Sunil Gangopadhyay (born 1934) is a distinguished figure in Bengali literature. A poet and novelist with a bibliography that includes over three hundred books, he was founder editor in 1953 of Krittibas, a significant poetry magazine that ushered in a new generation of experimental Bengali poets in the 1950s. In 2008, Gangopadhyay was elected President of the Sahitya Akademi. He has received various awards and honours in the course of his literary career, including the Sahitya Akademi Award (1985) and the Ananda Puraskar (1972, 1989). While his work in the prose genres – the novel, essay, short story, travelogue and children’s fiction – has been highly acclaimed (and turned into films in two famous instances by Satyajit Ray), he maintains that poetry is his “first love”.
In a note, specially written for this edition of PIW, on his translation of this poem, Amit Chaudhuri writes:
Sunil Gangopadhyay and I were invited to read on the open rooftop of a house in South Calcutta, as part of the first anniversary celebrations of a fledgling literary society. Both of us were uncomfortable, partly because of the humidity, and partly because many of us abhor the banality of readings even while being appropriated as seemingly willing performers. Then, he began to read ‘Neera, hariye jeo na’ (Neera, don’t get lost), and I found myself drawn into this long poem as if I were watching an extraordinary film whose language I didn’t understand. Of course I do understand Bengali; but as I listened to the sequence of images (Bottom-like though that might sound), to its poetic jumble of moments at once erotic and public, covering the political upheavals of the sixties and seventies as well as the sensations of nightfall, day, and lovemaking, I was as U.R. Ananthamurthy was when he watched The Seventh Seal in England without subtitles – in thrall to a world that could be sensed and experienced, but not even halfway grasped. At irregular intervals, Gangopadhyay has been writing about a woman called Neera whom his narrator knows only briefly, if at all – met fleetingly at bus stops, glimpsed during festive days, but both anticipated and recalled endlessly, like the Yaksha's beloved in Alaka. But not Alaka is her perpetual setting, but bustling, difficult Calcutta. That evening, I was reminded again, as I am every six or seven years, of the extraordinariness of contemporary Bengali literature; I also had a half-thought that, at some point in the future, I’d translate the poem.
The poem, as Chaudhuri points out, operates on several levels. On one level, it seems to evoke the textures of a very specific relationship (“You went to the flower show and flew your sari’s aanchal like a flag”; “you gave a coin to the blind old man”; “a cigarette in my hand, in your hair a golden comb”). On another, it is a poem about a place and a time – a historically particular moment in a city: “Then the city was burning with hate, the knife in the human hand was being planted in the human heart”. On yet another, it is a poem about a woman, a singular woman, who is friend and lover, even while she is Woman and Eternal Mother, archetype and muse. And then it is also a poem about youth – a time of radical student politics, of rage, hope and exuberant love, a time of endless possibility: “Ah! That playfulness, the heart’s openness”.
And while it is a poem of regret, it is, interestingly enough, not a poem of defeat. Perhaps it is no longer possible to lie in bed and compose “a hundred histories of copulation”; perhaps it is no longer possible to imagine that one day “the world’s mothers” will “serve steaming rice to all small, small children”. There also seems to be a retreat on the part of the protagonists: “You withdrew from the factions in the school committee, went and hid behind a door/ I’m spending afternoons on a chair in a glass ensconced room”. There is clearly a retreat on the part of the other dramatis personae as well: “those who’d said the revolution’s at hand are now composing their memoirs” and “those who were wiped out, were too much wiped out”. Perhaps it is true that “no one speaks of love any more” and those in pain “weep alone”. Perhaps there is no one to embrace any longer “very early at dawn, the soft, red winter sun/ from the kadamba tree on Hari Ghosh street.”
And yet, the cry to keep alive the spirit of rebellion and resistance, love and hope, echoes as fiercely as ever: “Neera, we have much further to go, don’t get lost”.
Sunil Gangopadhyay: Sunil Gangopadhyay's personal web page.
The South Asian Literary Recordings Project: Listen to Sunil Gangopadhyay reading from his work.
Parabaas: More translations of poems and short stories by Sunil Gangopadhyay
India Today: Sunil Gangopadhyay writes on the defeat of the Left in West Bengal.