matter of one or two poems—if someone were to read his poetry chronologically, or even if one read them in clusters without following chronology, they will have their breath taken away by a succession of waves, by their abundance, their immensity, even their liquid excess. Barely has the reader settled down after encountering a particular image in a particular poem when another one rushes at them from the opposite point, one that is even more striking. No sooner have they been touched by one gesture of language than a different one appears. Urban as well as pastoral, grave similes as well as earthy colloquialisms, elegant as well as vulgar, imperious as well as modest—all manner of expressions burst out of
his poetry with a potent but graceful sinuousness. Such a breathtaking experience has almost never before been offered by Bengali poetry.
The waves keep rolling, often composed of the same body of water, which makes it difficult to distinguish one from the other. One poem is followed by another, and then yet another, leading to a cascade of poetry. It certainly befits Shakti to stand before that cascade and declare, ‘Every poet’s verse is one long poem—it’s just that he writes it in fragments.’ Each of these fragments is like a wave in the ocean—just like them, the poems in Shakti’s volumes of poetry recede and return to crash upon the shore. We often wrack our brains over the name of a volume of poetry, wondering what it implies about the essence of the book, but here was one poet whose book might not even contain a titular poem. Shakti had written in the introduction to what was almost his last book of poems: ‘Although the long poem titled “The Jungle Is in Mourning” features in the book Here’s the Figure in Stone, I am naming this new book for that old poem.’ If we get the line ‘The inglorious loneliness of weapons’ as a line in a poem in his first poem, it comes to us as the title of a book much later, as does the name ‘Calling from the Underworld’. A poem titled ‘I’m Happy’ will be available long after the book of poems with that name, in the volume titled Fire of My Reverence. It’s the same story with several other volumes such as The Flying Throne and You Believe in Faith, You Believe in Giraffes Too. A torrent or a succession of waves—this seems to hold some significance in his poetry.
The metaphor can be extended further. If it’s a river we think of, along with its tremendous creative force, we also have to think about the way it meanders across the flatlands, about the way it flows though the countryside, about the way it sends out distributaries in all directions. By now it is much calmer, a great deal more graceful and social.
Shakti’s poetry is like this river descending from the mountain peak and flowing through the plains. Despite its internal lyricism, at first it is all-destructive. Then, widening gradually as a current of love, filled with a wistful solitude, it advances through life towards the delta of death. After the mysterious twists and turns on the arduous journey through the heights, this is its natural, effortless movement on the plains, loaded with pain and with fervour, easily acceptable to all kinds of readers.
Publication Year: 2018
Publisher: Seagull Books
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Shakti Chattopadhyay (1933–95) was a critically acclaimed and popular Bengali writer and poet whose books of poetry include 'Hey Prem', 'Hey Naishabdo', 'Jwalanta Rumal' and 'Jete Pari, Kinto Keno Jabo?' which won the prestigious Sahitya Akedemi Award. He also published 10 novels, several collections of travel writing, a collection of essays and Bengali translations of volumes by Omar Khayyam, Khalil Gibran, Mirza Ghalib, Heinrich Heine, Federico García Lorca and Pablo Nerua, among others.