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Literary Review

In the company of ghosts

Colonialism and Renaissance made possible new connections between global history and mofussil, middle-class anonymity that was an enervating but ultimately dispiriting experience. Together they created a social fabric and a dreamscape entirely inimical to that fabric. Jibanananda Das's stories articulate the costs of living with this dichotomy, says eminent novelist AMIT CHAUDHURI.

"JIBANANANDA" is a Tagorean name; its meaning, "the joy of life", recalls the lines from a song in the Gitanjali, "Jagate ananda jagne/ Amaar nimantrana" — "I have been invited/ to the world's festival of joy." Of course, Tagore had to earn those lines' triumphal affirmation, and also their irony; by the time he wrote them, his wife was dead, as were two children, a son and his favourite daughter, Rani.

Das found himself invited to the "festival of joy" in 1899; from the evidence of his poems and fiction, it doesn't appear that he thought life — jiban — an unqualified benediction. There is, not infrequently, a note of bewilderment in the way Das's poems speak of earthly existence, the bewilderment of a person who wakes to find himself in a place of transit from which he must soon move on. The nameless speaker in the poem "Banalata Sen" begins wearily:

For thousands of years I roamed the paths of this earth,

From waters round Ceylon in dead of night to Malayan seas.

Much have I wandered. I was there in the gray world of Asoka...

To me she gave me a moment's peace — Banalata Sen from Natore.

(trans. Clinton B. Seely)

There is much history in this verse, not least in the phrase "Banalata Sen from Natore." "Natore", says Seely, Das's biographer, "is a small, ordinary, mofussil town in Bangladesh", such as colonialism created and replicated throughout Bengal. "Banalata" is the kind of woman's name that would have been fashionable in the middle class of Das's parents' generation; "Sen" a surname that ordinarily denotes the vaidya caste, the caste Das's own family belonged to before it became Brahmo. Cartographies, history, and the new Bengali middle class: colonialism connected these in a way that could not have been foreseen before. It is the shock of this connection that the proximity of words like "Ceylon", "Malayan", "Asoka", "Natore", and "Banalata Sen" records and mimics.

The note of bewilderment is augmented in the stories in In the Company of Ghosts; and the new relationship between global history and mofussil anonymity, a relationship that made both a poem like "Banalata Sen" and a sensibility such as Das's possible, is seen to be an enervating and ultimately dispiriting one in the stories. Again and again, their protagonists, so much like Das in many ways, retreat into inaction and fantasy. Like Das, they seem to have no fixed employment or place of residence, and to "belong" to a city or habitation inasmuch as they lack the will to leave it. Das himself moved from job to job, "intermittently employed," Gautam Chakravarty, the translator of the stories, says, "as a private tutor, insurance agent, literary editor and part-time college lecturer".

The relations the protagonists have with their wives are, at best, strained; at worst, perversely apathetic. In this, too, Das's male characters resemble him, and share the unhappiness of his own marriage. And, like Das, they lead a parallel, secret life related to fantasy and literature. In Das's own case, this parallel existence took the strategies of silence and cunning to an intriguing extreme. For instance, these stories themselves, written, as their translator informs us, "in school exercise books, and evidently at great speed, the manuscripts... usually untitled," were unpublished, like his novels, during his lifetime. "It is a plausible assumption," says Gautam Chakravarty, "that Jibanananda turned his hand to fiction in the early 1930s for the same reason that he wrote novels in 1948. There were two major spells of financial distress in his career, and fiction may have appeared more remunerative than poetry. Yet, if that explains the turn to fiction, it does not explain why Jibanananda chose not to publish the short stories (or later, the novels)." Nor do we know why Rupasi Bangla (Bengal the Beautiful), one of the great sonnet sequences in the Bengali language, on which a substantial part of Das's popularity rests, should have been unknown to the reading public until after his death in 1954.

Towards the beginning of the first story, which gives this collection its title, we encounter a passage which sets the tone — in its odd humour, its pathological defeatism, its disquieting beauty — for the stories to come. The narrator is a man from a penurious bhadralok family, about to journey to Calcutta, without much enthusiasm, in hope of employment. As he packs his things, his mother notes, unhappily, that he and his wife don't seem to be talking to each other on the eve of his departure. He replies:

"I don't think a marriage is necessarily a state of heavenly bliss. No thinking mind would expect that from a marriage."

"Is that what you think?"

"Vibha aunty did not poison or hang herself when her husband died. It's now fifteen years since his death, and she looks happy enough. The other day I saw her leave her rice uneaten for there wasn't enough ghee in her lentil soup. But there's nothing unusual about this. A sparrow may die pining when its mate dies — but that's another universe. They die, don't they, of bereavement?...'

The volume of Poe's poetry was moth eaten in places. Placing it carefully in one corner of the trunk, I wondered if in some future life I might return to this world as a bird...

I wiped the mould off Hardy's Wessex Poems. "Don't you think I might rediscover these things if I were reborn as a bird?" I looked up to find mother had gone.

I quote this extract because its subject — the force of a vision, and the incommunicability, and failure, of that vision in the larger world — is also the subject of the stories; they, in turn, reveal that the Renaissance and colonialism created, in Bengal, a social fabric and, at once, a dream-landscape entirely inimical to that fabric. It is this tension that gives these stories of lassitude and inaction their sense of movement, even agitatedness. The quality of translation here, too, is not untypical of the book — the awkwardness of "aunty" and "lentil soup"; the translator's ear momentarily betraying him in his juxtaposition of "in places" with "Placing"; the unexpected rightness and spoken plangency of "They die, don't they, of bereavement?"

For Das, "the most solitary of our poets," as his champion Buddhadev Bose called him, that private vision was available only in his poetry; and the stories are an analysis of the cost of that vision. Here was a man who both denied the world and desired to return to it, but as a tangerine, a hawk or a shalik, or as grass — again and again, the theme of rebirth recurs in the poetic oeuvre. The meaning of the poet's name, thus, resonates, and is interrogated, throughout the work; the "joy of life" is both continually ironised and returned to.

The protagonist, in the passage above, puts a copy of Hardy's Wessex Poems into his trunk; this little detail is important. The correspondences between Hardy and Das are palpable, and illuminating. Wessex Poems, like Das's stories, novels, and sonnets, represents Hardy's secret life; it contains the poetry he wrote for the thirty or forty years he was a professional novelist, and which he published only after his disenchantment with the novel. Both Hardy and Das used silence and cunning by investing in literary forms they weren't identified with; and Hardy the novelist uses his poems to elegise a sexually cold marriage, just as Das explored, more darkly, his failed marriage in his stories. Certain autobiographical material can be approached by certain writers only, it seems, when they exchange their principal literary practice for an alternative one.

But it seems to me, too, that Das drew, during his life as a mature poet, upon a single late poem by Hardy, "Afterwards", a poem that Das revises in several ways. Indeed, much of Rupasi Bangla, and some of the early poems — which, together, record, in meticulous acts of noticing, the earthly joys of the rural Bengali landscape — have their source in Hardy's poem and the question it poses:

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,

And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,

Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,

`He was a man who used to notice such things?'

The voice of the observer who is both rooted in place and itinerant in time, who expects to vanish tomorrow and yet continue to regard, through the eyes of others, his landscape, the conjunction of the physical, the concrete, with the ghostly and the posthumous: these are the elements that inform, in any number of permutations, Das's poems. Hardy's Wessex, Das's Bangla: one a "real" place whose reality is contingent upon its fictional incarnation, the other an imagined paradise that becomes incarnate in poetry.

The publication of these stories represents the act of recuperation that has made a great writer — in his lifetime, an underrated one — available to a growing readership after his death. The stories are important because they constitute an unusual development in Das's oeuvre; but they also extend, as Chakravarty points out, the domain of short fiction being written at the time. Chakravarty's introduction is polished and intelligent; the translations are occasionally less polished, but this may be because the originals themselves were probably never revised, and are characterised by "inconsistencies... confusions of tense and subject... obscure allusions, unevenness of style... " This air of unfinishedness itself contributes to the effect the stories have, given that Das's poetic diction was so mellifluous; it directs our attention to the fact that the artist's crystallised vision is almost always embedded in a difficult and makeshift — an almost intractable — process.

Jibanananda Das: Short Fiction 1931-33, translated by Gautam Chakravarty, p.256, paperback, Rs. 195.

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