The Other Side Of The River

Poetry and Samar Sen: their Mysterious Divorce

Sumanta Banerjee

Like many of his admirers, I also felt intrigued. Why did Samar Sen stop composing poetry, at a time when he had already received recognition from Rabindranath on the one hand, and gained popularity among a new generation of young readers on the other. I never dared to articulate and address this question to him during our evenings in his Swinhoe Street house, or at our afternoon coffee sessions in the 'House of Lords' annexe of the Central Avenue Coffee House (which no longer exists) where we used to meet in the 1960s. I knew that he, constantly nagged by this question, would dismiss me as yet another intruder into his private space. I did not want to disturb him by raising uncomfortable questions about his decision to abandon his muse at the end of the 1940s. In fact, he bade goodbye to poetry in one of his last poems called Janmodine (Birthday) composed in 1946 : "Romantic byadhi aar rupantorito hoy na kobita-ye" (The romantic ailment no longer transforms into poetry).

But then, what was this "romantic ailment' that drove Samar Sen to poetry? I can only conjecture. By the term 'romantic byadhi', he could have been describing a mood that spanned a long period of different phases of the first thirty years of his life, developing from the hopes and agonies of youthful romance, and maturing into the political dream of a revolutionary change—all cascading down into a sense of despair at the end of the 1940s. We should locate Samar Sen's decision to abandon poetry in that contemporary context.

Sometime between 1934 and 1936, he composed a poem entitled Love with these haunting lines—
"It's a poisonous snake in my blood: this desire for you/ Often a strange yellow moon rises in the sky/ listless spring quivers on leaves of trees and the red pebbly road lingers in the dark like an idle dream/Throughout the day and the night it's a poisonous snake in my blood/this desire for you."
(Translated by Nirmal Goswami, in selected poems of Samar Sen, published by dialogue Calcutta, 1969).

A few years later, in the early 1940s, he wrote a poem called Love and Politics—an enigmatic personal statement. He begins with the words—
"Perforce I learnt it from being deceived/that simplicity can be so cunning/ and the body can be an object of hatred…"
He then thus ends the poem—
"Let the world be detoxicated from bad blood/ There's an urgent need for surgery/ Maybe, through the sounds and smells of gunpowder, maybe I can forget/ But yet today I enjoy the happiness of being alive."
(Translated by me)

Samar Sen was writing this poem in the background of the 2nd World War. The 1940s saw Samar Sen's graduation from personal romantic byadhi to a political understanding of the surrounding reality. From 1942 till 1946, we find him coming out with poems that ruthlessly mock the Bengali psyche of opportunism and betrayal as a product of "the Meerjafar's past (a reference to Meerjafar's collaboration with Clive to defeat Nawab Siraj-ud-dowlah in the 1757 battle in Palashi), and the fruit of the poisonous tree of Macaulay". (Pancham Bahini). He hit out at the hypocrisy and betrayal of the Indian political leaders, ridiculing Gandhi's indifference to the acts of profiteering by his followers during the 2nd world war: "The Mahatma is almost motionless in Wardha, in the pose of raising up his arms, while the gang of traders is having a good time in the market" (Basanta). Even more scathing was his poem written after the suppression of the 1946 RIN mutiny by the British administrators in collaboration with the Congress leaders. The latter, awaiting a negotiation with the colonial rulers for transfer of power, found the mutiny and the popular demonstration in its support in the streets of Bombay at that moment disconcerting. While appealing to the RIN cadets to withdraw their agitation, the Congress leaders chose to remain silent when the British gunned down their supporters in Bombay. Describing the situation, Samar Sen wrote: "In Bombay the day left back the odour of gunpowder/ the splattering of blood. /When the fierce sounds of guns stopped in the city/the revolutionary leaders gathered in the parks/Sardar's reprimands made the railings of the park shiver..." (Jai Hind) The reference is to Sardar Patel's furious denunciation of the naval cadets who dared to rebel against the British. Samar Sen ended the poem with these sarcastic lines: "Our independence is almost imminent. The English ambassadors of the Cabinet are about to arrive. Jai Hind!"

But it was not a total cynicism that marked Samar Sen's poems during this time. The Communist Party-led popular struggles in India, as well as the anti-fascist wars waged by the Soviet Union, the Chinese and Vietnamese freedom-fighters, inspired him to compose some of his best poems. In one such poem, composed during the war years, he suddenly breaks out from his mood of despondency, and writes: ''Those who fight famines in Bengal, Orissa, Malabar, north Bihar,/those who fight in Yugoslavia's mountainous terrains, / in the blood-soaked soil of Russia, in the saddened yellow fields of China, in the tracts of France from where a Phoenix will rise—they are all my family.... /It is because of their power that the beastly enemies are fleeing and dispersed/ From the fields trodden by a bloody war there rises the song of the red lotus..." (Loker Hatey)

But this optimism and his engagement with poetry was not to last long. By the mid- 1940s, he had increasingly withdrawn himself from literary activities, prompting one of his contemporaries, the poet Buddhadeb Basu to rue: "...Has he exhausted himself at the peak of his youth..?" (Kaler Putul, 1945). The failure of the political leadership—particularly the Left—to prevent the 1946 communal riots, and the partition of the sub-continent that was to follow, cast a pall of gloom over him. Poetry—or his poetic style he felt, could no longer express his crisis. He bade adieu to what was once his passion.

A period of retreat followed (1949-61)—from his forays into journalism and advertising in Calcutta to a stint in Moscow as a translator. On his return to Calcutta in 1961, he spent a rather restless time—moving from advertising to journalism, his independent spirit refusing to knuckle under pressures from either Ashok Sarkar of Hindustan Standard or Humayun Kabir of NOW—both of which he left soon. It was only in April, 1968 that Samar Sen found his own space with his founding of the weekly Frontier. The rest is history—a history of a courageous adventure of an editor through numerous trials and tribulations.

Let me end by going back to the- note with which I started—the divorce between Samar Sen and poetry. I should narrate a rather sad encounter with him, when in 1985, I was living in Ballygunge at a place within walking distance from 15C Swinhoe Street. Samar Babu one evening dropped by at my place. Our mutual friend Gautam Navlakha was also there, and the three of us got into the usual discussion about politics. When it was threatening to get too problematic, I brought out an old diary of mine, where I had many years ago jotted down the lines of one of my favourite poems of Samar Sen's, entitled Urvashi, addressed to that beloved nymph of mythology—far removed from politics. I interrupted their political debate, and asked him: "Do you remember this poem that you wrote?" I then read out the lines—" Will you enter our middle class blood stream like the restless cloud from the horizon/ Or will you arrive, Oh tired Urvashi, in our gloomy lives/Like the expectant mothers who reach Chittaranjan Sevasadan with sad faces?..."

While listening to me, Samar Sen held his head with his hands, trying desperately to jog his memory. He then turned towards me, and with a sad expression on his face said: "I don't remember ever having written those lines".

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