Thursday, 27 February 2014

Questions for a Lone Bird Called Das

"Perhaps I shall be a duck, some young lass's."

This article mainly relates to the poem "I Shall Return Once More" and its well-known Bengali poet Jibanananda Das (1899 - 1954).

To maternal Dhansiri’s banks did you return, as according to your plan? Are you there now in the guise of a wild bird, a white hawk or shalik or dawn crow? Or were you driven to move on by the bitter realisation that found you when you saw that river later? Your heart must’ve been struck! It’s not the river you knew, Jibanananda. Change does not stop, even for you.

Trees reflected in the Dhansiri.

As the locals tell it quite assertively, it wasn’t far from the broad Dhansiri’s riverbank, your maternal uncle’s house. Is that how you came to know her, as some say, to be stirred into noting her name? Did you feel her watery breezes as you once sat beside the pond in your uncle’s yard?

Did he feel river breezes while sitting beside his uncle's pond?

On the other hand locals attest to many things and there’s no authoritative information that you really made childhood visits to the village called Bamankathi in Jhalokati – your mother was indeed from Gaila in Barisal. There would seem to be no proof that a now empty Bamankathi yard once belonged to an uncle. It’s a history unverified.

You would understand that people like to make claim to a name like yours. You of all people would appreciate that poets sometimes like to record names like Dhansiri in representing greater things. Where is the truth, Jibanananda? Did you leave it somewhere for us to find?

The Dhansiri reflecting plants and reflecting Das.

Yet it’s nice for a moment to assume you knew at least Dhansiri. It’s no great distance from Barisal Town and maybe there really was a relative’s house in Bamankathi. There are surely details that from your life’s record got lost along the way – just as the memory of the haystack doesn’t stretch much beyond the harvest. It is interesting to ponder that you might’ve held Dhansiri close as a childhood memento...

And as for the river – old people speak of a twenty-or-fifty-times larger Dhansiri, if you want to know. They can still recall, if you ask, the setting off by ship from her banks for Barisal or Dhaka – ships which must’ve reached even Kolkata once. Did you ever see those steamers passing: how each ploughed deep rippling furrows into the river’s skin? Did it seem as if those tracks would last eternally, with all the strength in the engines that made them?

Das portrait by Narayan Chandra Biswas of Itna, Narail.
But of course a boat’s trail vanishes after minor moments and perhaps you wondered as the majestic Dhansiri and her cohort wind regained the upper hand. It would’ve seemed that nothing could stop her: certainly not any manmade contraption – and you had little affection for manmade contraptions.

Yet time happened.

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.

Equally it might be that dear Dhansiri simply mourned the loss of her poet friend after you fell beneath that Kolkata tram and left that earthly life. It can be the river in protest simply refused to carry on with the vigour that had been.

"I shall return to the banks of the Dhansiri, to this Bengal / Perhaps not as a man but in the guise of a white hawk or a shalik."

Or was it your entanglement with nature that became quite unmanageable? As the currents of your own, now large, River Jibanananda grew after your death so the Dhansiri might have rather instinctively regressed towards modesty as a means of maintaining a kind of balance. Perhaps we witness in its reduction a form of love, a self-sacrifice returned to you by one of Bengal’s rivers? Could it not be so?

Some say you were a loner. But the rivers were always with you, Jibanananda.

Some say Das was a loner, but the rivers were with him.

Yet if it was your thoughts of rediscovering her beauteous strength that drove you as a bird back to Dhansiri it must have hurt to comprehend that like your own bodily vitality Dhansiri’s would eventually wane.

And when you knew Dhansiri reduced, did you break down? Were you overwhelmed – afflicted by the pain of that Dhansiri destiny you witnessed? No, more likely you took your anguish into yourself and waited for introspection to take its course and push it out again eventually, in a new and vast language of bird flight, a secret carnival of altered syntax cartwheels in the air and altitude rising and dipping lines seemingly without connection. Did the other birds understand your aerial acrobatics then? One day they will.

The plot in Bamankathi they call the 'Das house.'

And if you stayed at Dhansiri, were you circling overhead as we crossed the farm fields, directed by farm hands to the empty yard they call the Das house? They had excitement in their voices – they wanted that place to be special. Did you feel nostalgia or were you laughing – they got it all wrong!

Have you seen the new plantation and the fence of sticks that marks the nearby property they call the Sen house; was it there and not actually in Natore that a young lady once caught your eye, the one you reframed and named for the world as Banalata? On the other hand Sen is a common name. Nobody can ultimately know the source of your inspiration.

Beyond the fence is the 'Sen house' in Bamankathi.

That whole Bamankathi neighbourhood is gone now – just empty plots. I suppose they might have followed you to Kolkata at the time of Partition. I suppose you would have known it before your death. Was it with a sense of sadness then, for what you knew to be gone, that you wrote of Dhansiri? Or was it but a name?

Whichever was the case, wherever you put the truth, the destiny of the river you noted, you cannot have known that.

Yet don’t dismay, still there is nature’s beauty in her. A lesser Dhansiri is given to reflection and village fishing frames. Crops grow along her banks and small dinghies are yet moored there. The newer Dhansiri would be a most welcome home for a duck belonging to some young lass, her crimson feet adorned with bells. You wouldn’t be the only duck to float amidst Dhansiri’s calmed memories, though the company of other ducks might not have impressed you. Are you a duck – one of them? Which one?

Some say deltas are unfaithful creatures. The Dhansiri is not as Das would've known it.

A final question, Jibanananda, a personal question: when that tram bell rang on Kolkata’s street in 1954 did you fall or was it an attempt at suicide, a desire for an early exit from a then barely appreciative world? There is speculation, you know. Of course it’s not decent to speak much of suicide – there’s too much culture in it – and you don’t need to answer. I just wanted to say, I wanted you to know that if it was suicide, I for one can understand it.

Fishing frame in the Dhansiri.

You broke all the rules of poetry in your life and you should’ve been rewarded for that – but the reward came late and perhaps it was, in the end, the rules that broke you? Perhaps that’s how it always ends when the world is not ready. You must know that by now.

Perhaps the Dhansiri reduced its flow from missing its poet friend?

The Dhansiri, Jhalokati.

The Dhansiri today is quiet.

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: Questions for a Lone Bird Called Das

No comments:

Post a Comment