Samar Sen beyond 100 Years!
by Bibekananda Ray
Frontier | Vol. 49, No.39, April 2 – 8, 2017
Samar Sen. Source: Frontier
He was born 100 years ago in British India on 10th October 1916, in a cultured middle-class family of Bagbazar (Bishwakosh Lane), his father and grandfather, born in East Bengal, were professors. In 1916, Kolkata ceased to be the capital of British India. Delhi wrested the glory in 1911. The British afterglow was still very bright in the city, as it harked back to the commercial ethos that Job Cbarnock endowed it in 1692. His mother died in 1928, when he was 12; three years later his father remarried to his shock. A literary atmosphere prevailed in their home in Bagbazar, with Rabindrapath’s influence being the strongest. Rabindranath wrote to him 14 letters, the last on 20th August 1930. To grandfather, Prof Dinesh Chandra Sen, writer, collector of Bengali folklore and chronicler of Bengali literature, the poet wrote 56 letters across 41 years.
His unique idiom and sensibility were evident in his first published poem, a love lyric, at the age of 17 when he was studying Intermediate Arts, in an international students’ magazine, Shri Harsha : “You are sitting/ quietly beside me; / I am sitting too, / my blood coursing merrily. / You are sitting too, / the night’s love is awake in your eyes. / I’m sitting, / my eyes trembling with the dawn’s crimson hope” (translation mine). This was very different from Tagore’s and his contemporaries’ poetry, many of whom were under the spell of the elder poet and wrote poems, using his imagery and idiom. Buddhadev Bose who published his first poems in Kabita wrote, when most poets were unable to shake off Tagore’s influence, “this young poet has never been under the influence of Rabindranath”. In old age, Rabindranath wrote to Buddbadev Bose that he could not understand much of poetry of the new generation; he could understand Bishnu Dey’s lines but not when they were put together, i.e., the whole poem, whereas he liked Samar Sen’s poems.
In 1937, his interest in Leftist politics surfaced, when he addressed an election meeting in Asansol in support of the veteran CPI leader, Bankim Mukherjee. In 1938, along with Buddbadev Bose, Kamakshi Prasad Chatterjee, Bishnu Dey, Jyotirindra Maitra and Chanchal Chatterjee (translator of ‘Divine Comedy’), he went to Santiniketan, where the poet regaled them with light-hearted talks and humour. In 1940, not finding a job in Kolkata, he went to Contai in Midnapore and taught English for about two months in P K College. In October that year, he went to Delhi to teach in Commercial College. Next year, on 28th April, he married Sulekha Sen, a Kolkata girl. In 1942 he published, a slim volume of his prose writings, Nana Katha, containing his highly original literary comments, published in Buddhadeb Bose’s Kabita, Parichay and Shanibaarer Chithi, edited by Sajani Kanta Das.
Rabindranath was older than him by 55 years. In 1916, when he was born, Tagore had become a household name in Bengal after winning the Nobel Prize for ‘Song Offerings’ (Geetanjali) in 1913. His family magazines and Prabasi that published his prose and poetry were well-circulated. His songs were sung mainly in his family circle and admirers in Santiniketan. When Sen got into his teens, Tagore’s songs began to come on radio, launched and run by the Indian Broadcasting Company from 1927 and from 1930 and its successor, All India Radio by early exponents like Pankaj Mallik; they also featured in sound-added movies, called ‘talkies’ from 1931. When Sen began writing poems that were published from 1933, the poet was 72 and living in Santiniketan where his primary school had become a university, Viswa Bharati over a decade. His ‘adolescent’ poems in Bose’s Kabita magazine were so striking that in an article (believed to be by Edward Thompson), “A Land made for poetry; New India’s hopes and fears” in prestigious Times Literary Supplement, two of his poems in English translation and comments on them were included. His first collection of poems, Kayekti Kabita (1937) was published by Bose, in his fifth year in MA Class and the second, Grahan by himself in 1940; he sent both to Rabindranath. In his second and last letter in Bengali, dated 15th March 1940 to Sen (17 months before his death), the poet remarked : “the new frontier, to which your poems are going, is unknown not only to me but to common readers; few will appreciate them. Our literary tastes are not of your age”. Although the 79-year-old poet seemed to be cold to his poetry, Sen was effusive about Rabindranath’s novels. In his Bengali autobiography, Babu Brittanta (1978), he narrated how his ‘arrogant’ comments on the poet in youth gave way to a realisation that he was a ‘great poet’. A year after the poet’s death, on 17th October 1942, he wrote to Bose that he was amazed, reading Rabindranath’s early novels. “He wrote the greatest novels of Bengali literature up to Yogayog (1929), in these, as Sudhindranath Datta wrote, one could sense the ‘inner personal self’ of the poet but from Shesher Kabita, individualism (byaktiswaatantra) got the better of him and from then on, the quality of his novels declined”.
Samar Sen inherited his father’s and grandfather’s admiration for Rabindra-nath but was not quite influenced by him. He wrote no novel or stories like the elder poet. The poet wrote to him two letters; on 30th April 1938 and 15th March 1940 and Sen wrote four in reply, the last on 11th March 1940 i.e., 19 months before the poet’s death. In his first, written after he had returned to Kolkata with five friends, Rabindranath wrote, he might not have appeared ‘serious and sombre’ to them but one who revelled in light-hearted jokes and laughter. In the second, he wrote “I am not familiar with the ‘frontier of poetry’ that you were travelling toward, not only he but common lovers of poetry too; therefore, his poems will delight only a few. It is certain that until the appreciation of your poetry widens, they will be confined to connoisseurs. I admit that our appreciation is different from that of your generation but I bless you!” Sen had sent his first collection, ‘Kayekti Kabita’ (1937) to the poet before going to Santiniketan, next year. In his second letter, the poet referred to his second anthology ‘Grahan’ (1940).
From 1961 to 1963, when this writer were studying English literature in Calcutta University, Samar Sen was a Bengali echo of T S Eliot who influenced poets of his generation enormously. Even Rabtndianath liked his poems and translated his ‘Journey of the Maggi’. Sudhindranath Datta used to write on him often in Parichay but only Samar Sen and Bishnu Dey imbibed Eliot’s sensibility and poetic style. By 1939, when Sen passed MA in English literature from Calcutta University, Eliot’s major works have been published; his famous literary criticism, poetry (including ‘The Waste Land’) and four plays (up to ‘Family Reunion’) were available in Kolkata and read by aspiring and well-known poets. Sen must have read them too and Eliot’s existential anguish during and after the First World War found echo in his and Bishnu Dey’s poetry, unless known or told, lines such “Spring will descend, here soon,/ Green and wayward spring,/ But in the fatigue of clerks on bicycles/ Day after day/ The slow moments of clock’s hands die./ Time passes here in pains of a dead dog before a dustbin./ Will spring descend here, someday,/ Green and wayward spring; / will the love of a saccharin-sweet girl fade, some day?/ The spring of April today/ is like a bright and hungry jaguar” sound like early Eliot’s ‘Love Song of Alfred Prufrock’ (1915). Translation of his poetry, full of colloquialisms, is particularly difficult; much of their beauty is lost. Like the British-American poet, he reflected in his prose-poems the angst and anguish of the pre-War and pre-Independence generation. In Eliot’s manner, he juxtaposed an ineffably romantic line from a Tagore poem with the rude reality in his poem to show the contrast of sensibility.
Unlike Eliot but like Bishnu Dey and Suhhas Muknopadhyaya, he was attracted to communism—the CPI was founded in Tashkent in 1922 (to Soviet Marxism, to be precise) and later to its Chinese Maoist variety, if he was not lured to communism and continued writing poems, Samar Sen would have matured as a poet like T S Eliot. It’s a mystery why he gave up the Muse when five compilations had made him enormously popular. As per the anthology of his selected poems, published by the Signet Press was written on 10th October 1946 when he was just 30 and living probably in New Delhi on the AIR job; journalism might have dried up his fount of poetry. In it, he laments that “the romantic disease is no longer transformed in poetry”. In 1944 he had published his last collection of poems, Teen Purush (Three Generations). That year, he gave up his teaching job in Delhi’s Commercial College, worked in an advertisement agency for a week and then joined the News Services Division in All India Radio, New Delhi. Next year, Buddhadev Bose wondered in his Kaaler Putul (1945) that he wished to know, why in the flush of youth, did he “exhaust himself”? Another coeval poet, Mangala Charan Chatteriee, reviewing his last collection asked, “whether Sen would find the way out of the maze of internal contradiction of materials of poetry or his rare poetic gift would end with some bright sparks of expression? We are afraid over his thinning stream of poetry”. An anthology, “Modern Bengali Poems” edited by Debiprasad Chatterjee (Signet Press) included seven of his poems in English translations under title ‘Adolescent Poems’ (six by Sen); the title was suggested by Sen himself.
His Last Poem
The last poem deserves to be quoted in full (in my translation) :
I no longer hear the song of the sea;/ the random vibe of trams and buses has ceased in the blood./ I forgot the red earth of Santal Parganas, / the steep hill seen in the horizon,/ Courtesans’ songs in Basantbahar, once heard;/ forgotten too the flavour of adda on Bagbazar rock,/ the over-smart youth of Ballygunge/ and the diamond delirium of Dalhousie and Clive Street,/ the siren of alien ships at the dock./ The romantic disease no longer transforms into poetry./ The love of youth ends in sex of elders./ Ten years hence, I’ll go to Kashi”.
From New Delhi, he returned to Kolkata in 1949, joined The Statesman as a sub-editor. While reviewing an anthology of poems by Jibanananda Das, Ashok Mitra, ICS wrote, only Das and Sen stirred the juvenile imagination, Sen perhaps ‘by his lack of compassion’. He wrote ample literary criticisms and reviews profusely until he left for Moscow to work with the Foreign Language & Literature Publication and began writing a serial of ‘Moscow Letters’ in Economic & Political Weekly, to translate Russian literary classics-stories and novels of Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Korlenko, Boris Polevoy, Ivan Bunin and plays of Gorky. He returned four years later to Kolkata and after working in an advertisement agency for seven months, joined the Hindustan Standard as Joint Editor, from where he resigned in 1964; later that year, he became the Editor of NOW, a weekly launched by his teacher, Prof Humayun Kabir. As he felt that the weekly was becoming an organ of the CPI(M), he resigned from it too and on 14th April, that year, launched his own ‘Frontier’ with meagre resources and advertisement support. For 19 years until his death on 23rd August 1987, he regularly wrote for and edited the fearless weekly with dwindling resources.
The paradox of revolutionary journalism that Ssmar Sen preached and practised in NOW and ‘Frontier’ is that it did not reach the vast mass of literate and illiterate people whom he sought to rouse to yearn for the Revolution. Such integrity of character, political convictions and consistent refusal to compromise with powers-that-be, despite utter penury and isolation.
This writer met him only once, but memorably. After passing MA in 1963, I called on him in the Hindusthan Standard office looking for a job. As I muttered my wish, he looked up at me through his high-power glasses beneath his tousled hair and asked me to show him some writing. I prepared one and when I approached his room next day, the peon told me that he had resigned the previous day. I recalled that his look did not show the turmoil within him over his decision to quit in protest over the management’s insertion of a ‘communal-prone’ news item which he had forbidden his staff to use. He quietly gave up the prestigious post of Joint Editor of a well-circulated daily and jumped into an uncertain and penurious livelihood.
I often wonder, did journalism kill the poet in Samar Sen! If he was not lured to communism, Russian Revolution but continued to write poems, he would have matured like T S Eliot.
Unbelievably, he is said to have been a misogynist (hater of women). Did he believe like Rabindranath, that women’s brains were smaller and inferior to men’s? A few days before his death on 23rd August 1987, a scribe approached him in his Swinhoe Street house for an interview; he declined to give, saying that he was suffering from ‘cancer of the mind’. In political belief, he was akin to Bishnu Dey, believing in the messiah of revolution.
Under the sedition law that the British Raj promulgated in 1870 and incorporated in the Indian Penal Code in section 124A ‘Frontier’ was banned during the Emergency; he did not baulk. Contributors and well-withers of ‘Frontier’ deserted Samar Sen, as he wrote in defence of the peasant uprising in Naxalbari in ‘Frontier’. He wrote in an issue :
“In these times of dereliction and dismay, of wars, unemployment and revolutions, the decayed side of things attracts us most… Perhaps that is because we have our roots deep in the demoralized petty Bourgeoisie and lack the vitality of a rising class”.
Influences on a person are best known to him alone; others can only guess. Why a person is influenced by some, and not by ethers, is probably determined by his genetic inheritance, nervous system, family atmosphere and upbringing. For instance, why was young Rabindranath influenced by Vaishnaba poets, and not by Shakta poems? Samar Sen was basically a poet and a journalist. The influence on his poetry was distinctly T S Eliot, though he never acknowledged it; that on his political views conviction was of Karl Marx and Joseph Stalin, also unacknowledged but he blended them in his highly intelligent and creative mind. His poems and politics were both unconventional if not radical and in disseminating them he made no compromising with givers of his bread. Both these traits marked him out from contemporary intelligentsia, in his and our time.
[This is a slightly enlarged version of an earlier article by the author, published in 2015]