Patri 3

I translated some poems from Purnendu Patri’s Kathapakathan II.

You might laugh
but I swear wherever I see licks of flame
these days I am prostrate as if watching a movie.
Let me tell you the reason.
A couple of days ago I read somewhere
that on an unfortunate day of the national movement
Nandalal Basu had drawn a bunch of posters
to make invincible
anti-imperialism and the emergence of tortured people.
But in fear of police raids
all incendiary posters are in the belly of fire.
Immediately having read the news
In the fire stony faces of proud humans feeling fury
In the fire incessant glee for chain shattering
In the fire the shining magazines of Chattagram.
On one side applauding youth march toward a hangman’s platform
on the other side behind naked soldiers
in the blaze of my own chest, a rib-enflamed bone-skeleton.
It was like this for some days.
Then I forgot everything.
Suddenly several days ago another impact.
Lorca’s life’s-worth of sonnets were tucked
in a soldier friend’s pocket.
Within Franco’s butcher-fire
Both soldier and sonnet burnt to ashes in a day.
After having read the news
In the fire blood wedding’s sprinting horse
Behind the horse a crooked blade of unbridled lust
Behind the knife a blue moon’s red blood hunger
And the green guitar’s endless yellow mourning.
Believe me, Amitava
Now whenever I look at fire
I see the various alphabets of
Lorca’s sonnets burnt to ash, or these:
Heaven, death, murder, blood, wing,
mountain, love, rock, dagger, root,
urine, hate, laughter, breast,


Patri 2

I translated some poems from Purnendu Patri’s Kathapakathan II.

Amitava, that I ripped the dreads-tangled darkness of a deep pit
and collected a rock, you know this. That I wanted to build
such a woman with a blow of a chisel-hammer that she’d look
as if she’d just awoken and showered at the earth’s magma falls,
this you also know. So the following story–

The day I struck the first chisel blow, a spray of blood. All night
a hand pressed on her wound. All day inside of her emptiness
like a mother. When no longer dripping in blood, and
her wound is brimming with green leaves, sitting down again
to mold with the chisel-hammer.
– What are you putting on me?
– A sari of fire. That which suits your soul.
– What is that smell inside me?
– I scattered seeds of yearning in your blood. Flowers are blooming on those trees.
– How shall I show you my gratitude for this new life?
– Turn the petals of my desire into golden jasmines.
– You are the one who will give me that power.
– Here, take this heart.

The next incident is very amusing. Immediately upon receiving life
she broke down the door of the room and ran away toward the earth.
She hasn’t returned. Having lost my own
heart, now I am the rock of a deep pit.


This is a poem my mom wrote a long time ago that I translated from Bengali to English for my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary a couple years ago.



For him I stand on bended knee.

Having noticed the beauty of a shoulder,

Having been an alveoli beside his lung,

Having been the skin stretched across

His soul, I have been so close,

Because I love him.


And if he does not bind me

I incarcerate myself in

My quiet penitentiary.

And if he never fulfills me

Then I exist, forever exhausted

In this dense obscurity.


But give me a little love

Some small piece of familiarity—

The vagabond scent of windblown hair.

And give me something more

If anything more remains.

No. 119

This is a poem my dad wrote a long time ago that I translated from Bengali to English for my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary a couple years ago.


No. 119

On destitute Kolkata’s
three cornered grassland tiara
Keep three and a half feet of land for my second me.
Flanked by centers of coursing civilization
stands No. 119 in the middle.
Tripping over calciated stairs
climbing up to that three cornered room
where I felt my second death.
From the old kitchen wafts smells of
reminiscent foods.
Tick tick answers, not the clock
But the old house’s childhood friend
Spring shattered sofa, Pandora’s closet
and in the triangular middle
of the gold dust covered table
“Jagate Ananda Jogye Aamar Nimantran”
The volume of my triangular heart is rising.


Today’s Nonsense

The Times of India put out a new broadsheet called Ei Samay (This Time) and asked me to write a piece about HJBRL, the book I translated a while ago. This article is the first piece of writing I’ve done that’s been translated. You can read the Bengali version here.

Today’s Nonsense

There’s a big white building with stately columns about 10 minutes from my house in San Francisco. It used to be a church, except instead of statues of Jesus it now houses server stacks. This building belongs to the Internet Archive, a digital library that’s on a mission to scan and catalog every word that has ever been printed or typed. It’s common knowledge that the best way to bring down a civilization is to burn its books. But burning isn’t the only way to kill a book. Neglecting and allowing it to molder untouched except by pulp-loving insects is a slower and more painful death.

Apparently the members of my generation are subjecting the classics of Bengali literature to this cruel fate. Or at least, that’s what people keep telling me. Not having lived in Kolkata for a very long time, I have no first-hand knowledge of the matter. I’m a firm believer that no one has a duty to prop up artifacts of a dying culture if they are no longer of use. However, I have a hard time believing that this could be the fate of Sukumar Ray’s Ha Ja Ba Ra La.

The turgid and old-fashioned language of most classics bore me, and there are just too many books in the world to waste time reading ones I don’t enjoy. But I have always loved the odd interplay of cultural specificity and universality of Ray’s stories. I translated Ha Ja Ba Ra La into English when I was fifteen in order to share it with my friends. The language is so casual that it could have been written two days ago. Ray’s words are sweet and chewy like sandesh. Even when the jokes are based in Bengali wordplay, they remain culturally fluid—I can’t think of a language where a father-in-law named Cookie isn’t funny.

Another great thing about Ray is that he didn’t deal with morals. I never really appreciated the subtle beauty of Rabindranath Tagore’s Dakghor or any such stories that I suspected were trying to teach me a lesson by tugging at my heartstrings. Tagore’s Amol didn’t talk like I did. He was too sincere and limpid. I liked books with disruptive characters. I saw myself in Sunil Ganguly’s Kakababu stories and Soviet propaganda books about roving gangs of feral children. As a kid, I related to the genderless protagonist in Ha Ja Ba Ra La who questioned every absurd explanation she was fed. I must admit that I now relate more to the overly academic goat who gives lectures on the edibility of various furnishings.

As I get older, new things catch my attention. A couple nights ago my roommates and I were winding down after a night of drinking and talking about immortality. One of them mentioned a jellyfish that ages up to a certain point and then begins to get younger and younger, eventually becoming a polyp, and then aging upward again. This process can go on indefinitely. I squealed and jumped out of bed to scribble this piece of information down. Surely I don’t need to point out the parallels between this biologically immortal jellyfish and Ray’s age-flipping old man who cycles between age ten and forty? Did he know about this jellyfish, or is the natural world absurd enough to de-absurdify even the most nonsensical literature? Isn’t the mystery of Gechodada’s current location simply an example of Zeno’s paradox? The tape measure that measures everything as 26 inches an illustration of Maslow’s Hammer?

Martin Gardner once wrote that Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a deeply upsetting children’s book because it deals with philosophical concepts that unsettle even adults. Ha Ja Ba Ra La is similar in many respects. It contains a dream architecture that muddles the boundaries between signifier and signified. But children seem to be less disturbed by this instability if only because they haven’t lived in the world of symbols for very long. During childhood, events simply seem to unfold without rhyme or reason. Like the confused young protagonist, I quickly came to understand that I cannot control anything and must be content with observing and reacting. I think the process of aging erodes this understanding of reality to our own detriment.

Cultures can’t be preserved like airtight jars of pickles, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. I’m dropping off my dusty collection of classic Bengali literature to the Internet Archive because I simply don’t have the time or desire to sift through the pastoral dramas of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay or the measured meters of Tagore’s love poems from an unrecognizable era. But Ha Ja Ba Ra La doesn’t need this kind of archiving yet. It’s a living, breathing text. Its language and satire remain as piercing as ever. There’s no need to look backward or make temporal concessions in order to find every joke and every grinning, snuffling character alive for our age.