Some of them only at heart, thank God. In Bengal – I can only vouch for West Bengal, India, and that too some decades back when boys used to start writing poems at around the same age that the girls started to menstruate. Writing poetry used to be a sign of male puberty – at least for a certain class and category of educated Bengalis, mostly of the middle class, I hasten to add.
In the country that I come from, there are always about a million exceptions to any statement that one might happen to make about anybody or anything. At times the rest of the nation – the silent majority – will stand up and nudge one gently and say: ‘Hey! What about us?’ And it will be similar to being nudged by an elephant, with the consequences thereof.
But ‘All Bengalis are poets’ is possibly one of those generalisations which can hold water for nearly all classes and categories of Bengalis – especially if we go back in history. This is a nation and a language which had little or no use for prose till the beginning of the nineteenth century. Before that – and for some time afterwards – even our lists of groceries or the washing used to be in rhyme. We spoke Farsi – a form of Persian – in court and used it on legal deeds and documents, until English took over. Otherwise even Bengali bawdry used to be in rhyme, women gossiping at the well or telling religious tales, ‘fighting’ poets who composed their songs ex tempore – but in rhyme – and sang them in the course of a musical debate – you name it. A nation that had learnt to live in rhyme. The Dutch missionaries of Serampore/Srirampur had to invent Bengali prose because they wanted to translate the Bible into Bengali – a task performed by William Carey in 1801.
You know when the Bengalis stopped being Bengalis and turned into the ‘baboos’ of the British empire, the rest of the less educated – because less anglophile – north Indian folk taking over all other tasks from the sepoy’s to the coolie’s? It’s when we Bengalis lost our taste as well as our capacity to rhyme. From a race of poets we turned into a race of clerks.
But we did not lose the habit. We kept writing poetry, some of it fairly passable – we’re not talking about the established poets, Tagore, or the Kallol poets, or Shakti-Sunil’s ‘hungry’ generation. We’re talking about what the average Bengali churned out under the double pressure of sexual frustration and the remnants of a Victorian morality reinforced by Hindu edicts and ideals.
Your average Bengali still churns out bad poetry by the ream. But in the Bengal that I remember, poets used to chase readers/listeners as persons of African origin pester white Caucasians to buy their worthless gewgaws on Spain’s sunny Meditteranean coast – a racist image if ever there was one, but have you noticed how all racist images are somehow heartbreaking? And we’re out here to break some hearts for poetry and the poets, if only of Bengal, in case you hadn’t noticed.
My youngest brother – who is no longer with us but is guffawing from Heaven, I’m sure – my youngest brother and I were once talking about Bengal and Bengali poets on the phone, he in Ottawa, self in Bonn. My brother was an extraordinary lover of Bengali poetry – and of Bengali literature as well, his knowledge of such things being even more extraordinary than his love, if possible.
Oh, now I remember! We were talking about my poems – at my age? ‘Isn’t it funny?’ my brother was saying: ‘Writing poetry is perhaps the most difficult form of literature, and that is why it is completely useless, completely worthless, it has no market value whatsoever.’ Which makes it a labour of love per se – I joined. You can as little put a price on a poem as you can put on a kiss – I said. I thought I was being poetic. Eh? my brother said, puzzled. ‘What are you talking about? And what’s happened to your syntax?’ The same that’s happened to my poetry – I told him.
And then the two of us came up with this image to define the Bengalis’ very special relationship with poetry. Suppose you chance upon a poetry festival in Kolkata. You’ll find a hall full of people and a scared, seedy looking person sitting on a broken chair in the middle of the dais, glancing this way and that, as if looking for some means, any means to escape the ordeal. Ah, the amateur poet! you’d say to yourself. Another case of stage fright. To have to read out his poems in front of this kind of an enthusiastic audience, intense, emaciated, unshaven, bespectacled, some of them even clutching notebooks which they seem to have brought along with themselves – maybe to note down things, names of poets and lines from the poems and so on. No wonder the poet, poor fellow, is scared – you’d be saying to yourself.
And you’d be wrong. The hall is full of poets all waiting for their turn to go up on stage and give of their best, read poem after poem until they are dragged down or shot down – as in a Western saloon. While that scared, seedy looking man sitting on the broken chair in the middle of the dais is the only listener and an unwilling listener at that, one who has either been abducted or bribed into coming to the poetry festival.
You’d slowly close the door behind you, after you, and jump into the next tram – people have been known to throw themselves under the tram after attending poetry festivals in Bengal.
I’m exaggerating, of course, but we Bengalis are poets, you forget.