Continuity And Discontinuity

Samar Sen: Poetry and Frontier

Anirban Biswas

It is true that even after nearly three decades since his death, Samar Sen, the founder-editor of Frontier, is not entirely forgotten, but this gentle colossus is remembered only by a very limited number of people. After his death, he received a good deal of publicity in the press, but the emphasis was much more on his achievements as a poet and a brilliant student of English language and literature than his standing as a radical journalist, although he had bidden farewell to the world of poetry four decades earlier and in his lifetime scarcely wrote anything on English literature. He remarked in his memoir, Babu Brittanta (A Babu's Tale), that one of the reasons for his reputation as a poet was that he was a good student of English. For the last two decades of his life, he lived in penury, editing Frontier and ruining himself economically. In between the end of his life as a poet and the start of Frontier, there lies a period of twenty-two years. And during those years, there was hardly any remarkable event in his career, except his resignation from the lucrative post of joint editor of the daily Hindustan Standard (later revived as The Telegraph) in protest against what he considered a cunning device employed by the proprietors to foment communal disturbances. Considering the spinelessness of the general run of journalists in this country, it was definitely an act of exemplary courage and committment to secular ideals.

Taken as a whole, his life and career evoke considerable interest and curiosity. He came to be regarded as one of the foremost Bengali poets who tried to transcend the towering influence of Tagore. Yet he stopped writing poems when he was only thirty, and subsequently, never showed any sort of nostalgia about his poetry, which had brought him so much fame. He experimented with quite a number of professions, one after another, in his working life, and Frontier represented in some sense the culmination of a protracted process of such experimentation. Before bringing out Frontier, he taught at two colleges, worked as a news editor at the All India Radio, functioned as a sub-editor of The Statesman, served in Moscow as a translator, had a brief stint with an advertizing firm, held the post of joint editor at The Hindustan Standard, edited the weekly NOW, a journal founded by Humayun Kabir. He was fifty-two when, after his exit from NOW, Frontier was first launched, and he edited it for as long as nineteen years till his death. And this period is much longer than that of his association with any other institution. Each of those assignments lasted at most a few years—the duration of his first assignment as a teacher at a college in the district of Medinipur of south Bengal was two months only. The association with The Statesman was the longest, seven years. It is curious that a person, who could not stick to any of his earlier professions for long, continued to run Frontier with an indomitable spirit in the face of tremendous odds. It is well known to the readers of Frontier that this weekly was the creation of Samar Sen alone, and while running this paper, he had to struggle constantly against poverty. It may be said that such hardship was alien to him during his pre-Frontier  days, and to court it at the ripe age was not easy. Besides, the hostile attitude of the government, coupled with the desertion of many initial well wishers, worsened the material situation for him. Yet he never sought to dissolve the paper and seek employment elsewhere. Had he wished he could easily have got a cushy and lucrative job, and it is possible that only his name would have been considered sufficient by his would-have-been employers, because he had become a legend in his lifetime. It may be said that his defiance of the lures of money and cheap fame, as well as his committment to the people rather than to newspaper magnates, was not appreciated by the general run of journalists and their employers, and that is possibly why after his death, his poetry, rather than his committed journalism, received far greater publicity in the newspapers. Highlighting his committed journalism was embarassing to the journalists serving the bania press, and giving publicity to his poetic genius seemed more comfortable.

When Frontier was going to be launched, some well-wishers objected to this venture. For example Nirad C Chaudhury, who was a sincere well-wisher of Samar Sen and a regular contributor to NOW, wrote to him that he, instead of earning his livelihood in peace, was getting swayed by temporary excitement, and commented that Sen's new venture would inevitably lead to frustration and mental discomfort. The present writer is inclined to think that subsequent history has proved Nirad C Chaudhury largely wrong. Had Samar Sen, like many of the so-called left intelligentsia, succumbed to frustration in the wake of the triumh of counter-revolution in 1971-72, he could not have displayed the Bolshevik spirit—he can be called a non-party Bolshevik— that enabled Frontier to be run till his death. Rather the word 'frustration' applies more to those who initially encouraged him in bringing out the new weekly, but later deserted it owing to various ideological and worldly reasons. The reasons were probably more worldly than ideological, because Frontier always allowed differences of opinions on contemporary issues to be published in its pages. Although broadly leftist, it did not espouse the cause of a particular political outfit. Sometimes, the 'prophylactic influence' was the fear of incurring the displeasure of the ruling powers. Again, some persons wrote for Frontier in order to receive training in writing journalistic pieces and then to use this training for career advancement. Subsequently, they ordinarily avoided Samar Sen. It may be pointed out that none of those early contributors who stopped writing for Frontier ever in their lifetime displayed the courage to court the hardships and risks that Saniar Sen had to face while running this weekly. Samar Sen, in his memoir, did not, however, display any malice or anger towards them but wrote that their initial cooperation proved that journalism was not everything about money. A few writers, however, stopped writing when they felt that they had gone bankrupt in ideas and hence were no longer able to write. A famous professor of English literature, an exceptional man among the general run of professors in respect of strength of character, told this writer in the early eighties of the last century that he was no longer able to think of any topic he could write competently on in Frontier. The professor had earlier written many notes, articles and comments for Frontier. After the period of his active association with Frontier was more or less over, he turned to the cultivation of astronomy and Shakespeare, and wrote some illuminating essays, later collected in a book titled The Insubstantial Pageant, on Shakespeare's life-vision, and two books on astronomy.

Bengali students and youths of the sixties and seventies of the last century knew Samar Sen more as a radical journalist than as a poet, thanks to Frontier and partly to NOW. Yet all over Bengal, not only readers of modern Bengali poetry, but also students of Bengali-medium schools had a little familiarity with the name of Samar Sen the poet. They were taught a course on the history of Bengali literature, and each text book of it had a supplementary chapter, not meant for examination purposes, on modern Bengali poetry, and excerpts of Samar Sen's poems figured in it, along with those of Jibanananda Das, Sudhindranath Datta, Buddhadeb Bose etc. In the imagination of those dreaming youths who had known Samar Sen as a distinguished poet since their schooldays—although he had given up writing poetry much earlier—the image of the poet and that of the editor of Frontier  were intertwined.

This fact is mentioned in order to emphasize the point that in his early age, Samar Sen created quite a sensation, and acquired considerable fame as a poet, although the set of readers of his poetry was discriminating. The poems of Samar Sen usually quoted in the textbooks belonged to the early phase of his poetic career, i.e. when he was still in his teens or had just crossed twenty. It may be mentioned that two of his early poems appeared in Times Literary Supplement in their English renderings when he was less than twenty. They appeared in an article entitled Modern Bengali Poetry by Edward Thomson.

We may reproduce an excerpt from one of Samar Sen's first poems (translation by Edward Thomson):

Where'er you go,
In stillness of some startled
moment know!
Your breath will catch, to hear,
with sudden dread,
Of Death the muffled,
undelaying tread!
Leaving my side, you hope to go—
ah, where?
Where'er you fare—
On Leda's shining breast,
from Heaven's expanse,
Falls Jupiter's keen glance

From the critical essays of modern Bengali poetry in those days, republished later, it is learnt that quite a few poets tried to imitate Samar Sen in content and style. Since the late 1930's till the recent times, literary analysts have written on his poetry, although he, after giving up writing poetry, was not known to have evinced any interest in these analyses and criticisms. About his own poems, he wrote in 1970 in an article under the nom de plume Sanjay, " When he (this writer) is forced to look up some of his own stuff, weariness and boredom overtake him".

About his political association, it is worth noting that he dedicated his first book of poems Kayekti Kabita (Some Poems) to Muzaffar Ahmed, one of the foremost leaders of the then incipient Indian communist movement. But Samar Sen did not join the communist party. It also needs mention that the contents of these early poems, by themselves brilliant in their form as well as content, betray no explicit influence of communism or the Indian communist movement. One typical illustration is the aforementioned excerpt. From his memoir Babu Brittanta (A Babu's Tale), one learns that he had close relations with two other communist leaders, Bankim Mukherjee and Radharaman Mitra (a co-accused of Muzaffar Ahmed in the Meerut Conspiracy Case). There is, however, only one reference to Muzaffar Ahmed in Babu Brittanta, informing that Kayekti Kabita was dedicated to him. It may be noted that Samar Sen's second and third collections of poems were dedicated to Radharaman Mitra (and Buddhadev Bose) and Bankim Mukherjee respectively. In these two collections, and then in the fourth and fifth ones, the influence of the then socialist and communist movement was more clearly manifest. A careful study of the entire range of his poetic creations should make this point obvious to anybody. By way of illustration, a few lines from a poem, written in May 1942, may be reproduced in their English rendering

At this moment of the last gasp
of imperialism,
Stormtroopers of counter-
Strive to acquire new empires
in countries
We swear to resist it in
this country
…  …  …  …
Innumerable marauders will
go into graves
Capitalism will be crushed
all over the world,
It will disappear in this Hindustan,
Oh, Government, the Lord,
The Governor General,
the military governor,
Alexander, the hero of Burma
We are yet slaves, but you are
captives of your own tricks
Captives of the grinding machine
of history,
owing to the self-annihilating fate
(Translation by this writer)

An excerpt from one of his last poems, written on the occasion of the suppression of the historic naval revolt, may illustrate this point further:

The day in Bombay left behind the
smell of gunpowder;
On the streets drops of blood.
When the staccato sound of rifles
comes to a stop in the city
The revolutionary
leaders assemble
in the field to deliver speeches.
The railings of the park tremble at
The shouts of the Sardar
Perhaps the two hundred and
seventy corpses
feel ashamed at their sins
Perhaps the two thousand
corpses feel ashamed
At the thought of the sins
they have committed
The warships, defeated by
bluffs, lie
still and motionless at the harbour.
The bayonets, arrogant symbols of
the empire, stand on guard
here and there
Our freedom is on its way!
The Cabinet Mission is on its way!
Jai Hind
(Translation by this writer)

It is not known what Samar Sen felt when, in 1967, i.e. three decades after the publication of Kayekti Kabita, Muzaffar Ahmed denounced the Naxalbari uprising as a CIA-engineered movement. It may be surmised that his respect for the latter did not grow after this sort of slanderous denunciation. When Muzaffar Ahmed died in 1973, Siddhartha Sankar Ray, the then chief minister of West Bengal, went to pay homage to the deceased. On the other hand, Ray tried every means at his disposal to stop the publication of Frontier. In the eyes of Siddhartha Ray then, Samar Sen, the poet-journalist, was a greater enemy than Muzaffar Ahmed, the communist leader. Yet Frontier had never hesitated to publish reports on the tragic consequences of the activities of urban Naxalites and thus to risk incurring their wrath. It is again tragic that those who, after coming out of the CPI(M) in the wake of the Naxalbari uprising, formed their own party turned their differences with Samar Sen and Frontier into an antagonistic contradiction. They would brook no criticism, even of the mildest nature. This was one manifestation of vain arrogance developing pari passu with the all-pervasive left adventurism that came to dominate the movement, the human cost of which turned out to be heavy.

Why was then Samar Sen an unforgivable enemy of the ruling Congress establishment of 1970-77? The reason is probably twofold. First of all, it published reports of state-sponsored extra-legal violence, i.e. cold-blooded murders in the name of 'encounters', and denounced this violence in strong language. Simply speaking, it constantly exposed the falsehood of the ruling establishment. Secondly, it allowed space to the various fugitive or imprisoned Naxalite ideologues for conducting their polemics in the wake of the serious setback received by the movement in 1971-72. Quite naturally, Samar Sen became a bete noire of the Indira-Siddhartha combine. As measures of reprisal, the Government made lumpen youths owing allegiance to the Congress attack the office of Frontier. Government advertisements were stopped, and stall-owners were asked not to sell Frontier. Siddhartha Ray's police however did not arrest Samar Sen, probably considering it a somewhat risky business. It was easy to arrest and torture those who may be called ordinary mortals, but not a person of Samar Sen's stature, more so because Frontier was published as a legally registered weekly, and it was difficult to implicate its editor in murder cases. It is true that the Left Front Government too did not show any type of generosity as far as advertisements for the weekly were concerned. The reason was simple; Samar Sen could not become one of their uncritical supporters. He hailed the defeat of Indira Gandhi and her party in the Lok Sabha and assembly polls of 1977, but could not be very optimistic about the Left Front Government. The defeat of and splits among the Naxalites had left a depressing effect on his mind, but he could not believe that the Left Front Government was capable of bringing about a revolutionary change in Bengal. His caustic remarks, made in Babu Brittanta, on Jyoti Basu's reluctance to try and punish the tyrannical police officers of the Indira-Siddhartha regime of 1970-77 must have exasperated the ruling left. He commented that fortunately, Jyoti Basu was not on the jury of the Nuremburg trial, because had he been so, the Nazis who had carried out holocaust at the behest of their master would have benn acquitted. It is true that the tyrannical police officers, who had been engaged in cold-blooded killings of unarmed youths during the Indira-Siddhartha regime, got frightened after the dethronement of the Congress in 1977. But the lukewarm, almost apathetic, attitude of the Left Front Government and its chief towards their trial and punishment allayed their fears. This very attitude also disheartened the potential witnesses of the crimes of the police. Lack of official support robbed most of them of the courage to come out openly to give evidence on such killings.

For an appraisement of Samar Sen's life and work, one may in all fairness quote from a book, Tari Hate Tir (From the Boat to the Bank) written in Bengali by Professor Hiren Mukherjee, the famous CPI parliamentarian and orator. "Samar Sen's young talent showed the potentiality of kissing the sky as early as 1937-38. I say this deliberately in order to anger and please him at the same time. But a poet must have intellectual balance, and without calmness of mind, the fertility of creation gets dried up. Perhaps because of this, the fellow, a repository of virtues, and liked by many of us, quickly withdrew into silence, engaged himself in many useless deeds for many years, acquired fame by writing prose in a foreign language, but Bengali poetry got him no more. So we now find his enthusiasm for social revolution expressed in articles written in unalloyed English. How can this make much of an impact on this country's social milieu?" Professor Mukherjee perhaps meant that Samar Sen should have continued to write poems and added to his reputation as a poet, but he was restless in temperament and hence his creativity got dried up. There is nothing to prove or deny this hypothesis. Again, it is true that the impeccable language and style of his editorials written for NOW and Frontier formed an additional attraction of these two papers. Quite a number of people used to read Frontier in order to enjoy the dessert of Samar Sen's English prose. But Samar Sen was not a revolutionary theoretician, nor did he pose himself as one, and he was aware that the role of a weekly, be it published in English or in Bengali, in any radical transformation of the society cannot but be limited. But notwithstanding his choice of a 'foreign language'for giving expression to his social and political concerns, there can be no doubt that NOW and Frontier served the cause of democracy and freedom in this country in a way that has few, if any, precedents in the world of periodicals. Again, the fact that he continued to run the weekly for so long does not accord well with the image of an intellectual with a restless mind. Somewhat irrelevantly, it may be added that Professor Mukherjee too acquired fame as a graceful writer of English prose and as an excellent orator in English.

After Samar Sen's death, Anustup, a Bengali quarterly, brought out a special issue on him. En passant, it may be mentioned that preparation for this issue had started when he was still alive, but when the process was going on, he was overtaken by death. It was published a few months later. In an article appearing there, Partha Chatterjee accurately pointed out that despite its specific political outlook, NOW stood in the centre of the cultural world of the educated Bengalis. But owing to the changes in the Bengali mind that had taken place in the 1970s, Samar Sen could no longer remain where he had been, and hence Frontier became the voice of only the downtrodden, the tortured and the marginalized. Twenty-seven years have rolled by since Partha Chatterjee wrote this piece. Yet Frontier  continues to exist, upholding the same principles, giving space to those for whom there is nobody else to speak. Samar Sen, in this sense, represented the voice of the voiceless.

In Samar Sen's poetry, there was the blossoming of a socially conscious, sharp personality, and in Frontier, the culmination, the fruition of it. It was a transition, an upliftment. In poetry, one finds the first spark of committment, and in Frontier, the transformation of this spark into fire. In poetry, there was the flower of youth, and in Frontier, the fruit of maturity. The intervening period may be called a period of gestation, but the roots of the later transformation was definitely there, particularly in NOW of the later phase. That was a period of excitement, fuelled by surging leftist wave. Then took place the Naxalbari uprising that ushered in a new era. NOW was influenced by this tide and Frontier was born when it was growing. Twenty-seven years have passed since Samar Sen's death and yet the regular publication of Frontier has not stopped. This is the forty-eighth year of the weekly and it continues to be brought out, thanks to the incredible perseverance of its editor, bearing the name of its founder.

Autumn Number, Vol. 48, No. 14 - 17, Oct 11 - Nov 7, 2015