About the Book
This collection of essays, spanning the author's academic career, starts by looking back to his early experience of Bengal in Barisal, Bangladesh, hometown of Bengali poet Jibanananda Das, and goes on to analyze some important works of Bangla literature.
One of the most prominent genres of premodern Bangla literature, the mangal kavya, is examined in detail with attention paid both to Bharatcandra Ray's eighteenth-century classic Annada Mangal and to Rabindranath Tagore's effective use of that very mangal-kavya structure to inform his twentieth century dance-drama, "Taser Desh" (Land of the Cards). The nineteenth century is represented by Mir Mosharraf Hosain's prose retelling of Hasan and Hosain's martyrdom, and by playwright and poet Michael Madhusudan Datta' s iconoclastic epic poem, "The Slaying of Meghanada. "
The study of twentieth-century writers begins with an appreciation of the poems of Jibanananda Das, and a reinterpretation of "Banalata Sen" based on a new reading of one particular word. The essays in this section include a study of Tagore's novella "Charulata," about his sister-in-law, Kadambari, and its subsequent translation onto celluloid by Satyajit Ray, while another focuses on novelist Rizia Rahman's exploration of questions of identity, national and ethnic, through her fictional Anglo- Indian De Cruz family of Chittagong, Bangladesh's southeast port city.
The volume concludes with a look at several English-language authors of the South Asian diaspora, a modern subset of Bangla literature, including Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
About the Author
Clinton B. Seely's lifelong engagement with Bangla literature and language began when he went to serve for two years at the Barisal Zilla School in East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) as an adjunct science teacher.
His books include translations of Buddhadeva Bose's novel Rain through the Night; with Leonard Nathan of a collection of Sakta devotional lyrics by Ramprasad titled Grace and Mercy in Her Wild Hair: Selected Poems to the Mother Goddess; and of Michael Madhusudan Datta's epic poem, The Slaying of Meghanada: A Ramayana from Colonial Bengal, which received the A.K. Ramanujan Book Prize for Translation, awarded by the South Asian Council of the Association of Asian Studies. He is also the author of A Poet Apart: A Literary Biography of the Bengali Poet Jibanananda Das (1899-1954) which was honored with the "Ashoke Kumar Sarkar" Ananda Prize in 1993.
Now retired, Professor Seely taught literature and the Bangla language at the University of Chicago for thirty-five years.
T his will be part a self-introduction followed by my readings of two poems of Jibanananda Das. In truth, both parts are segments of the one composite introduction of myself, for no one can read a poem and attempt to interpret it without revealing something about him- or herself. I shall start with the more prosaic aspect-the time in my life before I met Jibanananda through his poetry.
It was the early 1960s, and I was in college. Like many an American undergraduate midway through four years of schooling, I was excited by any number of new experiences but was committed at that point to nothing in particular. I had spent half of my sophomore year in Italy at Stanford's campus in Florence, then hitchhiked through parts of Europe for another three months. At some point in my junior year, I settled upon biology as a reasonable major, thinking I might want to do graduate work in botany, specifically in the field of agricultural seed research-what today we would call genetic engineering-and take part in what came to be called the Green Revolution.
During my senior year, I rather halfheartedly applied to a graduate program in biology and was accepted with ample fellowship support. Even so, I continued seeking any and all options of what to pursue after graduation. The Vietnam War was in full swing at the time. Going to war to save the world for democracy and from Ho Chi Minh was the one postgraduate option I knew I did not wish to exercise.
While searching through the files of the office of counseling and career placement, I came across a little-known academic exchange program recently initiated between Stanford and Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. A year in East Africa struck me at the time as an intriguing way to spend the next twelve months, so I applied and was granted the one fellowship available. Now the choice was between graduate school in biology in the States or a year of study with a curriculum of my own choosing at Makerere in Kampala. The year abroad in a new and very different culture appealed strongly.
Before having to respond to either fellowship offer, I got a call from the Peace Corps office in Washington, DC. I had applied to the Peace Corps as just one more possibility of what to do with myself after completing my bachelor's degree. Because of my training in the sciences, the Peace Corps recruiter in Washington invited me to join a collaborative Ford Foundation Peace Corps project as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I would be stationed in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), where my job would entail working with the science teachers at a district school. As soon as I hung up, I headed straight for an atlas to find out precisely where in the world East Pakistan was. Soon thereafter, and feeling utterly exhilarated, I made my decision. East Pakistan it would be-two years of working with science teachers, two years of working abroad. And that began what was to be a lifetime of learning about, writing about, and teaching about our shared part of the world, Bengal.
I spent the summer of 1963 at the University of Chicago as a Peace Corps Volunteer in training. By early autumn our group of a dozen or so science graduates had arrived in Dhaka, putting up at the Peace Corps hostel in the Bakshi Bazaar neighborhood. A week or so later, I headed for Narayongunge to board the large side-wheel steamer for the overnight journey down the massive Meghna waterway, stopping only at Chandpur before tying up alongside the landing stage in Barisal on the bank of the much smaller river, the Kirtonkhola.
In Barisal, I lived at the Barisal Zilla School, "zilla" meaning "district." No matter that the district's name was actually Bakhargunge then; Barisal dominated as its main town, the administrative center of Bakhargunge District. And when I say I lived at the school, I mean quite literally" at the school." A one story building housed the headmaster's office, the anteroom of the head kerani or administrative secretary, the teachers' room where a lively game of carom seemed always to be in progress, a central assembly hall, and ten or so classrooms. There was a second building, much the newer of the two, with two floors containing only classrooms, plus a water tap and latrine on the ground floor. I lived in an unused classroom on the top floor of the second building. I had a cook, a very elderly Christian Bengali man by the name of Jon Byapari, who came twice a day to prepare meals for me on a little kerosene stove set up in one corner of my classroom apartment. He did the marketing too and still worked in the old monetary system of sixteen annas to the rupee, four paisa to the anna, as did all the merchants in the market. Only the older, single- storied building at the school was electrified, so Jon would do his cooking in the evening by the light of a hurricane lantern. And I had my own lantern to read and write by, after dark.
On those evenings when I chose not to stay in my classroom quarters, I would often make my way to the local office of the United States Information Service. A number of very vibrant professors from Barisal's first and, at that time, only institution of higher learning, Brojo Mohun College, gathered nightly at the office of the director, Golam Kibriah. It was at Kibriah Shaheb's office that I first experienced the most Bengali of social gatherings, the adda. The central figure in this particular adda, Kibriah Shaheb, would regale us all with interesting facts and figures and, not surprisingly, Tagore's poetry.
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