‘Jaago Rai’ was first published as a series in a Bangla poetry blog, and garnered quite a following. The poems were collected and published in 2013 as a little black chapbook illustrated by the poet himself and created by a little collective of madcap writers and artists who called themselves ‘Houdinir Tnabu’ (Houdini’s magic tent).
The poems spoke of a tortured soul, torn between love and anger, engaged in an intimate dialogue with death. It spoke in a new language of love and lovelessness, as harsh as it was vulnerable, as achingly raw as lovely. ‘Jaago Rai’ has remained a touchstone for me all these years. It made me fall in love and question the idea of love at the same time. It also gave me some of the answers.
Ritam Sen is mostly known as a songwriter these days but I think he prefers the term poet himself. He has been writing and thinking in poetry since long before he wrote for films, before even he came to write songs. ‘Jaago Rai’ is his finest creation (although he may dispute that) in my opinion.
Currently publishing three of the poems in the series. I will keep adding to this post as I translate more of them.
A note on ‘Rai’. Rai is a nickname that people of Bengal has given to Sri Radhika, the mythological consort of Krishna. In Vaishnava and Sahaja Philosophy, Radhika, the eternal beloved, is considered a symbol of the human soul devoted in eternal love to Krishna’s Supreme Soul; a human existence as opposed to and different from a divine one.
I sit here defeated by civilization, its army
Arrayed inside my head,
In this curfewed night echoing with footsteps of assassins.
Fistfuls of pallid ennui and melancholia,
Where do I hide them? With whom?
I know love and death are equally remote. To whom among these
Do I entrust my desires?
I want my wounds to breed more wounds –
I want to take that whip away from your hand
And slash upon my back myself,
I stay up night after night, drowning in fear –
Because sleep irritates me,
And I’m in love with being afraid.
This laughing gorge of blood and flesh that I must crawl through
Has been dug on my own advice.
I’ll look up while I annihilate myself and see,
A new-made home rises nearby; a dark sky opens above,
Jewels twinkle on it.
Awake, Rai… Allow me a glimpse against this entire life,
A glimpse to reveal this life entire.
What should I write?
Should I have to drag my weight through this tunnel of light, your Honour?
This barren night is making me insane –
In the effort to hold tight the reins of time
My hands have been bloodied, but I knew not
When those ropes slipped through my fingers.
Yet I lie awake every night with my fists closed around emptiness, because,
Your Honour, this is the only time we can be alone together.
Elsewise, I merely play the part
I have assigned to myself.
What should I write?
Should I list out the details of the ways
A heart could be turned into a slimy handwash?
Or about the Dengue epidemic in Kolkata,
And the dynamics of choosing the perfect mosquito repellent?
Should I use Odomos, or that new lotion with tiny green beads?
I don’t use a mosquito net because it suffocates me,
On the roofs and roofs of those nets
Rests the placid breath of the Void.
Should I write about my heart,
Whose arteries are clogging
From the continual strain of pumping out love?
Or should I write about crimes, about heinous riots
Where violence is the only respite left to me?
Should I proclaim to everybody that I can see the future?
Don’t be swayed by this exuberance, your Honour,
I would write nothing like these.
It’s just this night is such,
Drums roll through the stars,
There in the deep woods, someone waits with a veiled candle,
And I can’t reach her, can I?
I’m not unhappy that it was you who ended it.
I couldn’t have done better myself.
We have become strangers again.
I can now deny the existence of the thread that bound me to you.
These days I wake very early,
Even if I was late to bed.
Days upon days, people upon people, stretch out endlessly
The very thought of having to speak, to smile to them
Makes me long for my hole.
Throughout the day I keep looking for my hole
In the eyes of people.
Whenever I spy a calm, vacant heart,
My teeth and nails sharpen, my tongue forks out dripping venom,
And my eyes shine bright,
Greedy for that space.
I must not let anyone know this,
So I can never be at ease.
The lamp post by the window slumps like a loser,
Beneath the window gigantic cars run past
With their thundering howls.
I never imagined that I could survive like this
Or would have to. Writhing like a reptile
In a third bracket of blunted sorrow.
A small hill of empty biri leaves, devoid of tobacco
Shot its head up inside the ashtray, put a match to it
And they’d burn black.
I like watching the birth of ashes.
Sorrow, I embrace you tight and bite down the mole on your neck,
My own bloody flesh clamps up my mouth.
Just because I lost, did magic vanish from the world?
Do the visions I see eyes closed become lies when I open them?
I sit here and try to sink my roots
Deep into the earth, in vain.
Ennui thickens into my being.
I remember the soulless alley
Through which I floated in like a corpse
On both sides, stooping over me
Are hundreds of porticos, ornate and empty.
I was tired of floating and watching
All those endless beautiful porticos
When I met an old man,
He sat on the portico of the last house in the alley.
These days I walk around with roving, thirsty eyes.
I feel like a car sometimes,
Three empty rikshaws hurry behind an occupied one,
And I think wouldn’t it be great
If I too had a horn on my body.
The winding lane of the slum look like a family courtyard,
Naked children walk in the shared rhythm of a dance.
I look up to the sky stretched above and think,
In this city so suddenly distant and alien,
Indeed who else to look up to but the sky.
I know nothing will happen, yet every day I think I’m going to die.
I go to sleep with an unspeakable wonder, and wake
With an incorrigible hope.