Thirty-eight years with Shakti

Samir Sengupta

Translated from the Bangla by
Bhaswati Ghosh

First published in Parabaas

From Shakti Chattopadhyay’s handwritten
facsimili edition of
Kuri Bochhorer Kuriti
(‘Twenty Years, Twenty Poems’)

I first met Shakti in 1957, at the College Street Coffee House. I still carried on me the smell of Ramakrishna Mission’s Vidyamandir from where I had just graduated. The modernity of Coffee House startled me almost every day. I would find myself a corner to sit at the Krittibas table, with the poets barely tolerating me. Scores of foreign names—of poets, novelists, films, filmmakers—rained down my head. Every single day, I would hear new names—how in the world could I get to read so many books, watch so many films? I hadn’t even seen the magazine Kabita (*Poetry, কবিতা ) yet. I have faint memories of Shakti wearing a red tie and commuting to his workplace, Hind Motors as a daily passenger.

Somehow, with time we became friends. I didn’t write any poetry, only dealt with prose, that too very little. I had enrolled into Jadavpur University’s master’s program in Comparative Literature, which brought me an entry into the haloed and unique adda of ‘Kabita Bhavan’ (*lit. house of poetry, residence of Buddhadeva Bose, founder-editor of Kabita). Shakti’s name was still on the student roll, but one hardly saw him on the campus. He would (suddenly) show up once every six or nine months and that would be it. He was part of the batch following ours, a classmate of Rumi’s (Damayanti Basu Singh, Buddhadeva Bose’s youngest daughter) in the BA course. Buddhadeva had forced him to enroll with hopes of making him return to the mainstream. By then, however, a witch had already seized Shakti’s heart.

Read the rest in Parabaas

At Ramkinkar’s House with Shakti (Memoir) by Samir Sengupta

Translated from the Bangla by Bhaswati Ghosh

First published in Parabaas

It must have been the middle of the 60s decade—or was it the beginning? I don’t remember the year, only that the days were of intense spring. The festival of colours had ended just a few days ago.

Shakti said to me, “Samir, let’s go to Santiniketan. The Khoai area is ablaze with Palash now.” Shakti had just crossed 30 and was neck deep in his Birbhum phase. Every year, his presence at the Kenduli baul fair was almost a given. He didn’t just have a personal relationship with the bauls who came to the fair, as Chandi Lahiri has written, he was intimately in touch with their family affairs, joys and tribulations. Nabanidas (Purnadas Baul’s father) was still alive at the time; after retiring from the post of peon in Sultanpur Sriram High School, he had built his akhra at the outskirts of Siuri town. Shakti would run to that place on a whim and return only after spending a few days there. He was dear to Nabanidas. Shakti was not acquainted with Meenakshi yet. He said to me, “Let’s go—I haven’t met Kinkarda in a while. We will spend a night with him; then go to Siuri.”

In those days, it used to take a long time to reach Santiniketan. There weren’t too many good trains, land prices in Santiniketan hadn’t started shooting up as yet, the rich of Kolkata hadn’t begun occupying Khoai to build houses.

By the time we reached the place, the afternoon had nearly slipped away. Just before Cinematola, there used to be a country liquor shop called Akorshoni; Shakti stopped the rickshaw there and grabbed a couple of bottles.

Next, he stopped the rickshaw in front of Ramkinkar’s house and said, “Wait; we won’t let go of the rickshaw yet. Let’s check if Kinkarda is there or not.” He used to go away to Jugipara at times. Acting like a detective, I said, “The door is ajar; he must be there…” Shakti looked at me and said with a smile, “Kinkarda never locks the door.”

“What? He goes away to his village without locking his door?”
“He doesn’t have any lock; Kinkarda, O Kinkarda…” Shakti started yelling from the rickshaw itself. A barefoot Kinkarda came out, tending to his lungi. “Arre, poet, you are here—come, come, I hope you have got something for me? Who’s that with you?”

As he picked up the jute bag from the rickshaw base, Shakti laughed and said, “I have brought stuff, Kinkarda. This is my friend, Samir.”
“Does he write poetry?”

I quickly folded my hands and said, “No, Kinkarda, I don’t write any poetry.”

Kinkarda rolled his eyes and said, “Then why have you come here?”

My hands still folded, I said, “To give company to Shakti and to see you.”

He just said, “Oh” and then completely oblivious to my presence, took Shakti inside the room, almost in a warm embrace. I guess he remembered me while crossing the door; he looked back and said briefly, “Come.”

I entered the house. The famous house that has been described by so many. The signs of poverty were everywhere. On one side was a string cot with dull, faded bedding. On top of the bedposts lay a folded, dirty, almost blackened mosquito net. A few painted canvases lay above the net. We learned that it had rained a few nights ago and water was leaking through a hole on the roof. An irritated Ramkinkar had woken up; put a few canvases atop the mosquito net and gone back to sleep. If water had to drip, it would fall on the canvases.

Ramkinkar squatted on the floor; we followed suit. Butt-ends of bidis were strewn everywhere. Kinkarda pulled out a few earthen tumblers from beneath the cot. As he used his seasoned hands to remove the tar-sealed cap, he called out, “Mungri, O Mungri…” A good-looking adivasi girl came and stood at the rear door. Ramkinkar uttered some instructions to her in a language unknown to us; the girl disappeared. He looked at Shakti and said, “I sent her to her village to check if she could fetch us some grilled pork.”

It was almost three in the afternoon. He never asked if we had any lunch or not; food arrangements meant that pork meat, if available. He poured the liquor into the tumblers with great care and presented them to us in a manner befitting a Japanese tea ceremony host.

The pork came and vanished; a rickshaw-puller was made to bring two more bottles, along with some roasted chickpeas; those were gobbled up in no time. Two more were brought by paying a premium—it was past ten in the night. I don’t remember anything after that. I just remember endless country liquor, endless bidi smoke, endless talk, endless songs of Tagore, sung in broken voices.

I don’t know what time of the night it was when my consciousness returned, triggered by severe thirst. The early summer heat of Santiniketan’s Chaitra, coupled with limitless tumblers of undiluted country liquor might have been nothing unusual for Kinkarda and Shakti. I was sheer lucky not to have suffered dehydration.

For a while, I kept sitting quietly. It was pitch dark and the place unfamiliar to me. I extended my hand and felt Shakti, sleeping unconsciously beside me. I couldn’t spot Kinkarda. But it seemed as if my life would ebb away without water—the body was so dry. Where could I find some water?

While still sitting I felt the darkness melting away a bit. How did that happen? Was dawn approaching? I turned back and figured a light in the shape of a small rectangular door—a lantern must have been lit somewhere inside. Could I find water there?

As I started getting up, extreme dizziness gripped me—it was impossible to stand. I sat down. The moment I moved a bit, the unknown world around me started swaying. But I had to drink some water. After a while, I gathered enough strength to crawl towards the door.

The door led to a verandah; on the left, with his back to the door, at approximately a thirty-degree angle sat Kinkarda on a stool, stark naked. He hadn’t noticed his lungi slip off his waist. Before him, on a high stool (I don’t remember if it was a turntable or not) stood an unfinished clay sculpture; the lantern was hung on a bamboo support fixed to the ceiling. His right hand held a small fistful of clay. Sitting on the stool, Ramkinkar stared at his work—motionless. A million mosquitoes were clouding around him, but he didn’t seem to notice. His eyes had a strange, blank expression—he looked on, but didn’t seem to see with his physical eyes. It was more of what Ramakrishna had called a yogi’s eyes—he had said that when a bird sits on her eggs, the look in her eyes suggests that she was looking, but not really seeing anything; all her focus remains concentrated on her eggs. Ramkinkar had the same look in his eyes.

Even in my semi-conscious state I realized I had trespassed. I had no business there; even if I died of thirst, this wasn’t a place to ask Ramkinkar for water. And even if I did, he wouldn’t be able to offer me any. I crawled back to the room and lay down with my parched throat.

It must not have been more than a minute. I saw Ramkinkar only that one time, nearly fifty years ago—yet it is one of the few visual memories that remain immortal in my petty life. After my death, if God asks me what I saw in the world of dust and clay, I will be able to say, “I saw your contender, immersed in his art of creation.”

Translated from Amar Bondhu Shakti (আমার বন্ধু শক্তি) by Samir Sengupta; published published by Parampara, Kolkata in 2011.

Who is Abani, at whose house, and why is he even there?

[In the words of Brajendranath Mandal]
Samir Sengupta
Translated from the Bangla by
Bhaswati Ghosh
Originally published in Parabaas

Half-dissolved, I slide into sleep
Amid the heart’s distant pain.
Suddenly, the night rattles my door,
“Abani, are you home?”

[‘Abani, are you home’ by Shakti Chattopadhyay]

I never got to know Shakti Chattopadhyay in person. Until the other day, I didn’t even know who he was. I’m a villager and make my living by growing potatoes and gourds. This year I planted tomatoes and chili peppers — the tomatoes did really well, I got about two and a half quintals per katha (720 square feet). Honestly, I didn’t expect such a good yield. Although it didn’t bring me a good price in the end, I still recovered the cost and even made a bit of profit.

Kolkata is far from our village. You have to first walk nearly four kilometers through the fields. Despite many efforts, no roads have come to the village. Newly-wed brides have to enter the village on foot; the sick have to be carried to the hospital on cots like the dead to a crematorium. Even though our village is in the Hooghly district, it’s on its northern edge, bordering Bardhaman. As I was saying—see, this losing track of what I was talking about is a sign of my getting old—after walking the four kilometers, you’d better sit down at a teashop to catch your breath.

Next, you need to get onto a bus that’s usually so packed that even the roof is crammed with people and luggage. If you can somehow stay inside the bus by hanging onto an overhead rod for an hour and a half, you’ll reach Gudup station, and from there to Kolkata in another two hours.

DSC02644

But tell me, where do I find the time to visit Kolkata? A farmer’s life is a busy one. My day starts early. People like you who only eat chilies probably have no idea what it takes to cultivate them. Imagine harvesting all the peppers from the plants. This is a young man’s job. But if you hire someone like that, you need to pay him well. The price one gets for the chilies doesn’t cover the cost of labour. So we have to get young boys for the job. These days one hears a lot of noise against child labour; apparently, it amounts to exploiting children. But if I didn’t hire them, the boys would starve that day. On top of the wage, I also give them a basket of muri and lunch. Is that worse than them going a day without work and food? Can one get education on an empty stomach? I don’t know. The politicians in our village say a lot of big words like “literacy” and such.

I didn’t study much — didn’t get the opportunity. You see, I had to accompany my father to the fields since I was five years old. I know my soil well. By placing a mere fleck of soil on my tongue I can tell you what would grow on it. I’m familiar with hundreds of weeds and can tell at least 70 types of insects. Back in the day, when it would start raining at the end of Magh, I would go to the field in the middle of the night to get drenched. I can’t do that any longer — the womenfolk don’t allow me to. But I’m a farmer’s son. My father used to say that if the farmer doesn’t bathe in the season’s first rain, the field doesn’t absorb enough moisture to hold the plow. One doesn’t use the plow that much these days; power tillers rented by the hour do the job. Still it makes me sad to miss bathing in the season’s first showers.

My father didn’t know how to read or write. I was his eldest son and he enrolled me in a school. There was no school in the village at the time; I had to make my way to a school in Bishnubati eight kilometers away and couldn’t study beyond Class Four. I have only one son and three daughters. Against all odds, I made sure my son passed the matriculation examination. He didn’t leave me and go to the city to work, though. He lives with me and looks after the farm. I’m 78 and can’t work as hard anymore. I named him Sudeb. He too has made sure his eldest son got an education. My grandson studies in the college.

Our village doesn’t have any graduate yet; the neighbouring village of Sarelkhola has three. My grandson’s name is Ranajit Mandal; we call him Runu. I love him a lot. We won’t drag him into farming, I’ve decided. Let him go to the city and dab a new scent on his skin; let a new breeze blow in our house. School teachers earn well these days, maybe he can get a job like that? He’s into politics too, a smart youngster. I think he’ll do well.

Runu studies Bengali honours. Doesn’t just study, he also writes. Recently he gave me a magazine to read that he and his friends bring out. I’m not into reading that much, but I can manage to read a bit by joining the letters. My eyes aren’t as good as they used to be, either. Runu sometimes brings home friends from his group. Since he started college, I got a room built for him to the north of mine. That’s where the boys get together — I can hear them from my room.

The buzz of their discussions and heated debates delight me. We didn’t get to experience any of this, you see. They even held a meeting in our house once. One of their professors came with them, and after lunch, they all gathered in the area around our banyan tree, which I had got cemented. A lot of people from our village came to listen to them. Folks attending a literature meet in a farmer’s house — now isn’t that special? More power to my grandson, I say. I had gotten the area around the tree cemented after Sudeb’s birth. At the time, I also secretly gave his mother a pair of silver bangles; a good yield of pawtol (pointed gourd) helped that year.

At the end of their club’s meeting, Runu’s teacher — a young man, new to his job — gestured a namaskar to me and said my grandson writes well. Maybe he does, how can I tell?

Winter is taking its time to show up this year. Usually at this time of the year we need to wrap the blanket tighter in the mornings and cover our necks and heads with comforters. Labourers from the west light fires to keep warm. This year, there’s no sign of any of that and no frost so far. I didn’t sow a late autumnal crop of paddy but wonder what it must be like for those who did. It’ll be a low yield for sure and the grain won’t be of good quality.

Every morning, I sit by the pond until the sun comes up. There aren’t any houses on the other side of the pond, only vast stretches of green fields; it’s a lovely sight. Runu comes to the pond around this time to take a dip. After his bath, as he wipes his body, he often recites poems. The other day I heard him say out loud for the first time, “অবনী বাড়ি আছো? / Abani, are you home?” I felt intoxicated; when he was finished, I asked him to repeat it. Runu smiled and recited it again. And again. Then he left.

He left, but not before getting me hooked onto something. As the sun broke out that morning, I saw farmers making their way to the fields from my seat by the pond. The poem clasped me. I kept hearing in my ear the knock on the door, the rain that falls here all year long, the clouds that graze the skies like cows, the grass that hugs the door — there, by our kitchen, overgrown young grass has indeed closed up on the doors — nobody even noticed. A pain pierces my heart; the day my bawro boudi (elder brother’s wife) died — she loved me so much…

Someone, something calls me — I wake up in the dead of the night and sit on the bed — someone calls me and says, “Are you home, Abani?” “Brajen, are you home?” “Keep awake, Mandal, the night is forbidding; be ready, you’ll have to come with me, Brajen…”

Following is the poem, translated by Bhaswati Ghosh:
অবনী বাড়ি আছো
দুয়ার এঁটে ঘুমিয়ে আছে পাড়া
কেবল শুনি রাতের কড়ানাড়া
‘অবনী, বাড়ি আছো?’

বৃষ্টি পড়ে এখানে বারোমাস
এখানে মেঘ গাভীর মতো চরে
পরান্মুখ সবুজ নালিঘাস
দুয়ার চেপে ধরে—
‘অবনী, বাড়ি আছো?’

আধেকলীন—হৃদয়ে দূরগামী
ব্যথার মাঝে ঘুমিয়ে পড়ি আমি
সহসা শুনি রাতের কড়ানাড়া
‘অবনী, বাড়ি আছো?’

Are you home, Abani
The neighbourhood is asleep behind closed doors,
I hear the night’s knock on my door
“Abani, are you home?”

It rains all year round here
Clouds graze the skies like cows
Young green grass, keen,
Clasps the door —
“Abani, are you home?”

Half-dissolved, I slide into sleep
Amid the heart’s distant pain.
Suddenly, the night rattles my door,
“Abani, are you home?”

The original article titled “Ke Abani, kaar baaRi, kenoi baa achhe” (কে অবনী, কার বাড়ি, কেনই বা আছে) was first published in the magazine Poetry Review, Shakti Chattopadhyay Special Issue, November 25 2000. It has been later collected in Amar Bondhu Shakti (আমার বন্ধু শক্তি) by Samir Sengupta; published by Parampara, Kolkata in 2011.