:: Article

The Poet has Left the Room

By Nilanjana Bhowmick.

Photo credit: Aranya Sen

Late into the silence of the night, I woke up from my vigil, confused, disoriented. The tree outside the hospital room was swaying unmindfully, against the window of the glassed-up cold, sparse room. For days our small group—my husband, my mother in law and I—had gathered around my father-in-law, who lay on the narrow hospital cot staring at the window, half the man he once was, numbed by morphine. The tree outside his window had fascinated him. He stared at it during those lonely hours, when the pain took him away from us, scrambling for a distraction. The cancer was merciless. It spread within him, consuming each and every part till he was but a lonely soul waiting for release. That night, I awoke, feeling not all there, consumed by the dark evil that silence can sometimes bring. My petite mother-in-law was sleeping on the narrow sofa, curled up within herself. My husband had gone out for a smoke. As I stared at my father-in-law, a deep fear rising like bile, he turned his head and looked at me, gesturing for me to come close.

– Are you okay? Do you need something? Should I call the doctor?

– Can you sing me a song?

I was stunned. I never sang  to anyone, not even lullabies to my son. I was paranoid. No amount of persuasion had been able to make me sing. As a psychiatrist would explain to me later, it was a mental block arising from a dysfunctional and insecure childhood. However, refusing was not an option that night.

– Which song?

– We shall overcome…

I hesitated. Even though there was no else was awake in the room, I still felt like someone would judge my voice, my singing. But, as I began to whisper-sing, I shed a skin. The words merged into me. The poet touched the resistance hidden inside, broke through the conformist that society had told me I must be just to survive as a woman. That resistance was a gift. The poet was a sorcerer.

When I finished singing, he smiled and patted my hand. His wrists and palms were skeletal, mere skin on bones. But the twinkle in his eyes came back for a few moments, before they dimmed again. “We shall overcome,” he whispered. He slipped into a coma soon after. One he never woke from.

But his resistance continues to be a gift, passed on in his works, for an India that is grappling with intolerance and fear.

My father-in-law Nabarun Bhattacharya, is well-known for writing Harbart, a path-breaking novella recently published in the United States in a new English translation. But his body of work is vast, and the range unimaginable. He dabbled in the unknown, the unearthly, the underbelly of Indian society, where he dared to immerse himself with wild abandon, unapologetically. He explored this world recklessly, not as an elite observer but as someone eager to take part. And it is as if this absolute devotion to the underbelly of Indian society made him look years ahead, to envision a society ruled by intolerance and hatred, while we were still happily cocooned in the invincibility of our democracy. Some of his works, read today, are chilling predictions of the time we have presently waded into in India—a new India, where hatred and othering of minorities, especially Muslims, have been mainstreamed. In this India, people do not care about the lynching of Muslims, they do not care about saffronization of institutions and politics, they do not care that millions of its citizens are victims of religious profiling. In this new India, there are vigilante groups protecting cows, killing humans. There is no space to be above it all. There is blood on all our hands.

Bhattacharya’s most iconic poem, written in Bengali, “This Valley of Death is Not Mine,” is a chilling reminder of the way cycles of democracy, interspersed with periods of absolute fascism, both feed off each other. He knew fascism would raise its ugly head in his country again. He was absolutely certain. The poem—written in early 1970s— reverberates with echoes of this new India. No other poem has been or would be able to capture the helplessness and anger of seeing our country slip into the hands of traders of hate.

If he was alive today he would have loathed the silent complicity that we have all agreed on—consciously, unconsciously—after the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party was re-elected in May. The resistance to Modi’s fascist regime that had been building up, late but fierce, in the run-up to the elections, was suddenly muted after he won a second mandate in a landslide. But the poet would not have kept quiet. He had already made that clear.

I despise the father afraid of naming his son in death
A brother who remains unmoved
Those teachers, and poets and intellectuals
Who do not clamor for justice openly
I can only loathe them.

In an India that has rapidly polarized since Modi took power in 2014, the faces of Pehlu Khan, Aqlaq Khan and more recently Tabrez Ansari, all lynched to death over their religion, flash before my eyes as I read again and again of the terror he writes about, the terror that “stares you straight in the face / A small animal caught in the bright headlights of a police van.”

Often, as I walked in to join him for a cup of evening tea at our house in Kolkata, I would find him swinging a pendulum, asking questions, trying to look into the future. The pendulum was his crystal mirror. What did he see in it? He saw that a day will come when murderers themselves will direct justice, “garbed in their lies and deceit.”

The poet would have cried. He would have bawled his eyes out at this new India. He wouldn’t have been able to write for days, but on the day he would have, there would have been sparks. He would have egged us on along the path of resistance.

The poet has already left the room, but his defiance hasn’t.

Don’t cower. Throw your poetry
Hard against their hatred and weapons …Let the poetry of protest
Decimate this regime of fear and terror.

There are days of absolute despair. There are days of spiralling, helpless anger. There are days when I cannot help but be annoyed with him. Why isn’t he here snatching back the misty mornings, the mellow evenings, the setting goddess, the clamor of the crickets, the fields, the fairy tales, flowers, women, a meandering river, or naming stars and calling out to the faltering breeze as he had promised?

But he left clues for the resistance in his work through the lens of his own experience—he was an active part of the far-left Naxalbari movement in Bengal in his youth and bore witness to police brutality and torture. When he says:

I reject all my wounds, I reject the burn of alcohol on my back
That has been lashed with a sharp whip
I reject the baton that beat my last breath into submission
I reject the bullets that opened up my skull

he is a victim, and a survivor, and a rebel.

In another poem, “All For a Spark”, he cautions:

Someday a spark from a word will fall on the dry grass
The city will erupt, into an angry war
Bruised chins, broken chests 
The drama will spiral out of control 
Peace will jump in a dry well 
Dreams will be imprisoned in prison cells
Someday, the spear of pain will strike the bee’s hive
The city will be blood-splattered
There will be all-out war 
The masks will fall off
In the heat of the anger
Jail breaks
Undaunted courage 
The fire will burn
As the puppets dance
A million pictures in the broken glass
A bud will open its eyes in the smell of gunpowder
The city will erupt
In an angry war.

With his typical visionary pen, he speaks to these Fascist powers we see rising again. As his pendulum moved slowly against the insistent breeze of the ceiling fan and his face glowed, his hands steady, he forewarned them of their end.

Those who have never heard of the term dialectics
Even they know, who ran for their lives shoeless 
and exited the pages of history, don’t dream so much, little fascist, you will soon run out of these sweet dreams.

The poet has left the room. But his spirit is hovering in the gunpowder of his poems.

(All poetry translated by Nilanjana Bhowmick.)

Nilanjana Bhowmick is an award-winning journalist and independent writer based in New Delhi. She was born and raised mostly in Kolkata, save for a brief period, when she lived and worked in the UK. Her poetry and prose has appeared in international anthologies and literary journals. She was among the 100 women and nonbinary writers, whose work was chosen to be part of the Gush anthology, Menstrual Manifestos For Our Times. She is a prolific writer and has just finished writing her first nonfiction book, a novella and a collection of poetry, tracing in verse the journey of her mother—the Everywoman— through the shackles of a patriarchal society.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 10th, 2019.