Crow, Donkey, Poet: Sumana Roy on the Useless in the Poetic
“Through difference and repetition, the useless is smuggling in poetry and the poetic in language.”
Often, at the beginning of the semester, a crow flies through the classroom.
This is usually after the introductions—I ask my students what brings them to the poetry workshop I am teaching, then about what they understand as the “poetic”; and, just before the class is about to end that day, a few of them will return the question: What do you understand as the poetic?
Imagine your class photograph being taken at the end of an academic year, I tell them. All of you are being disciples of the genre—some of you are seated, others standing behind them. Suddenly, just as the photographer is about to hit the shutter, a crow flies into the frame. The photographer lets the crow remain in the photo. You decide to visit your college with your family twenty years later. You go to the room where all the class photos hang on walls. And you tell your family or companions, “My class photo is easy to find. There’s a crow in it.”It is what I understand as the poetic: something seemingly unexpected and even useless, but something that brings in the surplus necessary to art.
All the other class photos are information. Your class photo is art. The crow didn’t study with you, and is not supposed to be in the photograph, but, because it is, the photograph has become memorable—it is different from its neighbours in that room, it is what makes it easily identifiable, and it is what I understand as the poetic: something seemingly unexpected and even useless, but something that brings in the surplus necessary to art.
We are having tea when my niece, Ankhi, visiting after more than half a decade, makes a remark about tea. “Why do Bengalis say cha-ta and not just cha?”
Cha is, of course, the Bangla word for tea. Ankhi, whom I call by her nickname Tutai, doesn’t realize that she’s triggered something that will almost take over the evening. Her parents, her two uncles, her brother and I, and she herself pounce upon the opportunity with unexpected enthusiasm. Bangla, the language, becomes a sport and we players. “Ja-ta,” “Natok-tatok,” we begin throwing examples at one another.
After this list, which shows no sign of retiring, conspiracy theories emerge. My favorite among them is Tutai’s: “It plays on ambiguity. ‘Cha’ is quite specific—the tea. ‘Ta’ is ambiguous—it could mean snacks to accompany the tea, one doesn’t really know what the items on the menu might be.”
Her father wonders whether there is any other language in the world in which such a tendency can be overheard. “No, no,” we say in Bangla—na na—almost echoing what we are discussing, the repetition of sounds. Unlike in English, where a single “no” means “no,” in spoken Bangla, particularly in domestic and intimate spaces, the negative must come in a pair: “na na.”
At some point during our conversation, much after we’d finished eating—perhaps triggered by the sound of the chocolate wrappers—I mention Abanindranath Tagore to them. One of us must have used the onomatopoeic phrase “mawch mawch,” used for eating something crunchy. “My copy of Jorasankor Dharey is marked with this, you know,” I say. “Every page has at least more than six of these expressions that I have circled with blue or green ink. I’ve not read anything like that book in my life.”
Here are a few examples of the sounds from the first few pages of Jorasankor Dharey: jhan jhan, kator kator, chupi chupi, taley taley, sho sho, bawro bawro, bhatey bhat, khoratey khoratey, thhokthhokiye, choop choop, chhoop chhoop, jhupur jhoop, shottyi shottyi, kortey kortey, jhamajham, tawlaye tawlaye, takangding takangding, sarkar barkar, gurguri, guruk bhuruk, ho ho, paliye paliye, dhosta dhosti, chhobi tobi, dekhey dekhey, kochi kochi, dhoop dhaap, chhurey chhurey, cheye cheye, hoi hoi, dariye dariye, dekhtey dekhtey, topatop, bhoye bhoye, aek aek, ghoorghoor, chhoto chhoto, aekla aekla, oligoli, chok chok, mota mota, ooki jhooki, jhuri jhuri, shongey shongey, thhekey thhekey, ditey ditey, top top dhop dhop, bho bho, bhonhonani, chook chookey, boshey boshey, ulteu ultey, aye aye, bokom bokom, bokay bokay, kuriye kuriye, shari shari, mutho mutho, danaye danaye, kheye kheye, khuleu khuley, thhook thhak, dami dami, kaley kaley, ghulghuli, choopchaap, tung tang.
One doesn’t need to know the Bangla language to be able to see what’s happening: either words—sounds, to be more precise—are being repeated exactly (as for, instance, in “majhey majhey”) or they are being distorted slightly, so that the second sound is a rhyming sound, an imperfect echo of the word that carries meaning (as in “cha ta”). Sometimes there’s also this in Bangla: a repetition of the meaning of the word in the construction: “chhai-bhashmo,” “chhai” and “bhashmo” are both ash; “jodi by chance” meaning “if by chance.” Through difference and repetition, the useless is smuggling in poetry and the poetic in language.
In my head, I have been calling this repetition the unexpected echo. I do not know where this comes from, I’ve only noticed its effect—the ripples of sound around another. I’m not a linguist and am thus able to say this only as an inhabitant of the language, the way one notices the behavior of the windows or floor in one’s house, I suppose. It is about the peculiarity of a temperament, of a people brought together by climate and its accidents.
What is one to make of the tendency to repeat, to echo, to become the word and its shadow? When I, perhaps nudged by T. S. Eliot, think of the shadow between a word and its echo, I also find myself thinking of the myths of Echo and Narcissus and the punishment given to Echo, where only the last few sounds of her utterance would be audible. What was punishment—a loss of syllables, a taking away of the starting sounds—for the Greek imagination becomes addition in the Bengali imagination.
This useless sound of repetition and rhyme perhaps also reveals a temperament that is unsure, maybe slightly hesitant about being specific, but also excess, and what Rabindranath Tagore called “surplus.” Though it is a linguistic show of abundance, it also shows that nothing can be taken very seriously or at face value. It might have been this seeming uselessness that Rabindranath understood as the rhythm of the poetic, “the movement generated and regulated by harmonious restriction… like a motionless flame that is nothing but movement.”I say “useless” not to pass judgment, but to report a kind of ascription to a manner of thinking and speaking whose spirit and impulse is not based on an idea of utility.
This habit of Bangla—or its mannerism, called “dhonnatok shobdo” in Bangla—is literary language in its most basic sense. It is the language of playfulness, of irony, of suspicion, of calling out frauds, of unexpected echoes, of rhyme, of dance, of subterfuge, of hiding, of subtlety, of mimicry, of parody, even of self-parody, of blunder, of caution, of ambiguity, of gain and loss, of sound and metre, of dhvani, in the end, of poetry. Notice how this rhyming pair, which sometimes seems to have the quasi-incantatory character of the mantra, finds its poetry and beauty through two seemingly contradictory things—surplus and uselessness.
This is how poetry is smuggled into a language daily, unselfconsciously, where every user of the language is allowed to be a poet in this manner, where the anonymous first creators of such word-pairs live amidst us through language like they do in folk songs. This is how all of us who live in the language come to belong to a literary tradition.
I say “useless” not to pass judgment, but to report a kind of ascription to a manner of thinking and speaking whose spirit and impulse is not based on an idea of utility. It was perhaps a recognition of this waste in language being extremely necessary—if not central—to the idea of the poetic that made Sukumar Ray, a poet of nonsense rhymes in early 20th-century Bengal, call his collection Abol Tabol. “Bol” implies word or sound, even speech; “abol” was its opposite, something outside meaning; “tabol,” fulfilling that Bengali expectation for the superfluous, would, tailing “abol,” become a catchphrase for nonsense speech and action.
The poems of this topsy turvy world, with its fantastic creatures, animals who speak and humans who will eat anything, old men and “head” officers, ghosts and creatures half-human and half-plant, are, expectedly, in rhyming verse—what is astonishing is the space that Sukumar Ray creates for useless activities like tickling, laughing, sleeping, showing off. In them is the habitat of the useless and the poetic.
Sukumar Ray annotates another characteristic of Bangla and its users: compulsive alliteration, a rhetorical trait one associates with poetry. His son, the filmmaker and writer Satyajit Ray would make Lalmohan Ganguly, a character in the Feluda detective series he created, write crime thrillers with alliterative titles: Sahara-ey Shiharan, Vancouver-er Vampire, Honduras-e Hahakar, Durdharsh Dushman, Himalaye Hritkampo, Atlantic-er Atanka, Bidghutey Badmash, Arokto Arab.
Satyajit Ray and his father are not creating a literary language as much as they are recording the tendencies of a language and its users—the compulsive rhyming phrases, the alliterative phrasing, and, of course, as one notices in the list from the first few pages of Abanindranath Tagore’s book, an overwhelming onomatopoeia. These tendencies of the language would, in another time and in another language, find their place in a treatise on rhetoric. What we have instead is a practice that is being polished every day by everyone walking in the language.
This belief in the useless, enabled by the temperament of the language, perhaps also explains the Bengali’s practice of every person having a daaknaam (literally “a name for calling”): a nickname, a surplus name, a little private, besides the more public one. It is this that makes me call my nephew and niece Tuku and Tuki, unconsciously continuing in the same tradition of naming; it is this that surprised the writer Jhumpa Lahiri, who, during a visit to Calcutta as a child, discovered that her cousin had a friend called Gogol—how was it possible for a Bengali child to have such a name, she wondered, leading her to imagine his life in her novel The Namesake.
It might have been all of these that pushed me towards an understanding of poetry as surplus. Having another language to think and live in, besides the one I wrote in, was an obvious surplus. English was the language of work and the workplace, and, perhaps because I earn a living as an academic in the humanities, the background noise comes to a person like me as artificial, an artifice where battles are fought. I write in English and cannot write to my satisfaction in any other language, but I cannot live in it. It seems a kind of betrayal to say this, like gossiping about a grandparent. Mine is not a moral response, as it is with many of my contemporaries, who read literature in translation from a need for atonement that comes from the awareness of the power of the English language.
It is physiological—akin to the inability to live in one room for too long, of seeing only English words in signs and texts, of being bombarded by a language that I did not grow up in and one that does not surround me in the physical and emotional life I live. A man in my father’s village used to call English “oshudher bhasha,” the language of medicine—it was the language on bottles of medicine that kept him alive. My paternal grandfather, who didn’t go to school in any real way and therefore had no English, no other language besides his Bangla, used to be intimidated by the speed in which English was spoken—he called it “shai shai Ingreji,” “shai shai” being the onomatopoeia of gusty winds, and “Ingreji” was, of course, the Bangla word for English. A public language.
Though I write in English, I also seek freedom from it. In school, following the language of the armed forces, our Physical Education teacher would force our bodies to respond to “Sabdhan-Bishram,” the Be-Alert-and-Rest binary that drives such routine. I’ve become aware that English outside the poem—and on social media in particular—is the language of “Sabdhan,” of attention and vigilantism, while Bangla is my language of rest and playfulness, of sleep and the unexpected, of waywardness and mistakes, of uselessness and surplus. I feel like my spine has to be straight in English, like the letter “I.” It is allowed to be bent, much like the arcs of the letters that constituted its script, in Bangla.
It isn’t bilingualism I am seeking, then, as much as I am seeking rest. I am not seeking light—Enlightenment—as much as I am seeking shadow and hiding. By virtue of a YouTube suggestion one afternoon—it is possible that AI can read our minds now—I watched Jhumpa Lahiri speak about her desire for Italian, not just an old fascination with it, but for seeking a home outside the language of her home and work, Bangla and English, an unexpected surplus. I heard her speak with delight about how Italian gave her the kind of freedom that the English language didn’t, and I registered, with some kind of understanding and the attachment that such understanding brings, her life with every single Italian word that she had used. ‘The word for “joy” and “jewel” are the same in Italian,’ said Lahiri, sharing a seemingly useless detail, but one whose awareness had allowed her access into something that can be housed only in the poetic.
When my book of poems was published a few years ago, a male reviewer, a “senior poet” in India, wrote an angry review—it was obvious that he had been annoyed by a manner of seeing and phrasing that was at odds with his reading taste. I ignored the attack on me—it would have been good to have the poems reviewed instead of the poet—and sent it to my friend. I still remember his response: “This is a review by a person who has only read the British and American poets at the British Council and USIEF libraries in Bombay.” It has taken me some time to understand what he meant. Having been formed by Bangla and its whimsicalities, my poems were actually Bengali poems in English—they had the tendency for surplus, for living in the space of the useless.
By this I do not mean what has, after Salman Rushdie, come to be called a “chutneyfied” English, holding within it phrases and sounds of the Indian languages. I mean, instead, a spirit and critical intelligence of the language system—in my case Bangla—that has conditioned my manner of thought and articulation even when I have migrated to other languages such as English. It would take someone raised solely on English to cultivate a new sensibility to understand this foreignness and to accept the language of doubt, hesitation and imprecision, the indulgence of the useless and the simultaneous rejection of certainty, as the language of the poetic.
Rabindranath Tagore wrote in Angel of Surplus:
A Chinese friend of mine, while travelling with me through the streets of Peking, suddenly, with great excitement, called my attention to a donkey. Ordinarily a donkey does not have any special force of truth for us, except when it kicks us or when we need its reluctant service… The behaviour of my Chinese friend at once reminded me of the Chinese poems in which the delightful sense of reality is so spontaneously felt and so simply expressed.
The donkey on the streets of Peking, the crow in my classroom, the Bengali saying “cha-ta” or “chupi chupi”—without the useless, there would be no poetry.