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A literary biography written from the heart

  • Published at 01:20 pm October 6th, 2017
  • Last updated at 07:57 am October 8th, 2017
A literary biography written from the heart
By the time I was trying to collect a copy of Shahaduzzaman's Ekjon Komlalebu in mid-June, the fourth edition of the book was sold out and work for the fifth edition was underway. It was first published in the Ekushey Book Fair this year. If you are a writer in Bangladesh, significance of this can hardly be lost on you. I’ve been told by publishers many times over that even novels or story collections written by our biggest writers (such as Hasan Azizul Haq and Selina Hossain) do not sell more than 200-300 copies. So, what Komlalebu has achieved in terms of sales in less than a year is a huge success by any Bangladeshi standard. Jibanananda Das has become something of a cult figure in Bengali literature over the past few decades. Any account of his life hence attracts a lot of readers, both young and old. The success of Komlalebu owes in part to Jibanananda’s increasing influence among readers. But once you start reading the book, you realise the power of Shahaduzzaman’s lucid prose which paints an appealingly accurate image of Jibanananda, transporting you to the Bengali literary world spanning from the 1910s to the 1950s, with the biggest modern Bengali poet of all times at the centre of it. Instead of being a detached reader, you find yourself emotionally and eventually, intellectually involved with the poetic journey that Jibanananda made. Beginning with an engaging description of the tram line where Jibanananda’s fatal accident happened, the narrative is fashioned in the style of a novel, broaching the mystery hovering over the poet’s death – whether it was accident or suicide – and following it up till the end, unfolding the psychological alienation, uncertainty over employment and unprecedented literary vitriol that he faced throughout his literary career, and that, also, constitute the central tension.
Shahaduzzaman’s book is neither a novel nor a scholarly research work but a worthy attempt at combining both, with the unique outcome that in the process Jibanananda’s poems have been interpreted so easily and lucidly that they have become accessible even to the laymen
But soon the fictional air shifts to scholarly enquiries into his poetics, with elaborate discussions on his most famous poems, such as “Bodh”(Consciousness), “Camp e”(At the camp), “Aat Bochhor Ager Ekdin”(A day eight years ago) and “Banalata Sen.” Though the enquiries fulfil conditions of scholarly investigation in terms of putting the poems in context and referring to relevant works of previous authors or critics, they are not really carried out in the academic vein. This is where the book significantly differs from Clinton B Seely’s A Poet Apart, another literary biography, in which interpretation of Jibanananda’s poetry has been carried out along purely academic lines. The references provided in interpreting a poem or discussing some aspects of Jibanananda’s life are not done in any academic format either. Instead, Shahaduzzaman mentions the relevant book and quotes relevant parts directly from it without providing any footnote or endnote. Sometimes conversations or thought processes have been put in without mentioning any works at all, telling us the writer is taking his fictional liberty, but unlike Sunil Gangyopadhyay who takes absolute freedom in Prothom Alo and does not at all mention his sources until at the very end, under the bibliography. Seely’s book, albeit a literary biography, is a scholarly approach to understanding Jibanananda’s poetry and it leaves the poet’s personal emotions out. It interprets individual poems or groups of poems through structural analysis, making deft use of all the historical and literary material available to him. Shahaduzzaman, too, traces Jibanananda’s poetic growth, but he pays considerable attention to the poet’s psycho-sexual upheavals as well. Roughly speaking, Shahaduzzaman’s book is neither a novel nor a scholarly research work but a worthy attempt at combining both, with the unique outcome that in the process Jibanananda’s poems have been interpreted so easily and lucidly that they have become accessible even to the laymen. This is an achievement for which this book will earn a lasting place in Jibanananda studies. Shahaduzzaman points out the revolutionary shifts that Jibanananda’s poetry marked in matters of diction, theme and prosodic structure. In so doing, he aptly brings out the overall literary context in which Jibanananda had to swim against the tide, with only a few admirers (i.e. Achintyakumar Sengupta, Buddhadev Bose, Sanjay Bhattacharya) and a sea of detractors some of whom made a career out of vilifying and mocking his poetry – the most notorious of them being Sajanikant Das, editor of Shanibarer Chithi. This aspect has sufficiently been addressed by Abdul Mannan Syed (in Jibanananda Das: Kobitasamagra), Seely and many others. Shahaduzzaman deserves credit nonetheless, for many of his sources are new, such as Jibanananda’s diaries.
Despite reassuring us time and again that the beauty of Jibanananda’s poetry lies in its power to transcend the personal, Shahaduzzaman always brings in the personal angle as the most important. He reads “Nirjan Shakkhwar” in that light, saying it is a poem of unrequited love
Jibanananda’s personal life has been explored and it is through this exploration that some fictional elements come in. Even then, references have been made generously to sources culled from his younger brother, Ashakanananda Das; his wife, Shovona Das; his fan, Bhumendra Guha, and his fellow writers. In fact, exploration of his personal life has led Shahaduzzaman to devote almost equal space to discussing his prose fiction. Jibanananda’s fictional works, none of which were published during his lifetime, are largely ignored by readers and critics. It was in Seely’s book that his prose has been given due attention, though there is only one chapter dedicated to this subject, and only three of his novels (Malyaban, Sutirtha and Jalpaihati) are discussed in meticulous detail. When Seely was writing his book, Jibanananda's other novels were yet to be published. There are also some short articles and essays about his prose, scattered in newspapers and literary magazines here and there. About a decade ago, perhaps, I saw one of them in an issue of Kaler Kheya, the literary supplement of the Daily Samakal. It was written by Azfar Hussain. Apart from these instances, writings on Jibanananda’s prose fiction are few and far between. That's where Shahaduzzaman comes in on Jibanananda's prose, bringing it right on to the discussion table. He has touched upon almost all of his novels and most of his short stories. What struck me particularly, though, is that Shahaduzzaman’s interpretation of Jibanananda’s fictional works is essentially tied up with the latter’s personal life. In this framework, motives and sentiments of Jibananada’s male protagonists have been understood in terms of the crises he was going through in personal life. Some of it does make sense as Shahaduzzaman discusses at some length how Jibanananda’s personal crises, especially those concerning conjugal life and career, were reflected in his characters. We know that this approach to literature – that of understanding a writer’s creation with reference to his/her personal life – has its roots deeply implanted in our critical practice. It is no different in other parts of the world. But with advancement of more illuminating and objectively oriented interpretative methods, it is actually losing its edge the world over. Upon close scrutiny, the biographical method does appear to delimit the immense interpretative scope that the imaginative leap of a novelist has to offer. Seely, too, admits that Jibanananda’s novels are at times disappointingly marred by his personal crises, as is the case with Sutirtha, but at the same time he underlines in Malyaban and Jalpaihati treatment of certain materials which, he thinks, are independent of a personal bias. An identical approach is visible in understanding Jibanananda’s poetic works as well. Despite reassuring us time and again that the beauty of Jibanananda’s poetry lies in its power to transcend the personal, Shahaduzzaman always brings in the personal angle as the most important. He reads “Nirjan Shakkhwar” in that light, saying it is a poem of unrequited love. Maybe Shadauzzaman is right, or maybe he is wrong; maybe Jibanananda was feeling the pain of rejection at the time of writing this poem. But poetry, or any genre of literature for that matter, becomes great poetry or great literature by means of its sheer power to transcend the local and personal, to alter a subjective experience into something that people can generally relate to. Whether Jibanananda was feeling the pain of unrequited love or not, it is of utmost importance that this is one of those first poems in which Jibanananda emerged with his own poetic voice: Modern in diction and articulation, but distinctly imbued with emotion. It is also in “Nirjan Shakkwar” that the seed of travelling through millennia, of invoking thousands of years of past civilisations and owning them up, of reviving and merging them with the present, was sown. The famous bunch from Banalata Sen – “Shyamali,” “Shabita,” “Shuranjana,” “Shuchetona,” “Shudarshana” and “Nagna Nirjan Haat” – have also been interpreted against the same personal backdrop: Unrequited love. Quite a number of critics, conversely, have seen these poems as Jibanananda’s rediscovery of his poetic roots and cultural heritage. Mohammad Rafiq is one of them and he writes about it in his Amar Jibanananda. Except for this overemphasis on the biographical method in interpreting Jibanananda's creative works, the book is a literary success that does justice to all the other marks of Jibanananda’s poetry –themes of alienation, reincarnation in the shape of Bengal’s nature, dichotomy of life and death, historical consciousness, unflinching faith in a better future that holds promise of egalitarianism. In the last years of his life, though the ghost of unemployment never really left him, Jibanananda steadily began to be respected as a major poetic voice in Kolkata. In 1953, Signet Press, Kolkata’s famous publishing house, brought out an enlarged edition of his Banalata Sen. He was awarded the Nikhil Banga Rabindra Sahitya Puraskar in the same year. In 1954, Signet Press’s Dilipkumar Gupta, influential critic Abu Sayeed Ayub and eminent historian Dr Niharranjan Ray, among others, arranged a poetry reading session at the Senate Hall of Kolkata University. Jibanananda was the last poet to recite. When he finished reciting “Banalata Sen,” he saw a vibrant audience giving him cheering applause, shouting “one more, one more.” He finished his reading with two more poems. That same year he published his last book, Shrestho Kobita (Best Poems). Though this recognition was new to Jibanananda and meant a lot to him, Shahaduzzaman rightly thinks this was nothing compared to the enormous influence he’d be exerting over future generations. “He’s understood that he’ll have to wait for several generations to find the right readers of his poetry. He’s ready for that now,” Shahaduzzaman notes. (My translation) Soon he was invited to Kolkata Radio for reading out one of his poems to the audience. The programme was on October 13, 1954, and it went well. On October 14, he went out for a walk down Lansdowne Road towards a park in Gariahata. Shahaduzzaman imagines that maybe Jibanananda got obsessed with the image of the final dawn that would bring freedom to the whole human civilisation. But he got too obsessed, perhaps, to notice an approaching tram that injured him fatally. He was alive for eight more days and breathed his last on October 22. It is at this point that Shahaduzzaman picks up the question hovering over the misty veils of Jibanananda’s death: Was it an accident or a calculated move to end his own life? It is a question the answer to which remains unknown to us all. But we do know that here is a poet who understood his present through a rediscovery of his past that, he believed, would lead him on to the vast possibilities of a rich future. We do know that here’s a poet whose poetry will live on as a most splendid asset of Bengali literature, of world literature, and also, of the whole human civilisation.
Rifat Munim is Literary Editor, Dhaka Tribune.