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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 6, New Delhi, January 25, 2020 - Republic Day Special

Subhash Mukhopadhyay (1919-2003)

Monday 27 January 2020

by Sourin Bhattacharya

The following article was published in Indian Literature from where it is being reproduced with due acknowledgement.

Subhash Mukhopadhyay, a major figure of Bangla poetry of the 1940s, passed away on July 8, 2003. His first collection of poems Padatik (Pedestrian) was published in 1940 with the scholarship money of his lifelong friend, Debiprasad Chattopadhyay (1918-1993), himself an eminent philosopher and noted author of Lokayata. But the book came out under the banner of Kavita Bhavan, non-commercial publishing house under the personal care of Buddhadeva Bose, once an enfant terrible of Bangla poetry and by then an almost acknowledged guardian of what came to be known as modern Bengali poetry. Subhash was still in college. But without finishing his final university degree he plunged into the turbulent Left politics of the day and soon became a member of the Communist Party of India, an association that continued for about forty long years and ended as late as in 1980. Once a whole-time worker of the Party, he lived for over two years in close contact with jute mill workers at Budge Budge, an industrial suburb of Kolkata. This period proved decisive for Subhash Mukhopadhyay, the poet, for whom paradoxically poetry now appeared to have taken a back seat. But this is the period that led the poet to graduating into experience, as was found in—among other such pieces—the following gem:

Salemon’s Mother

A sky like the eyes of mad Babar Ali.

Under it

In a march covering five stations

Always lagging behind

Babar Ali’s daughter Salemon

Looks for her mother.

In this city of Calcutta

In the maze of its alleys

Where are you hiding

Salemon’s moher?

Under a sky

Crazy as the eyes of Babar Ali

Where did you set up your home?

Where Salemon’s mother?

Her voice one with the march

Filling her rheumy sore eyes with tears

She calls you

Listen

Salemon’s mother.

Your daughter born in a famine

Stands

Facing another.

She is looking for you.

(Tr. Himani Banerji)

The subject of Subhash’s poetry in this first phase extending up to Phul Phutuk (Flowers bloom [or not bloom]) was political, historical and international. It was in this period that he translated the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, who was yet not available in English. The subject and diction of Hikmet’s poetry seemed to go so naturally well with Subhash’s own that, together, the two made one compact poetic statement. Now there followed a period of possible introspection, or could it be that he was now working out for himself the relation between the Party and poetry and his life and living? We would never know. But poetry did not cease for Subhash Mukhopadhyay till the end. Even in his last days in the hospital he was scribbling rhymes.

Subhash Mukhopadhyay’s poetry gradually assumes an intimately affectionate personal tone, expressed in an idiom almost casual but hauntingly authentic. It has been critically acknowledged more than once that Subhash gets his poetic diction from the common man and that in making a subtle use of this diction he almost totally obliterates the gap between prose and poetry. But what also needs to be acknowledged is the poet’s own acknowledge-ment that he learns his language from the colloquialism of his mother Jaminibala and wife Gita. This is no mere formality. In Subhash’s poetry there frequently occur phrases and turns of speech that are usually associated with the family language of women. A phrase that Subhash makes a loving use of, is Jayamani,sthir hao (Jayamani, clam down) which was almost a mannerism with Jaminibala in the face of furious thunderstorms. This was her invocation to pacify the heavens to protect her children from all evils and dangers. Jal saite (let’s fetch water) is another such phrase, which also gives the title to one of his collections of poems. Women use it as part of the wedding ceremony when observing the ritual of fetching water from nearby streams or ponds to bathe the bride. No wonder this collection Jal Saite (1981) contains the famous long poem “Jachchhi” (I am leaving). In the fiftytwo stanzas of uneven length the poet bids goodbye to everything ranging from clouds, winds, sunshine and shade to Bangla language and Rabi Thakur, to green chilies and other sundry nothings down to an unfinished muttering to the pet cat. Incidentally, a large number of cats had always been a part of the poet’s household.

Subhash Mukhopadhyay was also a remarkable writer of Bengali prose. His publications include, in addition to poems original and translated, as many as nearly fifty prose titles. Some of his early prose was in the genre of reportage, written for the Party daily. These pieces, later collected in Amar Bangla (My Bengal) and Dak Banglar Diary (Dak Bungalows’ Diary) were refreshingly original and stunningly simple in style and acutely perceptive in observation. He also wrote five novels based on his experiences in the Party. One of his novels, Antarip ba Hansener Asukh (Cape or Hansen’s Disease, 1983), is now being assessed as a milestone in Bangla fiction. He has also written two volumes of auto-biography, Dholgobinder Atmadarshan (Self-realisation of Dholgobinda, 1987) and Dholgobinder Mone Chilo Ei (This Then was on Dholgobinda’s Mind, 1994). In prose also he has a number of translated volumes, which include the Letters of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas. Bhishamji was a close friend of Subhashda and he in fact, wrote a fine homage responding to a request from some of us for an anthology of essays brought out when Subhashda turned eighty. Bhisham Sahni too passed away only three days after the death of his dear friend.

Subhash Mukhopadhyay was very active in the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association. In this connection he had to travel widely to Moscow and other cities of the erstwhile Soviet Union and Egypt and several other countries of Asia and Africa. On this front he counted among his friends many writers and poets and intellectuals of the non-Western world including Faiz Ahmed Faiz of Pakistan, with whom he had an enduring friendship. An important trait of Subhashda’s personality was that he was as comfortable with these international celebrities as with the one who was a nonentity. Many of us can testify that Subhashda would feel absolutely easy to share a bidi smoke with any of his numerous acquaintances anywhere in this city, maybe sitting on the doorsteps of the very auditorium that was then preparing to host a reception for him.

The affable personality that he was, was not enough to keep away the political and cultural controversies. He was a Communist, yes, he truly was and would never shrink back from that position, although it might be true that he had nurtured criticism against a kind of heartless dogmatism that often shows in activist politics carried out in the framework of a rigidly organised Party structure. Doubts may have risen in his mind pretty early. In fact a severe debate had erupted in the State-level Party as early as 1954 with the publication of his Bhuter Begar (Labour gratis), a popular version of Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital, written in prose and rhyme. It seemed to some that he had been questioning the very tenets of Marxism, while others felt that it had been an undistorted presentation of basic Marxian economics and would be useful to the ordinary participants in the labour movement. The author was not expelled, but the book remained unrecognised in Party circles. Subsequently he came out of the Communist Party. But he never joined any other party or formed his own political group. Yet in this non-party period he did not cease to take interest in public issues and protest movements ranging from labour problems to environmental destruction to questions of language and education. This is the period when Subhashda associated himself with even an election rally in support of the Congress candidates belonging to the Indira Gandhi faction. This earned him the ‘reputation’ of a political U-turn. However, such implistic descriptions seem to result from a straitjacketed dichotomy that fails to capture the subtle nuances in the political-cultural complexities that make the fibre of poets like Subhash Mukhopadhyay. Take, for instance, the following poem in a rough translation from his last but one collection, Ekbar Biday De Ma (Say Goodbye to Me, Mother, 1995):

A Dozen

Blood Street Blood Street Blood

We then shouted in fear

The house raided by robbers as though

We said the only way is to be on the streets

Yes, we said it.

Do you remember, Pranab

That dark marshy ward

On the ground floor of

Alipur Central Jail

Where in one corner you were lodged with Arunda

Two wise men, one old and the other young

And they spread their rags just beside

Those odd ones cared for by none, despised by all,

Those twelve that belonged to no group.

After lock-up they would begin their singing

In voices out of tune, drumming the plates

They would sing vulgar Hindi filmy songs.

They would make trouble every now and then

The quantity of food given them was not enough.

When they were put in charge of serving food to others

The one that was most unmanageable

Kept for himself, I found, a mere crumb

Giving away the most of it to us.

They were overjoyed when I nudged on to them, A gesture of friendship

I called them a ‘dozen’ after the title of

Premenda’s short story.

The youngest of them was from a Beleghata bustee.

He used to weave garlands

In his father’s flower shop at Baithakkhana,

He told me of the ingredients he had used

For making hand grenades at home.

They had got nothing in thier life 

Not even in their childhood

They were all angry about everything around them

Let something happen here in Kolkata

They’d take to the streets with a battle cry. 

Do you remember, Pranab

What happened the day we were released

It was a sight at the prison gate

Pleasantly strange, they were dangling

Their feet from the verandah

That dozen of them, they were singing

Swadeshi songs in clorus

No one ever taught them to sign,

Never were they affectionately

Given a music lesson.

They learnt these songs by listening to them

Sung in prison gatherings

And that brought smile to the lips

Of even busybodies.

Being not in power, those who had shouted that they

The only way is to be on the streets

Are now damned entrenched in power

Preaching

Let me give you milk and rice,

You have your pet black cats

The two fingers are crawling down our elbows

Like sharp pincers

Tiptoeing

      

Tipotoeing

And just when we were about

To break into laughter

The trigger of the gun goes off

Tumbling them all down to the street

While counting the numbers

I get stuck once again

At that dozen.

That street even now

That blood even now

That street even now

And the news-flash today: The East Bengal Club of Kolkata wins the Asean Club championship cup in football. I am sure this would have made Subhashda very happy. He was a lover of that game all through his life and was himself a player of sorts in his young days.

My tribute to this poet.

(Courtesy: Indian Literature)

The author taught Economics in Jadavpur University, Kolkata for several years.

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