Book Review: Alokeranjan Dasgupta’s ‘Light and yet More Light’

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By Sanjukta Dasgupta

Alokeranjan Dasgupta (1933-2020) is widely regarded as an outstanding litterateur who has left behind a treasure trove of literary texts, a rich legacy that will further strengthen modern Bengali literature. Apart from his thirty books of Bengali literary essays, Dasgupta wrote sixteen books of critical essays in German and six in English. However, in the opinion of many critics and scholars, it is Dasgupta’s forty-six volumes of Bengali poetry, that set him apart as a formidable Bengali poet who seamlessly blended intellectual brilliance and nuanced sensibility in varied word-play, that were rarely cliched. In fact, playfulness in the use of words, images, similes and metaphors has been a defining feature of his powerful poetry.

Significantly, according to his contemporary poet-friends, researchers and admirers, though Alokeranjan Dasgupta was regarded as a renowned, internationally acclaimed professor of Comparative Literature and World Literature, he was essentially an extraordinary poet who experimented with themes, technique, language, figures of speech, prosody, philosophic discourse with the zest of an uncompromising intellectual and the sensitivity of a deeply empathetic poetic spirit.

Undoubtedly, the forty-six volumes of his Bengali poetry prove that Alokeranjan Dasgupta was not just a prolific poet, he was an exuberant experimenter, a poet who believed that poetry can only be written when the mind is without fear. Understandably, Rabindranath Tagore remained his lifelong primary mentor, followed by Jibanananda Das. A close contemporary of Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sakti Chattopadhyay, Buddhadev Bose and Sankha Ghosh, among others, Dasgupta’s poems also incorporated the influences of European poets such as Rilke, Mallarme, Goethe, Brecht, among many others. Though his socialist beliefs are manifest in his poems, his poems exude a deeper philosophic camaraderie with the wretched of the earth. His poems are not directly agit-prop, instead his poems express an ardent longing for human solidarity and universal humanism.

So, from Dasgupta’s first book of published poems, Yuvan Baul (1959) to Bastuharar Pahartali (2020), the last volume of poetry he published before he died on 17th November, 2020, we find along with wit, humour, irony and mild sarcasm, strains of sorrow, bewilderment, conflict, concern, profound philosophic discourse and an overwhelming communitarian spirit are all integrated in the forty-six volumes of his remarkably original poetry, original both in substance and style.

Alokeranjan Dasgupta’s volume of Bengali poems Alo Aro Alo has been translated competently into English by scholar, researcher and critic Sreemati Mukherjee. This slim volume of around forty-five short poems titled Light and yet More Light (Alo Aro Alo, Bengali original published in 1991) is an important contribution to translation studies, world literature studies and Indian literature in English translation studies. Mukherjee has been able to capture the cadence of the spoken rhythm that distinguishes the poems of Dasgupta. For instance, in the poem The Last Puja (Shesh Puja) the poet, ostensibly tongue in cheek advises the devotee Ranti.

“Ranti, let me tell you frankly

There is rank competition among the Gods

As a result catastrophe occurs…

So instead of getting into Bhadrasana

Go to the poets’ festival at Durgapur during Sankranti

You have a right to be there –

Tell me, apart from poetry, is there anything else that matters?”

Dasgupta’s poems in this translated volume combine personal anecdotes subtly told, self-reflexivity, memories, mythic analogies and nuanced expressions of emotional turmoil and intensity, often ending with an unexpected twist and turn in the train of poetic expression. The poem “Myself unwritten” (Satwabilop) is a fine example of these intrinsic aspects of Dasgupta’s poetic style. Here is an excerpt-

“ …

When the entire sky hangs gloomy

During the month of Sravan

I almost did a ritual count of your name on its blackboard

Heavy rains wiped the rain away;

Yet your name

Resounds in the pelting rain

And the wind chants it

If you become famous, my job will be done

What will remain

Will only be the epilogue to the story.”

The dialogic mode, the colloquial stance, the overt and covert allusions to epics, myths, intellectual discourse, all these attributes are infused with concision by the perceptive poet, proving that brevity is the soul of wit. These markers that distinguish the poems of Dasgupta from the other modern Bengali poets, are successfully recreated in the translated poems. This is a remarkable achievement and one hopes many more of Dasgupta’s volumes of poetry will be translated by Sreemati Mukherjee, so that Alokeranjan Dasgupta’s contribution to the oeuvre of Bengali poetry can be appreciated by those who are not familiar with the Bengali language.

I need also to mention that Sreemati Mukherjee’s excellent introduction where she provides close readings of a selection of poems that she has translated, is indeed a brilliant critically informed analyses of the poems that she has graded thematically. Such well-researched introductions should be considered as essential features of books of translations, so that the translator performs the role of a guide to the reader, who is in all probability reading the poems of the poet, for the very first time. Close readings and critical analyses of many of the poems provide the reader with clues and cues, thereby enabling the reader to plunge into the core of the poetic text.

Sreemati Mukherjee’s competent translation of Alokeranjan Dasgupta’s book of Bengali poems, Alo, Aro Alo, proves not just the skill of the translator, but also the serious immersion of the translator into the linguistic complexities, the use of figures of speech, the use of symbols and metaphor in the original and their felicitous transference into the target language, English. The original title Alo Aro Alo is directly reminiscent of Goethe’s imploration ‘more light’, and is a literal translation of the phrase in Bengali. Mukherjee’s translation of the title as Light and yet More Light, intriguingly deviates from Goethe’s and Dasgupta’s phraseology.

Sreemati Mukherjee has stated in the Preface of the book that she has not been able to include the translated versions of a few poems that are in the original Bengali version. The reader however may well be curious about the reasons for the exclusion. Perhaps the translator will elaborate on this issue when the volume is reprinted. Also, the absence of a Contents page seems a serious lack on the part of the publishers. This hopefully will be rectified when the second edition in published.

Bio:
Sanjukta Dasgupta is Professor and Former Head, Dept of English and Former Dean, Faculty of Arts, Calcutta University. Dasgupta is a poet, short story writer, critic and translator.

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One thought

  1. The review inspires to possess a copy of the translated version and the original work also.
    Thematic arrangement of poems is a reward to readers.

    Gratitude

    Like

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