On 17th of July, 2014 the Inner Child Press, limited [New Jersey] published and released the United States edition of Poem Continuous — Reincarnated Expressions, a collection of selected, translated poems by the noted Bengali poet Bibhas Roy Chowdhury. And on 25th of August the Fox Chase Review and Reading Series carried out a detailed review [of the said book] by Shernaz Wadia, a well-known poetry-reviewer from India. We were pleasantly surprised as the FCR team placed the book in the Ryerss Museum and Library, Philadelphia, followed by a formal invitation by G Emil Reutter, the editor, who expressed his interest in republishing a poem titled “Lunatic” [that first appeared in Poem Continuous] in their Autumn, 2014 edition. Our amazement found no limit as the Fox Chase Reviewofficially documented [on 25th of November, 2014] that Poem Continuous ranked first [readers’ choice] among top twenty book reviews published by them during the year. I am sure, not many Bengali poets have been published in the United States, and again, very few of them have been republished and/or reviewed. Poem Continuous has been reviewed in other well-known literary journals [Red Fez, Muse India, among other places], and being the translator I enjoyed the appreciation that the book received both in India and abroad. Honestly, such critical acclaim compelled me to plan an interview with the poet, especially for the English-speaking readers. Roy Chowdhury, being an extremely private person, didn’t accept my proposal at the first go, but with my repeated persuasions he finally agreed to answer my questions. There was a condition, however. He said, “Okay, I’ll answer your questions in Bengali, and you have to translate them into English.” I didn’t want to miss the chance, and readily agreed to his proposal in spite of knowing the fact that translating an interview would be as difficult as translating poetry.
According to my prior appointment I met Roy Chowdhury on 13th of January, 2015 at The Indian Coffee House, Calcutta. We exchanged pleasantries and I switched on my laptop to jot down notes from our conversation. Owing to my habit of checking emails at short intervals I took a quick look on my inbox before I posed my first question. Voilà! I saw an email from Prof. Bashabi Fraser, who is the Director of Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies, Edinburgh Napier University, U.K. In the email Fraser shared her remarks that read as:
“In a trans-creation of Bibhas Roy Chowdhury’s poems, Kiriti Sengupta offers a poignant cluster of melodious thoughts in Poem Continuous which resonates with the Bengali experience of the post-Partition struggle, revolution and modernity in rich linguistic explorations. While being recognizably local, these poems are global in their intent as they are rooted in our planet earth, as they churn the waves and interrogate eternity. At the heart of the questioning poet, Tagore remains a flame which burns like a constant inspiration and like Tagore and the many leading Bengali voices whom Bibhasbabu commemorates, their and his voices will ensure that Bengali will be ‘sung’ as long as the language is sustained by the rhythms of everyday life like this volume which has woven variegated themes into a comprehensive tapestry.”
Kiriti Sengupta: You have read my translation of your selected thirty poems in Poem Continuous. In his foreword editor Don Martin mentioned your book as “a literary tour-de-force.” Do you really believe in the translation of poetry into other languages?
Bibhas Roy Chowdhury: I don’t believe in translating poetry into other languages. A poem not only belongs to the poet, it belongs to the language as well. The language that a poet uses to write his/her thoughts, feelings, and reactions, has its own characteristic features like flexibility, rigidity, lyrical quality, et cetera. All these affect the construction of a poem. During translation the language changes, and as a result the translated poem differs from the original poem. Yes, the thoughts are conveyed to some extent! This is why documentary, social, and subject-based poems are most commonly translated into other languages. A poet rarely has any demands. Poetry remains localized within the domain of the concerned language. However, I must admit the publishers and/or the translators who facilitate the process of translating poetry are the ones responsible for the exposure and accessibility of the poets and of their poems across the globe. Honestly, this is an appreciable task!
Kiriti: You have dedicated Poem Continuous to the “great” Bengali poet Binoy Majumdar. I can even remember that you have offered a copy of this book on his Samadhi [burial place]. I’m pretty sure most of the readers (other than your Bengali readers) have not heard much of Majumdar. They may be wondering about him being termed “great.” Can you please explain your views on Majumdar?
Bibhas: Binoy Majumdar has been one of the foremost Bengali poets in the ’50s. He was a professionally qualified Engineer and a well-known Mathematician. He served his profession only for a few years, and later he dedicated his entire life to serve poetry. A few years later he developed a psychological disorder that stayed with him until his death. He left Calcutta, and spent the rest of his life in Thakurnagar, a suburban area that is far away from the city. I was born in Bongaon, a terminal town of West Bengal, and thus I had the opportunity to remain in his touch for a considerable period of time. I have been Majumdar’s intimate follower especially during his last days. I learned from him the real meaning of dedicating one’s life to poetry. I have seen so many poets in my life, I have spent days and months with many of them, but Majumdar is unparalleled. He is exceptionally brilliant in his poems. I must say that his poems have influenced my writing to a great extent although I have other poets who are my favorites. Eventually I turned ambition-less. I learned to accept negligence. Majumdar’s Fire Eso Chaka (Come Back, Wheel) has been exemplary! He is superlative, and let me mention a few of his lines here:
“A sparkling fish
Jumps out of the water for once
Here the water looks blue
It is transparent, however
The fish dips into the water again
Seeing this humble sight
The fruit ripens, and it turns red
As it gathers the condensed sap of pain…”
Now listen to this, Kiriti:
“I think of life,
After the wound heals
New hair won’t grow again on the skin…”
And what would you remark on this poem?
“…After the first-reading of a poem
If one can remain sleepy,
In trance, or may be
In a dream-like state where imaginations prevail;
After a long time
As one re-reads the poem
If like the divine lotus
Beauty, smell, and serenity can be experienced
Then all pains, dreams, and separation are worthy;
Rich in humble words like the bubbles in wine,
Poetry … your loss of attachment.”
“Ye story, misuse exists in the world … all along;
Immense water – water that is contained in the core of the cloud—
How much of it reaches the flesh of the harvested crops?”
Kiriti: Remarkable lines indeed. Deep and profound. Well, you have been writing poetry since ’80s. What changes do you see over these decades? Don’t you think poetry has now been confined merely to construction and crafting?
Bibhas: The world has witnessed major changes during the ’90s both politically as well as economically. Globalization has affected our society to a huge extent. The moral values or ethics that I bore as I grew up were missing from the society as I reached my youth. Poetry of this decade has been quite loud, straight, and crafty. Poems written during this period have been soothing to our ears, but failed to stir our emotions. Thus, poetry turned as a medium of entertainment. Most of the publishing organizations supported such poems for business, but it is to be remembered that these changes occurred mainly in the poems that originated in the city or adjoining suburbs. Poetry didn’t change much in other parts of West Bengal, Tripura, Assam, and in Bangladesh in the ’90s. I believe, poetry emerges from our lives quite helplessly. It does not render an assurance, nor does it entertain. The so-called entertaining poems are actually rhythmic manifestos of worldly pleasures. And such poets do not respect poetry, they earn a living and reputation in the name of poetry rather. Today’s poet should write about the immense darkness that prevails on the other side of light. They should be pretension-less, and they must not support corruption.
My poems first appeared in the literary journals at the end of the’80s although I’m known as a poet of the ’90s. I was studying in my college in those days, but I could not defy the irresistible appeal of poetry and literature as a whole. I failed to complete my higher education. The entire span of the ’90s was spent in poetry. In 1996, 1998, and in 1999 three full-length collection of my poems were published. As soon as the “Krittibas award” [a prestigious award that spots young, promising talent, and it was primarily managed by the eminent Bengali poet Sunil Gangopadhyay] was re-introduced in the year 1997, and I was declared as one of its recipients. Honestly, I was in a trance, and I was far from self-analysis. Much later I realized that in my poems and in the poems of my contemporary poets our society left its booming impact, but it was only temporary. Be it love poems or poems of social relevance, they demand a proper foundation. I think, unrecognized or neglected poets who live in remote areas, or the poets, located far away from the city chaos, write poetry that is deep and profound. I can’t comment on my own poems as it is not feasible on my part, but I can tell you that the poems, written by my contemporary poets who enjoyed the limelight, were popular only for a limited period of time. Poems bearing superficial protests, and worldly love/passion may entertain the general readers of literature, but the serious readers don’t quite like them. In any art-form the matter or the subject is of prime importance, while stylization, or crafting is secondary.
Kiriti: Your poems mostly deal with agony and emotions. Your readers can readily identify marks of tears. Why is this agony an essential component in most of your poems?
Bibhas: I must not forget my roots. I have channelized my existence in my poems. My living in this universe … a child from a refugee family … my parents escaped from their birthplace [Bangladesh] … no scope of their return … the land they left behind turned into a new country … the place they opted as their shelter is their new country of living … losing wealth and much property, and thus turning into full-time laborers … I was born under extreme poverty beside the terminal fences that demarcate India from Bangladesh … did we deserve this? Those who were responsible for such turmoil are often considered historical personalities, but I hate them. The whole world is now witnessing much rift within the countries. Those who fetch Partition don’t suffer, it is the common people who suffer the disturbances. No doubt, I had my share of anger and disappointments that in turn reflect the tears of the helpless people. But, I would prefer using the word “quest” instead of “anger” … my quest for living. Dreams arrived in this route: in the form of words, tears, attachment to death, and finally in the form of Maya. In all respect, my life remained starved for years. Let my poetry capture the journey of the refugee boy from extreme distress to where I stand now. I have let my life to ply behind the metaphors.
Kiriti: Other than Tagore no other Bengali poet could make it to the Nobel Prize. What is your take on this matter?
Bibhas: There are certain protocols that need to be fulfilled for an award. We all are aware of the fact that why and how Tagore was considered for the Nobel Prize. In Literature there are many authors who have not been awarded the prize. We have a rich tradition here in Bengali literature, but due to the lack of efficient translators and publishers the world remains unaware of our creations. In present time many things are possible over the World Wide Web. Let the translators work upon the literary creations by Jibanananda Das, Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay, Bishnu Dey, Tara Shankar Bandyopadhyay, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Binoy Majumdar, Shyamal Gangopadhyay, Amiya Bhushan Majumdar, et al.
Kiriti: You don’t believe in marketing your books. You don’t quite like promoting yourself. You rarely attend the reading sessions nowadays. You are indeed a private person. Does privacy help you in writing poetry? Aren’t you bothered of being sidelined by the media?
Bibhas: I have attended a lot of seminars, and reading sessions during the ’90s. In those days I looked out for friendship and accolades. Presently I remain focused to my poetry without wasting any more time here and there. Media looks out for the best posts, and their list changes with every passing year. Media hardly has any interest in poetry. They are focused on the present-day happenings, but poetry involves eternity. Objectives of the poets differ from that of the media people. Above all, the poet has to become private with his/her own writings after a certain point of time.
Kiriti: In “Bhaitali – Song of the Boatman” you wrote, “…Union of the parted Bengal will aid in my recovery.” You have often said that you have emerged from the ruins of your refugee life. Partition of Bengal and homelessness have left their deep scar unto your soul. Can you please explain it further?
Bibhas: Partition of Bengal has been an integral part of our history. It has fetched much grief, distress, and uncertainty in my life. Most of the refugees have had struggled for their food and shelter. They have accepted their fate. As a poet I have tolerated my struggle, but I refuse to accept the same. I live in the terminal town, and the securities are strict around the border, but I don’t really bother. I am born in India, and my parents were born in Bangladesh. I truly wish the Partition gets obliterated. Can religion divide the river, sky, language, paddy fields, and trees? Which religion are we talking about? Our administration has compelled me to accept this Partition. My poetry registers the noise of the shoes of the security guards around the border between India and Bangladesh.
Kiriti: You have received both appreciation and flak from being a honest, and straightforward literary critic. It can be observed of late, the poets whom you have recommended to the readers are being awarded for their literary works. I’ll appreciate if you say a few words on this matter.
Bibhas: I have written several articles and critiques in different magazines, and journals. Having written analytical reviews on a regular basis I have my share of reputation from being a critic. Honestly, in Bengali literature most of the editors are happy with neutral reviews. My reviews have often offended the influential writers and editors. In return I have been punished, but I carefully nurture my beliefs as far as literature is concerned. I rarely write stories and novels nowadays. I can remember that in an article I have mentioned the names of a few young poets, and now I feel delighted that they are being recognized all over in spite of the fact that they were first refused by the famous publishers in Calcutta. I’ll take their names here: Nirban Bandyopadhyay, Abhimanyu Mahato, and Himalay Jana. I am proud of them.
Kiriti: I would like to know your inspirations. Can you please name the poets who have influenced your journey as a poet?
Bibhas: When I started writing poetry I was attracted to the poets of the ’70s. Poets like Joy Goswami, Shyamal Kanti Das, Mridul Dasgupta, Nirmal Halder, and Debdas Acharya have their impacts upon my journey. The town where I live [Bongaon], has a good number of talented poets. Swapan Chakraborty, Moloy Goswami, Daladhi Halder, to name but a few. These poets have dedicated their lives to poetry, and one can hear so many inspirational true stories about their poetic endeavors. On the contrary, my contemporary poets have been mean-minded, and they consider writing as job that allows promotion from a lower rank to higher. Poets of the ’90s who reside far away from the city-lights are my favorites.
Kiriti: There has been much discussion on poetry on the virtual social media, especially on Facebook. I would like to know your stand.
Bibhas: Facebook is an alternative society. It is a silent revolution. Here the users can freely share their opinions about anything and everything. This is a dream-land where governmental restrictions are negligible, except for a few countries of course! Facebook has its share of poets and their readers. I’ll say, here poetry is present in search of its readers. Neglected, but talented poets of yesteryears are now present on Facebook and they are being appreciated adequately by their fans and followers. Having said that I must add nurturing poetry is extremely important, and Facebook can only compliment the tradition of poetry.
Kiriti: Thank you so much for your time and patience. I’ll see you soon.
Bibhas: You are welcome, Kiriti.
Note: The entire interview [along with the excerpts from the poems cited here] has been translated by the interviewer.
About the Reviewer
Dr. Kiriti Sengupta is a bilingual poet and translator in both Bengali and English. He is the author of the bestselling titles, My Glass Of Wine, a novelette based on autobiographic poetry, and The Reverse Tree, a nonfictional memoir. Kiriti’s other works include: Healing Waters Floating Lamps [forthcoming; poetry], My Dazzling Bards [literary critique], The Reciting Pens [interviews of three published Bengali poets along with translations of a few of their poems], The Unheard I [literary nonfiction], Desirous Water [poems by Sumita Nandy, contributed as the translator], and Poem Continuous — Reincarnated Expressions [poems by Bibhas Roy Chowdhury, contributed as the translator]. Reviews of his works can be read on the Fox Chase Review and Reading Series, Muse India, Red Fez Magazine, Word Riot, and in The Hindu Literary Review, among other places. A few of his books are placed in the Ryerss Museum & Library, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Kiriti has also co-edited three anthologies: Scaling Heights, Jora Sanko — The Joined Bridge, and Epitaphs. He can be reached at http://www.kiritisengupta.com