Subhankar Das is a writer, publisher and film producer living in Kolkata, India. He has published fourteen collections of poetry in Bangla though his most recent collection The Streets, the Bubbles of Grass, is published in English by his arts collective, Graffiti Kolkata. He has translated Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish into Bangla and is the editor of the stark electric space..., an anthology of international experimental writing. He has produced six short films and owns a bookstore.
DH: Tell us about your background. When did you start writing poetry?
SD: There is a saying in Bangla – ‘once a bone got stuck in a tiger’s throat’ – which I would recreate as, or I would prefer to say, remix it as – ‘once a tiger got stuck in a bone’s throat’ – and I do not remember when I got trapped in the bones of poetry. I remember only the poem I wrote and received a second prize for at the age of nine, mixing Hindi words in a Bangla rhymed poem.
I was born in 1963 in Kolkata, also known by its old name, Calcutta. I was the youngest among two brothers and a sister. My father was a descendent of a family of Zemindars, or landlords, of Midnapore, a village about 100km from Kolkata. Zemindars generally held considerable tracts of land and had the worst reputation as landlords for their cruel behaviour towards the bonded labourers working for them.
My father left home due to a feud about his love marriage and went to re-establish himself as a small businessman in Kolkata with his wife and one-year-old son, my elder brother.
My parents were never bothered about literature, let alone poetry. But they had a love for myth, fable, allegory and legends, which was a blessing for me. One of my grandmothers could recite by heart the rhymed and the most colourful epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata, each consisting of thousands of pages. It still remains the most surreal moment of my childhood.
My parents wanted me to become an engineer and forget about my Zemindary blood. So I became an engineer but one fine morning I was disgusted, though ‘disgusted’ isn’t a strong enough word to describe the feeling that I had to do more than hate corporate society and those powdered beasts who knows nothing about nothing, sitting in an air-conditioned room acting the Big Boss. I was told not to think but to act according to orders. So I left after six months and started writing poetry seriously, working on and off at odd jobs from selling insurance to compressor spare parts, or acting as sales boy in my father’s shop, selling underwear and children’s wear. After my father’s death I changed this shop to a bookstore, which I still own.
When did you start publishing poems?
The first rhymed poem for which I received the second prize was published with the other poets in a special issue of a commercially printed magazine. It was just like all the special issues of these kinds of magazines: hundreds of pages of glossy coloured printed papers and coming out to coincide with a particular festive calendar date to maximise their sales. You might also sometimes get a free issue with your new washing powder.
So my first poetry was printed in a commercial magazine from a publishing group in Kolkata whom I later learned to hate, when I saw how they turned creative writers into slaves and how a good fiction writer became a sports journalist, or a poet turned into a gossip columnist. I preferred to remain an author of the little magazines in the Bangla language which believe in a free literary flow that advocates the liberty and individuality of authors. All the off-the-beaten-track writing in Bangla is published chiefly in little literary magazines, nearly 2 200 in number.
An editor of a little magazine called Samprotik Uttaran was planning a new look for his magazine and requested me to join as an editor. For years I worked for that magazine doing lot of translation work. My first chapbook of poems, Songs of a Damaged Brain (1987), was published by this little magazine during that period.
Who are your favourite poets? What have you learned from them?
They are Jibanananda Das, the Bengali poet of the ’30s, and Allen Ginsberg, the US beat poet. Jibanananda Das was the first modern poet of Bangla literature, whose poems still work inside psychosomatically, a kind of gut feeling, keeping wit and intelligence aside. ‘Don’t put all importance on the head – the intelligence and wit’ – Subhash Ghosh, a Hungryalist prose writer of the ’60s, often told us. ‘Only when the body reacts psychosomatically, only then the language, your tool of expression, is successful.’ This I felt in Jibanananda’s works. I learned the distress of words from him. The dark side of the moon. How important a comma or a full stop can be.
In Ginsberg I learned the use of materialistic spoken words, how the local becomes global. Stripping the extra ornaments of the language to create that evocative prosaic language. I still remember that comment of his which goes more or less – 'in my poem the length of the line depends on the size of the paper'. It is also very interesting to note that poems written by Ginsberg after his India visit are composed in the breath-span of mantras, pranayamas. The basis of his later belief in good and bad vibrations is also these mantras of the east. This postmodern attitude of understanding local as global attracts me towards him more. I have also translated Ginsberg’s great poem Kaddish into Bangla.
The anthology you published recently, the stark electric space... looks back in to the Hungry Generation, or Hungryalist movement, in India in the 1960s. To what degree has this movement influenced your work and outlook?
The Hungryalist movement made a big difference in the attitude of the Bangla literary scene, though I always felt that any kind of movement finally aspires to a kind of regimentation, you know, closed groups where the freedom of the authors needs to be sacrificed to keep the movement going.
In a recent conversation with Malay Roychoudhury (a founder of the Hungryalist movement) I asked about this and he said: ‘Don't think in terms of your knowledge of the movement in western literature. The hungryalist movement did not have a centre of power, high command or politbureau. Anyone and everyone were free to join the movement just declaring himself that he was a Hungryalist. In fact some of the later Hungryalists are not known to me even today!'
But I still feel because of this pressure of being a closed group, not recognising the later Hungryalists, and the possbility of a high command or leadership arising, helped this movement to fizzle out. But that does not demean their defiance, their experimentation with forms but retaining the content vehicle, and the expression of subjective personal feelings in their texts. These aspects really influenced me and I knew that an anthology of indie writers without their participation would always be incomplete.
What’s your typical way of composing a poem? Where do you usually get inspiration from?
It happens usually like this: a word, sometimes even a complete sentence, haunts my mind for days until finally I write it down. Then follow it up with more words. This is a typical and common process for short poems. But for long poems there is always research work. Sometimes a historical background might shape a sentence or a word.
For example, with my long poem ‘By the banks of Ajoy, Jaideb vanishes into the blue’, I must name three books which were a motivation behind it: Who was Sinclair Beiles? edited by Gary Cummiskey and Eva Kowalska, The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller and The poetry of Mr Blue by Henry Denander. Also the different nuances of the word ‘Hydra’ was haunting my mind for days. Hydra, the island in Greece, was once a bohemian hangout, but was also the Greek mythological water beast with nine heads. I was also thinking of an almost mythical poet of Bengal, Jaideb, whose house was by the banks of Ajoy where every year till today a village fair is organised in his memory. Baul saints sing all night in praise of the love of Krishna and Radha during this fair. The faith of the people makes the love myth between Krishna and Radha continue living. In addition to this, I thought of the parents who name their child Jaideb today – do they know who this Jaideb was? I find the whole situation very magical and poetic and it urges me to write.
I think first thought is the best thought. So I do not believe in many revisions, though my favourite poet Jibanananda not only believed in revisions, he even reworked his proofs, making his printer’s life hell.
To me, a poem is not an arrangement of words. On the contrary, it is sweat, hair, sputum, phlegm, bile – everything is there in a poem. My anger, sorrow, pain, desperation, sentimentality, loves – all are there in that bone of poetry. I just arrange those pieces of bone when I feel like. When the urge comes I write, when it is not there, I don’t. The same goes for the publishing of the poems as well.
Tell us about your arts collective, Graffiti Kolkata.
The name of our publication in Bangla is Graffiti and we have published a great deal – more than a hundred titles and more than 100 issues of our literary magazine in Bangla, which includes my poetry volumes and translation work, along with more than 30 other alternative writers in Bangla in this last 18 years of our journey.
In about 2004 we started experimenting with the audio-visual medium, in the process making six short films. That is when we started translating Bangla works into English for subtitling these films to communicate with the non-Bangla speaking spectrum. Even in India, Bangla is a regional language only and I have lot of friends who do not speak or understand Bangla, so there was a need to bridge this gap.
We started a blog called Graffiti Kolkata in about 2008. It is a publication in English that features poems from writers from around the world and our first English publication in print was the anthology the stark electric space... in 2010 and then the poetry chapbooks, the Graffiti Kolkata Broadsides etc.
I have got funding from my left, right and back pockets. Though there are some funds available for poetry it come with lots of political colours, both right and left, which we do not subscribe to. We love to stay independent. Dreams and the agony of life is the inspiration … for us Graffiti is a movement … Graffiti is a lifestyle … it’s a pathway of our dream … it’s a protest against the consumerism of thought … and now we have friends worldwide who also believe in this independence of thought and creation.
What is the poetry scene like in Kolkata?
The poets who started writing poems in Bangla in the 1980s and after, in addition to the creative unrest had to identify themselves with what was happening around them: assassinations, terrorism, Maoists, corruption etc. As a result, linguistically and expressively their writings became a different phenomenon in comparison to commercial writing.
Bangla literature has a big market when you take into account Bangladesh – a country whose main language is Bangla and is just half an hour by air from Kolkata.
So to capture this market, huge capital is invested and there is a market for literature as well. Against the backdrop of such a scenario, indie writers fight a war of words. They do not get reviews in the big commercial magazines and newspapers. A large number of readers have not even heard of them.