A Biography of Known Faces Unknown Lives: Poets of Sundarbans

Debojyoti Das

The following documentation covers short depiction of poets whom I interviewed during fieldwork in Gosaba. These literary figures are lesser known among the upper class bhadrolok Bengali literary circle. Their poems, rhymes, verses, essays, plays and monologs have appeared in little magazine and less known Bangla press published mostly from the suburbs of Kolkata. They remain hidden from the public gaze yet their writings speak more than the index of their face. Their poems and prose have made a deep impact on me in understanding the social, political, cultural and economic life of the people residing in the Sundarbans.

One day I had a chance encounter with poet Shaktipada Nath in Gosaba ferry ghat while I was enjoying my evening tea. He commented looking at me that my face does not resemble that of a Bengali to which I laughed and explained that I am a Bengali from the hills of Megahalaya, Shillong. He next pulled out a copy of a  book of poems from his white bag and gave it to me to read. The titled of the collection was Tabuo Amrita. The collection of verses touches aspects of the socio–political life of people in Sundarbans, Gosaba. His poems cover the lives of  fisher folk, the middle class, migrant seasonal workers, adivasis and the lower classes.  In 2004 he published another collection of verses titled Phele Asha Path. In 2007 he also published a set of poems and rhymes titled Sediner Kotha Ediner Sur that covers historical aspects of Sir Daniel Makkinon Hamiltons school (Gosaba Rural Reconstruction Institute), its teaching staff and ways of learning, teacher student relations. Shaktipada Nath started writing at a very early age. Born in 1947 in Khulna district of present day Bangladesh he migrated to West Bengal in 1952 when he was five years old with his parents. He studied and toughed in Gosaba High School and his collection of people covers nostalgia of his relationship with the school.

His poems published in Bengali present very powerful anecdote challenging the contemporary socio-political scenario in the Sundarbans. His writings capture the melancholy, suffering and politics that affect everyday life in the region. He runs a local literary magazine called Slate. It was first published in 1971 and was restarted after forty years in 2011. Slate is the first literary magazine published from Gosaba. He has also written plays on social life in the region. His monologues contain powerful insight on corruption, morality and public culture. Since 1990 he has published three books on his collection of poems. Shaktipada now spends his time as a retired schoolteacher between Gosaba and Sonarpur in Kolkata where he has managed to build a pakka house. In his professional life he has suffered a lot in recent years being denied pension funds for a mistake that he committed ignorantly on the advice of then Head Master of Gosaba High School. Currently he is engaged in finalizing the proof reading of a book on Sundarban.

Photograph  1 – Front pager of Slate literary magazine published by Indrani Nath daughter of poet Shaktaipada Nath, 2013 edition

Poet Mukunda Gayen lives in Dayapur village in his little mud hut. He was born in Dayapur in 1958. All his children’s are well educated. The Aila cyclone of 1999 devastated his home, books and poem collections. Since then he has not been able to build a pakka house. His simple background is liked by his neighbours yet he keeps himself shy from the public. He has a grand collection of Bangla literature books that he has bought from Kolkata during book fares and some are inherited from his father. He is fond of writing verses, poems, short stories, monologs and has contributed papers in edited books. His poems and monologs address the pain and suffering of the underclass. He has written many verses that discuss humanitarian issues of communities who are never cared by the state. He makes an important distinction between the state and Samaj. State according to him restricts mobility, samaj does not. His poems brings up a different taste to the reader as he introduces the voice of the local communities in his writings. He also edited a literary magazine titled Krondoshi that was published quarterly from 1979-1981. Due to poor financial situation the publication could not be continued.

Mukunda da never attended high school but his poems and short stories are so well written that it captivates the very essence of subaltern rural life. His poems have a colloquial touch as he deliberately uses the local dialect of the Sundarban (Khulna dialect). In his spare time he draws sketches and sells insurance policy for living. He loves to smoke biri as he has little income to buy cigarette. His ambition in life is to work like the great Bengali poet Jivanananda Das who never boasted on his virtues and led an unknown life. Mukunda da is also very romantic and is care free about his future. He loves reading Voltaire, Tagore, Kafka and Manto. Sunil Gangopadhayay, Maheswata devi, Chinmoy Guho, Medha Patkar and Arundhoti Roy are his great friends and string of inspiration. He has published a book of verses titled Att Poura Jivaner Kabita in 2000. He has also contributed poems to Bengali literary magazines like Parbantar edited by Partha Bandopadayay, Kabita Simanto edited by Dipen Ray, Bulletin edited by Late Souvik Chakraborty, He has also written short stories in Kalodhoni edited by Prasanto Bandopadayay, Bhoumnadho Sagar edited by Jaya Mitra and in the well circulated Desh Patrika. In 2013 he published his second set of poems Bikashbabu O Bikashbabu that challenges the very politics of development carried out by the state and its various agencies in agrarian rural Sundarban.

Mukunda Gayens uncle Mr Murari Gayen was a very influential person in Dayapur village. He had a grand personality and was successful in rehabilitating the Bengali refugees in Renuka Colony. He was a local level leader of the Congress Party in Dayapur village and the colony was named after the then Relief and Rehabilitation minister Renuka Choudhury. Mukunda has recently contributed an article on Murari Gayen’s life and struggle in the Sundarbans. He has also submitted a set of three- manuscript on his poetries that is in the pipeline for publication. These poems have a unique place in Bangla literature as they speak the voice of people who are voiceless and are subject to deprivation and marginalization by the state and the Bhadrolok Samaj of Kolkata.

Poet Supobitra Pradhan runs a small printing press in Gosaba. Mokanda da introduced me to his work. For many years he has been running a literary magazine titled Lobonakto that stopped due to the financial reasons. In his spare time he writes poems. He has written poems on the Aila and on other social issues like water scarcity in Gosaba.  Supobitra’s father came to Gosaba in 1930s and joined the Hamilton Estate as a schoolteacher. He has been an ardent follower of the lower classes and his poems captures social issues concerning everyday life of people living in these islands. His poems brilliantly bring out the sentiments of the subaltern.

Poet Vinod Bera is an eminent and senior most poet from Rangabelia in Gosaba block. He is the only poet of the lower classes from Sundarban whose poems have entered the Calcutta University Bangla Department syllabus. His home was completely destroyed by the Aila cyclone and the river flowing beside his house has nearly eroded all his agricultural fields. He has written hundreds of poems on several issues regarding life and culture of the communities inhabiting the islands in the Sundarbans. I interviewed poet Vinod Bera during my stay in Gosaba. He showed me a book of verses on Aila that was published in 2011. He has written on different subjects that span from Gautam Buddha to peasant life in the Sundarbans. He reveals in his interview the social degeneration of the people in these islands. He observed that real development comes through character building. His poems contain strong reflection on morality in public life. He first came to limelight through the collection of short poems titled Mira o Moumachi- a collection of romantic verses. He subsequently published Chota Gorer Swapno in which he shows life struggle of the underclass in Sundarbans. Besides this he has published hundreds of poems and articles reflection on life and struggle of the marginalised peasant, honey collector and fisher folk in the Sundarbans.

My interaction with these luminaries of Sundarban has been an important moment in my fieldwork. By reading their poems and short stories I could glean the essence of rural life in the region.Given below is an english translation of a poem written by poet Mukundo Gayen just after the cyclone and seawater intrusion of 1995 in Gosaba.

That river is close to my feet

Do you have time to look after me?

When you came to look after us you destroyed us with your fury

Our eyes were covered with dust

Clap to the dry river

You made us aware of the storm

When I pass by your bank, which tells you now to give us your water

When you have destroy our life with salt water

 

Photograph – 2 Cover Page of Mukunda Gayne collection of poems Bikashbabu O Bikashbabu

Photograph  -3  Poet Supobitro Pradhans Labanakta Press billboard in Gosaba Bazar

Dr Debojyoti Das  Research Associate at Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck, University of London

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