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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Everyman rhymesters of Bengali literature

Sukumar Ray

s there anyone who hasn't encountered a "Please-listen" poet at least once in his life? This kind of well-meaning and thoughtful person, with a poem for every mood and every good, who gives the expression "well-versed" a completely new angularity, will usually hold you by your hand when you are about to get into the toilet or a bus. His urgency is as brimful as yours, only you speak a different language.

In Siliguri, this small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal where I live, many residents would be familiar with the figure of Chandan-da, a bearded man with deep set eyes. He is ageless — both his hair and his beard might be dyed black, the skin around his eyes might be a little tired from holding all the sights that have passed through his eyes, but his voice is unmistakably energetic. His daughter and I were batch mates. Her name is Happy — it is as if Chandan-da's joy and delight in life had to find an expression in her birth and baptism. But all this I discovered much later.

My first meeting with Chandan-da (and he is Chandan-da to everyone, irrespective of age or affiliation) was at my wedding reception. He had been my father-in-law's student many decades ago, and from there had slipped into what is known in India by that very Karan Johar film like expression, "family friend". He gave me a sheaf of handwritten poems as a wedding gift – I was flattered. Who took the trouble to do that, after all? Soon that daze would lift – I would find him at bus stops, holding people by the hand and reciting rhymes against Dunkel and Duckworth Lewis, or about Saurav Ganguly and Jyoti Basu. I would pity both – the creator of the rhymes and the listeners, their faces creased with the desire to escape from this tight grip of poetry.

angla literature is full of Chandan-da like characters. One appears in a book extremely popular with children – Sukumar Ray's Pagla Dashu. In the story Aschorjo Kobita, a new boy joins Pagla Dashu's class. His name is Shyamlal, and he declares "I can write poetry" (that word occurs only in English all through the story), to which a few immediately retort that they too had written a lot of poems in their "childhood" (this is an interesting answer, one that makes poetrifying as easy and natural as doll's play). The next two pages of the Signet Press book detail the harassment that Shyamlal inflicts on his classmates. Sukumar Ray insists that such rhymesters be punished, for when a school inspector visits the school and everyone in class begins reading his poem to impress the man, there is chaos and commotion all around. The chorus of bad verse leads to the head master punishing all the poets in class. 'You've caught the poem writing bug? Do you know the cure for this disease?' he asks. For the next one month, the rhymesters copy out a four line verse in their notebooks as punishment. They return cured from "kobita".

Sukumar Ray insists that such rhymesters be punished, for when a school inspector visits the school and everyone in class begins reading his poem to impress the man.

Does that mean that compulsive poeticising would lead to disaster? If Sukumar Ray's schoolboy-poet brings the school down with his rhymes, there is Bhola (his name meaning 'innocent') in a Bangla folk tale ("The Poetry Contest", Folk Tales of Bengal, Children's Book Trust) who finds his life changed by his ability to make rhymes meet. Bhola is an orphan who is chased out of his house by his uncle and aunt for being a good-for-nothing. He soon meets a group of people who turn out to be "serious" poets who are on their way to participate in a "poetry contest" organised by the king. Bhola, who has never composed a poem in his life, realises that he is "totally incapable of making up rhymes on abstract subjects. He could only make them about what he saw". His factual descriptions about their balding heads and pot bellies disturb the serious poets and they warn him against such compositions. Poor Bhola now turns to his surroundings and begins describing things to fit into rhymes. When he recites his collection of events of the previous day –

Digging away as hard as you can.
Drinking water from a pan!
Is it easy to crawl and creep?
And so, you are trying to peep!
Think I don't know what you want?
Krishna's brother, Chandrakant!

– the king cannot "understand" the "simple" poem, especially because it stands out as a contrast to the 'serious' poems by the other poets. It so happens that Chandrakant is the name of a thief who has managed to dig a tunnel right into the king's bedroom. From the mouth of the tunnel he hears the king muttering Bhola's rhyme to himself. Thinking this to be the king's knowledge about Chandrakant's actions, he surrenders to the king. Bhola is, of course, appropriately rewarded for what the king (and the thief) believes to be a prescient poem. He speaks in rhymes for the king, and everyone except Chandrakant lives happily after.

Bhola and Chandan-da belong to that increasingly rare tribe of people who lived life like professional amateurs, poetasters living on the hyphen. In a world where rhymes sell products, on television and on trains, it will perhaps not be too impertinent to ask why our politician-poets inevitably choose to write rhyming poems, even when the end rhymes sound odd as in "Darjeeling-darling-charming".

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