Dams · Riverine Literature · Rivers and Culture · Rivers in Literature

Riverscapes of a Lonely Poet: Jibanananda Das

Again I shall return to the Dhansiri’s banks, to this Bengal,

Not as a man, perhaps, but as a shalik bird, or a white hawk.

As, perhaps, a crow of dawn in this land of autumn’s new rice harvest,

I’ll float upon the breast of fog one day in the shade of a jackfruit tree.

Or I’ll be the pet duck of some teenaged girl — ankle bells upon her reddened feet —

I’ll spend the whole day floating on duckweed-scented waters.

Once again I’ll come, smitten by Bengal’s rivers, fields, to this

Green and kindly land of Bengal, moistened by the waves of the Jalangi.

 

Perhaps you’ll gaze at buzzards soaring, borne upon sunset breezes,

Perhaps you’ll hear a spotted owl screeching from a shimul tree branch,

Perhaps a child is strewing puffed rice on the grass of some home’s inner courtyard.

Upon the Rupsa river’s murky waters a youth perhaps steers his dinghy with

Its torn white sail—reddish clouds scud by, and through the darkness, swimming

To their nest, you’ll spot white herons. Amidst their crowd is where you’ll find me.

~ Jibananda Das, from Ruposhi Bangla (Bengal the Beautiful) Sonnet 1

Translated by Clinton B. Seely RuposhiBangla

I read this poem by accident. It rendered me speechless for quite a while. From here on, I devoured the translations of this poet, including a Hindi translation gifted by a dear friend. The poetry was fragrant with deep love for the land. But the ever-present wilderness was not romanticized so much as to render it lifeless. River was a river. Ducks were ducks. Grasses came in several varieties, each with its own color and distinct fragrance when trampled upon. Insects and birds were everywhere: Not as lazy embellishments, but perfect to species level. Meaning was shrouded and manifest in images, rather than linear verse. Reality was surreal and myth was matter-of-fact. This was Jibanananda Das, described by Buddhadeva Bose as the ‘Loneliest poets’ of Bengal.

Jibanananda Das ( 1899-1954) was a contemporary of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. But fame and security met him very late in life and always remained elusive. Many of his works were published posthumously, including the famous collection of Sonnets Ruposhi Bangla, published in 1957, 3 years after his death. He was born in Barishal, in present day Bangladesh, on the banks of a very small river Dhansiri or Dhansiddha, immortalized in several of his poems.

SatlaBarishalBangladesh
Satla, Barishal, Bangladesh Photo: Timur Photography © Md. Moazzem Mostakim

Darkness

Woke up once again to the lapping of the ruthless river;

looked up to see the pale moon has wrapped up half of its shadow from Vaitarani

and thrown it towards Kirtinasha.

I was sleeping by the river Dhansiri – on a wintery night at the end of the harvest –

 knowing that I would never wake up again.[i]

~

If I Had Been

If I had been a wild duck

a wild duck, if you had been one too,

on some horizon, beside the Dhansiri river

near the paddy fields

inside slippery reeds

in a secluded nest filled with seeds

~

O Kite

O kite, golden-coloured kite, in this afternoon of wet clouds

don’t cry – okay? – while you keep flying beside the Dhansiri river!

~

While on the one hand, nature was present ever so minutely in his works, and without pretense, just like in Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, his myth was equally enchanting. Arguably his most famous poem is Banalata Sen, tracing the journey of a weary soul across times and continents.

And in the light of fireflies, the manuscript

Prepares to weave the fables of night;

Every bird is home, every river reached the ocean.

Darkness remains; and time for Banalata Sen.[ii]

~

I find it essential while writing about Bengali Riverine Literature, to state that I am neither a student of languages, nor can I speak or read Bengali. This profoundly limits my understanding, but it also conjures a hidden nook from where one can peep into the golden world of Bengali literature, being neither too enamored, nor completely ignorant.

Thankfully, several Bengali works have been translated in many Indian languages and in English by tireless hands and minds. Jibanananda Das’s poems have been translated in English and Hindi by worthy translators.[iii] A young translator Souradeep Roy states, “Translation is a kinship poets have with other poets. These translations are evidence of my kinship with Jibanananda Das, my kinship with loneliness. I owe him gratitude, fraternal wishes, for taking my side.”[iv]

Clinton B. Seely from Chicago University translated several of Jibanananda Das’ poems and also wrote his biography in 1990 A Poet Apart: A Literary Biography of the Bengali Poet Jibanananda Das.[v]

JD.png

One of Das’s most-loved collections,  found scribbled in a notebook after his death and published in 1957 was Ruposhi Bangla: Sonnets about Bengal, its wilderness, rivers, birds, paddy fields and the humanity, nurtured and destroyed equally by this abundance. One can write a thesis on Bengal’s riverine biota and grasslands just based on his poems.Jibanananda Das is the first poet with whose verses came floating into the terrain of Bengali literature images from the south’s rivers, trees, birds and rice fields. The picture he’s presented us with is impeccable. If not for him, birds like the owl, trees like debdaru and jarul, fruits like cane fruits, bushes like shotibon (a kind of undergrowth), and flowers like grass flowers would have to wait several decades to claim their place.”[vi]

Ruposhi Bangla Sonnet 2

I have gazed at Bengal’s face, and hence the world’s beauty

I no longer go to seek.

……

Hijal, banyan, tamal trees. Behula, too, upon a raft out on the Gangur river,

When the sliver of a waning moon had died away atop some sandy shoal,

Had seen countless banyan and ashvattha, by the golden paddy fields,

Heard the shyama songbird’s gentle tune, and once had gone to Amara, where

When she danced her clip-winged-wagtail-bird-like dance at Indra’s court,

Bengal’s rivers, fields, bhant blossoms wept like ankle bells around her feet.[vii]

~

Ruposhi Bangla Sonnet 3

Along the world’s paths: the scent of tender paddy, of kalmi water weeds,

Duck feathers, reeds, pond water, the subtle smells of punti fish and chanda fish,

A young girl’s moistened hand, wet from rinsing rice—that cold hand,

The aromatic mutha grass tread upon by a young boy

….

Within this beats Bengal’s heart.

When seven stars appeared in the sky, I sensed all that.[viii]

~

Jhilmil
Kash Grasses bloom at Jhilmill, Bangladesh Photo: Thahnan Ferdous

Ruposhi Bangla Sonnet 6

I was your companion, time and again, meandering among banyan, ashvattha trees.

I strewed paddy and puffed rice many a day in the courtyards for the shalik birds.

The night seemed about to fall,

So you plaited your hair in one long braid, and you touched to your forehead

A kanch beetle’s wing of iridescent green.[ix]

~

Ruposhi Bangla Sonnet 7

On coming to this earth’s paths, I’ve suffered human pain but also savored

Laughter

I’ve seen among the reeds the yearnings of white geese

Come alive with joy—they float free like wind itself upon the river’s current

Cackling, clucking. I’ve seen green grass, as far as eyes can travel I’ve seen

Grass, made manifest profusely—covering, enveloping weary sorrows of

This world. I’ve seen basmati paddy, kash catkins swaying, as though erasing, time.

…..

On this earth’s paths I’ve often stumbled, shed some tears. But

Those geese, that kash, paddy, sunshine, grass come and come again, erasing all.

~

“Some of Jibanananda Das’s poems have poeticized certain topographical names of Barishal with such astonishing success that reading those poems always gives the reader a sensation of journeying through the landscape and the lush greenery of Barishal. Now Dhansiri is the most melodious and lyricised of all the river-names in Bengal. And it is no longer a mere name of a river, it is a poetical identity of Barishal”. [x]

But Jibananada’s Dhanasiri is fast disappearing.[xi]

A lover of Jibanananda Das’s work Andrew Eagle, wrote an essay in Daily Star titled Questions for a Lone Bird Called Das “Some say deltas are unfaithful creatures, Jibanananda, devoid of loyalty as to where rivers lie and in what measure of bounty their waters flow. From Dhansiri’s bank that uncle’s house is a way off now. Some call the name of Farakka to explain your Dhansiri reduced to an exaggerated stream, with barely the width between its banks for a steamer to pass. It’s not a suitable transport route anymore. Others may wonder at the longer effects of British river-tinkling, turn of the last century, at the not-so-distant Gabkhan Channel.”[xii]

Bangladesh
Sunamganj, Bangladesh Photo: Thahnan Ferdous

His poems are still being read, Barishal organizes Jibanananda Festival on his birthday, more and more people from different corners of the country and the world keep discovering him at odd times.

Can we say that poems like his are only about nostalgia, aesthetics and word play? Perhaps, the way he evokes the communion of man, rivers, paddy fields and kash grass, dew laden forests and green iridescent beetles: it lays down a map to an old journey. Perhaps river revival is not only about letters and submissions. It is also about poems and stories. It is not only about winners and losers, but also about a longing for solitary walks along a green river bank: reminding us of a place that was and a place that could be.

At a time when we, as a nation, are replacing poems with paeans and fragile love with sticky devotion, writings which celebrate the land and the rivers for precisely what they are seem invaluable.

If we are willing to listen, poetry of poets like Jibanananda is a placeholder of the past and also of a future.

Once again I’ll come, smitten by Bengal’s rivers, fields, to this

Green and kindly land of Bengal, moistened by the waves of the Jalangi.

Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com

Endnotes:

[i] Tranlsated by Jibanananada Das himself. Source: Souradeep Roy, https://www.academia.edu/32349769/Jibanananda_Das_Eight_Poems_in_Translation

[ii] https://www.cse.iitk.ac.in/users/amit/books/dasgupta-2004-jibanananda-das-makers.html (Chidananda  Dasgupta, Jibananda Das;  (Makers Of Indian Literature) Sahitya Akademi, 2004, 48 pages  [gbook]

[iii] https://www.parabaas.com/translation/database/translations/essays/faizul_jibanananda.html, http://lifeandlegends.com/jibanananda-das-translated-lopamudra-banerjee/

[iv] https://www.academia.edu/32349769/Jibanananda_Das_Eight_Poems_in_Translation

[v] https://www.amazon.com/Poet-Apart-Biography-Jibanananda-1899-1954/dp/0874133564

[vi] https://www.dhakatribune.com/magazine/arts-letters/2017/07/22/topography-south-bengali-poetry

[vii] https://www.parabaas.com/jd/articles/seely_scent_bengal2.shtml

[viii] https://www.parabaas.com/jd/articles/seely_scent_bengal3.shtml

[ix] https://www.parabaas.com/jd/articles/seely_scent_bengal6.shtml

[x] https://www.thedailystar.net/literature/news/jibanananda-and-barishal-1815604

[xi] https://www.thedailystar.net/country/dhanshiri-river-disappearing-1525177

[xii] https://www.thedailystar.net/questions-for-a-lone-bird-called-das-13116

2 thoughts on “Riverscapes of a Lonely Poet: Jibanananda Das

  1. Jibanananda Das, a nature’s poet, a natural poet and depicts emotions, landscape and human empathy with the same flow and resonance of a
    lilting, cascading river as he does with equal facility the peace and tranquil move of rivers approaching their final destination the sea. I am from Barisal myself and I have traversed the corridors of the same B M College hallowed by JD ‘s presence. I wish I could write a little more on the vibrant bridge of emotional links. Perhaps I shall come back to the banks of Dhanshiri and cross that bridge for a golden green harvest of memories, feelings and echoes of Jiban’s Ananda ( Life’s Happiness ) Perhaps one day……
    Syed Muhammad Hussain /// 10 November, 2019
    PS. We must thank Ms. Parineeta Dandekar for an excellent presentation of JD’s literary treasures that shall enrich us all

    Like

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