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BUDDHADEV BOSE: The first hundred years

- by Jyotirmoy Datta

“Chand aashay eklaati taarara dal bendhe aashe,” runs a poem, that could be translated as “Stars come in swarms, but the moon rises alone.” Perhaps this was written with the five stars of modern Bengali poetry in mind -- Jibanananda Das, Sudhindranath Datta, Amiya Chakravorty, Buddhadeva Bose and Bishnu Dey. We feel awed by the sight. How many years have to pass before a real poet appears after another? Yet it is a phenomenon common to the great periods of art, as happened time and again in poetry, painting, or drama. 
Only, it is not the moon but the sun that shone without a rival in the Bengal sky for more than half a century. Rabindranath (literally, ’Lord of the Sun’) Tagore is our greatest poet, dramatist, novelist, short story writer, essayist, literary and social critic, philosopher, educationist, painter, musician, social reformer …
Tagore was an impossible act to follow.

I therefore ask the reader to be aware of the parameters when I state that Buddhadeva Bose, born a century ago this November, was the most versatile writer in the Bengali language after Tagore. 
As a creative writer, he had his equals. As a poet, some would place Jibanananda Das above him. Among novelists, Bankim and Sarat are ranked higher in the Bengali canon. Even among the novelists of his own age, opinion is divided as to who comes first -- Bannerjis both -- Manik, or Bibhuti?
But if one considers the sum of his varied services to Bengali literature, Bose emerges at the top of his generation. 
His novels, often passed over as ‘poetic’ and ‘literary,’ are unrivalled in their representation of the urban middle class. Bose’s ’Tithidor’ is prescribed as a must reading for newly arrived Jesuits to give them an intimate view of life in Calcutta -- which many dismiss as not “the real India.’ His description of a upper caste Hindu wedding in ’Tithidor’ can be called a Bengali prose ‘Epithalamion.’
To the Gandhian, only the lives of farmers, and to the Marxists, only that of factory hands, are worthy of being written about, realism demanding an accurate description of a bull passing organic gas, or a factory whistle letting out steam, at the start of a novel. 

Buddhadeva’s characters are intellectuals, some steeped in awareness of sin, others contemplating the meaninglessness of existence, and repeating lines from Baudelaire or recollecting passages from the Upanishads or Nietzsche.
They are more complex than bulls or tractors, but no less ‘real.‘

Buddhadeva was slow in finding his unique style in poetry.
His early poems show the influence of the English poetry he was reading at Dhaka University. (He placed First Class in both BA and MA in English Literature.)
There are many echoes of late Victorian poetry, especially Swinburne and Dowson.
His ’Kankabati’ sounds gorgeous, like Swinburne’s Dolores.
What is wonderful is that he changed from volume to volume, till he found a sparse, almost ascetic form and an abstract imagery. 

“There is nothing out there; draw the curtain close.
Those are only to lull you -- grass, dirt, puddle, sky.
Not that your potted plant, pet songster are any less false. 
Fall into yourself, sink into your own black hole.

Objects are decoys, safer to be deaf as stone,
No guru can teach you what you don‘t already know. 
As Sinbad with his load of old man of the sea
Get used to this daylong donkey’s toil of crafting rhyme.”

It can be said that with ‘Je Andhar Alor Adhik’ he created the idiom of Modernism in Bengali poetry. No contemporary poet can afford to imitate the style of Jabanananda Das or Sudhindranath Datta; he will risk sounding like mockery. On the other hand, Buddhadeva’s idiom has become the general language of poetry in both Bangladesh and Bengal.

He was pursued by storms of controversy and showers of praise from the moment he burst on the literary scene with a book of poems -- ’Marmovaani’ -- published at the age of 16. A female pillar of the Hindu society of the time publicly voiced her regret that this enfant terrible had not been choked to death at birth, thereby saving Bengal from this monster. And, a couple of years before his death in 1974, he was hauled up to court on the charge that his novel, ‘Raat Bhoray Bhrishti,’ was ‘obscene.’ 

In between, major fiction and non-fiction works followed with awe-inspiring regularity, each a masterpiece in its branch of literature, as for example, ‘Kaaler Putul,’ -- in which ephemeral literary reviews are turned into lasting literature; -- ‘Shab Peyechhir Deshe,’ memoir and travelogue and literary criticism rolled into one; -- ‘Baudelaire; Taanr Kavita,’ -- a book of French poems that are miracles of Bengal poetry, with an introduction that is a milestone in the history of literary criticism in Bengali; ‘Tapashvi O Tarangini,’ the first poetic play since Tagore that is equally successful as theater and as poetry; -- ‘Jay Andhaar Aalor Adhik,’ -- which set the style, vocabulary, low-decibel conversational tone of contemporary Bengali poetry. These are just a few of the 150 titles he authored, including two in English -- ‘An Acre of Green Grass,’ and ‘Tagore: Portrait of A Poet.’
For a major writer, Buddhadeva was unique in being a defender and advocate of the writers of his generation and of the next. As editor of the first poetry magazine in India, ’Kavita,’ he was indefatigable in his championship of Jibanananda Das, Sudhindranath Datta, Amiya Chakravarty, Samar Sen, Subhas Mukhopadhyaya and others, sometimes being paid back with envy and sarcasm by the writers he promoted. 

At the time of his death due to a brain hemorrhage in March 1974, Buddhadeva was in his prime, with the promise of a creative outburst to pale all that had gone before. The works in progress included his sublime ‘Mahabharatre Kathaa,’ and memoirs (of which the two volumes published whetted the appetite for more), prose poems, and plays on mythic themes. His prose of this period acquired the power of music and the clarity of mathematics. Although Buddhadeva Bose used to describe himself as a poet first, and he is known as a romantic, his philosophic and critical prose reached a peak unequaled by any of his contemporaries. Not even Tagore opened the doors so wide to so many literatures and periods as did Buddhadeva -- through his translations and introductions to the works of, among others, Kalidasa, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Friedrich Hoelderlin. In her anthology from the archives of ‘Kavita,’ the poetry quarterly that her father edited for 25 years, Minakshi Datta has collected a golden treasury of the reviews that BB wrote in issue after issue of the new books of poems published that quarter. We find him spotting talent, correcting awkward expressions, polishing the meter, and, in round after round, coming into the ring to defend his favorite Jibanananda from attack.
No other writer that I can think of has been so selfless in promoting others. Especially younger contemporaries. Great as they were as literary critics, not Dryden, nor Coleridge, nor Eliot. Not even Tagore.

I wonder if ‘Urral Pool’ can take up ‘Kavita’s’ role.

Here is my rude version of a BB sonnet:

The 3 A.M. Sonnet
Only the private is holy; the soft light
on the yellowing page of a book, beyond
which is the dark sky, as around a star.
Holy is the unhurried midnight letter 
written to a faraway friend. Do you think 
What Jesus preached was philanthropy?
Or that Buddha was the babbling, balding, amiable chairman of a committee?

Escaping from the surveillance of their flywhisk wielding 
salvation vendors, they wander free.
Therefore let the world drift where it will
Be subtle, inscrutable, deaf with bliss 
You will get more from a woman’s languor 
Than from all the frenzy of your followers.

Jyotirmoy Datta

Jyotirmoy Datta (1936- ) is a Bengali writer, journalist, poet, and an essayist. He worked for The Statesman, Calcutta's oldest English-language daily, as feature writer, film critic, correspondent, and associate editor. He visited the University of Chicago as a lecturer, 1966-1968, and also did a residency at the University of Iowa. He has published 2 books of verse, several novels and collections of essays and short stories. Datta currently lives in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey, near New York City, where he works as a journalist with Desi Talk and as the Arts & Humanities Editor for News India Times. He attends many poetry readings in Manhattan and Queens and is a famous figure among the Indians and New York poets.