In the evening sadness comes and stands by the door, his face Is hidden, from the dying sun he took some colors and painted his body The sadness comes in the evening, I stretched my hand and he caught my wrist, in an iron-hard clasp He caught me out from my room, his face Is black, he is ahead of me and I follow him I crossed from the evening to the night, from the night to the dawn, then the morning, the noon, the day, the month Crossing water, tree, boat, city, hill Crossing blows, stumbling, poison, suspicions, jealousy, graves, genocide, the bones and ribs of civilization, swamp and grass Then crossing my own death, death after death, going on and on The bony fingers holding nothing but a pen Nothing By pressing your own throat you strangled many times the shout of delight You restrained the shout of delight when death was near Are you dead? Or not? Death appears, comes near, nearer, then disappears This heart-breaking stress of pleasure, peculiar and unknown to you Such a whip you have never felt before What happened at last?
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Goswami turned sixty this year, and to celebrate his life in poetry, a documentary called Joy at Sixty was produced by Sumit Das. The film, quite self-consciously, structures itself like a Goswami poem, and perfectly illustrates the ways in which his work has infiltrated the public consciousness. Because Goswami, who lost his father early when the family was still living in Ranaghat, the suburb near Kolkata that gives his poems the tone of far-near and whose mother was a school headmistress, was a school dropout.
But by the time I was in college in the mid s, Goswami had become an everyday saint for my friends in the Bangla department. At college functions, his words rang out from loudspeakers, finding their way into the popular consciousness.
What he does not say is that this was also the moment when a new India was being created: the arrival of satellite television and the Internet in our homes, the creation of recreational public spaces—all new, even foreign then, to middle-class Bengalis. Introducing new readers of poetry into this milieu was an enormous task, and Goswami set upon it without a manifesto. He wrote for several magazines, not all of them established or well-known. He read poems by amateurs, replied to their letters, quoted them in his essays and editorials.
He met young poets at book fairs and when they told him their names, he would quote their own poetry at them, and ask, "So you are the poet who wrote these lines? Goswami emerged into the popular consciousness alongside another important Bengali wordsmith, Suman Chattopadhyay. They were, in their different ways, dragging the epic into narratives of dailiness, writing about a thousand Mrs. Dalloways and a thousand different Ramayanas.
Bangla literature—and music—is full of women who represent the muse, or unattainable love: Bonolata Sen, Neera, Ruby Roy, Bela, Nilanjana, and so on. She carries the shopping bags. No one calls her by name. Even if nobody else "calls her by name," he will. The poem continues: There she comes, through our lane, right behind Kaberi— Hamida with two bags big and small in her hands [ In the big one the spinning earth.
In the big one rivers, trees, oceans, mountains, deserts, slums and cities Crores of ants, are they people? Like matchboxes Hundreds of houses Spin along with the globe. Bursting through the bag the moon Gleams in the sky. Trampling on space That dark girl walks on [ Below her feet Lakhs of lights dance! By giving the dark servant girl a name, by linking the darkness of her skin with that of a goddess, by making her the titular subject of a poem, integrating the moon, rivers, trees, oceans, and mountains into her history, Goswami manages to create a crack in our consciousness, through which he slips the word "slums.
Generations of female domestic workers in Bengal have been defined by their motherhood: either their names are elided with those of their firstborns, or they are called "mashi," meaning "maternal aunt.
Meanwhile, his brilliant poems about houses often transform space by viewing them as an extension of the women living in them.
Take the poem "Cauldron," which details an old house being pulled down: Since morning two labourers have been coming and going In front of the veranda Pans full of sand and stone chips on their heads. Over the last few days an old house nearby was torn down. Flats will come up. And so it continues, detailing the fear of eviction from a familiar space.
Or take his poem "Olu": Olu cooks for us. In this house If anyone loses anything, let Olu know. The blue one? On top of the TV. Many people in the subcontinent make a living by making themselves indispensable as house help. But not everyone has Goswami as an employer.
For it is at this point in the poem that the poet turns Olu into someone who is no longer chained by misplaced household items. The cook and in-house detective what else can one call her expertise?
It also derives from his refusal to make a distinction between gharey and bairey, the home and the world. In the poem "Spice grinding," the man who has "come to prepare the spice-grinding slab" chips away lakes from the body of the slab.
Whether he is writing about time and history at war with each other, about trees and grass, astronomy and the earth, the night sky and its inhabitants, the sun, reptiles and eagles, dead parents and living lovers, money and its siblings, houses and their windows, freedom, or about wood and its skeletons, the shadow of women hides behind all his themes.
In our times, that will almost immediately be understood as something akin to androgyny, but that is not exactly what I mean. But my favourite Goswami poems are the pagli, the poems about the madwoman: Shanti shanti shanti shanti—when the golden madgirl sits on the shore eating one sunset after another Ashes, Burnt by the Sun Or,.