A translation of Annada Shankar’s Teler Shishi with commentary
The Jar of Oil
Annada Shankar Roy
Translated by Monish R Chatterjee
Little Khuku breaks a jar of oil,
And here you are fighting mad
Yet you, grown-up kids, breaking up, dividing our Bharat
You say ain’t half as bad
Well, what then? What then? What then?
There you go, breaking up districts, breaking up counties
Breaking up holdings and farms, homes and shanties
Willy nilly you break up jute mills and silos of grains
Factories that bring products, and tracks that carry trains
Well, what then? What then? What then?
Coal mines, tea estates, college classes, office spaces
Chairs, tables, fixtures, wall clocks and book cases
Peons who labor at odd jobs, police who keep the peace
Even professors imparting knowledge, pushed over the precipice
Warships, fighter planes, battle tanks and armored cars
Rocket launchers, camels and horses, these too you grown-ups parse
Taking apart and divvying up, looting but a work of art
Well, what then? What then? What then?
The Bengali novelist, poet and social commentator, Annada Shankar Roy (1904-2002), ASR, lived right through the most intense years of the Indian struggle for liberation from British colonial rule. While that struggle historically dates back to the mid-1700s, beginning with the occurrence and aftermath of the infamous Battle of Plassey (1757), and a century later, the historic Sepoy Mutiny (1858) leading to the subcontinent coming under British imperial rule- it was after the annulment of the original Partition of Bengal proposal put forth by Lord Curzon, in 1905, accompanied by extensive popular action and demonstrations across Bengal (then undivided) which created the greatest ferment around the nation in terms of fighting against the colonial oppression with a united front across ethnic and religious boundaries. Even before Gandhi, upon his return from South Africa, took over the primary political lead of the movement, figures such as the peerless poet and philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore, had already offered up highly effective yet hauntingly simple verses highlighting people’s innermost desires and defiance of official edicts of divisiveness.
Tagore’s history-making role in walking the streets of Bengal in the effort to bring all of Bengal’s brothers and sisters together in communal harmony defying the official edict is especially memorable for the song, Banglar Mati Banglar Jal which is remembered with great fondness to this day. This potent song, along with BidhirBandhanKatbeTumi, have great historic relevance to the human and social implications of the trauma of partition which has plagued the colonized world for centuries. I shall discuss this aspect based on Tagore’s work elsewhere.
The subject of politically and geographically engineered partitions of a people, usually an outcrop of purely racist colonial machinations (whose evidence is scattered across the world to this day), is understandably vast and has uncountable shades of interpretations. Not surprisingly, the partition of India, and specifically of Punjab and Bengal (two provinces which in my judgment exhibited some of the most intense protests against British colonial occupation of India, and perhaps for that reason alone, were in the cross-hairs of the colonial masters for a back-handed retribution when finally withdrawing from the zone of two centuries of relentless exploitation and loot, including the creation of a ghastly famine in Bengal in 1942) has been portrayed and discussed in a great many literary and socio-cultural tracts.
In this article, I shall attempt to provide some contextual perspectives by simply limiting myself to the socio-political implications scattered across the apparently innocuous nursery rhyme of the Bengali author, thinker and avant-garde progressive poet, Annada Shankar Roy (1904-2002). It is known that as with many other noted authors and creative artists (including the path-breaking maker of alternative films, RitwikGhatak, and authors ManikBandyopadhyay, Bonophool, TarashankarBandyopadhyay, AdwaitaMallaburman, and also filmmakers Nemai Ghosh (Chhinnamul, 1951), Shantipriya Mukherjee (Refugee, 1959), BuddhadebDasgupta (Tahader Katha, 1992), TanvirMokammel (Chitra Nadir Pare, 1999), and documentary maker Supriyo Sen (Way Back Home, 2002)), Annada Shankar Roy also expressed his opposition to and dismay at the disfiguring and destructive trauma of desh-bhag (or partitioning of a human habitat) in several poems following August, 1947.
Objectively speaking, while rendering a serious subject such as the lasting bruise and trauma of an ethnic and geographic partition and the associated immeasurable human cost in a children’s nursery rhyme may appear to be the use of a relatively lightweight medium, I would consider it in fact a rather brilliant use of a forum which relatively easily enters into the psyche of a populace. It is in the same vein as, say, the lasting effectiveness of a folk-rendering of the tragic lore associated with the hanging of the (virtually) child-martyr, Khudiram Bose (1889-1908) on the British gallows well ahead of the Gandhian era. This deeply moving song (“ekbarbidaye de Ma ghureaashi”) of a shaheedattained the status of an anthem throughout Bengal and later India because of the spontaneous connection to the psyche such folklorish compositions generate automatically. Not surprisingly, the song played a memorable role in the 1960s biographical Bengali film, Subhas Chandra.
Of special note here is the clear layering of partitioning and divisionism laid out in casual tones in ASR’s anti-partition rhyme. Of course, to set the tone for the rhyme, he first places the grown-up world up for accountability for their seemingly childish, yet infinitely more destructive behavior in literally breaking up entirecommunities of people at will, and yet moralizing little children for minor infractions or accidents. This is an indictment of clearly pre-meditatedand ultimately immoral adult behavior.
In the second stanza ASR highlights fallouts from any large-scale geographic partition: the large scale fragmentation immediately leads to further fragmentations in terms of regional districts and counties, farmlands and holdings; of course, homes and even the shanties of the poor are not spared from the resulting carnage. It is fragmentation and displacement of the highest order, from the largest to the smallest scales (much like turbulence eddies studied in science).
ASR then goes on to apply the connective thread of jute mills and grain silos to this disruptive listing. It remains an absolute fact that even in post-independence India, the previously thriving and prosperous jute and cotton mills of Bengal (which accounted for much of the prosperity of Bengal among Indian provinces through the entire Mughal period and even through much of the British occupation) went into sharp decline, and in most instances simply evaporated. And perhaps most ironically a great many industrialized cotton mills ended up in Gandhi’s backyard, Gujarat (where the latter’s biggest platform during the entire freedom campaign had been khadi and home-spun, and the symbolism of the charkha, the spinning wheel). In a simply rhyming couplet ASR has highlighted this devastation from which definitely the Indian part of Bengal (post-partition West Bengal) is still reeling in many ways. The grain silo analogy could well apply to the Punjab, India’s granary or bread basket, also partitioned, and also disfigured. Note also how the factory floors and train tracks also strongly resonate with partition-based segregation. The factory floor under religion-based partition obviously connotes serious disruption of any interaction between ethnic communities in secular spirit. Several partition-related stories and narratives have dwelt on the disruption of the railroad across the divide (cf. Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan). In the Indian experience, this happened on both the Western and Eastern fronts. To this day, on the east side, there is a complete lack of direct railroad transportation between Bangladesh (the erstwhile East Pakistan) and the Indian states, including West Bengal, Tripura and Assam which border the artificially carved out nation. I experienced this first-hand in 2013 when, faced with a possible flight cancellation out of Agartala, Tripura to Kolkata, West Bengal, to my utter dread I learned that the only alternative to the 2-hour flight was a harrowing 3-day train trip along the perimeter of the divide.
In stanza 3, ASR extends partition’s disruptive outreach to more common areas of human activities. Herein, we find broken up coal mines (whereby the mining sources and the processing facilities could well get separated and disconnected by the political fragmentation) and tea estates (once again creating severance of the symbiosis between neighboring plantations and harvesting areas), classrooms with reduced diversity and intercultural stimulation, office spaces with much more homogeneity and much less watercooler talk. ASR takes this consequential picture down to spiteful divvying up of personal holdings even in an office setting, including office furniture, clocks and bookcases. Such, in ASR’s description, is the divisive pettiness of the adult world. Special mention is also made of those in the workforce who by the very nature of their work have an integrative effect on the community- the peon (mailman), the policeman, and also the professor in the classroom- all habitually in contact with a cross-section of the population. Clearly, partition adversely affects these integrative elements within a community.
The final stanza sums up the divisiveness and intolerance which drive the psychology of partition; ASR portrays here the outright aggressive stance of divided communities (political, geographic, religious, ethnic). Mistrust, xenophobia, and zealotry lead to the accumulation of more instruments of warfare- fighter planes, warships, battle tanks, armored battle tanks (add to this lethal list the far more deadly nuclear and chemical weapons which have proliferated by since ASR’s time). Sage advice and words of warning from a visionary who spoke to the partition-wielders giving voice to the multitudes shocked into silence by the carnage which followed August 15, 1947.
Dr. Monish R. Chatterjee, a professor at the University of Dayton who specializes in applied optics, has contributed more than 120 papers to technical conferences, and has published more than 60 papers in archival journals and conference proceedings, in addition to numerous reference articles on science. He has also authored several literary essays and four books of literary translations from his native Bengali into English (Kamalakanta, Profiles in Faith, Balika Badhu, and Seasons of Life). Dr. Chatterjee believes strongly in humanitarian activism for social justice.
- “Politics and Melodrama: The Partition Cinema of Ritwik Ghatak,”Harvard Film Archive, 2008. URL: http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2008janfeb/ghatak.html.
- Partitioned Lives: Narratives of Home, Displacement, and Resettlement. Edited by Anjali Gera Roy and Nandi Bhatia, Pearson (2007).
- Basu Roy, Iraban, “Deshbhaag O RitwikGhataker Cinema,” Nillohit, pp.177-184 (2005).
- Chakrabarti, Dipendu, “Desh-Bibhaag O Bangla Cholochchitre Neo-Realism,” in Somdatta Mandal and SuklaHazra (eds.), Banga-Bibhaag: Samajik, Sanskritik O RajnaitikPratiphalan, Madhyamgram: Vivekananda College (2002).
- Partition-related Bengali films (cited in text).
[Note: The above article appeared recently in the ISPaD partition Center Journal, Jamaica, NYC, 2018, and also in Opednews.com]