Providing The Means

‘A Way of Putting It’

Asok Mitra

The Times Weekly, in an issue of 15 July 1973, published an article by Samar called A City Falls Apart (It has been reproduced in this Number as well). This is one of the best short pieces of sociological analysis that I can think of Calcutta. He says, 'There are many Calcuttas, even within the city proper'. Nirmal Kumar Bose gives elaborate maps and statistics to prove this point. Samar gives a much more effective four-para thumbnail sketch of two of his Calcuttas. His North Calcutta sketch is fuller and more enthusiastic. It gives a host of names by means of which the reader can fix his bearings on several planes. But the sketch of South Calcutta is tongue in cheek and few names are mentioned, I suspect for fear of offending sensibilities. Right when the reader is entitled to expect what kind of transposed heads he himself suffered from when he moved finally to South Calcutta, Samar shuts up blandly with the sentence; "People may argue that all this is not exactly north, but Calcuttans speak of North and South Calcutta, never of East or West Calcutta, in an unconscious response to the north-south development that has already marked the city, whose waistline is rather thin.

Ballygunge in the south was built by retired government servants, successful lawyers, teachers, doctors, and other professional people. Along with the lakes it still has charm, and all the vanity associated with the middle class. This is one Calcutta. It draws large crowds from the north, which grow thicker during the Puja holidays. Gariahat, the bazaar and shopping centre, attracts an increasing number of visitors from the northern parts, the large and once prosperous stores there notwithstanding. You see any number of beggars. But the average young man and girl look healthier and better dressed than their predecessors did in the thirties and forties. In North Calcutta, however, people look thin and poor. Even the young seem underfed. It is evident that the severe lack of housing and medical care is telling on their health. Roughly speaking, North Calcutta is the place where the Bengalis who first came into contact with the English, and prospered as their agents, congregated. It was the centre of the so-called renaissance. In the thirties, it has a charm of its own, with its Siva temple, ganja addicts, and other nondescripts living a life of their own. It is true that most of the physical culture centres, which bred terrorists, were located in the north, but it continued to be the literary, art and drama centre.

Among the well-known men whom this writer came to know in the early thirties were Jamini Roy, Sisir Bhaduri and Sudhin Datta, to mention some of the illustrious dead. The Jorasanko house of the Tagores was situated there. Journals like Prabasi, Parichay and Modern Review flourished in the area, as did some famous dailies in English and Bengalis. (Humphrey House, whose works on Dickens and Hopkins are well known, used to say that he read a particular English daily to acquire a knowledge of Bengali!).

As the number of new rich grew, the intellectuals tended to move towards the south, which was better planned and had greater space. There is a South Calcutta snobbery, next only to the 'South of Park Street' complex. Of course, all this is true only of a certain section of the people. For the masses who live in poverty it means nothing. The misery of their living conditions increases as one approaches the fringes of the city, where the refugees live. Their problem remains unsolved. Some of the most volatile elements, some of the best activists and some of the worst are bred in these colonies. By origin middle class, a large number of them try in vain to improve their lot'.

But to return to my question: what kind of Bengal or, more precisely, Calcutta could have produced them? Samar Sen's ‘The Babu's Tale’ (Babu Brittanta) is full of the author's anxiety to laugh at himself and replete with high drollery. It manages, nonetheless, to give you a picture of how he grew up. Still, it leaves you asking for more by way of documentation of an age and those parts of the city in which he grew up. In his Frontier editorials Samar packs all his punch and 'resistance'. There he is on impersonal ground on his actors and adversaries. But when setting down his impressions of people he has known he doesn't seem sure that hard words break no bones. In ‘The Babu's Tale’ one can savour his passionate attachment to North Calcutta and to the Sagar Manna Road in the neighbourhood of Behala. Delhi throughout the forties obviously meant a lot to him too. He was always at home at Daryaganj and Chandni Chowk, as I found for myself in 1947. But far from the passionate intensity with which these areas are recalled, the book is quite indifferent to South Calcutta and its inhabitants. Where is Broad Street or, for that matter, Swinhoe Street, where he has lived for the last thirty years? Why don't they exist for him in his book? Even if they do, Samar hardly places them on the map. And yet both are streets where momentous things happened in his private as well as public life. Did the drying up of his poetry after Delhi have something to do with where he lived? I came to live at 15 in Calcutta in 1932 south of Hazra Road and suspect the air of South Calcutta might have something to do with his drying up as a poet. Others, less gifted, mostly with little to say either in form or content that they had not said better thirty years ago, however, find it more profitable to keep in circulation and have kept droning on the still, sad music of infirmity and revolution to the verge of their advancing graves. Quantity feeds illusions of a new quality.

I suppose all this stands to reason. I cannot readily think of many creative British talents with any claim to fame who were bred in Grosvenor Square or Eaton Place. The left bank of the Seine or its equivalent in any other city is what brings up associations that are truly creative or revolutionary. That way North Calcutta fits into our scheme of things.

When the poetry quarterly Kabita began its useful life in 1935, Samar's cluster of poems opened with 'Amor Stands Upon You'. The poem sent strange shocks down my spine. It departed from the vocabulary and imagery of Tagore. It was miles away from the Chinese wall of Sudhin Datta's verse. It was lean and spare, opposed to Bishnu Dey's lushness. It spoke of ideas and things of the mind in terms of objects and sounds very earthy. I hadn't seen any of this poet's work befoe (I learnt later that he had already published in Purbasha), but here was something that at once changed one's notion of the reach of Bengali poetry. It was to our verse, I imagine, what Les Demoiselles d' Avignon must have meant in 1907 to the world of painting. Things were never going to be the same again. Here is the poem in my inadequate rendering. Amor Stands Upon You—Ezra Poud
Wherever you go
In the stillness of a startled moment You will suddenly hear Death's solemn ceaseless footfall
And where, after all, will you go leaving me?
Wherever you go—
From vast emptiness of the sky Jupiter's sharp eye
Will fall on Leda's white breast.

We had seen this telescoping of images and multiplied associations—one of the sources of the vitality of their language—in the Elizabethan and Stuart dramatists and the Metaphysical poets. For example, as T S Eliot has observed, some of Donne's most successful and characteristic effects are sacred by brief words and sudden contrasts:
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone

Where the most powerful effect is produced by the sudden contrast of associations of 'bright hair' and of 'bone'. Here, too, of 'the vast emptiness of the sky' and of 'white breast'. Or take Samar's stanza again with these lines from Bishop King's Exequy where the idea and the simile become one:
But heark! My Pulse, like a soft Drum
Beats my approach, tells Thee I come

Or consider Samar's stanza again with the surprise which has been one of the most important means of poetic effect in Europe:
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near,
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity,....
The grave's a fine and private place But none I think do there embrace

Observe that the language is as a rule simple and pure. In the following three poems, as well as the one above, this simplicity is carried as far as it can go-a simplicity enumerated without success by Samar's contemporaries and successors, with whom it becomes folksy and ceases to be metaphysical. In Samar, the structure of the sentences, on the other hand, is sometimes far from simple, but this is not a vice; it is a fidelity to thought and feeling. There is a direct sensuous apprehension of thought, to a recreation thought into feeling and image. But what is important is that each of his poems is valid as a poem. Each image is the poetic equivalent of a thought and poetic emotion and not a slogan. A thought in any of his poems smells as immediately as the odour of a rose and binds disparate worlds.

Wit, along with the element of surprise that I have spoken of and quoted, is not a quality that we are accustomed to associate with our serious verse. But if so, we are at fault partly in our conception of wit and partly in our generalizations about serious poetry. Besides, wit is stil confused with witticism or, worse still, with verbal punning. True wit appears in flashes in Bharatchandra, Iswar Gupta and Michael Madhusudan. Here in Samar we had wit for the first time in modern Bengali poetry, again emulated, but without success, by his contemporaries and successors.

The Rhythm of Solitude
Why do you go out in the still night?
There is no moon in the sky, the sky is dark
A lone star trembles in the vast darkness
A lone star trembles in the air
Why do you go out in the still night
Leaving me alone?
Why do you keep staring speechless, still as a stone?
There is no moon in the sky, the sky is dark
The leaves move in the air
And the lone star trembles and trembles behind the deodar
Why do you leave me
From the moment of union to the stillness of separation?
There are moments when I suddenly feel
The rhythm of your silence,
Suddenly comprehends—
night follows day
And the stars tremble to themselves,
in the dark
Green light comes on this earth of clay
Silent life, wanton and intense—
Comprehend why
You live in the still middle of the night
From the moment of union to the stillness of separation

A Night Tune
I come out in the grey evening:
Smell of flowers in the air
Smell of flowers in the air
And a loud lament I don't know of what

I come out in the grey evening
In the intense solitude of the empty heath
Smell of flowers in the air
And a loud lament I don't know of what

In the deepening gloom
A long, swift train passes me like lightning with a sad wail
Hard and heavy-wheeled and noisy-Beautiful as darkness
Heavy as darkness
I keep watching, bewitched and amazed
Watch and listen
A loud lament I don't know of what, in the scented air,
The grey darkness, smooth as a snake
The sudden shiver of the long rails
And a sharp shriek I don't know of what
Faint, thin, far away,
Cruel, hard

Smell of flowers in the air
And a loud lament I don't know of what

A Prayer for Cupid's Destruction
The tall line of the mast against the horizon
A ship's strange sound
Comes wafted from the far sea
The sad sailor's song
AII of the day is like a nightmare
Grey lovemaking at night; a prisonhouse of flowers
How many days, slow and oh how long,
Darkness fermented in dusk

And nights of honeyed love
Have I spent in amour,
Give us now life in this world of death,
Comes wafted from the far sea
The sad sailor's song.

Note how adroitly Samar has refashioned Mallarme. Also, how he repeats his short statements, like Eliot in his Ash Wednesday and elsewhere, with which each repetition brings about a variation in mood and perception.

Samar's first slim volume, Poems, appeared in 1937. Its dedication to Muzaffar Ahmed underlined its claim as the poetry of revolt and struggle. Buddhadev Bose published a review in the June 1937 issue of Kabita. He unequivocally hailed as being more modern in content and temper than his own Bandir Bandana. Bandir Bandana's revolt, admitted Bose without reservation, was entirely personal. Sen's revolt in his poems owed to social injustice and class conflict. I quote passages from Bose as being more acceptable and authoritative testimony than mine; also because I entirely agree.

Samar Sen is not anxious for his own salvation, he has never once brought in God even to curse him. Obstacles to the realization of beauty to him do not lie in personal conflict; they lie in the conflict between the larger social and the smaller class interest. The content and form of this revolt is clear and unequivocal. Let me speak of the form first. His poetry is in prose and wholly in prose. I had imagined that verse libre attains felicity only if the poet is skilled in verse, but Samar Sen is the only exception. He has never written except in prose and I don't expect he will ever make a departure. What deserves stressing is that his prose rhythm is a wholy new and unique phenomenon in Bengali. It has nothing to do with the verse libre of Rabindranath or any other poet. We talk of freeing ourselves from Rabindranath's influence. In other words, we assume that a new writer's work will inevitably reflect Rabindranath's influence to start with. But what amazes me is that this young poet does not show even a trace of it. The rhythm is Samar Sen's very own, it is nobody else's; he is the sole inventor of its sound values and echoes. This prose is not the prose of the short story or essay. It is entirely different. It is entirely suited as vehicle of poetry. Poems is a slim volume, its poems too are very short, limited each to a very few lines, barring one. The form is indeed so new that one never ceases to wonder. [My rendering]

I shall not speak of how Samar transited from a poet to the crusader of Now and Frontier, or how he has borne the burden alone for the last twenty years. A hero, like Yogi Johnson's Indians, is, of course, not aware that he is one. The last half-century has seen a long profession of poets and writers who began as revolutionaries but eventually subsided, often noisily, into respectability, anxious to make a virtue of reaction. But a small group as always held fast, refusing to take defeat; Samar is among them. His choice of polemical prose in place of poetry reminds me of Rabindranath Tagore, who preferred painting to poetry to bring out the conflicts and savage indignation lacerating his breast, his conscience, his yearning for light and liberty. Samar was perhaps right. To continue to write poetry would put him above the battle, very probably to end up in a false note. One salutes his decision to keep inside the fray. But I cannot make up my mind whether or no I lost part of my heritage when Samar beat the sword of his poetry into the ploughshares of Now and Frontier.

But we do not matter. It is more important for Samar, like his grandfather, to provide the means where people can research, say or communicate things they would get nowhere else to say or communicate; 'reasonably produced each week on time' (a comment which, Samar's wife is given to saying, makes the hair on his upper lip bristle); run on a skin-of-the-teeth budget. How skin-of-the-teeth came home to me one day when Samar mentioned–I went wan for a second, I confess—the pittance that his colleague, Timir Basu, allows himself for all his labours day in and day out, with the valuable Calcutta Notebook thrown in every week for good measure. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

[Excerpted from a longish piece published in "The Truth Unites : Essays in Tribute to Samar Sen", Kolkata 1986. Lale Asok Mitra, ICS, the well-known demographer and art-critic, was a lifelong friend of Samar Sen. He died in 1999.]

Vol. 49, No.13-16, Oct 2 - 29, 2016