Oral history interview with Jyotirmoy Datta

Datta, Jyotirmoy Iqbal, Iftekhar 2010-08-23

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Interview Participants
JD
Jyotirmoy Datta, interviewee (male)
KM
Kris K. Manjapra, interviewer (male)
KM
This is a Bengali Intellectual Oral History interview recorded on August 23rd 2010, with Jyotirmoy Datta, in Hillsborough, New Jersey and may we begin in the way that we have begun all the other interviews, which is to record your date of birth and your place of birth?
JD
I was born in 1936, September 30 at Beldanga where my father was an engineer with a sugar company. Sugar mills used to be constructed in farming areas. Usually there were thousands of acres of sugarcane fields around a factory. So, my father had been moving from one sugar factory to another all over India and my childhood was spent mostly away from Bengal. And my first language was not Bengali, the language I heard at -- which I used with my playmates.
JD
I mostly -- we lived in places where there was no school within miles. The language that I first heard was Tamil and then Telugu and Kannada, Oriya, but I was born in Beldanga in Bengal but my father moved away and most of my childhood was spent in places where -- I mean there were hills and rivers and mountain streams and forests and tigers, but no Bengali poets or little magazines or intellectuals. My longest and best memories are from a place called Rayagada which had a river which used to be called Langulia by the natives. Now I find that in maps in Google maps, it has -- the name has been Sankriticized. The name is now I think it is Nagavali. It's far from the adivasi name I knew and the hills which surrounded Rayagada have not been named on any maps. They remain in my memory however as most important august presences, big hills which could be -- which one could climb in most of a day.
JD
We -- I used to sort of make expeditions stealing ruti and jaggery from my mother's store and spend the whole day climbing up a peak and then coming down. There were caves, waterfalls, and very far away from the world of newspapers or literature or - I mean, when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, the news came to us very vaguely and my father reported it as sort of an event in another world. The books I read, mostly were -- I mean most of the books were in the English language. I spoke a little Tamil and at that time Telegu. My first experience of counting is okati, rendu, moodu, naalugu, aidhu, aaru. Bengal was something which my father pined for. He was from the district of Khulna in south Bengal and the Datta's had moved to Khulna from the western bank of the Ganges, Adisaptagram, in the seventeenth or the eighteenth centuries, and they had cleared some part of Sunderbans and founded their village which I think they named it Sahas which means courage.
JD
They were a very...they were like frontiersmen here in America. They established settlements in tidal land and something like what was to be celebrated as Marichjhanpi and became the locale of an Amitava Ghosh novel. It was tidal country; the sea invaded the paddy fields every twelve hours, but to my father who had left his village home at a very early age and went to a technical school in Uttar Pradesh in the early 20th century and then he was, he worked in sugar factories as I said all over India before my birth, in Uttar Pradesh, and later in south India where the sugar industry was new. And my father's specialty was -- his expertise was in erecting sugar factories, and as I said they were usually constructed in places far away from crowded settlements. It needed large farmlands, and I had a sort of fairy tale childhood.
JD
I wish I could someday give Rayagada the honor, or I would be able to honor my childhood by writing a book on the magical qualities of the mountain streams that I knew, of the tigers and the wild life of the Rayagada area has -- remains to be told, and these music and rites of the adivasis. Because as I said my father always thought of Bengal as his home and he wouldn't -- and he would have parcels sent to him from his native Khulna, of parcels of, parcels of candy made of the new gur and it would come in the mail leaking and sticky, but to him it was like from paradise he had left and he wanted us to go back to. So for six or seven months in 1946 and '47 we did spend some time in Khulna, but we were whisked away when Bengal was partitioned and the Radcliffe Award was announced. Three days after August 15th the family had to sort of was put in a very overcrowded railway car, and we came back to my dear Rayagada. My childhood was, to me as perhaps to every child, it was wonderful.
JD
It was...every time I have a problem now or a crisis I return for sustenance to dreams of Rayagada. I can still -- if I close my eyes I can still see distinctly the sides of the beautiful hills with clouds nestling to the sides as in Meghaduta. The feeling that I had for Rayagada is more than that for just a place, and if I have to identify myself I would call myself more a child of those hills and that river than being of any nationality or any group. Though I have looked at the Google maps of Rayagada, I have -- I revisited it after my marriage with Meenakshi when she wanted -- asked - we sort of had to choose a place where we would go for honeymoon; we went back to Rayagada. It is -- I mean the special feeling that I have is for the smell of the earth, the smell of the vegetation, the trees. I rejoice in the very special smell that sugarcane fields have and of course the sound of the machinery of the factory.
KM
It sounds as though this was a time of sentiments and of enriching your ability to sense your world, to feel your world, maybe even developing a kind of aesthetic understanding of the world. How did you begin to translate those feelings into writing or what was your process into art, into expression, and when did that begin for you?
JD
As I said most of the books which I have read all through my life are English language books. I came to find...discover Bengali late, say when I...it was as I said my father was very keen on our Bengali roots being... he was heartbroken when he used to see us talk and sing and play in other languages other than Bengali. It was visible almost in his face when I addressed him in English or in Telugu.
JD
So he -- we used to receive books in mail from Calcutta, and I remember the first lot of unpacking it, and it was a very strong, sensual experience also, but they were different in the way they -- the binding was not as good, the paper was not as good, the illustrations were not as good, and I had a problem initially of sharing my father's joy and glee at receiving this packet from Calcutta, but they made a strong impression after a while and the books in English, many of them were adult fiction or bound volumes of the British Government's pub -- His Majesty's Stationery publication of say "World War II" series or "History of the Railways" published by the Standard Literature Company. Those were the books which was available at Rayagada and I had access to them. The Bengali books were chidren's literature mostly. Tales about...folk tales, rhymes, nursery rhymes, and I learned to write Bengali following those books.
JD
And I remember at the age of seven or eight I wrote a poem with very silly rhymes which my father, sort of -- which transported my father into seventh heaven of happiness because I wrote in Bengali. Even before that I was sort of using language, but mostly English. Bengali was, I mean, a learned language and later a chosen language. It was only at the age of eleven that I came to Calcutta.
KM
When you came to Calcutta, what was that experience like for you?
JD
We -- you know, my sisters, my elder sisters were preparing to appear for the matriculation examination of the University of Calcutta.
JD
They used to allow private candidates from outside the -- at that time it was a province -- to sit for the matriculation examination. The eldest sister was eighteen, the second sister was fifteen or fourteen, and I was ten. We all -- when they were preparing for the exam, I insisted that I should also come along. So my first time I came to Calcutta was to sit for a test as a private candidate, and I was ten or eleven at that time. The university regulations demanded that I sit for this test, not my sisters, because women were allowed to sit without any preliminary qualifying test. So I came to Calcutta, and I enjoyed my first tram rides. It was such freedom not to have to use the family car or not to go out -- to be able to go out alone, because I returned from the tests alone from Bhawanipur to Beleghata in Calcutta.
KM
Do you remember where you were staying exactly?
JD
In Beleghata where the riots had broken out after pre-partition Great Calcutta Killing, but one of my uncles was the Chief Engineer of the Corporation [Calcutta Municipal Corporation]
KM
What was his name?
JD
His name was Arun Chakraborty and he was...he had a Corporation Bungalow next to the Palmer Bridge Pumping Station.
JD
It was a wonderful house with a garden and a big tank with fountains and a little menagerie at the back and because he had been my father's friend -- he was not a relation by marriage or blood, but we used to call him Uncle Chakraborty Kaka and I stayed there, but we had to go for the tests to what would be called downtown. Returning by tram and by bus was such freedom experience, and I remember when I came back to Rayagada I told my brother, my sibling, Alo, that look there is in Calcutta you can just pay an anna and go to any place you like and the inside of the buses are blue, and they have very soft seats and beautiful glass windows and it is... I mean the first time I visited a departmental store in Calcutta, I remember I thought that that was paradise. However even at that time I loved Rayagada more. There was a hill right behind our house, and that hill was a place where I would run away in the morning between the -- you see we had a resident tutor who had come all the way from Bengal to teach us Bengali,
JD
but after a lesson with him the first thing that I would do was to run away to that hill into a ledge in the rocks, a cave which I imagined as my sort of... all my daydreams, all my reading, all my writing was done there. And after my first exposure to Bengal and Calcutta I still thought of that hill as my home, as my real place. But after the tests my sisters couldn't make it. They failed. I did not do too well. I barely passed, but we came to Calcutta to go to college.
KM
And how old were you again?
JD
I was about eleven, twelve -- eleven
KM
So you began college --
JD
College very -- I was the youngest, almost a child and initially had problems adjusting to the adult crowd but from --
KM
What was your, I'm curious about the actual path you took geographically to college and then maybe after that more in terms of the world that you entered in college, what that was like experientially, but first how did you actually travel?
JD
From Rayagada you had to travel by train to a place called Vizianagaram, now in Andhra Pradesh,
JD
and then again an overnight train journey from Vizianagaram to Howrah Station. It was 530 miles, say about 800 kilometers. So for the first few years we visited Rayagada almost regularly. Then my father quit his job. It was -- one of my father's favorite pastimes was quitting jobs. That's part of the Datta heritage, you know. As a caste or a tribal family, the Datta's are known to be the dissidents, the naysayers. It is a matter of great pride as I told you that the village, baba's native village was called Sahas, courage, and it was he used to regard it as a matter of pride that he would throw out his job with, at the slightest suggestion that... of discipline or... He wouldn't go by the rules or obey any authority, and it has been a strain running all through the Datta family. I myself have never been able to really accept authority. I have gone to jail for that, disobeyed censorship. I have chucked university and newspapers jobs at the slightest clash with authority.
JD
Anyway, as I said baba used to chuck out, quit his jobs at the throw of a hat and he quit his Rayagada job in 1951, and that is a great year for me because I only went back to Rayagada after my wedding, as I said marriage with Meenakshi in 1956, May but ever since that time, I feel, how is it that I have no real friends there, no real roots, no real family anymore and if I go to Rayagada nobody will greet me as a native son come back. It's a sentiment which I still feel quite strongly and revisit Rayagada through Google maps, through ordinance maps, through references, through railway timetables. Anyway, we came to Calcutta and the first big family move was done very spectacularly. The train from Rayagada to Vizianagaram would pass Rayagada, say, about 9'o clock in the evening. So we had our early dinner and everything had been packed, huge pile of luggage and all this stuff, and it's a big family.
JD
Finally when my -- we are ten brothers and sisters. At that time we were six. My ma and our -- we had servants and cooks and other stuff were all piled into the huge luggage van and we went to the station, and as we approached the railroad station we saw the train going away. So we had to go by road. We had the car sort of turn around, the van sort of turn around and the truck made all the way to Vizianagaram by road to catch the mail train to Howrah, the Madras Mail. And it was, we cried, I cried all the way. They thought of city as very exciting as I told you, the tram rides. There was a British departmental store still going in Calcutta in 1949, Whiteaway Laidlaw. It was a four or five storey, huge storeys like Macy's or Bloomingdales and there were -- the inside was like an Aladdin's palace but still Rayagada was home, freedom. The forests and the rivers, I mean almost...most of the daylight hours were spent out of doors under the sky in the fields. In Calcutta, it was -- we were first of all, we stayed with a relative's family.
JD
It was a big family, and there were many cousins, aunts and it was on the lane from a main street with many trams clanging all through the day and these cousins and aunts were very...I mean, there was no sense of distance. They were all very friendly and family was strong, but I felt that I was a Telugu boy and I was a little shy with my Bengali and when I went to college
KM
Which college was this?
JD
First was St. Paul's College and then Presidency College. I mean, step by step I came to learn Bengali better, but my love for the language is the same as my love for Meenakshi.
JD
She taught me to...she introduced me to the poetry of Jibanananda Das and later to modern writers, and the -- at college I lost my shyness about Bengali and we used to have -- I took part in debating competitions where elocution meant your ability to speak English, but gradually I took part in other forms of elocution contests in Bengali and took pride in earning trophies.
KM
What kinds of competitions were those that were in Bengali?
JD
You see, there were inter-college competitions. Then a friend of mine who was among my great sort of colleagues, models, Subir Raychaudhuri, he was...
JD
his honors subject in college was Bengali and he almost took me under his wings and his -- he lived in Howrah which is on the other side of the river of Calcutta and he used to be the member of a library circle called Matra. They used to organize periodic competitions in English and in Bengali, speaking contest, debating contest, recitations and Subir almost coached me and made me attend the contests and I won prizes of...My first books of poetry were won as prizes at these library contests. Anyway I was at that time...I was...I used to go initially wearing shorts to college and was like treated as a kid, but the fact that there were girl students made me change, become more conscious of my manners. My jungle ways were lost. I used to dress -- I began to dress like city folks and soon I was smoking and going to coffee house [College Street Coffee House].
KM
How old were you about that time when you started going to the coffee house and so forth?
JD
Thirteen, Fourteen, and started smoking at a very early age, fourteen, and then joined the Communist students group, Students Federation, and when I was competing for school government positions Meenakshi, who wouldn't vote for me because I belonged to the ultra left group and
KM
What was that group called?
JD
Students Federation. We worshipped Stalin and read about and subscribed to Soviet magazines, Soviet literature, Soviet Union and when Stalin [Joseph Stalin] died I remember that one of my college professors, he couldn't go on with the class, you see. He was sweeping, his eyes were swollen.
KM
Do you remember his name?
JD
Yes, he was AB, that is... my memory oh God. He was a very important part of my growing up. I will have to ask Meenakshi.
KM
His name will come.
JD
He was very bright, a wonderful teacher and had great influence over his students. And eighty percent of the teachers were leftists and most of the students were. I remember a conversation we had, Amartya [Amartya Sen] and I on top of a ... at that time I was beginning to shed my Stalinism, and he was about to go off to Cambridge, and we had this discussion I remember on top of this, on top deck of a 2B bus on the way to Meenakshi's home at Rash Behari Avenue. He said -- I said that I am discovering that I am not a Bolshevik at all and what about you? And he said, "I am not a Bolshevik. I am a Guild Socialist." And I said, "yes, I am a Guild Socialist too."
JD
And we were stuffing ourselves with William Morris and The Fabians [The Fabian Society] and Christopher Caudwell, that was -- but in the, along the way we were also...we first of all there were Gandhians [Mohandas Gandhi] among us. Gandhians were a small group but strong and they had...they were people who didn't smoke, who wore khadi, and they were a distinct group.
KM
Do you remember who some of those students were?
JD
Among you see Alok Ranjan was a Tagorian [Rabindranath Tagore] and a Gandhite both together, a feat which he achieved, and he used to wear khadi all the time.
JD
There were others, I don't remember any special names, but Jharna [Jharna Gourlay] was a Gandhite and she, Jharna, whom you met in Calcutta last January, she went against the tide and organized a Gandhi Jayanti Day on Gandhi's birthday, October 2 and one of my friends Suniti Bose was a Gandhite and he was General Secretary of the Students Union. But mostly the general feeling was anti-America, anti-West, anti-colonial and pro-Russian though we took very great care to distance ourselves also from Nehru [Jawaharlal Nehru], from any establishment, from any authority, and our kind of communism was very vague. It did not involve -- though initially I must say that we did receive secret lessons in guerrilla warfare and militant Marxism. In 1949, '50, '51 in first year at Presidency College and we had organized a secret cell, but it formed and broke up in no time.
KM
Who was teaching?
JD
The teaching -- well, one of the founders was again I have forgotten his first name, another Chakrabarty who wrote a big fat book on Marxism his son is now at the University of Chicago. You know, my memory has gone blank, but anyway he used to -- we used to sort of pretend at avoiding surveillance by sort of going to a friend's house and then sneaking out of the back door, following a secret path to the meeting place where Professor Chakrabarty would come with a briefcase and had the door shut and look this way and that and then bring out his pamphlets and there were six or seven of us including one who would marry my sister, Akhtar Ahmed, on those but let me tell you, there was no -- Communism or Marxism as we knew it freed us from anti-Islam, caste feelings,
JD
also from any strong nationalistic feelings. It was all international and all brotherly and comradely, and as I said Akhtar and I were the greatest friends. We still are, though now he just moans about how our early ideals have all disappeared. I don't think our - our ideals have changed but they have not disappeared. I still keep on getting into problems with authority or governments and...Anyway, at that time in early 1950s communism was very strong, and I remember trams burning on the streets. Yet among the heroes of that period is Amlan Dutta, who refused to get down from a burning tram because he was a Gandhite and he would oppose...he made known his protest. He said no to the prevailing tide all the time. I will go ask them to get the air conditioning. All right, these debates were a very important kind of education we were having, and the debates at Presidency College were star-studded affairs. On one side were the Marxists, the recently returned from England barristers and professionals.
JD
They would speak exquisite English, Oxford English, Queen's English. On the other hand the Gandhites or the pro-democracy people spoke Indian English. First thing is that the Leftists ones were very...they drove cars. Amlan-da would come. He had a Byronic [Lord Byron] limp and he would sort of use public transport. So yet the...I remember that I met Meenakshi at one such debate -- I mean actually she came to know me at one such debate between a visiting American, Californian students team and the Presidency College team.
KM
Do you remember what that year was and what was debated?
JD
Yes, that was 1953, and I was a fierce communist at that time, and I slammed yankee imperialism in such strong terms that the Californian students were livid with rage I spoke against Dulles [John Foster Dulles] and Marshall Plan and how the yankees were trying to destroy the world with a nuclear war and peace was most important and only brotherhood of the proletariat would establish peace and all that, not crap, that was very real and I...the American team was...I mean they wanted to speak, give a rejoinder, but they were prevented from replying to my final speech, and so the USIS [United States Information Service] organized a party as a sort of a post-debate discussion group, and it was there that I met Meenakshi.
KM
Where was the original debate?
JD
Presidency College, Baker Laboratory Auditorium, and it was being moderated by a very beautiful elegant gentleman Captain Mahmood who also was pinkish. He had had a British education, then had joined the Indian Army in the first year of the World War II, and then had opted for the educational service and then after partition he went to Dhaka, but found the provincial atmosphere too sort of oppressive. Like Mustafa Ali, he was a Calcutta man. It was Captian Mahmood who was moderating the discussion. I remember he was trying to pretend that the debate was an English parliamentary debate. Frankly nobody would listen. It was a riot, a free for all at the end. Anyway 1953, yes 1953.
KM
That's where you met Meenakshi?
JD
It was because of that I gained a fleeting notoriety. I was regarded as "Red Jyoti" and you know I was giving, holding little group meetings in Presidency College corridors after that sort of and for a brief week I was the talk of the college. So when this party was organized I was expecting Meenakshi to be there. I had already seen her. I admired her from a distance, but didn't have the nerves to pick up. It's when we turned up for the party I found out that she was not there. So I asked one of the organizers about her and then went to her house. This was a post-party. The first party was organized by USIS
KM
Where was this?
JD
At Chowringhee Mansions. Then after that there was a return party organized by the Presidency College group at the home of a former Congress leader who was the whip of the Congress Legislative Party, at his home which was at 1 Mandeville Gardens. When I came there I was a kind of a sort of a guest of honor, and when I found that Meenakshi was not there, I said, "what about her?" We had decided on a guest list. So Meera...was it Meera? Anyway, one of the organizers agreed to come with me. They had cut Meenakshi's name out because she was...They thought that she would monopolize the attention
KM
Because?
JD
She would hog all the attention.
KM
Why would she hog all the attention?
JD
She was, she was very attractive physically and she was very witty and she, I mean she was Buddhadeb's [Buddhadeb Basu]-- but nobody thought of her as Buddhadeb's daughter, but she was...as you can see from, she I went to her house and said to her that the party -- I am not going to go to the party if you don't come, and she came and then and she there was...she lit my cigarette symbolically and after that...Yes...I don't know where... Amartya did not attend that party, nor was he at this debate.
KM
Who were the other -- in the debating world who were -- do you remember other people who were respected
JD
Yes
KM
or who respected you or that world?
JD
One was Vishwanathan, whose son Ashoka Vishwanathan is now a filmmaker of repute; Jolly Kaul, the Communist MLA; Hiren Mukherjee, leader of the opposition, he was a frequent speaker. Who else? Amlan Dutta whom I mentioned...Many others.
JD
How is it that I can't recall? Utpal Dutt, the actor, have you seen his movies? He was so witty, so beautiful and his delivery and his English was -- we were dazzled. So was Hiren Mukherjee. You know, Nehru admired Hiren Mukherjee's oratory, his big sort of house of common styles and speeches in Lok Sabha. And we as young kids were dazzled. Jolly Kaul, he was a barrister. Sadhan Gupta, he too was an MLA, but they would not just condescend. They used to regard it as part of their social responsibility to take part in Presidency College debates. Every Friday afternoon 3'o clock. This was very important. There was also Rabindra Parisad at Presidency College which was important in our growing up, the Tagore Society.
KM
And what would happen at the Tagore Society?
JD
Mostly of course singing of Tagore songs and once a year staging of a Tagore play, but there were also seminars, discussions in the library hall. The old Presidency College Library was...it had on one side a glass case in which we saw the attendance register with Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's signature on it saying present, present, present. On the other end was the portrait of Percival [Hugh Melville Percival], the Shakespearean scholar and busts of various early dignitaries. This was the college founded by -- it was initially known as Hindu College financed and funded by Raja Radhakanta Deb and others and among the earliest teachers were Henry Vivian Derozio and Derozio's sort of spirit was all over the place, young dissenters thought smoking cigarettes and although, I hadn't had my first drink at that time, alcoholic drink, but some of our college English literature undergraduates did make it a point to have sipped beer before their English literature classes.
KM
We have been going on for about an hour, so I should, you know, wrap it up so as not to overburden you, but I hope that I might come back and continue on from here about your experience
JD
Oh, it would be lovely to talk about those days but my memory as you know plays me tricks. You know, sometimes I get all these years and names perfect and at others only the smell and the sensual touch is more important than the precise data or facts, but Presidency College and the coffee house, the coffee house across the street which was one of the more important sort of classrooms, I rarely attended the lectures but in the smoke-filled rooms of the coffee house teachers and students meet. Amlan-da was always a big presence.
JD
Sambhu Mitra, the actor, Utpal Dutt and among my classmates some have become, risen to important academic and political positions, others have vanished into anonymity but they -- At that time each was either a Bertrand Russell or a Schopenhauer [Arthur Schopenhauer] or John Keats or Byron and very stimulating intellectual company and the coffee house, Rupa and Company Bookshop and the bookshops down below and the old second hand books on the railings of Presidency College and the grounds of Baker Laboratory were away from the world. We were on equal terms with the girls. It was a co-educational college, and Jharna was among my best friends at that time...and I mean I have been... I feel that without that kind of student community -- it was not that the college syllabus was any good or that the Calcutta University prescribed text books was any good, but the student community was so vibrant and among my classmates as I said was Jharna, Amartya Sen, Sukhamoy Chakravarty, Benoy Chaudhuri.
JD
It was a small group of the best students from all over Bengal, and at that time it was -- Presidency College was the place where everybody went to, I mean who could qualify.
KM
Did you feel the -- You mentioned the American students came. One thing that's marked that cohort is a sense of being at home in the world, that the way, that their level of discussion and debate was bar none, or was on par I should say with discussions happening elsewhere in the world?
JD
Yeah
KM
Where did that come from? Where did that sensibility arise from?
JD
This was a great burst of, I think, reading, talking, learning but yes, you're right. When we were confronted with groups at the British Council or Alliance Francaise or the USIS, we didn't feel that the -- in fact, we sometimes looked down upon them because their reading was not as wide-ranging. Sukhamoy Chakravarty, even I mean he used to walk around with just books, books, books, and this...we used to make fun of him by saying that even when he was making love he would talk about Greek tragedy but that was it. People were reading, even I, although I was more of a grasshopper or a butterfly than a bee, but even I was, I did most of my reading at that time,
JD
Dostoevsky [Fyodor Dostoevsky] and Tolstoy [Leo Tolstoy] and Sartre [Jean-Paul Sartre] and Camus [Albert Camus] came and went like --
KM
And these books were where? Where did you get the books?
JD
Oh, first of all one of the greatest, you know, I had -- the New Directions [New Directions Publishing] book was great for modern European and American literature. Lorca [Federico Garcia Lorca], Neruda [Pablo Neruda], Valery [Paul Valery], Mallarme [Stephane Mallarme], Rilke [Rainer Maria Rilke], all these and at that time there was no restriction on the import of books.
JD
So at Rupa and Company, at Chatterjee Brothers, at CO Book Stall we would get all the latest American publications and perhaps because of the rupee alignment or whatever it was I used to read not just the latest books but also Scrutiny published, edited by the professor at Cambridge, F.R. Leavis who was such an iconoclast and he was destroying all the previous criterions of literature and we would get it the next month. The import restrictions were imposed later in the '50s, but in the early 50's we had access to and because some of us were avid readers others were forced to read it too to keep up with the, you know, it was a milieu of contemp -- both Sukhamoy who was known as...I mean Sukhamoy was a very brilliant economist whose death I think robbed Amartya of his great peer and rival, but Sukhamoy was the sort of clearing house and the great reader, and he would -- before the days of internet it was by hearsay, by reading, by competing with others that you came to across...
JD
and I remember reading Lorca, Rilke, and Valery in New Directions translations and editions in the early '50s. So Sukhamoy, however was - I mean he read many of the works in the original language. He was good in German and French. I am no good at languages. My language is limited to Telugu, Tamil, Bengali and English, but we were reading, reading, reading at night and writing at night. My first poem was published by -- You know, Buddhadeb was in America at the time when I first met Meenakshi, but by the time he had returned I had sent my -- Meenakshi persuaded me to send my poems to Kabita and although he... He was very unhappy with our going out together. But he was editor enough to publish my poems although he did not at all approve of our friendship.
KM
Do you remember the specific issue in which your first poem was published?
JD
I think it was 1954 or '55. Meenakshi remembers that and she is -- in the "Best of Kabita" it is there, and Buddhadeb included me in his anthology, but anyway the...believe it, I am at times a little shocked at the materialism that I encounter among my children or grandchildren. At that time to us -- as Amartya Sen said that he always wanted to be a teacher, I wanted to be the writer of very difficult verse, and I remember saying aloud that I do not want to be a popular writer or a bestseller. I want to be read only by a few, by very hermetic and ivory tower, difficult writer who will not be understood by his contemporaries but whose work will be read generations later for the secret meaning, and that was the sort of magic or the glow which really was important.
KM
And when you said that, who did you think, or who was the model or was there a figure that you?
JD
Yes, Rimbaud [Arthur Rimbaud] and partly Mallarme but Rimbaud and John Keats and Jibanananda Das. Well, Jibanananda's later poems understood by so few, not even by his early champions like Buddhadeb and still, I still feel that there is no poetry like that, and no language of my knowledge and last year before leaving Calcutta, I was asked by a newspaper to write something, and I wrote on a poem by Jibanananda in which I sort of quoted lines I said which could apply to the Wall Street crash and the mortgage debacle and people rushing to buy houses at bargain and the collapse and the sudden realization of billionaires that they are no different from beggars and I mean the
KM
Which poem was it?
JD
It is called "1947", that's the title of the poem. But it is true about 2008 and 2009 and the imagery is -- the language, it is so difficult to -- I could read it to you. Once I read the poems to Clint [Clinton Seely] to make him see what was happening and it was a very rare combination of a sort of catalytic thing. At that time in Calcutta there was something going on, a different kind of chemistry and we were all, we called ourselves dialectical materialists but we were not materialists in any sense. We just hated the idea of competing for IAS [Indian Administrative Service]. I mean that was the lowest of the low. If you were brilliant, the first thing you would do is to burn all your boats, wave goodbye to a career, damage every relationship and destroy this establishment.
JD
In fact, a member of Krittibas had this motto: the real poet accepts no literary awards. It is sad that the editor of that magazine is now the President of Sahitya Akademi and he hands out the awards every year.. But that was the way it was. It has to be utterly without these even suggestions of any worldly gain or motive and you would be free of all influences, all powers that you would say this to the President of this state or that to the General Secretary of that party. The independence of the mind, the complete clarity of thought, the history lies under your feet to the horizon and all poetry and literature, whatever, is yours
KM
Thank you.
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