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Poverty: A poem

  • Published at 09:59 pm May 14th, 2018
  • Last updated at 10:08 pm May 14th, 2018
Poverty: A poem

A Bengali classic in translation

(Translated by Fakrul Alam)


Poverty, you’ve empowered me,

Endowed me with Christ’s dignity

And adorned me with a thorny crown,

Ascetic one, you’ve inspired me

To speak out and eye the world boldly 

Deliver messages as incisively as a knife;

Your curse has made my veena a sword!


Arrogant hermit, your scorching flame

Has shorn my golden visage of its glitter,

Shrinking its sap and drying the soul early, 

When I try grasping with emaciated hands

Beauty’s bounty, O Impoverished One,

You step forward and lap it up. 

A forlorn desert is all you leave

For my imagination to play with.

My eyes blaze at my own beauty!


My desires, tinged with pain-yellow buds,

Would rather bloom like the soft-white

Fragrant shefali flower.  But Cruel One,

Like an unfeeling woodcutter, you break

All branches and destroy all blossoms,

My heart glistens like an autumnal dawn, 

Wet with dew shed by sympathetic earth.

 

You are the sun, your heat dries up

Every dewdrop of pity. I shrink

Inside the shade that earth affords.

Dreams of Beauty and the Good shatter. 

Pouring liquid poison down the throat

You ask, “what good is nectar now?

There is no parching sensation,

No intoxication, no madness.

Weakling that you are, not for you

To seek manna from heaven

In this sorrow-laden world!

You are a serpent, in birth singed

By pain! In a thorny garden you weave

Garlands. On your forehead

I leave this mark of woe!”


I sing songs, weave garlands, and feel my throat burn,

Snakebites have left their marks all over my body!


Like unforgiving Durbasha, you wander

From door to door with a beggar’s bowl.

Even as newly wed couples embark

On their night of Happiness, you cry out:

“Dumb ones, Listen: this world

Is no bower of bliss but full of sorrow,

Of want and the pangs of parting,

Of thorns that underlie bridal beds

And are embedded even in the Beloved’s arms,

Take your fill of them now!”

Instantly, cries of anguish overwhelm,

In that bower of bliss light fades,

And dreadful night overwhelms!


Exhausted, worn out by hunger, you peer,

Surveying earth with knotted eyebrows

When, suddenly, something strikes you,

And your eyes dart out fiercely.

Whole kingdoms are devastated then

By Plagues, Famines, and Cyclones,

Pleasure Gardens burn, palaces topple—

The only verdict you know is death!


You never stoop to modest displays,

But revel in revealing yourself nakedly.

You know no hesitation or shame

But raise the heads of those bent low.

At your wish, people condemned to die

Tie nooses around their neck gladly.

Despite burning in the fire of penury daily

They embrace death with devilish glee.


From goddess Laxsmi’s head you snatch 

Her crown and throw it to the dust.

O Champion, what tune do you strum 

So deftly on your veena? All I hear is lamentation!


Yesterday morning I heard the shehnai wail

A melancholy note, as if a dear one

Hadn’t returned home yet. The shehnai

Seemed to cry out to him to come back.

Some bride’s heart wafted away with the tune

As if searching for her beloved.

Her friends wondered why she should cry,

And let her kohl dissolve with her tears....


Even this morning I woke up to hear

The shehnai call plaintively: “come, come”

Sad-faced shefalika flowers drop off—

Like a widow whose smile keeps fading—

Their delicate fragrances overwhelm

Butterflies fluttering on restless wings,

Intoxicating them with the scent of flowers

They kissed! Bees yellow their wings 

With pollen and wet their bodies with honey.


My soul overflow in all directions!

Unconsciously I sing out welcoming songs

Happily! My eyes fill with tears unaccountably

Someone seems to tie the knot,

Uniting me with earth. With hands full of flowers,

Earth appears to step forward with its bounty.

It is as if she is my youngest daughter!

I wake up suddenly in wonder! Alas, my child

Has been up all night and is crying in my home,

Famished and hands full of soot.  O Cruel One,

You’ve brought perpetual tears to my home!

I haven’t been able to give my dear child,

My loved one, a drop of milk! 


Familial duty is no delight! Poverty is intolerable,

As it cries endlessly as one’s son or wife

Clasping one’s door! Who will play the flute?

Where will one get radiant smiles of bliss?

Where will one taste a rich bouquet of wine? 

Rather swallow a glass of the poisonous dhutura

To make the tears flow....


Till this day I hear the shehnai’s overture wailing

Seemingly saying: nothing, nothing has survived!



Fakrul Alam is Pro-Vice Chancellor, East West University. He was Professor of English at Dhaka University. He received his BA and MA degrees in English Literature from DU, an additional master’s degree from Simon Fraser University and a PhD from the University of British-Columbia in Canada. Alam has co-edited The Essential Tagore (Harvard University Press and Visva-Bharati University, 2011), an internationally acclaimed anthology featuring Rabindranath Tagore’s works in English translation, with Radha Chakravarty.