UTPAL KUMAR BASU:: Nomadic Urban
An introduction to Utpal Kumar Basu's poetry
Utpal Kumar Basu is a poet from the 1950s generation (b 1936) whose work has received great attention since the birth of a Bengali postmodern consciousness. Utpal's oeuvre is as wide and vivid as his travels. His poetic craft is quietly iconoclastic in its deglorification of the artistic position of the poem. At the same time, the poem carefully allows for retention of poetic speech and valor. A world, as if seen through the eyes of a migratory bird, where nature exists amidst its wastefulness and tribes of a lesser people punctuate his imagery. One critic calls his poetic language "mashed" while another describes it as "nomadic".
The travel poems of Basu's second collection titled "Puri Series", published in the 1960s, represent some of his best work which bring out the spirit of the domestic explorer suspended in a thoughtfulness that has evoked much interest amongst scholars and young followers. In a neo-realistic exploration, the search for a heterotopic cross-cultural flux is underway. Utpal Kumar Basu often achieves this through the unsentimentality and witty documentation of his travel journals. Others have noted the interplay of folk-culture, demographical and statistical elements that seem to accentuate his postmodern aura.
Utpal Kumar Basu met Allen Ginsberg in Kolkata in the early sixties and shared a great friendship with the feisty poet. Basu sided with the Hungryalist poets in the early 1960s and gave up a decent teaching job at a state college in Kolkata refusing to sign an apology for his association with the Hungryalists. The Hungryalist poets were written about in a 1964 issue of Time Magazine. Having lost his job, Basu took a trip to England, France and other Eurasian countries in the late 1960s working part-time jobs and travelling incessantly. His poetry took a temporary pause but the experience gathered shaped his much talked about nomadic style.
A handful of Basu's poems, signatorial of his style, are presented here.
Selected Poems :: Utpal Kumar Basu
Puri Series - 1
The sky is blue now. I rest
On the seashades like Arjun trees.
With loads of cigarette tins the rusty leaves,
With sand and torn newspapers
With the waving soulfuls
Veiled rallies of millions
These blue waves.
O’ widowed white lacklustre, the gulls
You discard from the prison of sunshine
Its sequence of bars
Through the bars you drop them on the
Yearning forests of garlanded ridges
My brain, addiction, consciousness
All in the hands of
Nuns and monsignors now.
Puri Series - 4
Take note, these beaches have been used to excess.
If you’ll notice, the smooth iron cage is now rough from sandrub.
Once it was far fancier than the cockatoo.
The ancient linguist obsessed with double meanings was more garrulous
You almost mistake him for an ultra-modern and
Every house on the beach feels habitable –
Children don’t play with sand castles like ivory tusks.
They have grown. They don’t expect from their kids anymore.
Termites feed on pages of arithmetic. But the waves
return all of what you gave them. The sea’s unreasonable
prestige – that’s all.
Puri Series - 8
Lets go back to the coastal suburbs. Cheap, delicate
country of vegetables. Sit in the tree shade and think about it.
Your pointer can take us further than that. Hold the child’s
pointer and pull him farther, even to the draughtland of the year,
acute famine, revolting unemployment, lets mingle in the
crowd of politicians who have the farmer on the chopping block.
We have little time to spare, moreover, the more we let it pass
it dwarfs. Lets jump on to ride it, else it’ll continue
to diminish into stupidity, into oblivion. When riding a dwarf,
don’t ask how to analyze a poem. Enjoy this country of
cheap and delicate vegetables, eat well, make merry,
detectives aren’t eyeing you. Just try to make some room
for poetry, at least it is good to know if these are
useful and habitable. Maybe you could edit the fish
in this coastal suburb. I need the horse.
A Portrait of Nature (1963)
I write these letters for illiterate  prostitutes in this desolate ’63,
Mariam, in your garden, in your cottonyard, the god-sent donkey
strolls alone, these illiterate prostitutes, I write letters for them
without old-fashioned landlords and their middlemen beside the
dense grove in this desolate ’63 is anyone peeking at my irrisible
reading game, this tense self-doubt, are you sure Mariam it is not
understood at this dawn when I can hear the swan by the window
stream, it pecks at its own feathers comparing with my white
shawl, the god-sent donkey still grazing in the cottonyard and my
feet getting caught up in the lightning vines, in a wink I notice the
feces of a lower god in the woods.
Last poem of this collection
Next, your private spring slippers resting in the grassy woods and
the sky is as real as the blue shirt and pajamas god's children wear.
Only a lonesome peacock on the second floor. That used to be Sajal's room.
The room of his daughter and wife. They've left, past the rice-mill.
Now spring returning to these unpotential hills and woods, an advancing spring
In the unpromising river-bay, two men still looking for copper and mica
You've lost your private slippers in these nuthills.
You've lost your personal oeuvre in these nuthills.
All poems translated from Bengali by Aryanil Mukherjee.
Ah youth (He Jouban, beng.)
You had dreams of settling down
I built sandcastles all along- and today
They've perished in the rain.
Ah, my disillusioned youth
The warmth of tears shall enlighten you
Morose nights have teemed the borders - you presumed
That the loved is as lovely as love itself-
Death would shed her pious blood on the roots of decaying dead trees
And thus allover the terrains
Your call solemnly resounds.
On unknown lands and their darkness, the moon hasn’t yet shined
And only I would deserve a seat in constricted caves- Ah, youth
Before everything just entwine me with your follies
And give the faith that one, who can be loved
Is as beautiful as love itself!
Nature (Prakriti, beng.)
And when dismayed I hovered in nothingness, where were you, oh where oh
And when I was seed amongst the grass, where were you, oh where, oh
After the bonfire, wild grasses have filled the air
Those fruits which ripened in darkness, they too flapped their wings
Cow-bones burned in darkness… white lines of sheep-wool…
Wings of white vultures…
After the bonfire, scorpions danced on the rocks
And when on the mountains, the army set their camps…
Where were you so far away?
And when I was an egg in duck’s womb, where were you so far away
After the bonfire, wild geese float on the springs…
For long no rains in the mountain, no glaciers, the earth parched
From burnt stones we leap on to holes ablaze, fringes of water
After the bonfire, the man in humans and birds and canines do err…
And when I was as foetus in her womb, nothing there was untrue
Bits of belief, mud, a stretchpath for walking in the woods
After the bonfire I return to the burnt swamps and ashy logs,
On the cracked lanes of life…
Dedication page from Selected Poems (shrestha kabitAr utsargapatra, beng.)
One day, when its time, sit beside these verses
And pull it closer to you, like a broken table and keep a steaming tumbler
On it’s letters. Keep a jar of water and hear a cough or two,
Spit, yawn, close eyes in drowsiness… as if deaf
Doesn’t hear unwanted truths. Lies. And this, it’s witty cunningness
Is recent and without conscience. Doesn’t even bother to know-
who its neighbours are
Or read someone else- It dreads the unknown- and that time
Returned from the sea with a fistful of pebbles… Give him too much of
Petty household choirs. Keep accounts. And make him
toil with futility- unacknowledged
As much as you can- And let me hand you over
That night’s cremation, rituals aftermath, drenched shoots-
Bundles of unused clothes, blind, insanity… Take a look when you can.
Sweet fourteen (Choturdoshi, beng.)
I love your age.
I remember the rocks on which you stand.
All the songs you love, I note them down in my journal
Every day at twilight, the sun’s mighty chariot crumbles in humility-
And far way on the shores,
Creatures of your age play- how good lovers do they make?
Atashi flowers crowd around that illustrative loot.
Dust signs were erased perhaps, you think
Some puzzled poet will once declare
Those flowers aren’t all that fake.
Weak atashi- yet why is
She loud about rumours in the bay.
I return silently, free-swimming. Everyone else follow
The puzzled poet watches it all, from far, far away
All poems translated from Bengali by Debayudh Chatterjee.
Utpal Kumar Basu's photograph: copyright Kaurab