the unsevered tongue: modern poetry by bengali women

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the unsevered tongue


modern poetry by bengali women
a bilingual text

poetry by
kabita sinha
vijaya mukhopadhyay
debarati mitra
namita chaudhuri
mallika sengupta
taslima nasrin
mandakranta sen
english renderings by amitabha mukerjee

publisher: nAndImukh saMsad, (Calcutta Book Fair 2005)


kabita sinha (1931-1999)

Versatile poet and literateur. Married author and editor Bimal Choudhury at age 20, against the wishes of her family. Was involved in dissidence movements in the '50s. Addressed issues of woman's place vis-a-vis man in poems like AjIban pAthar pratimA (stone goddess, all my life) or apamAner janya fire Asi (because I crave your insults). Worked for All India Radio for many years, and edited a number of magazines. Also wrote under the pseudonym Sultana Choudhury.



alone like a Goddess

can you pose naked then, chaste Savitri --
not the flighted fairy frozen on temple walls
not Botticelli's distilled desire, Venus seductress
not the abashed arm covering breasts
not nudity as sanctimonious cloak then:
all masks come off, you hold your poise,
relaxed and nude, for all the rest of us.
and now, a second time, for yourself alone
the mirror, eye to eyelashes, yourself
how far you would rise in our eyes then
higher, so high. Entirely out of reach.
to see your dimples we women crane our necks
if you are become God, become a comely sight.
grief, love despair --
come place your hopes on these rouge painted feet
inside your deity-hood, immaculate, high
remote goddess, no worship can touch you now
Savitri, goddess, lonely as only gods can be.


vijaya mukhopadhyay (1939-)

Born in Bikrampur (near Dhaka) in present-day Bangladesh. Vijaya Mukhopadhyay has been writing poetry since her college days in Calcutta. Her poetry is lyrical, with a lingering memory of many yesterdays, as in tumi ele kabitA (poetry: when you come) below, but it can also be laced with a social consciousness, as in puti-ke sAje nA (not you, Puti), which protests the confines of womanhood. As a Sanskrit researcher and educator, she has also written the widely referred mrichhakaTik samAjchitra (1993), which focuses on social aspects in ancient India. Her poetry has been widely translated, including two books in 1994 and 2000. Most recently, she was honoured as the National Poet by Prasara Bharati in 2004.




poetry: when you come

when you come
it rains in my heart
finger trembling like a blade of grass
long-closed doors open
in deep confidence.
when you come it rains
in my heart.

debarati mitra (1946-)

Born and educated in Kolkata, Debarati Mitra is a graduate from Jadavpur University, her work is firmly set in the post-modernist canon, with a lyrical allegory permeating much of her writing. Her delicately nuanced abstractions (e.g. smriti bale kicchu nei (memory, an emptiness) have been widely acclaimed, and she received the Ananda Puraskar in 1995. Much of her poetry evokes haunting surrealist images, as in jungle starwish or onomatopoeia in Tung here. She has a declared dread for all "-isms" and her poetry is largely apolitical on the surface, though many of the metaphors may reflect subtle social issues.




memory, an emptiness

memory, an emptiness
green - you become green slowly
the soul fills with night eyelash dew

tides heave up on new moon night
waxing muddiness, swelling love
I sink in a roiling netherworld
the game starts afresh, making me up
near the crumbling door to the ruins
sound of water all day.
memory, an emptiness
only wet sounds.

namita chaudhuri (1949-)

Studied Bengali from the University of Jadavpur, (which has three of its alumnii in this selection), and is currently a schoolteacher in Kolkata. Her poetry is invested with a srong social sensitivity (see, e.g. jhulan JAtrA, kanyAke), often expressed with a delicate lyricism (fragmented words). With her husband, she is active in the group called Nandimukh saMsad, which participates in a wide range of literary and artistic activity. Has been involved in the Pakistan-India People's Forum, and is a member of the Kolkata International Foundation. As noted earlier, she is also the person responsible for suggesting the idea of this book.






fragmented words I

the broken-wing alphabets
are crying on the stairs
at my touch they shrivel
and shrink. They slither down
breaking into fragments
at the bottom of the flight
lovingly I lift their chin
but they wail louder
what a bother this is
let me shut my door then
but they slip out from everywhere
twisting and turning through fairy tales
breaking stories from newspapers
their ink dripping on my sari
I sit here helpless -
a prisoner
of my own words

fragmented words II

every complete word
carries within it
fragmented words, broken words,
ground smooth into paste words
words that squeeze out of gaps between paragraphs
words that sltther between my skin and yours
words that clamber back,
seeking lost meanings.
words fly out of my mind
recklessly careening in the wind.

however you say it in the end
it’s the same message:
dancing around the fire
we are a roost of birds.

mallika sengupta (1960-)

A professor of Sociology in Calcutta, Mallika Sengupta's poetry is "unapologetically political". Of her writings, she says: "A woman writing poems is always regarded as a ‘woman poet’ and never as a ‘poet’." While a good deal of her writing focuses on women (e.g. khanaa's song , many address broader social issues - e.g. Bhasha or Bengal Son , which worry about cultural infiltration. She is also active in translation and has also written several novels. She received the Sukanta Puraskar in 1998, and is a frequent invitee to literary events across the world.





the drumroll of Centuries -
our hearts beat
with hopes and fears.
blood. battles. poisoned air:
is this our fate?
or will the new century transcend hate?

new generations, changing tastes
salt and pepper and sour and sweet
the melting pot makes culture paste
will Bangla still be heard on the street?

in this world thermo-nuclear bound
in the onslaught of Euro, Dollar and Pound
will Bangla hold up?
our way of life, the way we speak
do we change it all because we're weak?

while we are poor,
and our faults are countless
our love for Bangla
is surely timeless ?

taslima nasrin (1962-)

A brutal honesty and fiery sense of outrage marks the work of Taslima Nasrin, and has made her a name a household word across South Asia and much of the West, but also cultivated fierce enemies in the conservative camps and made her an exile from her native Bangladesh. Her poetry has been reviled as unchaste and vulgar, but has gained a wide audience due to their honesty, sensibility, and relentless protest against the patriarchal constraints on women, (see e.g. ( boundary or ( don't listen, girl! ), and has won the Ananda Puraskar. A gynaecologist by profession, she practised medicine for many years before her literary calling overtook her life. One of the most widely translated Bengali poets, she is also the author of much acclaimed prose, including a series of newspaper columns and an autobiography.





the moment she was conscious
she wanted to look smell feel hear the world
and she made to step out the door
but she was told - No.
these walls are your horizon
this ceiling is your sky.
here -- this bed, these pillows,
this fragrant soap, this talcum powder
this onion, this kettle, this needle and thread
on idle afternoons
these flower-patterns on pillowcases
this is your life.

to see how much life lies beyond
unseen on the other side
she unlocks the back-gate and peeps out
but she is told - No.
look after the courtyard garden
this spinach, this louki-creeper,
every now and then
a yellow rose, a marigold in conical pots.
this swept-clean alcove, this bougainvillea,
this little fragment of soil
this is your all of your world.

mandakranta sen (1972-)

The passion for poetry led her to drop out of the MBBS program at Kolkata Medical College when only the final oral exams were remaining. Published hriday abAdhya meye (unruly girl, my heart), to wide acclaim in 1999, becoming the youngest recipient of the Ananda Puraskar the same year. Also awarded the Young Writer award from Sahitya Akademi in 2003. Along with her husband Also edits the magazine briShTidin. Poetry reflects original creative conjunctions of everyday experience which is the hallmark of all fine poetry. Some of her poems included here, (e.g. sharta deal with themes such as desire or loneliness.




nights with my TV

some days are just terrible
I hug the TV and take it to bed
channels churn through the night
chanting incantations, throwing
        gold dust onto my sight

the fearless youth of the ad
languorous dark eyes, soft hair,
shirt-buttons open, ear-ring. He looks
straight at me, winks slowly.
he lives in my lane,
he will be mine,
if only I drink Coca-Cola tonight.

he sleeps with me in my bed all night
holds me tight in fifteen-second spots.
I caress the smooth skin of the TV
tossing and turning through the channels
Holding my little companionship tight.

about the translator

amitabha mukerjee was born in Bangkok, schooled in Baghdad, Geneva, India, and the US, worked in New Zealand and German, and yet, somehow, he has managed to become a resolute Bengali. After a PhD from the Universiity of Rochester and a stint teaching at Texas A&M University, he joined I.I.T. Kanpur. By day he teaches Computer Science and researches in the area of Computer Vision and Natural Language Processing. By night, he writes. This book is his first.


contents     preface     gloss of culture words

Bengali text printed with permission. English text copyright amitabha mukerjee 2005