A superstar poet is just as much an oxymoron as a wealthy poet. Since a literary critic, in spite of her nosey detective instincts, has access only to a writer's words and not their bank records, it is difficult to say whether the Bengali poet Joy Goswami is the latter. That he is the former, however, is borne out in the rich tribute paid to him by Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, in his film All Characters Are Imaginary (Shob Choritro Kalponik). The film is about a man who is terribly and stereotypically a 'poet': absent-minded, lacking in worldly wisdom, social skills, and emotional intelligence, indifferent to his wife and household and yet dependent on her income and housekeeping skills. In keeping with his affinity for casting commercial 'stars' in his films, a business decision he does not hesitate to admit, Ghosh cast Bengal's most popular actor, Prosenjit Chatterjee, as the poet Indranil. But most Bengalis of my generation did not go to see the film for Chatterjee's sake. The superstar who enticed us to buy the theatre tickets was Joy Goswami, arguably Bengal's most loved and popular poet.
Goswami turned sixty this year, and to celebrate his life in poetry, a documentary called Joy at Sixty was produced by Sumit Das. The film, quite self-consciously, structures itself like a Goswami poem, and perfectly illustrates the ways in which his work has infiltrated the public consciousness. Just as Goswami's poems are conversations, in Bengal, the college streets and university canteens are often filled with conversations about his poetry, snatches of which are recorded in Das's documentary: a dialogue between two poets sitting on the grass in Kolkata's Maidan; another in College Street's famous Coffee House, discussing how Goswami single-handedly changed the readership of Bangla poetry; two women reciting his verses and explaining how Goswami's poems changed their lives.
As I watched, I found myself smiling, the harvest of irony—I remembered my father's best friend advising me, as a child, to study hard instead of spending my time reading or writing poetry. "Or do you want to be a Joy Goswami?" he cautioned. Because Goswami, who lost his father early (when the family was still living in Ranaghat, the suburb near Kolkata that gives his poems the tone of far-near) and whose mother was a school headmistress, was a school dropout. He wasn't exactly the kind of role model parents would bring to their child's attention. But by the time I was in college in the mid 1990s, Goswami had become an everyday saint for my friends in the Bangla department. At college functions, his words rang out from loudspeakers, finding their way into the popular consciousness. I heard friends gossip about a respected professor mentioning Shakespeare, Tagore, and Goswami in a joke with the moral: if you want to write meaningful poetry, you shouldn't be wasting your time in this classroom; drop out of college right now.
One poet in Das's documentary remarks that Goswami was singlehandedly responsible for creating a new readership for Bangla poetry in the early 1990s. What he does not say is that this was also the moment when a new India was being created: the arrival of satellite television and the Internet in our homes, the creation of recreational public spaces—all new, even foreign then, to middle-class Bengalis. Introducing new readers of poetry into this milieu was an enormous task, and Goswami set upon it without a manifesto. He wrote for several magazines, not all of them established or well-known. He read poems by amateurs, replied to their letters, quoted them in his essays and editorials. He met young poets at book fairs and when they told him their names, he would quote their own poetry at them, and ask, "So you are the poet who wrote these lines?" He was successfully garnering non-mainstream public attention and affection in the bylanes of Bengali society.
Goswami emerged into the popular consciousness alongside another important Bengali wordsmith, Suman Chattopadhyay. Now known as Kabir Suman, Chattopadhyay is a songwriter, a singer, and Bengal's only public intellectual with a guitar. Both Chattopadhyay and Goswami played an important role in rejecting a bhadralok discourse (bhadralok literally means 'gentlefolk', a mostly upper caste and upper class emerging in the late eighteenth century) by restoring the everyday to poetry. They were, in their different ways, dragging the epic into narratives of dailiness, writing about a thousand Mrs. Dalloways and a thousand different Ramayanas.
Bangla literature—and music—is full of women who represent the muse, or unattainable love: Bonolata Sen, Neera, Ruby Roy, Bela, Nilanjana, and so on. Goswami's women subvert these tropes. The poems "Hamida" and "Olu", translated by Sampurna Chattarji in Harper Perennial's new volume of Goswami's selected works, are manifestos for writing about the kinds of women who are usually left out of history. How is one to write a poem about one's illiterate maid, for instance? First, stop making her anonymous—that seems to be Goswami's dictum. Hamida is the polar opposite to Jibanananda Das's famous Bonolata Sen, an impossibly attractive woman for whom the speaking persona has spent centuries walking; Hamida, on the other hand, walks for you:
Her name is Hamida. She carries the shopping bags.
If you tell her, she'll carry them to your doorstep.
No one calls her by name. The vegetable-vendors, the fish-sellers say:
'Give it to the dark girl, she'll deliver it.' ("Hamida")
So that's Goswami for you. Even if nobody else "calls her by name," he will. The poem continues:
There she comes, through our lane, right behind Kaberi—
Hamida with two bags big and small in her hands [...]
In the small bag the moon. In the big one the spinning earth.
In the big one rivers, trees, oceans, mountains, deserts, slums and cities
Crores of ants, are they people? Like matchboxes
Hundreds of houses
Spin along with the globe. Bursting through the bag the moon
Gleams in the sky. Trampling on space
That dark girl walks on [...]
Look look! Below her feet
Lakhs of lights dance!
Goswami is doing two remarkable things here: first, he is using Jibanananda Das's grandiose historical imagery to talk about the Laura-Beatrice figure of Bonolata Sen. But second, he is displacing this imagery from its museum status and dragging it into the everyday, a bit like carrying a king's throne in a "shopping bag." The last lines are reminiscent of a popular devotional by Kazi Nazrul Islam, "Kalo meyer payer tawlaye, dekhey ja alor nachon": see the dance of light below the dark girl's feet. In Nazrul's song, the dark girl is the goddess Kali. By giving the dark servant girl a name, by linking the darkness of her skin with that of a goddess, by making her the titular subject of a poem, integrating the moon, rivers, trees, oceans, and mountains into her history, Goswami manages to create a crack in our consciousness, through which he slips the word "slums." By nestling them amongst these sublime geological features, Goswami aligns the "slums" with Das's Vidarbha. The speaker in Das's poem walks the crests of Indian history searching for the woman who exemplifies its golden ages; Goswami's poetic subjects, in contrast, walk through crowded lanes in bazaars, in what modernist poets might recognise as the diminished epic.
My personal fascination for Goswami's work has been primarily with his quiet feminism. Goswami's work is rarely described as feminist, and yet it is undeniably so—especially in his poems about the natural world, in which he refuses to follow the old nature-as-woman trope, prakriti. One important example is the poem "Nando's mother" ("Nando-r Ma"), in which a young woman named Priyobala Das migrates from East Pakistan to Kolkata to work as a maid. Generations of female domestic workers in Bengal have been defined by their motherhood: either their names are elided with those of their firstborns, or they are called "mashi," meaning "maternal aunt." Priyobala Das loses her identity in the process of moving, now known only as "Nando's mother." Goswami's domestic metaphors move with the uncertainty of migrants in his poems about the historical events that transformed Bengal. Meanwhile, his brilliant poems about houses often transform space by viewing them as an extension of the women living in them. Take the poem "Cauldron," which details an old house being pulled down:
Since morning two labourers have been coming and going
In front of the veranda
Pans full of sand and stone chips on their heads.
Over the last few days an old house nearby was torn down.
Flats will come up.
And so it continues, detailing the fear of eviction from a familiar space. All this is seen through geological time, one of the constants of Goswami's poetry (and prose), through "supernovas bursting like bubbles" and so on, until we reach the breath-stopping last line:
Where will I live with Kaberi-Bukun?
Or take his poem "Olu":
Olu cooks for us. In this house
If anyone loses anything, let Olu know. Taking down the pressure-cooker
She'll say: Dada's Panjabi? The blue one? It's hanging behind
The bathroom door. Money? Look, there's some in that pocket.
Boudi's sunglasses? On top of the TV. Boudi's eye-medicine,
Bukun-di's college books [...] all of it, everything
Is in Olu's memory.
Many people in the subcontinent make a living by making themselves indispensable as house help. But not everyone has Goswami as an employer. I would use the word 'subalterns' to describe the subjects of many of his poems, if only he saw them that way—he doesn't. For it is at this point in the poem that the poet turns Olu into someone who is no longer chained by misplaced household items. The cook and in-house detective (what else can one call her expertise?) becomes an astronomer, and the house with its missing objects a black hole:
The minute you ask, she'll think a bit
And tell you which quasar has been misplaced by scientists,
Which black hole is where
This refusal to see domesticity and its branches as divorced from the workings of nature and history outside the house gives Joy Goswami's poems their life force. It also derives from his refusal to make a distinction between gharey and bairey, the home and the world. In the poem "Spice grinding," the man who has "come to prepare the spice-grinding slab"
chips away lakes from the body of the slab. Once he's done
It'll be fit to grind spices on.
In towns across the globe
Car-bombs explode—abandoned briefcases, parked scooters
Explode—every day flakes are flung off the body of the earth—
around the slab those aren't shards of stone, they're rows of dead bodies
Their hands and feet torn [...]
Mother Earth, is someone going to grind spices on you?
His expansive tendency to see an ordinary event as part of an epiphanous macrocosm is one of the charms of Goswami's poetry; here, "Mother Earth" herself is a spice-grinding slab. Whether he is writing about time and history at war with each other, about trees and grass, astronomy and the earth, the night sky and its inhabitants, the sun, reptiles and eagles, dead parents and living lovers, money and its siblings, houses and their windows, freedom, or about wood and its skeletons, the shadow of women hides behind all his themes. Reading Goswami's poetry, one has the sense of how it might feel for a man to be a woman. In our times, that will almost immediately be understood as something akin to androgyny, but that is not exactly what I mean. In Goswami, I have that rare sense of being allowed to enter a man's female mind.
But my favourite Goswami poems are the pagli, the poems about the madwoman:
Shanti shanti shanti shanti—when the golden madgirl
sits on the shore eating one sunset after another (Ashes, Burnt by the Sun)
Here comes the mother
Having sold her daughter ...
The mad will roam again, looking for
A drowned world rage sorrow seared (Ashes, Burnt by the Sun).
A mad woman has been sitting at the ghat
For such a long time after her bath (Ashes, Burnt by the Sun).
And then there is his most famous madwoman poem, not included in this collection. It is titled "Pagli, tomar sathey," meaning "Madwoman, with you," which opens thus:
Madwoman, with you I'll spend a fearful life [my translation]
No matter how many times I read these poems, I am always left asking myself two disturbing questions: is this poem about someone like me? Am I mad? For in Goswami's world, the madwoman does not live in the attic. She is you and I, the woman a lover takes to bed, to the theatre, to the dust and the storm, to Shyambazar and to proofreading sessions, and so on. It is this everyday quality of madness that gives Goswami's poetry so much of its energy.
He finds it everywhere—the madness of tradition and the madness of individual talent. Madness in his favourite poets, Rabindranath Tagore and Jibanananda Das and Shakti Chattopadhyay. The madness that turns a companion into a competitor; the madness that attends the uncertainty of ending a poem; the madness that has turned poetry into a consumer product; the madness of migration, between nations and between genres. As I read through Sampurna Chattarji's affectionate and efficient translation of this selection of Goswami's poems, I was grateful to her for having preserved that madness; for, while sanity might bind us as a community, it is the specificity of our madness that makes us unique. Bangla's vernacular energy is difficult to communicate, especially when translating a poet as creative with new expressions as Goswami. I was inspired to look up the Bangla when I encountered the expression "worry-water" in the poem "Escape Route," and to find out what had given birth to the English expression"mygoodness! my god!" But Goswami finds a great relative and interpreter in Chattarji, as this poem of her own illustrates:
Faithful as mirrors,
I give him back the lines
he might have written from my side of the mercury-sheet,
the sheen that films our eyes
and reflects us,
each the exact inversion of the other.
No explanation for madness. ("Translations")
Madness is the sixth sense in Joy Goswami's poems and I am grateful that they come to us in English through someone who also finds madness in her own everyday: in the act of translating poetry.