Bengali literature today: Betraying and betrayed, now in a limbo
Based on a whole gamut of developments of recent past, we can slowly arrive at a twilight zone where Bengal`s intellectual and literary supremacy seems to be ebbing out. The first 35 years of Indian Independence witnessed the legacy of Bengal helping in ironing out wrinkles in the post colonial status of Indian literature, with bright examples of Bengal`s socio cultural and political participation in the making of the new nation. Tagore as the first Asian recipient of Nobel Prize had a great influence on the national scenario of India. Not only on India, but also on the subcontinent as well. India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, all three nations passed bills to have Tagore`s three Bengali lyrics as their National anthems. Nowhere in the world has three separate countries chosen the lyrics of a single poet as their national anthems. Prof Suniti Chatterjee, the great Bengali scholar, wrote a seminal article on Hindi grammar after he happened to obtain a copy of David Mill`s book in England. Buddhadeb Bose, poet, translator and scholar, founded the first Indian department of comparative literature at Jadavpur University, Calcutta. I have chosen to mention only three iconic examples to show how Bengalis dominated the cultural landscape not only of India but also of South Asia, well before neo-colonial South Asia emerged as a new Indian English platter for Europe and America.
But the last thirty years kick up a story of disgrace. Bengali as a language rose high in the list of global languages, pulled Hindi and Russian below it and captured fifth position in the world for its 250 million speakers, including 170 million from the neighbouring Bangladesh. UNESCO declared the 21 February as the World`s Mother Tongue Day, observed now in 188 countries, to pay tribute to martyrs of Bengali language who fought against Pakistan's imposition of Urdu in the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.
With the demise of Sunil Gangopadhyay, Bengali literature seems to have become a teetotaler, not in the sense of drinking tea or alcohol, but in the sense of braving innovative experiments in literature. Many of my friends sarcastically say that Bengali literature is now in ICU, on life-support system. Anybody can challenge me by saying that it is a lie; look at the Calcutta Book Fair, the largest open air book fair in the world, drawing maximum number of visitors, with long lines of humanity waiting hours to get an entry. Look at the college street book market, each counter crowded with book lovers every afternoon; so how do I say Bengali literature is dying?
Bengal's supremacy in Indian literary scene is now over, the swan song is being rehearsed with some big names as refrain in the song, such as Mahasweta Devi, Nirendranath Chakrovorty, Shankho Ghosh and Sirshendu Mukhopadhayay, still occupying the lion`s share of the literary space in Bengal. They are caught in the muck and mire of ageing. I love them; I respect them as stalwarts, and I wish them to live 100 years each, but I am sure that, in spite of occasional flashes of their decaying genius, they cannot surprise the readers as they did before.
Bengali fiction which pioneered the Indian novel as a work of art, a new genre that inspired the whole of India to write the Bengali way, is now challenged with a dearth of good novels. In between the cerebral and the pulp fiction, Bengal has always been a bed of good novels, well researched with delightful narratives focusing on social, political and historical stuff. Sarodindu`s historical novels, Manik`s political novels, Bibhutibhushan`s nature in kaleidoscopic draw, Satinath Bhaduri`s 'dalit stories written by a Brahmin` of Bihar, Tarashankar`s rural perfections, all contributed immensely towards the making of modern Indian literature. Bibhutibhushan was shortlisted for Nobel Prize but he could not win due to poor translations of his work. You need a friend like W B Yeats who will champion you in spite of bad Augustan-Victorian translation. Mahasweta Devi was also on the list recently; she was not discussed, this time ironically enough, in spite of good translations by Gayatri Chakroborty Spivak of Colombia University. Samaresh Bose who was a master story teller, an explorer of human psyche and who created a new generation in Bengal like Garcia Marquez did in Latin America, but sadly enough he could not cross the Bengali boundary. Highly experimental writers such as Kamal Kumar Majumdar, Amiyo Bhushan Majumdar and Sandipan Chottopadhayay were academically appreciated by the elitist intellectual class, but they remained as rebels and renegades in Bengali literature.
During the last two decades, the story of Bengali literature is not a very delightful story. Every year, the 'Puja specials' and 'book fair specials' proudly and traditionally carry a total of say 200 novels, but I can hardly remember a single work of fiction which can be set beside the standards as laid down by the classics like 'Ghoonpoka` by young Shirshendu or 'Atmaprokash` by bohemian Sunil in his thirties. There is no such example in last 10 years which can put up a challenge even to an extraordinary autobiographical travelogue, 'Trackbahone Macmahone` by Nabonita Debsen. As far as creative and scholarly essays are concerned, there is again a dearth of good essay books in spite of the fact that scholars like Swapan Chakroborty and Chinmoy Guha are quite fascinating and awe-inspiring as scholars, but cannot go up to the level where Sankha Ghosh as a Tagore-scholar is still reigning supreme. The most elastic and profound part of literature is poetry. Bengal has been a hot bed of poetry for over a thousand years, but now the bed is creaking with burden of numerous possibilities. The clash between Poetry in prose and poetry in verse has long been resolved to make the space for 'good poetry,` and Bengali readers are intelligent enough to accept both. A good poem is a good poem and it goes beyond its time and politics, temple and mosque, Brahmin and Dalit dimensions. But I personally believe that a good poem is baptized in the fire of the chaos born out of the contemporary politics and religion. With the romantic poetry and landscape poetry bowing out of the scenario, it is now time for absolute good poetry which can be experimental in metrical compositions or in stark dark prose from the underground. We have multiple choices such as Angshuman , Binayak, Yoshodhara, Srijato, Raka, Himalay, Sujit, Koushiki, Aritra, and Debayudh to name only a few from the list of contemporary young poets. For them, experimentation is a dead word, they want to write good poetry and as a matter of fact they are well equipped with new dictions negotiating the challenge of time - past and present.
Apart from the flashes of good poetry by young and not so young poets, Bengali literature is in a limbo witnessing the march of neo colonial empire of Bengalis writing in English, a new generation much inspired by the stunning success of Amitava Ghosh and Jhumpa Lahiri. Twenty five years later, there will be hardly any Bengali writer who will dare to write in Bengali alone. But there is a contradiction which has not been properly addressed so far—a Bengali English writer, even the best known Bengali English writer Amitava Ghosh, I am sorry to say, cannot outnumber the readers of Sunil Gangopadhayay.
Bengali writers, except Tagore, did never make any attempt to find a place in the international market. They were callous about the necessity of being in the national and international markets. They had a huge readership not only in Bengal, but also in Bangladesh, in Tripura and the the North East and in Bihar, Odisa and Jharkhand. The idea of the 'largest readership` in India has eventually betrayed them; they have never been nudged awake of the readership getting reduced considerably due to English loving middle class which was previously the customers of Bengali literature.
But there is a feeble chance to fight back in a decent, compromised manner. There is a tradition with the Bengali intelligentsia to be bilingual in Bengali and English. From Bankimchandra Chattopadhayay and Michael Madhusudan Dutta down to Buddhadev Bose, Bhabotosh Chatterjee and Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, Bengal has an age-old practice of living in two cultures and writing equally well in Bengali and English, negotiating a hostile bipolarity in an ethnicity visibly larger than the English. If Bengali and English can co-exist in a mosaic in a non hostile manner, it would be no exaggeration to say that English and Bengali will enrich each other; and hamburger and chapattis both will be there on the platter to choose from, and finally find a rare roan, the brown horse with white hair.
To sum up, I would like to make a comment which could leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Sympathizing with the Communist era in West Bengal for 32 years did not necessitate the writers, who are the unacknowledged legislators, to delve deep into the crisis of Bengal for a subterranean fear psychosis that if they wrote a story not negotiating the ideals of the communist ideology, then they will have a difficult time. It was the reverse of the history of the `great purge` that happened in Russia under the rule of `comrade` Stalin. We could have an Indian Pasternak or an Indian Solzhenitsyn in Bengal. Hundred flowers did not bloom. But there was one exception (it has to be one by rule), Bratya Basu, a young playwright who made a bold attempt to unmask the ugly face of the communist rule in Bengal and he was immediately recognized as a roaring theatre personality despite the communist threats. But the mainstream writers chose to be reluctant to uphold their work as critique of the communist hypocrisy. I am a small fry but I am also to blame, in spite of the fact that I wrote a number of poems challenging the policies and mediocrity in the state. But I went scot free for a simple reason that, either they could not understand the heat of my poems, or they mentally reaffirmed me as their friend.