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Book Review: Saubhik De Sarkar’s ‘The Evening Gnome: Selected Poems 1995-2017’

By Nishi Pulugurtha

Title: ‘The Evening Gnome: Selected Poems 1995-2017’
Author: Saubhik De Sarkar
Translated from the Bengali by Dolonchampa Chakraborty & Arka Chattopadhay
Edited by Dolonchampa Chakraborty
Authorspress, New Delhi, 2018. Rs. 295/-

The blurb of the volume of poems under consideration, The Evening Gnome: Selected Poems by Saubhik De Sarkar 1995-2017, says that Saubhik De Sarkar is a poet who has been writing poetry in Bengali for many years now. A translator too, Saubhik’s latest work of translation is that of poems by the Sri Lankan Tamil poet Rudhramoorthy Cheran. Translations are of great importance in making literature available to a larger audience and this is of utmost importance in the case of India where literature in the regional languages is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. The volume under consideration is one such volume that makes available in English poems written in Bengali by Saubhik De Sarkar.

The Evening Gnome: Selected Poems by Saubhik De Sarkar 1995-2017 is a translation of selected Bengali poems from six books of poems written by Saubhik over a period of time. Most of the poems in this volume are from his first two books, Sheet O Bayosandhir Haspatal (‘Winter and Hospital of Adolescence’, 1995), Ekti Mridu Lal Rekha (‘A Mild Red Line’, 2005), with the rest taken from the other volumes,- Jatrabari (2011), Dakhalsutra (‘The Formula of Taking Over’, 2013), Anugato Buffer (‘Devoted Buffer’, 2015) and Punarbashaner Chil  (‘Kite of Rehabilitation’, 2016).

The Preface, by the translator and editor Dolonchampa Chakraborty, draws attention to Saubhik’s involvement with a little magazine, Eroka that was actively part of a movement in poetry known as Sanghoto Kobita Andolan (Compact Poetry Movement). This movement was a strong influence on the poems in Saubhik’s first volume of poems.  The noted poet Alokeranjan Dasgupta writes of Saubhik’s poetry:

Tea-buds gradually release their colour by the astute domestic touch of the Dooars nights to portray a timeless optimism in Saubhik’s poems. Within the strikingly contradictory framework of sun-kissed lips and the stubborn sabotage, an intense greenery is emphasized, an adverse destination turns into a rainbow-coloured road during the rehearsal of monsoon.

Saubhik’s poems bring together movement, energy, pain and suffering, angst, love and sexuality. “A Nameless Verse”, the first poem in the collection, throws up a challenge to reality.

In the extreme magnitude of visibility,
A marginal chattel –
Seeds of buckwheat, snake
Through his parched feet.

Reality and its counter have played an important part in Saubhik’s poetry. As he himself puts it:

Reality irrespective of its time factor is a very linear and dominating instinct. Although life can’t be attributed to reality’s surface value only as it’s multi-layered. I want my poems to explore the layers of these other realities that surround the superficial surface of any common truth.

The poems translated from the first volume speak of political alertness in a manner that seems to be ruthless. They voice hope, fear, sarcasm and doom along with destruction and death. Saubhik’s second volume took a long time in making and has poems that use place names and geography to speak of lived in reality of life. In the poem “Fairy Tales”, he writes:

Wind raced crossing the distressed region
This is the Dalgaon junction!
Here, along with the dead birds are
Our magical words
This is the doomed garden!
Bones of the earth spread here like an incomplete memory.

The prose poems in the volumes allow for a wide range of experimentation in terms of narrative style and use of metaphors. In “The Next Chapter of the Story”, he speaks of ‘unheard songs’ that will form another story:

Maps will take over the next chapter. The winter will turn around before walking the negative road. The thought of submission will make the tongue heavy, thinking of a dead friend, palms will begin to sweat.

Repetitions and the use of words in unconventional ways add to the way images create sensations and express feelings. In “City”, he speaks of language:

An unusual language of comebacks
The language of the oppressed, a language of visuality
The language of excavation is unusual too, that transgressive

Saubhik’s poetry reveals the influence of religious faith, superstitions, folk songs, cultural ideas and beliefs prevalent in the north east. In “Jatinga” he writes:

Identify the one in the black
Demonstrate the relatives of the grasshoppers
Like this
This is how the history of an extinct race lies
   After celebration ends

Jatinga is a village in Assam that is famous for birds ‘committing suicide’. Another poem, “Signs of Travel” evokes magic realism in the way it describes the mundane goings on of life:

How the chopped off hand of Ava Narjinary comes floating by the last sky of Monsoon? How the girls run away through the suicide –tree, infertile rivers? … Fast I’m entering the Sarinda of insane Ava. I’m learning about repentance at the end of a broken song and a broken metaphor, while a newly dependable travel-mark appears to be written off at the end of a coincidental letter.

The poems in The Evening Gnome have been translated by Dolonchampa Chakraborty who also edited the volume. Herself a poet, translator, editor and transcriptionist, she edited Bookpocket, an online Bengali literary journal and The NilgiriWagon, an English literary journal that concentrated on translation. Arka Chattopadhyay who is the other translator of the poems is a translator and co-editor of Ashtray and Baak. Both translators have done a wonderful job of translating and collating some of Saubhik’s best poems into English making heard the voice of a contemporary poet whose work reverberates with social concerns.

Many of the poems translated retain the Bengali word used. “India, Fifteenth August” speaks about the breaking of dawn:

Winter Shiulis are returning one by one
Give them words
If they say something!

In “On the Way of your Migration,” he speaks of letters that talk and reach out. It speaks of angst and despair that have worn out the speaker:

In disguise of being busy all these days I’ve played in the holes of trees. Laden with cinnabar, I’ve been able to identify the strange words like kaalsaap and baastu ghughu.

Poetry is all about moments, feelings and expressions and the translators have done a commendable task in bringing to the fore a voice that speaks of social concerns, of nothingness, of solitude, of life and its associations with poignancy and hope that seems to tear out in spite of all the bleakness and morbidity. Mounted well, the slim volume is moderately priced and edited with a crispness and finesse.

Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor, Department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College, Kolkata. She is an academic with varied interests and writes on travel, too. Twitter: @nishipulu


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