‘100 Years Later’

Bishnu Dey and Das Kapital

Asok Chattopadhyay

“There is an old story about Marx: You throw him out the front door and he sneaks back in through the rear window”.

In the West the discourse on ‘Marx Revival’ gets currency every now and then. Since the 2008 capitalist meltdown globally this has been a popular theme in academic circles. “Very Interesting—we thought that the man died, eternally buried with the fall of Berlin Wall! But very quickly he came back with new force”.

Every age discovers its own Marx. In the 100th year of DAS KAPITAL Bishnu Dey wrote an extra-ordinary poem on Marx’s ‘capital’‘one hundred years’. The poem is in Bishnu Dey’s Bengali Collection ‘Kabita Samagra’. It was 1967. The world has changed a lot since then. The dreams of 1967 are mostly dead.

 Bishnu Dey (July 18, 1909–December 3, 1982) was one of the five renowned poets in Bengal in the forties of the last century. He came in contact with the Communist Party of India (CPI) and was encouraged to practise the party programme. Hiren Mukherjee, a stalwart of the then CPI, continually enthused Bishnu Dey to stay on the party line in the cultural arena. And Bishnu Dey, not being a party member, clung to the party shade in spite of bitter criticism oozed from the party mandarins and often being branded as a Trotskite. Trotsky is a perennial villain in Indian communist culture. But Bishnu Dey kept himself attached to Marxism in his own way of thinking and practice in the field of art and literature.

 From 1939 Bishnu Dey differed from the CPI on many issues. He was not in agreement with the party line. His thinking and practice clashed with the party lords. He had to undergo humiliation, insult and many a stigma, but he did never agree to deviate from his stand. For one thing he brought Samar Sen, the then rising poet and the undaunted journalist in his later years, to the Progressive Writers’ Association. Despite his close contact with the then CPI leaders, Samar Sen, too, did not join CPI. He also remained faithful to Marxism throughout his life dauntlessly against many an odd.

Bishnu Dey dared party line practitioners and heightened the flag of his rebellious journey. He said: ‘Dialectical Materialism cannot be taken as occasional dose of medicine or used simply as a system of prophesy.’ However, he did never part with the CPI and remained in the periphery of the party till his last days of life.

Despite being denounced repeatedly by his fellow travellers in the party, he never lost his faith in Marxism.

Naturally Bishnu Dey did not get due prestige he deserved from the CPI. Rather he was left in oblivion. This Bishnu Dey wrote a poem on Karl Marx’s ‘Capital’ in its centenary year in Bengali entitled ‘ekso bachor pore’ (on July 17, 1967) and even translated it into English which is much more interesting though this poem remained almost unschooled, untutored in the Marxist or left camp. The first volume of Marx’s Capital (Das Kapital) came out on September 14, 1867 while Marx was alive. The renowned historian Gareth Stedman Jones has commented:

‘What is extraordinary about Das Kapital is that it offers a still-unrivalled picture of the dynamism of capitalism and its transformation of societies on a global scale. It firmly embedded concepts such as commodity and capital in the lexicon. And it highlights some of the vulnerabilities of capitalism, including its unsettling disruption of states and political systems. [...] If Das Kapital has now emerged as one of the great landmarks of nineteenth-century thought, it is [because it connects] critical analysis of the economy of his time with its historical roots. In doing so, he inaugurated a debate about how best to reform or transform politics and social relations, which have gone on ever since’.

Just two months before the completion of the centenary year of Capital, Bishnu Dey wrote this poem and translated it into English entitled ‘One Hundred Years’. He quoted Dante’s two lines from his ‘Pugatorio’s Canto V’ which messaged to follow the poet. As a poet, Bishnu Dey wanted his readers to follow his works and talk over publicly. The entire poem entitled ‘One Hundred Years’, which got out of Marxists’ syllabus of the country, is reproduced below:

One Hundred Years
Bishnu Dey

Follow me and let the people talk; stand thou as a firm tower which never shakes its summit for blast of winds...—PURGATORIO: V
One hundred years have passed.

Yet so many roads, shattered roads, twisted,
Barbed, temptingly straight roads, deceitful roads!
Perhaps one hears through the labyrinth of crossroads
The laughter of unseen children,
Perhaps through the howl of hate beyond the jungle,
Across the dry plains of our days sings out
The pipe of some cowherd-boy of some far country.
Yet the destination fades out day and night on our
perpetually frantic streets.
In having to elect each step,
In every land of the distracted world.
Across desert wiles or muddy waters,
And Vietnam burns under napalms,
And, East and West, to-day over this country,
to-morrow over that
Vultures fly.
What a strange bitter joke!
Yet the earth’s geography widespread with milestones.
And far flung history found an explorer mapping the universe of man
A century ago! Unique in genius with prodigious knowledge,
With the wisdom of the most hardworking thought, in love with day to day life
In Das Kapital!
And in that tremendous epic the last chord rings in Kailasan rhythms,
Like a trumpet blowing in unison with Dhurjati’s duet dance,
Of what is possible in our Time and of this ever wondering quest,
And the triple vision reveals the Enemy and the Friend,
With the unending call of Thinking with our human joys and sorrows,
Of the daily faring forth to the difficult yet certain destination.

Here he draws a gloomy picture which engulfs a labyrinth where the Communist Parties forget the right addresses they would like to address.

This was Bishnu Dey who after long four decades of his demise has been left, so to speak, in lurch. Tragically enough such a thought-provoking poem has seldom been granted into the realms of the Marxist cultural arena in the country.

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Vol 56, No. 17-20, Oct 22 - Nov 18, 2023