Writing Matters: In conversation with Saubhik De Sarkar
By Dolonchampa Chakraborty
Saubhik De Sarkar, is a Bengali poet based in Alipurduar, West Bengal, a major district in the eastern Himalayan foothills of India. He has six books of poems of which the first one Sheet O Bayosandhir Haspatal was published in 1995. Other collections include Ekti Mridu Laal Rekha (2005), Jatrabari (2011), Dokholsutra (2013), Anugato Buffer (2015) and Punorbashoner Chil (2016). He is also a prolific translator. His most significant translation projects include but are not limited to the works of Saadat Hasan Manto, Roberto Bolano, Federico Garcia Lorca, Julio Cortázar, Namdeo Dhasal and Rudhramoorthy Cheran. His translation of the much discoursed Dalit chronicle My Father Baliah by Y.B. Satyanarayana into Bengali is set to be published in 2018. His selected poems translated into English, The Evening Gnome is also scheduled to be published from Authorspress in 2018. He is the recipient of Kabita Pakshik Award (2005) and Mallar Award (2017).
Dolonchampa: What encouraged you to be a poet? Can you think of a particular set of moments that still haunt your memory as the initial spark?
Saubhik: I grew up in the cultural and literary ambience of Alipurduar which had some artistic and traditional inheritance. The Little Magazine Movement also played a significant role in shaping and sharpening me up as it has had tremendous impact over the progression of Bengali literature. Since a young age I got to know the avant garde litterateur and poets of North Bengal who were involved in little magazine movements and an experimental writing process. Taking part in the movement provided the opportunity to access different avenues of literature and I chose poetry as the medium to express myself. Not any special incident or spark, but as a whole many features of poetry enticed me toward it. I found the essential freedom and a sense of unrestricted liberation within the realm of poetry.
Dolonchampa: Tell us about your literary influences.
Saubhik: A poet is indebted to many other travellers of the labyrinth of poetry. According to my recollection, Jibananda Das, Utpal Kumar Basu, Manindra Gupta, Swadesh Sen, Bhashkar Chakraborty, Nitya Malakar, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Sajal Bandyopadhyay, Shyamal Kanti Das, Samar Roy Choudhury, Shyamal Singha, Jahar Sen Majumder and Rahul Purkayastha are those few Bengali poets who had initially impacted my nous of poetry. Among the ones who wrote in other languages, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ana Akhmatova, Frank O’Hara, Julio Cortázar, Charles Simic, A.K. Mehrotra, Namdeo Dhasal, Agha Shahid Ali, Mahmud Darwish, Martin Espada and Kim Hyesoon influenced me a lot.
Dolonchampa: The unique elements of North Bengal—the landscape, languages, folk tales, myths, music have influenced your already rich linguistic inheritance. How do they shape your poems?
Saubhik: North Bengal, where I have lived so far has some particularly distinctive features. Located amid lustrous natural landscape within the range of three international borders, it is a unique multicultural, multilingual and multi-ethnic confluence. Populations hailing from separate ethnic clusters native to this place present themselves in different forms of myths, folktales, customs and rituals, and music different from each other. In congruence with the changing dynamics of the rivers flowing through the mountain range of North Bengal, the disposition of the people here also changes its form. People constantly move in and out of North Bengal. A larger phase of history has been a witness to this shifting identity and its restlessness for a rather consistent period of time. When I try to capture that particular identity in my poems, it appears with all its restlessness.
Political and economic contexts are not the same either. They are altering at a rather slower pace, but the transformation is indeed visible. Against the backdrop of the marginal and rural practices transforming towards a pro-urban formation, the decadence in the local colonial set-ups primarily established through the railways and tea-gardens become more prominent. The conservatively rural and marginal folk elements are developing themselves in an innovative manner, which to certain extent is definitely and more inevitably contributing to the degeneration of an old customary set-up.
All these shifts and changes, anomalies and transformations present themselves subtly in my poems. Although I feel the limitation of the standard lingua franca in expressing these conflicts, struggles and the confluences of the beauty, silence and serenity of North Bengal which appear in my poems. Hence, it is only reasonable that I should use words from the dialects, sub-dialects and other languages of North Bengal in my writing.
The other and more significant reason for me to use the elements of North Bengal is the responsibility to represent an aware and alert society which registers a systematic and sensible resistance in favour of the liberation of a language no matter how apparently insignificant and distant it is from the power hub of the premier language. Every language practises a kind of monopoly over its dialects and sub-dialects. So when I use a local word in my poem I do not want it to carry its local flavour only. I enable it to stand strong against the monopoly and aggression of the premier language.
Dolonchampa: Metaphors are significant traits of your style, so much so that you even create new metaphors randomly. Do they make your poems more elusive in the disguise of an apparent candour or actually empower them?
Saubhik: Yes, metaphor plays a significant role in my poetry. Out of the familiar realm of easily used metaphors, I create a lot of metaphors as and when necessary in the context of a structure related to a particular process. They appear very spontaneously as the characteristic habit of my conscious pattern to build a communion with the readers which does not seek an instantaneous relationship with them. It searches for a more profound journey together with them through the maze of my expression. That seems more important to me. Hence, the metaphors might appear to be elusive on the surface level; but in reality, each of these is a gateway through which to enter the body of my poems and cohabit with their flesh and bones.
Dolonchampa: Your poems create a hollow space of counter or alternate reality that you fill with magical elements. Please tell us how you keep the magical elements of ordinary experiences separate from your perception and usage of the alternate reality without falling in a trap of escapism.
Saubhik: Reality irrespective of its time factor is a very linear and dominating instinct. Although life can’t be attributed only to its surface value as it is multi-layered, I want my poems to explore the layers of these other realities that surround the superficial surface of any common truth.
The search for a perfect universe outside the familiar boundary of the mundane reality is every artist’s fantasy simply because of the common notion that it would provide a space to escape. My perception of escapism differs from this notion. I strongly feel that the space which opens towards an apparent escape actually introduces newer possibilities which do not belong outside the regularity of life. Rather it is collected from all the response and counter-response, resistance, convex and concave shapes, forms, paths, modes and mediums of life. I search for that form of the other reality which shapes up the journey and the destination of my poems.
Dolonchampa: How do you address the sociolinguistic issues while translating poems? Does your repeated choice to translate evidently political material strengthen your political identity in a social context?
Saubhik: Sociolinguistics is an extremely significant aspect of translation. It is essential to know in-depth about the social context of the source language and material in order to set their core philosophy in the completely different setting that the target language provides. Various social circumstances and conditions play a substantial part to shape up a language. Hence, gathering information regarding the location and impacts of the elements against the backdrop of its own time and that specific location of the material I choose to translate is an essential part of my translation process. It creates a link, a harmony and compatibility between the source and the target texts. While translating poems of Rudhramoorthy Cheran, I tried to gather as much information possible about the social dynamics of the Sri Lankan Tamil community, to get an idea about the specific usages of particular words used by Cheran in his poems which had noticeable political impact.
In response to the second part of your question I want you to note that I understand a larger spectrum by the word politics. A person’s struggle for existence, not merely survival but existence in all identifiable forms would definitely have conflicts, confrontations as well as reassurances and, it is only natural to be connected to those layers through the process of translation. For example, Rudhramoorthy Cheran or Martin Espada maintains a higher level of political alertness in their customary existence, and their poems are extremely vocal about the distress, conflicts, setbacks and hopes they’ve encountered. However, these predicaments appear in poems as just a part of the process of portraying the entirety of life. Hence, I have also translated other poems by these poets or other poets which do not portray any existential crises in general.
Dolonchampa: Keeping in mind that semantics is important, what would you say the natural choice should be of translating a poem?
Saubhik: Semantics is an indispensable part of a language’s structure. However, it is not an essential part of translating a poem. Being loyal to the semantics of the core poem destroys the sensibility of the target text as they are evidently different. However, that been said, I also agree that I do not take too much liberty in ignoring semantics that it can make me detour completely from the focal ideation of the poem, abbreviating or omitting something important. It is ethically important to have profound knowledge of the target language to convert the original settings and format it for creating a closest interpretation of the source fragments. It is a conscious effort to maintain the original feelings and a challenge as well.
Dolonchampa: Have you ever felt that the interpretation of any particular dhwani associated with a specific word/expression is lost/impacted in its interpretation? In your own poems, how do you achieve the impact of a familiar or unfamiliar dhwani?
Saubhik: The resonance, weight and the layered surfaces of sound build the fundamental structure of a poem. Even before a word is consciously chosen, all these contextual dynamics communicate among themselves to depict an unequivocal feature associated with that word. The collective senses in that feature’s entirety need to be carried on to the translation, to make it as authentic as possible.
However, this format gets concocted sometimes. Poets like Kamau Brathwaite or Julio Cortázar change and twist the syntax of a familiar pattern – many words are created intentionally which of course, never existed before. These words do not come to existence from any sub-dialect or any localised version of a particular language either. Translating those words is much more challenging as they do not fall in our regular comfort zone terminologies.
Dolonchampa: Being a poet gives anyone a narrow margin, in terms of maintaining both — an identity and responsibility towards that identity. What is your identity and how do you respond to it?
Saubhik: I think that a poet’s identity exists within the person who happens to write poetry, not separately. A person who is writing poems, he or she is writing his/her life which has different layers and levels. The process of writing becomes an organic part of my living—I’m directly talking about myself here, instead of generalising a concept; and that living cannot be justified while imagining the self from a distance where nothing else will exist except my poetic self. It does not work that way and this understanding and realisation of the communion between the practical and the poetic self is crucial for a poet to create an imaginary world.
Dolonchampa: Do you think poetry is a social phenomenon that can effectively counter the calculated violence which is currently destroying the very fundamental of humanity in India these days?
Saubhik: Yes, of course. It is very natural. Society is a part of a poet’s life. He/she uses the elements of a society and its conditions in his/her poems. Therefore, it is quite inevitable that he/she would react, resist and protest in the event of a conscious ongoing propaganda to destabilize the society and its bonding. The language of protest differs from one poet to the other. In present times, poets and writers have been vocal against the environment of growing intolerance in India which is attacking the basic fabric of our century-old existence. This will have an assertive and persistent authority in building a systematic resistance.
Dolonchampa: What is the dynamics of contemporary Bengali poetry? Is there any identifiable trend? Who, in your opinion are the significant poetic voices?
Saubhik: Right at this moment Bengali poetry is in a very happening place. A plurality is channelizing through its numerous voices at multiple levels which lacks a focal point. Bengali poetry used to be linear for a prolonged period of time, having its foundation rooted in the Kolkata-centric literature circle. An inevitability which cropped up from the colonial power hub was a natural ignorance towards the literature and its progress outside that comfortable geographical and psychological boundary.
However, the term marginal literature gained strength gradually and silently to present itself not as a trajectory but as a part of the mainframe of Bengali literature. It is gaining strength every day from numerous candid, erect and upright voices from every corner of the language moving the exclusivity towards a thorough expansion.
When I started to write in the early 1990s, the scenario was bleak. The tremendous shift in the entire communication system during the post-globalisation era has played an immensely supportive role to the completeness of this expansion. The inaccessible and remote is the new exclusive of Bengali literature. Some of the significant voices of post-2000 Bengali Poetry are: Nilabja Chakraborty, Joyshila Guha Bagchi, Arjun Bandyopadhyay, Sanghamitra Halder, Sukalpa Chattopadhyay, Abhimanyu Mahato, Jahid Sohag, Aritra sanyal, Anuradha Biswas, Swarnendu Sengupta, Mesbah Alam Arghya and Sudeep Chattopadhyay.
Dolonchampa: Tell us about your ongoing and upcoming projects.
Saubhik: I am working on two simultaneous projects. One of them is my poetry project which I have named after Duars, a unique geographical area expanded through North Bengal and part of Northern Assam along the border of Bhutan. My intense interaction with the specific physiognomies and singularities of Duars for a very long period of time has been registered in the poems of Duars Monologue.
In the year 2017, I started another poetry project with American Latino poet Martin Espada. He worked as a tenant lawyer and a supervisor of a legal services programme for a sustained period of time. Puerto Rico has frequently been featured in his poems. He has simultaneously explored the lives of the Latinos settled in the US, building an innovative dimension for the reader. It has been a journey translating his poems that I have only started.
Dolonchampa Chakraborty is a translator, transcriptionist and a bilingual writer. She completed her studies from Cornell University. She has authored two books of poetry in Bengali. Presently, she divides her time between professional assignments and personal projects related to translation. She is also associated with LILA Foundation for Translocal Initiatives.