Bengal’s Eliot

‘Samar Sen : Poetry & Frontier’

Bibekananda Ray

Anirban Biswas's article 'Samar Sen: Poetry & Frontier' in Autumn Number 2015 summed up the life and struggles of the founder-editor of this weekly. During 1961-'63 when I was a post-graduate student of English literature in the Presidency College, Samar Sen was to us a Bengali echo of T S Eliot who influenced poets of his generation enormously. Even Rabindranath liked his poems and translated his 'journey of the Maggi'. Sudhindranath Datta used to write on him often in Parichay but only Samar Sen imbibed Eliot's poetic idiom. By 1939, when he passed MA in English literature from Calcutta University, Eliot's major works have been published—his world-famous critical essays, poetry (including 'The Waste Land') and four plays (up to 'Family Reunion') which were available in Kolkata and read by wannabe and well-known poets. Sen must have read them also; Eliot's existential anguish during and after the World War-I echoed only in his poetry. Unless known or told, lines such as "Wherever you go, / in stillness of some startled moment know! /your breath will catch, to hear with sudden dread, /of death the muffled, undelaying tread" and so on, sound like early Eliot's. Unlike Eliot but like many fellow poets like Bishnu Dey and Subhas Mukhopadhyaya, he was attracted to, and influenced by, Russian Marxism and later by its Chinese Maoist variety. Great poetry being untransla-table, the appeal of much of Samar Sen's is lost in translation. We used to look forward to, and read avidly, his pieces in NOW until he left it in 1968 and launched Frontier with meagre resources. After post-graduation he taught briefly in P K College, Contai; his colleagues and my father, then Sanitary Inspector in the coastal town, remembered him fondly. When I worked in the News department in AIR New Delhi as Joint Director from 1988, I heard many anecdotes about him—how he improved English in bulletins and boozed and played cards in his Daryaganj mess. His command over English was such a talk of the News Services Division that when the Director of News wrote on his leave application that Samar Sen was "weak in grammer", he returned the paper, writing below this observation that the "Director was weak in spelling".

I met him only once, but memorably. After passing M A in 1963, I called on him in Hindusthan Standard office, looking for a job. As I muttered my wish, he looked up at me through his high-power glasses beneath his tousled hair and asked me to show him some writing. I prepared one and when I approached his room the peon told me that he had resigned the previous day. As I was returning in despair, his successor, Sudhangshu Bose called me and asked, why I was looking for Mr Sen. When I stated my purpose, he wanted to see my piece, glancing at it he told me I could join as a reporter and advised me to see the News Editor. When I told him Mr Bose's directive, he angrily said, he won't be able to tutor me. I was so ruffled by this rude reply that I walked out, giving up my desire to work under Samar Sen. Reflecting on him, I was amazed that I found him so cool on the day he resigned from the cushy job of Joint Editor of a well-circulated daily and jumped into an uncertainty of livelihood. Thereafter, he lived in penury and privation while 'Frontier' attracted the animosity of the government. The present editor fondly remembers him and showing a ramshackle chair in 'Frontier' office at 61 Mott Lane says, "Samar Babu used to sit there on that chair". If he was not lured to communism and continued writing poems, Samar Sen would have matured as a poet like T S Eliot. It's a mystery why he gave up the Muse when five compilations had made him enormously popular. An anecdote goes, when in a gathering a woman admirer teased him that the Muse had left him, he scribbled a short poem on a chit to prove that poetic inspiration had not dried up. Days before his death on 23rd August 1987, a scribe approached him in in his Swinhoe Street house, he refused an interview saying he was suffering from 'cancer of the mind'. Buddhadev Bose who published his poems in Kabita wrote, when most poets were unable to shake off Tagore's influence, "this young poet has never been under the influence of Rabindranath". In political beliefs, he was akin to Bisbnu Dey in hatred of capitalism but his poetry was never as abstruse as Dey's. In old age, Rabindranath thought, much of poetry after his was opaque; about Bishnu Dey's he remarked that he could understand his lines in isolation, the whole poem made no sense to him. He told Buddhadev Bose that he liked Samar Sen's poems.

The paradox of revolutionary journalism that Samar Sen practised in 'Frontier' is that it was not read, or reached the vast mass of illiterate people who have to be galvanised for a communist revolution. Audio-visual media have an edge over print media in this respect; in late 1960s TV was not in vogue. All India Radio was then directly under the Central Government and could not be a vehicle for calls for Revolution. The sedition law which the British Raj promulgated in 187O and incorporated in the Indian Penal Code in section 124A, substituted by Act 4 of 1898 has not been struck down in free India; under it "Frontier'' had to suffer during the Emergency. The law is still applied by the State and Central governments, despite much vaunted democracy and Constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression. Contributors and well-wishers of Frontier during his life time deserted Samar Sen as he tilted to the defence and editorial support of Maoist uprising in Naxalbari in Frontier, deserted him in lure of money, posts and awards with which all despots buy the intelligentsia. He wrote in a 'Frontier' issue,

"In these times of dereliction and dismay, of wars, unemployment and revolutions, the decayed side of things attracts us most... Perhaps that is because we have our roots deep in the demoralized petty Bourgeoisie and lack the vitality of a rising class."

I do not know if any other Indian poet, then or now, echoes Eliot so unmistakably. Such integrity of character and political beliefs and dogged refusal to compromise with powers-that-be despite utter penury and isolation as Samar Sen's, are seldom seen among the intelligentsia. His refusal to toe NOW's founder and financier Humayun Kabir's line and exit from Hindustan Standard in protest against publishing a communal news item behind his back sprang from his uncompromising integrity.

Vol. 48, No. 24, Dec 20 - 26, 2015