Vol. 5 Num 72 Sat. August 07, 2004  

An apology for Bangladeshi poetry in English

Ever since subcontinentals started doing creative writing in the late 18th century they (especially versifiers among them) have faced the question, "Why write in English and not your mother tongue?" One can answer the question broadly by saying that if a language is taught and used in a region, some are bound to try creative writing in it. But each writer has a personal story to tell.

I do not think I would have tried creative writing in English if I weren't an English-medium boy. From the age of four I moved in three realms. At home in a poor neighbourhood in Dhaka I belonged to a barefoot troop happily at play in the dust, jabbering away in East Bengali Bangla, and spending part of my spare time in reading Bangla. At school, which for five years was Don's Kindergarten, run by a Eurasian family in tandem with the "Hotel Airline and Bar" on the upper storey of the schoolhouse, I sat well-shod and straitjacketed in shorts, tucked-in shirt and tie, chanting English lessons in chorus. We were a motley crowd of Bangla, Urdu and Gujrati speakers, with a handful of anglophone Eurasians thrown in. Until everyone had acquired Basic English the lingua franca was what I believe used to be called Hindustani, which was nearly as alien to me as English. I had been a garrulous infant. Now I grew tongue-tied. By the time I began to feel a growing confidence in my use of English it was time to move to St. Gregory's High School downtown, founded over a century ago by a Belgian Benedictine and now run by American Catholic missionaries.

During vacations I would move to my mother's ancestral village. Though only a dozen miles by bus from the city centre it was a fairytale world of birds and beasts, elusive pretas and rough-talking peasants. In summer we swam, fished, punted (with bamboo poles). In winter we played kabaddi, hunted foxes--not in hunting pink or mounted on thoroughbreds, but in a barefoot, lathi-wielding chase.

I spent two years at Faujdarhat Cadet College, set up with military patronage along English public-school lines. Among our English texts were Tom Brown's Schooldays, which all of you know and Adventures at Dabanga School, which no one here has probably heard about. Dabanga is a boarding school somewhere in East Africa, in a region where smugglers thrive. Among the students is a rough beer-drinking character called Nelson who becomes embroiled in criminal activities. But as events build up to a thrilling climax he reveals his innate goodness and becomes the hero of the hour. Despite the efforts of the Principal, a colonel from New Zealand, Faujdarhat didn't quite measure up to Rugby. It fell somewhere between Rugby and Dabanga.

But how did I get to writing in English--and poetry at that. I wasn't a great poetry buff until my last year in school. The great English poets---Milton, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats---were names to remember and drop at opportune moments. But what we read by them didn't particularly appeal--a common experience in the tropics, it seems. Naipaul points out how English literature as encountered by "us" is "like an alien mythology. There was, for instance, Wordsworth's notorious poem about the daffodil. A pretty flower, no doubt; but we had never seen it. Could the poem have any meaning for us?" Once a friend got me interested in Shelley by whispering that he had written a poem in which occurred the phrase "The golden tresses between her thighs." A futile search in the school library followed. I still haven't discovered the source of this exciting line. If anyone can help I shall be most grateful.

Besides the flora and fauna there is the prosody of traditional English verse. It is alien to us. Just note how awkwardly our students read it. Their difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that subcontinental English, though an identifiable linguistic phenomenon, has not yet evolved a standard form--in the sense there is a "standard" form of British or American English.

Then I had something like a conversion experience. Our literature classes at St. Gregory's were taken by Brother Hobart, a loveable Irish-American eccentric, one of the most remarkable personalities I have known. He would take a poem and draw the whole class into the exercise of producing a critical appreciation. What sort of poem is it? Who is saying what and to whom? What do the similes and metaphors say to us? Asking such questions, trying out answers, modifying them, he would write out a response to the poem on the blackboard. He taught me that writing was a process of playing around with words till one struck what seemed the right note. Moving from poem to poem in our textbook we came to Lawrence's "Snake." And it opened up a whole new world. I could feel the music of its free verse as I hadn't felt the music of any other English poem. Its simple diction gave me immediate access to the dramatic situation in the poem. It hardly mattered that I had never seen a carobtree, which features prominently in the poem; the adjectival fanfare preceding it--"the deep, strangescented shade of the great dark carobtree"--brought it to life. I started scribbling free verse. Walking in the park (this was soon after I left school) I began a poem, "Nature on a leash." Friends applauded. I began enjoying myself in my new role. I do not wish to make too much of this experience, but it may not be farfetched to hypothesize that similar experiences must be quite common in the Third World; the fact that most Third World English poetry is in free verse would seem to support the hypothesis.

By now the controversy over whether subcontinentals can create significant literature in English is a matter of cultural history. The ill-humoured attack by the Bengali poet Buddhadev Bose in an encyclopedia entry on Indo-Anglian poetry (i.e., Indian poetry in English) is not likely to be repeated. (He described Indo-Anglian poetry as a cul-de-sac lined with curio shops.) But have the objections raised against it been completely refuted? At the heart of the diatribe lay the belief that authentic poetry can be written only in one's mother tongue. Is this a totally wrongheaded view? I do not think so. It is pertinent to remember that neither India nor Africa, where English is not the mother tongue of a significant fraction of the population, has produced a major poet in English, but the Caribbean, where a kind of English is the mothertongue, has--in Walcott.

Emile Cioran, himself a crosser of linguistic boundaries (he was a Rumanian who wrote exquisite French prose), comments: "In a borrowed language, you are conscious of words; they exist not in you but outside of you. This interval between yourself and your means of expression explains why it is difficult, even impossible, to be a poet in another language besides your own. How extract a substance from words that are not rooted in you? The newcomer lives on the surface of language; he cannot, in a tongue belatedly learned, translate that subterranean agony from which poetry issues."

Hard evidence of a sort for this view comes from the cognitive sciences. Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct mentions an ingenious experiment that shows how early infants get attuned to their mother tongue. It was found that "four-day-old French babies suck harder to hear French than Russian, and pick up their sucking more when a tape changes from Russian to French than from French to Russian." This positive response to the mother-tongue is due to the fact that "the melody of mothers' speech carries through their bodies and is audible in the womb. The babies still prefer French when the speech is electronically filtered so that the consonant and vowel sounds are muffled and only the melody comes through. But they are indifferent when the tapes are played backwards, which preserves the vowels and some of the consonants but distorts the melody. Nor does the effect prove the inherent beauty of the French language: nonFrench infants do not prefer French, and French infants do not distinguish Italian from English." The inference is that "The infants must have learned something about the prosody of French (its melody, stress and timing) in the womb, or in their first days out of it."

The experiment demonstrates that one is most intimate with the lyric genius of one's mother tongue. It follows that poetry written in a language other than one's mother-tongue is not likely to be conspicuous for its lyricism. And this, I believe, is the case with Indian English and African English poetry. Dom Moraes of course was very lyrical, but his mother tongue was English.

But it does not follow, as Bose thought, that subcontinental poetry in English is doomed to oblivion. The best of it is good by any standard, noteworthy for its irony and satire, the quality of its imagery, its use of the Indian voice. It gives us something one cannot find in any other kind of English poetry or in poetry in the subcontinent's regional languages. Besides, with the subcontinental diaspora more and more Indians are picking up English in their mothers' wombs, so to speak, and so a major Indo-Anglian poet may emerge any day now.

Part of my writerly activities involve translating from Bangla. This has a special significance for me. Since my literary sensibility has two rather distinct areas, one occupied by Bangla literature, the other by literature in English and literature read in English translation, translating is a way of unifying the two. It is also a means of coming to terms with aspects of myself of which I may have been only vaguely aware, and of combining the creative and critical sides of my mind: Pound, you may recall, cites translation as a mode of criticism.

My translations have all been labours of love: Shamsur Rahman and Shaheed Quaderi, dear friends besides being leading Bangla poets; The Wonders of Vilayet, an eighteenth century Indian's memoir of a trip to Britain; Tagore's Chaturanga (Quartet). And Tagore's Yogayog, for which I am looking for a publisher. Generally speaking, I find translating Bangla prose a more satisfying activity than translating the poetry, partly because more is lost in translating poetry. The prose, on the other hand, incorporates more of the complex texture of our culture and is therefore likely to appeal to readers interested in otherness. Doesn't Richard Rorty in Irony, Contingency, Solidarity make a case for novels and documentaries as the best agents available for broadening and deepening our human sympathies?

Translating Tagore's Quartet led me to realize with blinding clarity the extent to which the Bengali psyche--and indeed my individual psyche--is polarized between the devotional and romantic on the one hand, and the logical and rational on the other. We have all been aware of the impact of bhakti with its associated irrationalism and eroticism on the Bengali mind. We are perhaps less aware of our logic-chopping side, which goes back at least as far as the NavyaNyaya logicians of the sixteenth century. It is conspicuous today as what Alan Ross in a poem titled "Bengal" calls "A querulous literacy." The opposition between the two weltanschauungs passed into popular culture, as in the saying, Biswasay milay swarga, tarkey bahudur---"Faith takes you to heaven, but arguments lead you astray." I recall it from my childhood. In its original form it has "Krishna" instead of "swarga" ("heaven") and was obviously a bhakti squib directed at the hairsplitting logicians. By substituting "swarga" for "Krishna," Muslims too could use the proverb: an interesting example of how the two religious communities could drink from the fount of a shared culture.

Sadly, the two aspects of the Bengali psyche seem to have remained separate through our history: ours has always been a dissociated sensibility. I like to think that in trying to write in English--an activity that, as Meenakshi Mukherji pointed out years ago, enhances our critical awareness of the complexities of our cultural inheritance--I also try to bring the disparate parts into a meaningful, dialogic relationship.


Nature on a leash;
indifferent collar of bricks
pierced by gates.

Like its kinsmen,
zoo tiger and pet dog, yet unlike:
one in irritation paces,
the other in contentment prances,
but the park in lonely introspection wraps itself . . .

Late morning. Busy self-centred birds;
A few human figures
like bare winter trees.
Voices: coarse rustle of autumn leaves.

Busy afternoon:
Throngs of bare feet,
leather shoes,
high heels,
press the grass.
When the lamps appear most are home;
a few linger
making hard park benches their couch,
the grass footrests,
the park their parlour.
At last they leave,
wrapped in its torn blanket of darkness . . .

So I mused
on a lonely park bench
till he came and drove me away:
a gaunt fellow
with a munching beard
carrying peanuts and body-odour.

January 1968