The Poet in Translation: Six Poems by Shankha Ghosh

On the poet’s first death anniversary, Debmalya Bandyopadhyay translates from the Bengali, six poems by Shankha Ghosh.

Ever since I started reading, poetry has remained my metaphorical breadcrumbs to scatter on the path of time. I have learned to mark my days, weeks, and months with the poems I had read and been moved by, in that temporal span. On that calendar, Shankha Ghosh has appeared again and again, and never failed to surprise me. In Confabulations, John Berger writes, “true translation demands a return to the pre-verbal.” Trying to translate Ghosh’s poems a year after his death, felt like a quest for that pre-verbal imagery that had prompted the words, but without the poet’s presence on my axis. On this quest, the poems I read and reread held my hand, asked me what I found in them, invoked my relationship with the languages I was juggling, and only let me go forward with articulation when they were satisfied with my answers. It was a journey through countless images and a spectrum of emotions that can only fit in a heart as big and complex as that of Shankha Ghosh. There have been times when I have been as lost as a child in a fair, looking for the right words. Surprisingly both the languages I was dealing with came to my rescue, and the line at hand no longer seemed like a leap across the fence that separates Bangla and English, but rather an amalgamation of emotions independent of language.

My first brush with Shankha Ghosh’s poetry was back in middle school- when we had one of his poems in the syllabus. Back then, poetry stood far away and my only concern with it was about scoring well on the literature paper. Some years later, when I had started reading poetry on my own Shankha Ghosh returned to me, but in prose this time. Having read Chhonder Baranda, I was nothing but delighted. Soon after I got my hands on Sreshtho Kobita, and what hit me first was the dimension of his poetry. Here was a poet who had written about such a diverse range of topics, in a language and style that were essentially his own. His work spanned the past and the contemporary, he was everywhere from satire to even nonsense verse. The more I read his poetry, the more I was amazed at his skill and aesthetic. I read about a letter from the late poet Bhaskar Chakraborty to Ghosh, where the former expresses a fervent desire to live with Ghosh for a few days, convinced only that would bring him peace. Had I not secretly wished for the same refuge, under the vast umbrella of his poetry?

Here lies my little offering to the world of poetry that accommodated me with open arms, my effort at translating a poet who had translated so many of my own emotions into words, and never missed the bullseye. 

Words Within Words

Not all, but many seek words within words
You have lost the language of ease. Come,
let us soak ourselves in the rain
and wonder of the solutions water hides.

Having waited, waited, waited still
for the inevitable, the heart has perhaps
gathered folds. 

Do you not have your own language of success?
Why today, do you pile words against yourself?

(Original in Bengali: কথার ভিতরে কথা)

Come, Let Us Stick Together

Landslide on the right
cliff deep on our left
warplanes scurry above
snow leaves the feet bereft
no road left to us
our homes blown to bits
as far reach the eyes
lie the ashes of our kids!
Shall we too fall
prey to this weather?
No escape remains, come –
let us stick together.

Left with no history, or
the only history left
blinds us to eternal
beggary and theft
The world still breathes, perhaps
the world is no more
who would know of us, our
living door-to-door.
Even if it’s all a lie
the few of us who still tether
to life, hand-in-hand, come –
let us stick together.

(Original in Bengali: আয় আরো বেঁধে বেঁধে থাকি)

Waves Inside Emptiness

Did I never say it? I thought I did
Standing here motionless before you-
that says it too.
Because there’s no greater language than a body
that stays silent
Because the body, awake in its figureless revolt
wipes a horizon so vast,
it outruns all the curtains in the world.
Because the fallen flowers, death’s silvery shroud, the last moving tram
have all sought refuge,
haven’t I said it already? Then how did the lilies
leaning at the edge of water
stare all this time?
Have you only learned emptiness? Aren’t you aware
of the waves inside of it?

(Original in Bengali: শূন্যের ভিতরে ঢেউ)


Something is happening inside my body
Doctor, I’m not sure what to call it

The eyes droop heavy at the mirror,
the muscles ache, and
a yellow light burst from within

But that is the twilight glow, can it
be seen in the blood? Can you see it?
Is it even a good thing?

Something is happening inside my body
Doctor, I’m not sure what to call it.

(Original in Bengali: শরীর)


Everyone has left post cremation
the neighbourhood’s asleep
a jackal’s lament next door
An old man wiping bloodstains around his room
murmurs to his loneliness – 

staying awake
even staying awake is a religion. 

(Original in Bengali: বুড়ো)

Babur’s Prayer

Here I kneel, west
spring begs with empty hands
come destroy me if you want, only
let my child dream.

Where hides his clear youth
Where feasts his secret wound!
Great defeat surrounds his eyes
poison in his lungs and veins!

Sing to the nooks of the city
the beckoning of the bleak;
come, freeze me to a stone, only
let my child dream.

Or do this body’s germs of sin
leave no relief for a future?
Do I, with my savage triumphs
lead death into my home?

Or do these bright palatial lights
burn from the bones to heart
and infest the body’s inner sides
with a million brute insects?

Having blessed me with quantity
where would you fit his decay?
Rather destroy me dear Lord, only
let my child dream.

(Original in Bengali: বাবরের প্রার্থনা)

Debmalya Bandyopadhyay is a student of mathematics, poetry, and everything life offers in between. He is most likely to be found adrift in books, cinema, and music. He can be found here.

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