Jibanananda Das is widely considered to be the greatest Bengali poet of the post Rabindranath Tagore era. Poetry books like “Rupasi Bangla”, “Dhushar Pandulipi” and “Banalata Sen”, which are essentially sincerest meditations on nature, feminine beauty, history, geography, life and death, have made him a common name in the Bengali household.
Here I have tried to adapt five of my favorite poems from his book “Banalata Sen” in English. I did not translate these poems word by word from Bengali to English since I believe that in such a manner it is very hard to reproduce the beautiful imagery of rural Bengal or that of far distant lands like Vidisha or Babylon that the poet created in the original poems, as his mind raced through both space and time in all its lonesomeness. Instead I have rewritten the same poems in my own way in English, trying to stay as close to the themes and imageries of the original poems as possible.
Please give them a read, irrespective of whether you are aware of the original Bengali poems or not. These five poems build on one another, so it’s probably a good idea to read all of them at one go, may be following the sequence in which they appear here.
Banalata Sen from Natore
A thousand years I’ve trodden paths on the face of the earth,
The seas of Ceylon and Malay I’ve voyaged through misery and mirth.
From Bimbisar and Ashoka’s fading city
Through endless streets of ancient darkness
Among even further away Vidarbha’s men,
Countless sojourns have made me listless
Until I found a moment of tranquility
In the soulful eyes of Natore’s Banalata Sen.
Darkness of her hair reminded me of nights forlorn
In the city of Vidisha of long lost times. Sculptures that adorn
The temples of Shravasti inspired her countenance.
After a long lost voyage the way a sailor
Eyes a verdurous isle amidst the azure ocean,
Ohh I did see her with the same ardor
“Where wert thou all these days?”, asked she softly with a glance,
Tranquil as a bird’s nest, Natore’s Banalata Sen.
End of the day like the dewdrop’s sound descends the eve’s veil,
Smell of the sun on the kite’s gorgeous wings grows pale.
As the last hues on earth fade into blackness eternal,
And sounds of sentience drown into slumber deep,
All birds return to the nest, all beasts to the den,
So do all brooks, all streams. All blossoms do sleep.
All that’s left behind is darkness abysmal
And reposed in front, pining for love, Natore’s Banalata Sen.
A Windy Night
Last night was a windy night,
And a night of a thousand stars.
Scattered winds played with my mosquito net all night,
Swelling its bosom like the heart of a boisterous sea,
Making it long to escape the bed and fly into the stars.
Indeed, at times, half-asleep,
I felt like the mosquito net escaped from over my head
And set itself afloat in the turbulence of the winds, amidst all the azure-ness,
Like a white dove.
Such was the mystery of last night.
All the dead stars were resurrected last night.
I sighted the fading countenance of my favorite dead amidst them.
They were effulgent like the eyes of a lover kite on a dark tree top,
Eyes moistened by dew drops,
Resplendent like the leopard skin, the queen of far distant Babylon
Used to drape about her bosom.
Such was the splendor of last night.
All the beauties, I witnessed whom dying in Assyria, Egypt and Vidisha,
were resurrected last night.
I sighted them thronging the foggy horizon,
Holding tridents in their hands, determined
To trample death under their feet,
To celebrate the triumph of life,
To erect the menacing tower of love.
Terrified was I, last night’s turmoil tore me from within.
Within the tirelessly flapping wings of the azure sky
Faded time- like a tiny earthly insect.
Such was the tremor of last night.
Wind raced in through my windows last night,
Fierce as a herd of zebras running frantically
Through the lush green meadows,
Terror-stricken by the menacing roar of the lion.
My heart reverberated in joy
Intoxicated by the smell of the wilderness,
By the excitement of the darkness that roared within me,
Like a lustful tigress, ecstatic in her union with her lover.
I felt like my heart escaped this earth,
And set itself afloat like an inebriated balloon in the turbulence of the winds,
And sailed through the distant stars amidst all the azure-ness
Like a swift vulture.
Such was the mystery of last night.
A couple of decades later
A couple of decades later what if our paths again cross
Far beyond this city that gathers our generation’s moss;
Back in the pleasant countryside where our roots are entrenched deep,
In autumn by a granary with harvest the peasants did reap.
When kites, golden in the setting sun, journey homeward bound
And the pall of eve descends on meadows like the dewdrop’s sound,
When the moon moves soft behind the forest boughs in her regal grace
With leaves pitch black and branches specter thin silhouetted against her milky face,
When the lonesome owl, hiding from a tree top, at the village path does stare,
And strands of hay, from the ducks’ nests, from the crows’ nests, waft in the air,
When indolence prevails over the paddy fields stretched wide,
In this meadowy path I’ve found you again by my side.
After twenty years moving about the city swept by life’s tide,
In this pastoral land I’ve found you again by my side.
Naked, lonely hand
Once more darkness intensifies in the spring sky.
The mysterious sister of light.
Like a lady who always loved me dearly,
But whose countenance I’ve never seen.
The shape of a fading palace in a long lost city looms in my mind.
By the side of the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea,
There was once a city, a palace,
Where there were
Cockatoos and pigeons,
Shadowy boon of the mahoganies,
And you, my lady,
I haven’t searched for the beauty of your countenance
The spring sky brings back those memories, those stories,
From far distant lands, from long lost cities.
Fading manuscripts made out of leopard skin,
Window panes of rainbow colors,
Orange sun playing on
Curtains with colors of the peacocks’ feathers,
Glass full of wine,
Your naked, lonely hand.
Your naked lonely hand.
I’ve taken solitary walks along endless streets of the city,
For years and years,
With a vague remembrance of some fading message.
Trams and buses move about the city, punctually, all through the day,
And then desert its streets to fade into their own world-
Their own world of sleep.
I’ve seen them sleeping in sheds and depots all night.
I’ve seen gaslights lighting the streets of the city tirelessly through the night,
Aware of its duties.
Bricks, doors, windows, signboards,
Drowned in slumber
Under the night sky.
I’ve absorbed their peace, their bliss, through my lonesome walks.
It’s late in the night,
Stars whisper around the peak of the Monument.
Have I ever witnessed something more seamlessly beautiful than this-
A starry lonesome Calcutta?
Eyes descend upon the grass,
Dew drops on the blades,
Strands of hay waft in the air.
Why did I take lonely walks along endless streets of Babylon
Through the darkness of the nights?
I still don’t know, even after a thousand years.