Three Bengali Women Poets of Kolkata
IN THIS FEATURE, Artful Dodge celebrates the work of three prominent Bengali women poets — Rajlakshmi Devi Bhattachaarya, Debarati Mitra, and Gita Chattopadhyay — who are representative of the many poets and writers active in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the premier center of Bengali publishing and literary life in India. I must mention right at the outset that to focus here on Kolkata is not to slight Dhaka, the burgeoning capital of the new nation of Bangladesh. It has been nearly thirty-five years since Bangladeshis fought a War of Liberation against West Pakistan — in large part over the right to maintain their own Bengali language and culture as distinct from politically dominant, Urdu-speaking West Pakistan. Since the Independence of Bangladesh in late 1971, Dhaka has developed as the hub of Bangladeshi arts and letters, with dozens of publishing houses, little magazines, literary festivals, and the renowned Bangla Academy — an institution dedicated to research on and preservation of the language and its culture, and to the publication of notable works of literature written in the bangla language. Vital and original, Bengali literary art flourishes in Dhaka, and Kolkata literary figures have expressed admiration, and a little envy, of how Banladeshi writers — free of the powerful competing influence of Hindi and other regional languages within the vast country of India — continue to make innovative use of the Bengali language in their work.
The spelling of the name of West Bengal’s largest city was changed recently to reflect a more accurate transliteration of the original Bengali (Kalkαtα). Hence, whenever I mention the city in a historical context (as the pre-2001 birthplace of many of the poets and collaborators with whom I worked, and the name of the major university at the time the poet graduated), I use the old British spelling common during that period: “Calcutta.” When I refer to the city in a current, contemporary context, and in the poem itself, where the name is transliterated from Bengali, I use “Kokata.”
I spent two years in Kolkata — under the auspices of the Indo-U.S. Subcommission on Education and Culture — on a fellowship for scholars, professionals, and creative artists with little or no prior experience in India. (In fact, in the application process my basic knowledge of Bengali was an advantage, indicating some acquaintance with the culture, though a specialist’s expertise would have disqualified me.) My project was to collect, study, and translate, in collaboration with native-speaking colleagues, the work of Bengali women poets and writers, and to edit an anthology of this work, with an introduction and background material on each poet and writer represented. (I subsequently spent two years in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on a Fulbright Senior Research Grant to do the same work with Bangladeshi women poets and writers.)
Identifying and then contacting poets and writers when I first arrived in Kolkata presented a challenge, since there were no literary directories or organizations with membership lists, and with my basic bangla I couldn’t readily scan the magazines and browse through bookstores. Communication service was quite spotty then as well, with phone connections that abruptly died in the middle of calls, lines that stayed dead for days, and many households simply doing without telephones. But I began with a few leads, from writers in the U.S., of the names and addresses of a few Kolkata poets, as well as the good luck that telephone calls I made to them in the early days after my arrival actually went through on the third or fourth attempt to dial. Moreover, the informal network of friendships and word of mouth — which turned out to be the most practical communication system in Kolkata at the time — soon brought my project to the attention of the city’s literary circles, and many good writers to my door.
In initial meetings, I gave each potential contributor a set of interview questions; the responses were written in English or in Bengali to be translated with my native-speaking co-translators. I also interviewed the writers themselves in English, in mixed English and Bengali with a translator present, or later on during my stay in Bangladesh, in Bengali. I was fortunate. Having to rely on co-translators and meet personally with the writers let me interact with the Bengali literary community in a way that these kinds of fellowships are designed to foster. Only a few poets and writers had had any work translated, and they were pleased that an American poet had come from so far away to study their language and to help make some of the wealth of Bengali women’s writing available in English.
Not all of the West Bengali poets with whom I worked are residents of Kolkata. Rajlakshmi Devi Bhattacharya, born in 1927 in Mymensingh, East Bengal (now in Bangladesh), received a B.A. with Honours in Philosophy from Ananda Mohan College in Mymensingh, and came to Calcutta after the 1947 Partition for marriage and higher studies. Taking her M.A. in Philosophy from Calcutta University, she lived in Patna, in Ethiopia, and finally in Pune, where her husband, a professor of physics, held a series of teaching positions. Settling with her family in Pune, Rajlakshmi Devi received a Ph.D. and taught Philosophy at Pune University until retirement, while also writing many volumes of poetry, fiction, and memoir, and even translating some of her own work to English. In 1972, she published a volume of these translations, The Owl and Other Poems, (with Writers Workshop, Calcutta), under the older English spelling of her name, Rajlukshmee Debee. During my time in India, she was living in Pune, but came to Kolkata regularly with her husband to visit family and friends. During these visits, I met with her a few times to talk about her poetry; the rest of our correspondence has been by letter.
Debarati Mitra, though, has lived in Kolkata all her life. Born in 1946, she received a B.A. from Ashutosh College of Calcutta University, and an M.A. from Jadavpur University, both in Bengali Literature. Since her marriage, she has lived in South Kolkata with her family and devoted herself to writing and publishing volumes of poetry and criticism in literary journals. Her largely free-verse poetry relies on a proliferation of imagery, unexpected juxtapositions of metaphor and simile, and a strategy of lyrical narrative for its momentum and texture. She also lives within walking distance of where I stayed in South Kolkata, so I was able to visit her easily to talk about her work. A tall, quiet woman with a serious demeanor, she was deeply influenced — as were many of the poets I worked with — by the poetry of Bengal’s polymathic genius and Nobel Prize-winning poetic sage, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), whose work has provided not only poetic inspiration but spiritual guidance to Bengalis for more than a century.
Of these three poets, the one most steeped in the lore and history of Bengal’s largest and oldest city is Gita Chattopadhyay, born in 1941 into a traditional zamindari (landholding) family in North Calcutta. She was educated at Lady Brabourne College of Calcutta University, and has devoted herself ever since to writing — mainly of poetry and literary essays and criticism — and to extensive reading in Bengali, Sanskrit, and English. Although she has recited and recorded her poetry in readings for All-India Radio, she has spent most of her adult life essentially in seclusion, and remains an elusive and even revered figure in contemporary Bengali letters. She lives with a brother and three sisters, all unmarried, in the family’s 175-year-old ancestral home, now surrounded by one of Kolkata’s busiest commercial districts next to the Sealdah Railway Station. For all her privileged background and Dickensonian lifestyle, however, her work is among the most socially engaged and politically committed being written in Bengali today.
My other Bengali associates regarded it as quite a coup that I was able to correspond with Gita — that my initial query to her, posted as a letter to her home address, was answered within a few days with a card and packet of manuscripts. This packet arrived in her car, driven by her personal chauffeur, to the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture in South Calcutta where I stayed: I was called down from my room by the khaki-uniformed Ramakrishna Mission guard, who knocked at my door: “Apnar message ache, Madame.”
I followed him down to the office, where the driver — a slight, wizened gentleman in white kurta-paijama — delivered the packet into my hands and then touched his right fingers to his brow in a kind of salute. Some days later, I received another card from the hands of the same driver: Gita Chattopadhyay was inviting me, along with Paramita Banerjee, my co-translator for her poetry and one of my most stalwart and insightful collaborators, to visit her at her home.
“This is amazing,” Paramita said when I showed her the card in its monogrammed envelope. “Nobody has this access with her.” I was honored by Gita’s response, but I also reflected that there were not many American poets riding around Calcutta in buses and baby taxis and rickshaws, trying to meet with Bengali women poets and writers and to translate their work. Gita’s invitation was thus quite practical as well. There would be no other way to work directly with her.
Paramita and I planned our visit with care, going through each other’s wardrobes to choose the appropriate saris. For herself, Paramita selected a maroon muslin with an embroidered blue border, and helped me settle on a deep green cotton-silk with a border of ochre and scarlet. Both of these were tangail, a very Bengali style of sari, in keeping with Gita-di‘s family heritage and her engagement with Bengali history. That afternoon, Paramita took a cycle rickshaw from her place to the Ramakrishna Mission, and then we departed together in Gita’s car, which she had sent to bring us to the Chattopadhyay household, with the by-now familiar driver at the wheel.
The car, an off-white Indian Ambassador, boxy like a mid-1950s Chevy, wove through the streets, which grew increasingly crowded as we neared the center of the city. When we reached the Sealdah Station, the city’s main commuter train depot, the driver made a turn into an alley across the way and then crept slowly, through crowds of pedestrians, under a high brick archway into a sprawling market. This was a warren of small, enclosed shops, and immediately in front of them, rows of market stalls jerry-built of wood and bamboo. In front of the wooden stalls, pavement vendors set out their wares on mats close enough to traffic to be practically underfoot and in danger of being run over by the wheels of passing rickshaws. Crowds of shoppers, beggars, bicycles and rickshaws swarmed around our car, which slowed down even further and then stopped before a high, shadowy gate almost completely concealed by all the shops and stalls built up against it. The gate was opened from within, and we drove under a neoclassically columned porte-cochère, where a servant in a white kurta and dhoti opened the car door and ushered us up the white marble steps to the front entrance. Then the great entry gate closed upon the crowds and dust of the market, the cacophony of bicycle bells and vendors’ shouts was muted, and Paramita an I exchanged apprehensive glances as we adjusted our sari pleats and followed the servant up the steps.
In the half-darkness just inside the door we glimpsed an ethereal figure, swathed in a cream-colored silk sari, extending slender, pale arms, then pressing her palms together in the Bengali gesture of greeting, namaskur. It was Gita Chattopadhyay herself, welcoming us to her ancestral home. With her slender figure, her pale complexion from (I imagined) a life spent indoors, and her solemn and delicate face dominated by black glasses whose frames featured rhinestones winking on the wings, she looked rather like a Bengali Joyce Carol Oates. She ushered us through cool, shadowed rooms, their windows protected from sun by louvered wooden awnings, along a wide verandah looking out over the inner courtyard garden filled with palm trees, oleander and hibiscus bushes, and into a high-ceilinged drawing room, where Paramita and I sat down at a large mahogany table polished to a gleaming finish.
Gita opened the books and files of manuscripts set out neatly on the table, telling us how the house had first been constructed back in the 1830s, as the zamindari bari (the landowner’s home), in the midst of the rice fields. I could imagine the brilliant green paddies stretching off to the horizon, interspersed with villages shaded by groves of banana and mango trees — clusters of small mud-plaster and palm-thatch houses of the peasant families who farmed the land as tenants. Over the decades, though, the city of Kolkata had grown, gradually swallowing up the fields and villages, until the Chattopadhyay house was surrounded by other larger residences and townhouses that were further subdivided into the warren of shops and offices and apartment buildings that crowded together in dust and grit and noise outside the house’s walls.
Gita rang a small silver bell to call a serving man to bring tea. Asking if our ride to her house had been comfortable, her words were crisp and deliberate. Even when she and Paramita exchanged a few words in Bengali, Gita’s voice had a small lift to it, a slight formality, as if she were not much in the habit of speaking aloud. I was fascinated by her hair, jet-black and coiled on top of her head in an elegant chignon, with mother-of-pearl combs on the sides and small white bel flowers for decoration — the most elaborate coiffure I had seen on a Bengali woman intellectual. I had indeed been in Kolkata long enough by then to interpret clothing and hair styles, and to recognize Gita’s pale muslin silk sari as a type I had seen only in sepia-toned photo-studio portraits of Bengali women from the 1920s and 1930s. She had draped the long end of the sari around her shoulders like a stole and then pinned it with a floral brooch, a sort of jeweled corsage. This was a style that had been favored by upper middle-class women who were part of a progressive social and philosophical movement known as the Brahmo Samaj, which had flourished in Bengal in the decades before World War II.
Just then, two other delicate-featured, middle-aged women glided silently into the room and pressed their palms together. They were draped in similar cream-colored, muslin silk saris pinned with floral brooches, and coiffed with the same elaborately dressed hairdos. “My sisters,” Gita introduced them. They hovered, smiling — slightly heavier-set but otherwise uncanny visual echoes of our hostess — and murmured a few words of greeting in English before disappearing back through the drawing room doorway. As I watched them go, I wondered if all three sisters had decked themselves out in identical period clothing and hairstyles especially for our visit. Or, maybe this was the family dress code, connecting them to Bengali history, and the sisters spent their days moving through the ancestral corridors and galleries in such elegant, vintage apparel. Perhaps they simply didn’t go out much to the main road running past their door, and so hadn’t visited the sari shoppes, bustling with customers, which offered a dizzying array of modern sari styles in vivid and wildly contrasting colors and patterns. From the hush of the drawing room, the sheltering quiet that seemed to settle over this house, I realized that I could barely hear the chaotic din of 20th century traffic from the busy road outside.
As we took our tea with Bengali sweets — sandesh and barfi and rice pudding-like paish — I felt myself transported to an earlier era. Under the softly rotating fan in the cool, shadowy, high-ceilinged room, it was as if we had found our way into a Bengali Shangri-La, where time had stopped somewhere between the two Great Wars. Had I been able to peep through chinks in the thick wooden shutters covering the windows that faced toward the main street in front of the railway station, I might have glimpsed horse-drawn carriages, hansom cabs and streetcars, palanquins hefted by human bearers, and bullock carts shaded by parasols, instead of the chaotic rush and petrol fumes of taxis, buses, trams, and lorries.
The sisters did not return to join us for tea, but Gita’s brother — a dapper, fifty-ish man with graying sideburns, outfitted in a khaki-colored safari-style shirt and trousers — put in a brief appearance. He exchanged a few pleasantries in Bengali with Paramita, asked me in English how I liked Calcutta, and then remarked about the challenges of upkeep on an old, traditional home such as theirs. In fact, he was on his way, he said, to meet with one of their solicitors about some property leases, so he would excuse himself. He indeed seemed to be the family member with the greatest familiarity in negotiating with the world outside of the ancestral house.
Later in the visit, when I had an opportunity to peek through the wooden shutters, I saw that the windows that faced onto the main road were, in fact, completely covered with huge billboards — hoardings, as they are called in Indian English — blocking the sun from the Chattopadhyays’ cool, shaded drawing rooms. We had noticed these signs from the taxi on our way to Gita’s door, affixed to the upper-story walls of the taller buildings lining the wide streets — they advertised Mitsubishi radios and TVs, Bajaj motor scooters and the latest Hindi film hits. Now, peering through the chinks in the wooden shutters, I could see the back of one of those billboards, supported by bamboo scaffolding and large bolts that fixed them to the house walls. I realized then that the exterior of the ancestral home was a signboard rental site leased to advertisers, and that revenues from such leases probably helped the family within to maintain their 19th century gentility. And, if they still owned the land surrounding their ancestral home, the Chattopadhyays were landlords of some of the most valuable commercial property in the city, not unlike owning several square blocks of lower Manhattan.
Like Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, Gita acknowledged the connection between independent material means and her freedom as a woman to pursue the writer’s craft to the highest level. “To live in seclusion and pursue one’s work — that way of life is quite honorable in India,” she told me in one of our conversations. “If I were influenced by the idea of being popular, of selling my work to make a living, then I would write badly, my writing would cheapen, I couldn’t keep high standards.” She didn’t need, she said, to contribute to the special Puja numbers of the high-circulation magazines, the phonebook-sized issues published at the time of the major West Bengali holidays — the Durga Puja festival in early autumn and the Pahela Baisakh (New Year’s) celebration in mid-April. “There is no pressure on me to write for these magazines,” she said. “Because of what has been left to me by my ancestors, there’s no pressure to earn a living from writing. I can write about social and political issues that may go outside the mainstream, not worrying about the need for sales.”
I thought of American poets with similar circumstances — James Merrill, and to a lesser extent Elizabeth Bishop — who could dedicate themselves to their art free of material cares.
“And I can remain single,” Gita continued. “I don’t want to marry. Marriage would take away my liberty and time to write. I’ve avoided many of the struggles of women by not marrying.”
I observed that all of her siblings had made this same choice not to marry. “Only three of us were major, over eighteen, when our father died,” she responded. “There was pressure on the older ones to settle the property. They had no time to think about marriage. All of us — except the eldest brother already deceased and the youngest brother, also unmarried, working in the U.K. — live here in this house, where we grew up. It is a very affectionate environment.”
I asked her if anyone had ever compared her to Emily Dickinson.
She laughed, “Oh no! And there will never be another Edith Sitwell, Gita will never be an Edith Sitwell. Bengali writers often say this!
“My father was very orthodox. He didn’t care for women’s emancipation. But my mother, though she is of the older generation, is very modern in her thought. She believed in education for women. My father died when I was fifteen, so my mother helped me to obtain an education, and she did not compel me or my brothers and sisters to marry. Education is the means by which women can claim their freedom, and freedom comes much more easily now.”
In our many wide-ranging conversations — in which Gita quoted extensively from Shakespeare, Rilke, Eliot, and Yeats as well as Bengali poets Rabindranath Tagore and Jibanananda Das in both English and Bengali — I was impressed not only by her intelligence, the breadth and depth of her reading, and her lively and articulate expression in two very different languages. I was also struck by her dedication to her art and craft, her delight in human culture, and her commitment to greater political and social justice. In response to my question as to whether she had any wisdom to impart — anything to say to other writers, particularly women, including those in the United States — she said, “I believe that, as writers, we have no country; we have no century. We should recognize the heritage of all good writers in the world, of our own era, of the past, and we should welcome the new voices of the future.”
Her familial heritage of involvement with Kolkata, on all levels and over the course of nearly two hundred years of its history, has provided Gita Chattopadhyay with a wealth of poetic subject matter. Despite her secluded lifestyle, her engagement with the more difficult, complex aspects of the city’s life has lent a profundity to her poetic investigations. The writing of “Kolkata: Seven Days and Nights,” for example, was prompted by events in the turbulent recent history of Bengal. In 1967, a United Front (socialist coalition) government was elected in West Bengal, the first non-Congress Party state government in independent India’s twenty-year history. The day after the election results were streamers. The very same night, Jyoti Basu, the newly elected Home Minister, sent armed troops against the peasants of the North Bengal village of Naxalbari, who had been agitating for greater control over the land they tilled as sharecroppers bonded to the land like feudal serfs. What made this act as ironic as it was treacherous, was that the Naxalbari peasants’ demand had been the major slogan of Basu’s United Front campaign, and these sharecroppers had supported his candidacy for the ministerial post. In the poem, the “fire on the lamp-posts” is thus transposed to a reference to the new government’s violence against the peasants of Naxalbari and the burning of their village.
“Kolkata: Seven Days and Nights” is indeed a panorama, fanning out from current political events, offering an auditory collage of references to classical ragas and popular songs, frequent allusions to characters from Kolkata’s founding history and subsequent decades — everything interwoven with lore and legend from Indian mythology and devotional literature and resulting in a palimpsest of incident and echo that creates a layering not unlike the kaleidoscopic effect of the great tormented city it endeavors to evoke. But, with its multiplicity of allusions (most of which the reasonably well-read Bengali would recognize right away), the poem requires a great deal of attention from the non-Bengali reader, hence the notes that follow the English translation. Gita and Paramita supplied most of the cultural information for these notes: information built into the poem’s language through proverbial expressions, allusions to Indian and Bengali history or mythology, and references to customs and traditions with which the poet would expect Bengali readers to be familiar. Without the notes, Gita said, Western readers might not understand the poem’s cultural context.
Over the course of subsequent visits to the Chattopadhyay household, Paramita and I worked closely with Gita-di, as we came to call her — the suffix di (big sister) indicating the increasing degree of warmth in our working relationship. For each poem we decided to translate, Paramita produced a first version in English and brought it to our sessions. These versions were not exactly prose trots, but more like preliminary sketches to convey accurately the sense of the original Bengali, even if some phrasing was rather clumsy in English. Then, at our next meeting, we went through each Bengali poem word for word. I copied out the precise literal word order, noting such subtleties as idiomatic phrases, multiple entendres or word play, and level of diction — the familiarity of verb conjugations, pronouns, and other forms of address. It was also necessary to indicate the level of diction of nouns and adjectives, whether they were standard or colloquial Bengali (more or less analogous to common English words of Anglo-Saxon origin), or of “high” Sanskritic derivation, similar to words of Latin or Greek origin in English.
Word order in Bengali is very often quite different from that of English, and to render it literally in translation would sound absurd. In Bengali, verbs usually occur at the end of sentences and independent clauses (as in German), prepositional relations are signaled by inflecting the nouns, definite articles such as “the” are simply understood, and although the language has suffixes to indicate plural nouns, these are not always used. Bengali readers are used to perceiving from the context whether a noun is singular or plural, definite or indefinite — whereas the non-Bengali translator is not so accustomed to do this. Finally, with terms that had no ready parallels in English — such as local names for flora and fauna, articles of clothing, food preparations, folk musical instruments, and seasons of the year, all of which denote phenomena particular to Bengali culture — we usually transliterated and italicized the Bengali name while adding a generic descriptor to indicate its kind (i.e., bakul became bakul-tree). For most items, this strategy worked well enough, helping to anchor the poem’s setting and give it a distinctive local atmosphere, even though the names could not of course have the identical associations or embody the same resonances for a Western reader as they would for a reader in Kolkata. It was invaluable to be able to confer in person with Gita (as well as with the other poets) about the more subtle aspects of the poems, and to listen to Gita’s explanations in English or (when a concept was particularly complex) her clarification in Bengali to Paramita, after which Paramita would explain whatever I had not been able to follow.
The next step in the process was to combine elements from Paramita’s draft with the word-for-word literal version and the relevant cultural information, to create a translation that was as faithful as possible to the original in meaning and tone, and also successful as a poem in its own right. At this point I worked alone, back in my room in the Ramakrishna Mission, armed with the Bengali-English dictionary, the original poem, Paramita’s first English version, and my own notes: all to convey the experiences, ideas, and imagery of the original poet as glimpsed through the sensibility of my Bengali collaborator. And, as my reading ability in Bengali improved, I could look up any words in the dictionary about which I was not certain. If I were unsatisfied with English meanings I already had, I could locate alternatives that might work better. These meanings I checked again with my collaborators, because Bengali-English dictionaries do not always give the current usages of a word, or indicate which alternative meanings are distant, dated, or obsolete. The translator’s first duty, I have come to believe, along with as much faithfulness as possible to the original text, is fidelity to what makes sense and sounds good in the new language. Thus, having immersed myself as best I could in the life and cultural milieu of the poem, I tried to create a translation that was as fluent and alive as if Gita had been writing in English in the first place. When this version was finished, I showed it to Gita and Paramita, who helped to clarify any remaining inaccuracies. At that point, the translation was essentially complete, and I was able to type the finished copy. This was the same procedure that I and my collaborators followed, with individual variations, for the work of all the Bengali poets I translated, including Rajlakshmi Devi and Debarati Mitra.
—University Heights, Ohio, January 30, 2015