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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 24 New Delhi June 1, 2019

Subhas Mukhopadhyay 100

Saturday 1 June 2019

by Amiya Dev

I first saw Subhas Mukhopadhyay in the mid-1950s. A Peace Conference was being held at Wellington or today’s Subodh Mallik Square. I had gone to hear it. One of the speakers was

Subhas Mukhopadhyay. But I was surprised by his mode of speech. He didn’t at all shout. He put his hands in his pant pockets and said, ‘We want peace,’ ‘Peace we want.’ The words still ring through my mind. Even without any rhetoric, he made home his demand for peace. I later realised that that was his nature. He didn’t raise any walls around himself. Anyone

could come to him at any hour. Not that alone, he too could go to anyone at any hour. Witness Budge Budge, witness its village Byanjonherhia where he stayed two years with his wife Gita Bandyopadhyay.

Poet Subhas Mukhopadhyay had a brilliant debut in Padatik (Pedestrian, 1940) where political consciousness was perfectly chiselled by craft. Chirkut (Messages, 1946) and Agnikon (South-East, 1948) followed suit. But a change came over with Ful Futuk (Flowers in Bloom, 1957): the poetry became bare and homely, almost unpoetic, with ordinary people fitting in. A part of the inspiration might have come from his Nazim Hikmet translations (1952), but the experience might have been motivated by his closeness to the people of Budge Budge-Byanjonherhia. A typical poem is ‘Salemoner Ma’ (Salemon’s Mother), beginning at A sky like mad Babarali’s eyes, and ending on Your daughter from one famine/faced with another famine/is eagerly looking for you. Or take such lines as

The man who was about to put a rope round his neck a while ago is by now lying with his hands round his wife’s neck.

The courtyard is empty; the neighbours have gone back to their homes to fight within the wicker walls of eyelids the terrible night of biting hunger.

Not a whole day,

only a day’s half is lived here. (from ‘Agnigarbha’—Fiery)


Above the dead cooking fire in falling light

as though in a hanging rope

is suspended the empty rice-pot

scraped clean in the afternoon yesterday. ...

Painfully bending her waist she

feeds the goat tied to the pole—she

the soon-to-deliver wife of this house.

In the womb her hungry boy doesn’t say a word—only waits. (from ‘Ekti Larhaku Samsar’—A Fighting Family)

Or take the poem ‘Sundar’ (Beautiful) [on Gita Bandyopadhyay], which in a rough Turkish version from Chinmohan Sehanavis’ impromptu English, moved Nazim Hikmet very much whom the former had met at a Peace Conference at Helsinki—the poem ending on

When as the siren blew

a sea of heads matted with shreds of jute

to get hold of a leaflet

in a wave of outstretched arms covered you

when you were not seen any longer—


then you looked wondrously beautiful.

There was no doubt about Subhas Mukho-padhay’s political commitment, but we need to take a closer look at the character of that commitment. He had gone to Budge Budge to participate in the jute workers’ movement. He did participate in that, but at the same time he became a part of their life. The worker is not

just a worker, but also a human being. That he too has a family, that even in the midst of his poverty he has his moments of happiness and sorrow—this revelation gave Subhas Mukho-padhyay a new light. I don’t know if this declassed him to a point. But he couldn’t surely be a stranger to the people he had come to help. Would he only be a witness to their exploitation and keep a count of their demands? And organise

their protests? Or also be a personal friend to them and their family, with the knowledge of their individualities? In 1953 (he was at Budge Budge in 1952-54) he spoke of a little girl in the

neighbourhood who used to bring him a flower every day. Her family was very poor. But she wouldn’t reveal that poverty to him. She showed her sense of beauty, care and love.

The poetic idiom he came up with in Ful Futuk was further developed in Jato Durei Jai (However Far I Go, 1962) and Kal Modhumas (Springtime, 1966). Here are some lines that reflect his determination of the time:

I want the words to

stand on their feet.

I want every shadow

to have an eye burst open.

I want still pictures to walk.

I do not want anyone to

call me a poet.

Shoulder to shoulder

till the last day of my life

let me go walking. (from ‘Amar Kaj’—My Work)

But he was not going to be a pseudo- ‘progressive’. In a poem called ‘Duyo’ (Fie) from Ei Bhai (Brother! 1971) he says:

Hiding the sacred thread under his shirt and

a ‘holy’ charm under his cuff

the brat of a scheduled upper caste gentleman

explained to me with all clarity

how the world will have to be transformed. 

The relation between poetry and politics is not predetermined. Poetry’s business is not just to contain politics, but also be poetry. And to be poetry is not a matter of jargon-toting but of hard work. Surely the author of Padatik knew that very well, even though he had been writing a less formal and more everyday kind of verse now. Decade after decade a newly imbibed experience, an experience political to its core, was expressed in a language that is unbelievably true to life. Your skin feels it. That every bit around is true, every single bit of life, no matter how big or how small, how widely varied, whether animate or inanimate, whether near or far—has been borne out by that goodbye poem of his, called ‘Jacchi’ (Going).

 Then again, he never stopped. Even at his deathbed he was scribbling. And scribbling what? His indomitable love of man as shown in

Of which party are you?

Where my feet take me to.

I would call that a political statement. It reminded me of his love of peace from fifty years ago.

The author is a former Vice-Chancellor, Vidyasagar University, West Bengal.

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