Anguish and Insurrection – Travelling with Shubha’s Poem: Prasanta Chakravarty


अतिमानवीय दुख


इतना दुख आंसुओं से नहीं उठाया जाता
वे हार गए कब के
चीख़ इसे और वीभत्स बनाती है
गुस्सा तो सिर्फ राख पैदा करता है

कुछ देर इसे ख़ामोशी ने उठाया
कभी उठाया कविता ने
विचार ने उठाया इसे
इसे उठाया दोस्तों ने
मिलकर गीत गाते हुए

कम्युनिस्ट पार्टियां बिखरीं
कितनी बार इसे उठाते हुए

इसे उठाने के लिए
कुछ और चाहिये
इन सबके साथ
उठाने का कोई नया ढब
इतिहास ने इसे उठाया कभी-कभी

अब इसकी चिन्दियां बिखरी हैं
इन्हें बच्चे उठा रहे हैं
यह पहुंच रहा है प्रकृति तक
तूफान और कन्दराएं
उठायेंगी इसका बोझ

अगर धरती इसे न उठा सकी
अन्तरिक्ष में नाचेंगी इसकी चिन्दियां




Tears cannot bear such a burden of grief
They gave up a while ago
A scream makes it even more horrid
And anger gives birth only to ash

For a while silence bore it
Occasionally it was borne by poetry
Thought bore it
It was borne by friends
As they sang songs together

Communist parties scattered
so many times as they bore it

To be able to bear it
Something more is needed
along with all of these
a new way to bear it
History bore it on occasion

Now its scraps are scattered
Children are gathering them
It is now reaching nature
Storms and ravines
Will bear its weight
If the earth cannot bear it
Its scraps will dance in the cosmos

(Tr. Suvir Kaul)

* * *




A grief that is way beyond human
Is too hard for tears to hold
Defeated, they dry up before long
Howling makes it only worse, more horrendous
Anger yields nothing but ash

Silence shouldered this grief for sometime
As did poetry
As did ideas now and then
As did comrades singing in unison
History has carried it too

Communist parties fell apart so often
Carrying this burden

Surely we need something different now
To carry it any farther

Grief is everywhere now
Little children are carrying its shredded pieces
It has overcome nature
Caves and storms will bear it

If the planet too fails to contain this grief
Its shreds will swirl and spread
Into empty space beyond

(Tr. Bhupinder Brar)

* * *




So much sorrow cannot be borne by tears
They gave up a while ago
A shriek makes it more grisly
And anger only births ash

For a while silence bore it
And sometimes poetry did
Thought carried it
And friends too
Singing along together

Communist parties disintegrated
so often while carrying it

Something more is needed
Some new bearing
with the rest to carry it
Now and then history lifted it

Now its bits lie scattered
Children are picking them up
Now it’s reaching into nature
Storms and caves will
bear its burden

If the earth is unable to bear it
The bits will dance in the cosmos

(Tr. Aishwarya Iyer)

* * *




Tears can’t bear this much grief
They had been defeated long ago
A scream makes it more grotesque
Anger can only turn to ashes

For a time silence carried the burden
sometimes poetry tried it
Ideas bore it for a bit
And then the friends
singing together

Communist parties disintegrated
trying to carry it ahead

To bear it
one needs something else
A new way
Beyond the known ones
Occasionally history too tried its hand

Now it lies scattered
And children pick up the pieces

It now enters the nature itself
Storms & Caves
Shall lift its burden
If the earth can not bear it
Universe shall see the pieces dance

(Tr. Tarun Bharatiya )




Tears cannot bear this burden
They have dried up long ago
A scream makes it bizarre
And anger can only produce so much ash

Silence bore it for some time
Sometimes poetry
Thought carried it
As did friends
singing in unison

Communist parties disintegrated
Umpteen times under its weight

Something else is needed
To lift it
A new way
Along with the familiar ones
History lifted it occasionally

It is scattered into tiny strips now
Kids are picking and carrying them
It is now reaching the nature itself
Storms and caves and ravines
Will bear it

If the earth couldn’t carry its weight
The strips will dance in outer space.

(Tr. Asad Zaidi)


Five translations of a single poem, by five leading poets, activists, artists and/or literary scholars. A rare occasion in contemporary translation on the subcontinent. A special poem it is indeed. Every single one of these attentive readers seems to have been scorched by the primitive, enunciatory power of its pure voice. Every single translation extends the afterlife of the original and shows how Shubha has been able to successfully communicate the force of a guttural shriek into something coherent and universally felt.

And yet the spasm and cutting causticity of these lines arise out of historical circumstances and not from any personal wound; it is a felt response to an acute sense of loss of a whole terrain, a way of life and living. One that we perhaps took for granted. It is a critique of all that remains silent and suffering in the face of an unjust and uncaring social order. These lines therefore are also a way to address and come to terms with our own helplessness to remedy the horrors of our times, the regression of the many collective battles against painful injustice that seemed to have been won comprehensively at one point of time. The lines also perhaps arise out of a deep and lasting sense of anguish at our complacency and complicity in letting things deteriorate, waiting endlessly for a messiah, without being able to collectively come together in the face of an ossified, infantile and egotistic nation and world. But the poem is certainly not despairing about a world that we have lost. Its ambit is larger.

It is a lyric of protest—a hybrid genre, a real tightrope walk, that is ordinarily almost impossible to sustain.  Within a minimal economy of enunciation one is also registering a tremendous, subdued intensity of militancy. The insurrectionary force of the poem is compressed within this economy of expression until it gets dispersed spectacularly in the final two lines.

The first thing that one feels upon going through the trajectory of rhyme is that, more than being a poem, the lines simultaneously hide and project a kind of trailblazing meteor—the weight and intensity of anguish traverse from one locale/station to another in the poem—soaring, leapfrogging, changing direction, ever being restive and dynamic. It is as if, we are travelling with someone like Carl Sagan on his intergalactic missions. And yet we know that the primitive force of the anguish is far from being a fantasia of escapism.

Seeking rest and a refuge, yet unable find a safe haven, the travelling meteor of anguish turns more agitated and refractory. Until unable to fix pain in a singular entity anymore, the remnants of this meteor are dispersed, embedded eventually through this utterly vivid image of dancing shreds/pieces/bits/pieces/scraps of agony burning themselves out into fragments.But was this meteoric pain on a suicidal mission right from the beginning to have come to such an end? Is the final image about a nihilistic annihilation? But then each scattered piece is now glowing. And dancing too. Though each on its own has no entity. No more are they alienated. Each bit is incandescent only in and through a new form of collective that has formed, taking a new shape in outer space, in another universe, which we puny humans beings, slaves of our historical circumstances, can only stare at telescopically, awed by the terrible power of a new coming constellation, a new terminal possibility of cosmological hope.

It is a purgatory of our own making. These our times. A cataclysm has dislocated the cosmic sense of harmony. The most basic state that could have borne this sense of grief would produce pre-historical sensory reactions, and through such expressions, try and find a way of sublimating whatever it is that haunts us. But right at the beginning, three distinct human ways of enunciation, springing forth from this sense of despair, are invoked: personal breakdown (crying, keening), an outward and discontinuous manifestation of the same emotion (shrieking, howling) and then a sense of retribution (being angry). All these are pre-linguistic and basic building blocks of the lyric; what Northrop Frye has collectively called babble—a primary-auditory mode of enunciation, a response to strong external emotive stimuli. And though these states seem to be discrete and distinctive, these are also overlapping states of lyricality. Howling is the externalization of sobbing. And manifestations of anger are the higher and secondary stage of howling. Howling finds direction towards a foe (the supposed originator of grief) by means of anger.But all are found wanting. Every tear has dried up. The scream seems to be an inadequate and bizarre expression—completely one-sided and creaturely.  Bereavement is merely a temporal and fleeting expression of grief. And anger and personal antagonism finally lead to dust and ash. Ashen filings laden over mutual distrust. Anger and spewing of bile must take us to a dark and chaotic abyss of no return.  Anger will actually bring grief to a premature closure.

The gravitas of this particular grief, whatever its sources are – as the poet tells us right at the outset – cannot be tackled or measured by human emotions. This puts paid to the whole idea that the minimalistic nature of the expressive lyric is, deep down, spontaneous, discontinuous and fragmentary. It refutes the claim that the personal is the final yardstick to turn authentically poetical; that pre-linguistic and charged articulation is the genuine mode of finding one’s voice in an unjust, pitiless world.

Hysteria is not poetry. Hysteria is not communicative—hence of little use to mitigate the weight and force of the grief that the poem hints at. Forms of pathological and alimentary reactions, lurking just beneath the articulatory, decompose emotions into syllables, letters and a bruising body. Words then disintegrate in the mouth and in more visceral depths.  The phonetic elements of pure voice—bursting into pieces within—are a regression. A regression into the pre-linguistic black-hole of the somatic and the eratogenetic. Crying, howling and expressions of primitive anger are eventually noises.  The poet and her lyric of course arise out of, as well as host, the swoon of the bodily and the somatic, but it cannot end merely in the abyss of the private. The power of abundant grief has to be conserved for other stations.The ontological repetition of the momentary must be carried forward to the social and beyond.

We must also quickly remind ourselves that since grief is meaningless and strange if sublimated purely at the personal level, it is also not plainly nihilistic.  Pure anger and creaturely howling is detached and clinical. It is a movement towards a deepening luminescence; it cannot afford a journey to the privation of some personal darkness.

Though on an initial reading the lyric appears to be a meteoric expression of restiveness, it becomes clearer gradually that Shubha is carefully weighing options, considering the stations through which she will let pass this extraordinary and momentous grief.The artifice is recessed (at the level of stanza-breaks, it takes us vertically, stage through next stage, beginning from the personal visceral eventually to the cosmological) and hence there is a sense of textual transparency and urgency.

The next stage is the obverse of expressive hysteria and noise: that of contemplation and the recompense of a large calm: silence as a state of meditative repose and then poetry as a mode of asocial and aesthetic play-drive.  There would be two more stages, equally detached—scholarly contemplation and wallowing in a world of ideas in a mode of trying to bypass the immensity of grief. And finally we come to the communal mode of sublimation: as friends try to handle things collectively and fail. If grief is not personal, is it a stronger sense of social injustice that the poet is referring to? Since this is an enunciatory poem, the whole force of the compressed emotion comes from a refusal to name the nature of the grief. It is deliberately left obscure and therefore each one of us is left to surmise what might be its fountainhead. But such is the weight of this bludgeoning anguish and such is its all pervasive nature, fleeing away from its consequences and taking shelter within an inner meditative sanctorum, or merely sharing it in a friendship would still keep it at the level of the humanly solvable. Which it is not, going by the very conception of the title. There is hardly any closure at this stage. Hope is a premature possibility.

The weight of the grief is actually unquantifiable. It is not necessarily wholly social, for it cannot be remedied with a set and settled blue-print. In the next two lines we arrive at a new partitioning, to the most political of utterances in the poem:

Communist parties disintegrated
Umpteen times under its weight

It is the sharpest of critiques of people who vouch for justice achieved through a commitment to cooperation and equality, economic and all other forms. Communism was supposed to have found an answer to human grief. And to have collectively assigned an order where things would have been cooperatively settled. But that was not be. Here is where one notices that the poem conducts an extraordinary maneuver. In the most political moment of enunciation, the poem turns back on ontological lyricality. The lines suggests that communists have failed to realize the nature of human anguish, and therefore skirting the question of inequality by resorting to formal, and possibly more arrogant, means of seeking reasonable solutions to remedy grief. They have tried in their own way and it is not that many of them did not traverse depths of anguish. Indeed that was the initial point which had made them mutinous and non conformist in the first place.

But did they understand the signs of this momentous anguish correctly? Had there been some straying and arrogant, unaccounted mistakes within the spheres of good intentions? Had they been equal to the weight of this grief? Had communism been successful and had the political left gone to the depths of this grief, other regressive and parochial forces would not have been so successful in communicating with the mass through subterfuge. Most importantly, communist parties have disintegrated more often than not, since each faction was possibly egotistically thinking about the correctness of this‘line’ or that—cerebrally, instead of concentrating on the pervasive nature of injustice, humiliation and grief that the have-nots suffered day in and out. They may have missed the ethical force of the ontological condition of grief altogether. A larger collective could not be formed therefore since each faction never realized the larger superhuman nature of grief that unfairness unleashes upon us, the living creatures. Was it an original limitation? Or was it an error that can be remedied once the nature of grief is appreciated? Is it the object of the poem to highlight such limitations?

The poem now seems to be making itself more explicit: it wants to overcome the self and direct us towards an unknown but necessary leap of faith. The first positive light appears: finally it is history which has been able to hoist the weight of this grief. This is the first and last time in the poem that such a grief would be met head on—albeit not permanently.

Only on occasion history bore it.

Only when it fulfilled its conditions to have an honest tryst with the non-creaturely sorrows of large swathes of humanity. These are the times when a whole generation or a social system realizes what humans suffer collectively and decide therefore that it is time to act purposefully in order to remedy injustice. Not by seeking refuge in silence or noise but by concertedly bringing to bear upon it the forces of history can grief be addressed. Grief is made coterminous with time and it is hinted that only a collective, non fractious and a historical idea of suffering and pain is truly transformative. But history itself must reinvent itself to do this. It cannot walk on jaded paths and go into an eternal cycle of knowledge that has been tried and has gone stale. Newness must be re-invented if time is being ossified by reactionary forces. Familiar slogans, songs, manifestoes and mobilizing techniques all prove inadequate since all may fail to realize that the nature of the grief is too stark and pervasive for older ways to tackle it. Those who intervene in history must do so with an understanding of the gargantuan nature of the tragedy that has been untethered upon creation itself. Anything less would be engaging at the level of the sub-political. And therefore prove to be sub-lyrical too, that is to say, devolve merely into the narrative or the mimetic.

But since the contradictions of historical forces have not reached the stage of inevitability as yet, this more-than-human grief finds no respite in history either. Our egalitarian sense of collectivity may have failed us. Or is it that justice and respite from grief are never permanent human conditions? Is the poem moving again towards negativity and despair?

Undoubtedly, the contours of restiveness appear sharper. The meteor gyrates and swivels one more time and we reach a new partitioning. This inexplicable sense of injustice and anguish now cannot sustain its own torque and intensity and consequently fragments itself into bits.

It is scattered into tiny strips now.

The implosion occurs in nature and within the realms of this earth but we are already taking a flight and only natural forces can now shore up the smithereens.  A second naiveté is summoned—children as forces of nature shall find in grief their plaything. This is the most mythical-romantic moment in the poem.  The poem now once again takes a lyrical turn pure but this time nature and natural forces like childlike innocence (are these children of Gaza, Aleppo and Kashmir who play with incendiary matter?) briefly hold on to the travelling scraps of the grief. The shreds and slivers of grief, not being woven out of nerves, either might turn completely self destructive or being born out of firmer tissues of spirit, may carry it own healing with it. The rapid upward journey of the spirit of this more-than-human grief is reaching a crescendo since there is no bracing or consolation and yet, is there an objective to corrode and shatter us? Finding no physical, political or historical habitation, grief now, instead of turning inward, implodes and breaks out of its compressed state. The lyric economy is now given one last swirling direction as it gets completely decentered from its grounded situatedness and revolves around terrifying, primitive natural habitations: storms, caves and ravines.

But the disruption of the natural order of things is so pervasive that the fragments cannot not just find refuge in human sensations–but also not in any frame of time and space that is earthly. Our situatedness and belonging within the natural epiphenomena is inadequate for the scaffolding of this massive insurrectionary anguish. So, a stratospheric implosion is called forth. And we stand before a cosmic spectacle where creation is simultaneously tragic and original.

If the earth couldn’t carry its weight
The strips will dance in outer space.

What is the nature of this lyrical protest now if we are to stand naked and awed by the power and force of the cosmic flotsam dancing in the outer space? Unable to sustain its humongous misappropriation and compression, the lyric form itself explodes. Language is annihilated once again but instead of retracting to our inner space and senses, symbolic use of communication and language seems to be insufficient. Collectively the earthlings watch the spectacle of dancing, burning debris and wonder at the lost chance of addressing this surpassing sense of grief.

In moving out of history and the diurnal earthly possibilities (indeed the poem is preconceived in a manner so that we arrive at this stage now), how might we see Shubha’s protest now? How might we observe the very relationship between annihilation and mutiny that she has so meticulously wrought so far?

There could be a few possibilities. One, to see this trajectory and spectacle of the sublime as the manifestation of the darkest romantic strains in the anguished poet. This is indeed a pre-Socratic strain of thought which suggests eternity is not endlessness of time and space. “It is a simultaneous full and perfect possession of interminable life.” There is no sense of linearity of time anymore since time and space coalesce in outer cosmos. Boethius expresses this condition as: ” Nunc fluens facit tempus, nunc stans facit aeternitatatem.”(The now that passes produces time, the now that remains produces eternity.) This could lead to a transcendentalizing of earthly suffering. But the romantics did the opposite: they brought eternity into time. The Romantics made a chain out of the fleeting and disconnected scraps and mounted a direct challenge to humanizing modes of spirituality. For the Romantics it was like watching time and space pass by us like some cosmic tableaux. Confronted by the idea that the world and human interactions are a continuum of shapeless images, Samuel Coleridge had once said “What a swarm of thoughts and feelings, endlessly minute fragments lie compact in any one moment! What if our existence was but that moment? What an unintelligible af-frightful riddle, what a chaos of limbs and trunk, tailless, headless. Nothing begun, nothing ended, would it not be!” So a Romantic reading of the poem would be to mark Shubha’s subjective moves of associationism: creating, generating, modifying, shaping time and space anew since the older modes of protest and seeking justice makes no sense anymore. Such an idealist mode combines numerous circumstances into one moment of luminous consciousness.

A second way to mark the logic of these intensifying partitionings within the poem and arriving at the point of projecting a radical and apocalyptic supernova of hinting at some cosmic future that is yet to arrive but can be anticipated. It is really a quasi anarchic mode of political thought, now given an aesthetic dimension in the dancing bits of burning debris. It is a promise that only through disorderly chaos can arise something truly new, pure and egalitarian. In order to come out of the depths of such a crisis, the depths of the ruin must first be appreciated in its full horror and then we can perhaps have a glimpse of the coming revolution. In this mode, the lyric cannot afford any dithyrambic intoxication. It would burst forth onto us, as this poem does. This could be then read in consonance with Nietzsche’s conception of the self, which is naturalistic and yet is desubjectivized gradually. He writes: “the body and physiology are the starting point,” just as we see here. There is no doer. Only deeds of immanent will. Hence, grief is superhuman and only by being superhuman and desubjectivized into mutinous fragments can it fulfill the tryst with some permanent and eternal justice. With the debris at the end of the poem we come back to pure form, tone and a promise. If, and only if, we think creatively can there be true justice.

Finally, one could read the poem as a stoic acceptance of these relentless streams of grief that simply cannot be measured and accounted for in human terms. The poem then becomes an expression of disenchantment; a sense of gradual disenchantment from the infantalizing exchanges of commoditization, wholesale buggery and ruination leads to this primal expression of abandoning the scene altogether.  Trying to square with the no-nonsense vagaries of the real with no metaphysics or human intervention to heal, one strips back existence itself, layer by layer, until an empty and detached universe stares back at us. This third reading suggests that this is an exercise in stoic therapy. And poetry itself, in the process, becomes an exceptional outsider, a super-galactic spectre.


Prasanta Chakravarty teaches English in Delhi University and edits the web magazine humanitiesunderground.

2 thoughts on “Anguish and Insurrection – Travelling with Shubha’s Poem: Prasanta Chakravarty”

  1. Strangely, Subha,s poetry becomes very impressive in all five English translations. Mr Chakravarty may like to read ‘Van Vela’ by Nirala also, where poet realizes the hopelessness of his situation, no way to come out of it, and seeks consolation in the fate of a wild flower.


  2. thank you very much. shubha comes from a tradition that directly and forthrightly takes on chhyavaadi excesses. consolation, as a secondary form of emotion, ought to be transcended. and yet, the enunciatory and visceral lyrical force and power marks every single word and her choice(permutative and combinatorial) of expressions.


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