By Nishi Pulugurtha
Actor Soumitra Chatterjee’s Walking Through the Mist (Dhauli Books, 2020) is a collection of fifty poems written in Bengali and translated by film critic and poet, Amitava Nag. While Chatterjee is mostly known as an film and theatre actor, there are facets to him that are much less known. He was also a painter, playwright, editor, and poet. Beginning with his first volume of poems, Jalapropater Dhaare Danrabo Bole in 1975, Chatterjee went on to publish several volumes of poems in his fascinating career that ended with his death this November. In his introduction, Nag quotes Chatterjee while referring to his poetic oeuvre as “far too personal, and are okay for a very small and familiar audience. But I don’t think my poems are for a big audience.”
Nag explains his choice of the fifty poems in this volume as poems that appealed to him “for their passionately dispassionate rendering of the solitary man, his struggles, his defeats and his eternal quest to rise from the ashes.” In “My Life in Poetry”, translated excerpts from Gadyasangraha 1, with which the collection begins, Chatterjee speaks of why he writes poetry, not an easy question for a poet: “There are so many reasons why one writes poems…. In a day’s work a line may pass the mind, just as a drift of a few words in orchestration. Or, may be the mind actually paints a picture from some observation and then binds that in words….it may not even be words or a picture or a melody played in the mind but just a stray feeling – of sorrow, sadness, melancholy or happiness, a feeling that engulfs the mind throughout the day.” This so very succinctly brings the myriad goings-on in the poet’s mind to the fore. He speaks of times in the day when his mind is at work, when the words find avenues of expression, of the various influences that shaped his poetry and his literary imagination, of his first attempts at writing, his early life and his interaction with and reading of some of the best modern Bengali poets. Chatterjee’s poetic oeuvre consists of 15 volumes of poetry and this translation by Nag is the first one in English.
The first poem in the collection, “What will you live with?”, strikingly voices a universal idea, something that speaks louder in times such as these:
“It doesn’t take a lot to live,
Laughter and tears filling the boxes
with joys and sorrows”
As news of Chatterjee’s death came in a few days ago, these lines from this poem now seem to take on a different connotation:
“I don’t need romance anymore, nor a lover – but,
a companion, one who knows life –
why are we here, why did the travel begin?”
“After Travelling so far” speaks of the desire to rest from the ‘fever and fret’ of life,
“Pain seems to have bewitched love
who smiles at me – ‘don’t worry,
from now on I will carry the weight of your pain’.”
“Walking through the Mist”, the poem which gives this collection its title, beautifully evokes loneliness and pain:
“Now, in the mist I search
For the times lost
Between you and me.”
Many of the poems have a wistful longing, a sense of pain and pathos that breaks out in a simple idiom that lingers on. In “Intellectual”, one sees the playwright’s thoughts at work as he speaks of characters who have been represented on stage, in plays.
“So, I decorate me with a new dress
Each day – Hamlet, Karna, Neelkantha,
And, so many more.”
Translating poetry is a difficult task as it means dealing with idioms and images that are culture and language specific. In “And quiet flows the Kopai”, Nag retains the word ‘khalasi’ and instead provides its meaning in a footnote. The poem speaks of transience and of death, a theme that recurs in many of the poems in this volume.
“A day will come
I am no longer here,
A different khalasi greets
In “Three Shepherd Boys”, Nag retains the word “beedi”, this time without italics and a footnote gives its meaning. There are a few other poems too in which he retains the Bengali word preferring to give its meaning in a footnote.
There are poems that speak of atrocities perpetrated on the weak (“In the pretext of hunting” and “Blood drips from Newsprint”), of the desire to escape from the self (“Can you run away, from self?”), of the loss of faith in human beings (“Knowing humans”). There is a bluntness in the way the poem “Love” begins and this tone remains throughout the poem revealing a disillusion with it:
“You wear my mask,
I put up yours –
For the time can we settle this as love?”
This is also seen in the poem “How long does life remain?”: “Even when love falls apart life carries along for long?”
“Prayer for your health” is dedicated to Satyajit Ray with whom Chatterjee had been closely associated with. Another poem “Birthday’ is written in memory of Akira Kurosawa reminding us of Chatterjee’s illustrious career in films, a great legacy that he left behind. The poem depicts the idea of death,
“He may receive news of death even today,
A companion in this game, a partner, rather,
Calling out to him each time – ‘Ready?’
He frantically wriggles away – ‘No, not yet, not now.’”
Chatterjee’s interest in literature is well known and this is seen in the poem “In memory of Keats’ bicentenary.” The city of Calcutta/Kolkata also figures in a number of the poems.
Chatterjee’s recitation of poetry in Bengali is well known and much loved and appreciated. Reading his poems in translation this reviewer is of the opinion that one of the reasons he recited so well is his great interest in poetry and the fact that he was a poet himself. The volume under consideration ends with an interview where Chatterjee speaks to the Bengali poet Joy Goswami about the role his family had in his poetry, and of the influences on his work. It offers an interesting view into the mind of a man who was able to blend so many roles with elan, in much the same way as he slipped into various roles in films, theatre and television.
This translation makes available some of Soumitra Chatterjee’s poetry to readers all over the world, revealing the working of a mind that had myriad interests and a creativity that had a great range. Modestly priced with a beautiful cover, this volume is a treasure trove for anyone interested in poetry and literature, and to fans of the great actor.
Nishi Pulugurtha is an academic and writes on travel, film, short stories, poetry and on Alzheimer’s Disease. Her work has been published in various journals and magazines. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010), guest edited the June 2018 Issue of Café Dissensus and has a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019). Her recent book is an edited volume of essays on travel, Across and Beyond (2020). Her first volume of poems is forthcoming.
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