Shakti Chattopadhyay
Seagull Books
June 22, 2018
Final Verdict

About the Author

Shakti Chattopadhyay (1933-95) was a critically acclaimed and popular Bengali writer and poet.

About the Translator

Arunava Sinha

Arunava Sinha is a translator who lives in New Delhi. He translates fiction, poetry and non-fiction from Bengali to English, and from English to Bengali. Over sixty of his translations have been published so far, and several of them have won or been shortlisted for Indian and international awards.
Other Works By Shakti Chattopadhyay
Kicho Maya Raye Geyo
Eksho Bachharer Shreshtha Kabita
Shrestha Kabita
Anguri tor hiranya ja

Experience Shakti Chattopadhyay’s poetry in translation

Priyadarshini reviews Very Close to Pleasure, There is a Sick Cat (Originally written in Bengali by Shakti Chattopadhyay and translated into English by Arunava Sinha)

Shakti Chattopadhyay once declared, “Every poet’s verse is one long poem – it’s just that he writes it in fragments.” In Very Close to Pleasure, There is a Sick Cat, Arunava Sinha has accomplished the daunting task of collecting and translating these fragments to provide a fuller sense of the Bengali poet Shakti Chattopadhyay’s life.

Shakti Chattopadhyay’s poetry was first published in the year 1956 in Krittibas magazine, where he also worked as an editor eventually. A prolific poet, Shakti Chattopadhyay was paid a meagre sum of Rs 20 per poem. He went on to write 2,500 poems in his lifetime, collected into forty-five volumes. This ambitious curation by Sinha comprises 123 poems handpicked from over thirty poetry collections published between the years 1960 and 1996.

Very Close to Pleasure, There is a Sick Cat begins with an emotional and evocative introduction by Shankha Ghosh that was first published in Bengali in Collected Poetry of Shakti Chattopadhyay, Volume Seven. Titled The Cowherd of the City and translated by Sinha, the introduction provides a biography of the poet and speculates on the ideas that may have influenced his poetry.

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“Melancholy, let me tell a story now, with the craft / Of storytelling, of the beauteous captivating heartbreak”.

What are these stories of heartbreak that Shakti Chattopadhyay sings of? A longing for the forest, the rain, the village, the garden, the trees, and his youth, is an oft-repeated refrain.

The core of Shakti Chattopadhyay’s entire flow of poetry,” wrote Ghosh in the introduction, was that “His poetry had wanted to demolish the city with the village, demolish death with life, demolish an ageing existence with adolescence.

Shakti Chattopadhyay: On Rain and Floods

Shankha Ghosh’s introduction describes Chattopadhyay’s writing as a deluge. “If someone were to read his poetry,” writes Ghosh, “they will have their breath taken away by a succession of waves, by their abundance, their immensity, even their liquid excess.” It is an interesting choice of words considering how much rain and even floods appear in Chattopadhyay’s poetry.

Chattopadhyay writes about wanting “to dissolve in the rainwater” and entering “the earth sprawled beneath.” He fondly remembers “launching paper boats” in “the short-lived ocean in the yard.” And yet, he acknowledges the damage caused by unbridled rains, as only a poet can.

“The labour room on one side, crematorium ashes on the other / Birth and death, all the details, are neatly arrayed in the rain”.

However, “Even floods are necessary,” he continues the thought in yet another poem, “because the soil must also eat at times.”

“But not for laments or deaths, nor destruction / Just let the water flood habitations slowly.”

In Even Floods are Necessary, Chattopadhyay does two things: he first moves away from an anthropocentric perspective and towards an eco-centric view of nature, while also reminding the reader of the inconsequentiality of human life against the forces of nature. In this, the poem precedes the lovely fable by Oliver Jeffers called “The Fate of Fausto”, wherein the fate of a greedy man does not matter to the tree, the mountain, or the ocean.

They existed before and will continue to exist long after the short lives of men have been extinguished. Having established this hierarchy, Chattopadhyay then returns to the laments of the ordinary man to whom even this short existence on earth matters and prays for nature to be kind to him.

“Let it caress the earth with a layer of silt / Let the water recede from the doorstep… / Let it bring the future, brimming granaries.”   

On the Forest and the Trees

While ecocentrism is not the only theme with which Chattopadhyay’s poetry engages, eco-poetry does form a noticeably big part of his poetic identity. Poets have always written about how a walk in the woods can lift spirits. Chattopadhyay conveys the same with this beautiful turn of phrase, “If sorrow makes a mistake I’ll take it to the forest / And leave it with the tall trees on which / There are neither thorns nor flowers, no welcome.”

In yet another poem, he acknowledges the healing power of the forest. Living in the city of heat, pollution, and heartburn that is Delhi, his poem Let Me Look at Them really resonated with me. “Uproot the trees, plant them in the garden,” he writes. “My body craves their green / I desperately need their green to recover.” He describes the city as a disease that “only gulps the green.”

There are times when he literally and terribly wishes to merge with the tree. “With this trifling desire I have long been visiting / The forest by night, in the darkness.”

But at other times, the trees and the forests take on a more metaphorical meaning. In Postmen in the Autumnal Forest, the sense of detachment and isolation brought about by urbanization is conveyed with vivid imagery and aesthetic effect:

“We are drifting towards a forest even more ancient than the forest

Where the mark of eternal leaves is fused in stone jaws

We are floating away to a land of such unearthly connections

I have seen postmen wandering in the autumnal forest

Their yellow sacks filled with grass like swollen sheep bellies

So many letters new and old they had found

Those postmen in the autumnal forest

The distance between letters has only grown

I have never seen the distance between trees grow”

In The Plant Speaks, he comments on the inequal value that society places upon its different members, conveying the emotion through the plant kingdom:

“Uprooting weeds saddens me

Even they have flowers

Maybe not the lineage that the sunflower


But still they have settled in our garden

Out of love…”

Sure to evoke variable emotions in its readers, these lines reminded me of the migrant workers that had made the cities their home, only to feel unwanted and uncared for when the first COVID lockdown was suddenly announced.

Shakti Chattopadhyay: On Calcutta and Urbanization

In his poems, Chattopadhyay continues to sing the blues about urbanization and its effects on his beloved Calcutta. In Taking Advantage of My Absence, he writes, “Calcutta Destroys Itself Every Time.”

“The sky collapses on Calcutta, the Shaheed Minar is pulverized, the Ganga dies / Everywhere I look—Calcutta has taken sufficient revenge on itself / When the beautiful wants to ravage itself, perhaps this is how it does it.”

It was in the literary circles of 1960s Calcutta that the Hungry Generation was born. This was Calcutta’s response to the Angry Young Men of Britain and the Beat Generation of America. Chattopadhyay noted, ‘The social environment in those countries is one of affluence, they can be Beat or Angry. But we are Hungry. It must be termed a hunger for any form or aesthetic.” It is only natural that the birthplace of a literary movement will feature heavily in one of its founding member’s poems.

In Sorrow, Chattopadhyay asks, “can Calcutta feel sorrow?”  And then goes on to reply, “I know it can, Calcutta cries its heart out / Deep within, you just have to listen closely / At midnight lay your ears on the deserted asphalt / You will hear someone weeping, secret sighs of sadness…”

It reiterates the human emotions of disconnection and loneliness that the poet alluded to in Postmen in the Autumnal Forest, while also painting a picture of how the asphalt suffocates the Calcutta soil, and the consequences of creating concrete jungles.

On Ageing and Death

It is not just Calcutta that is ravaged by time and tide, and a poet is bound to reflect upon his mortality at some point in his literary career. Written to mark Chattopadhyay’s fifty-second birthday, his poem On My Birthday goes,

“A cat climbed up the stairs, counting out / Fifty-two steps of its paws, carefully / A spiral iron staircase, atop the stairs / Unobserved by anyone, atop the black stairs / Only I saw / Its hesitant manner / Its melancholy / Some flowers arrived on my birthday / They’ve wilted now”

Comparing himself to Calcutta in Taking Advantage of My Absence, he acknowledges,

“Age has caught up with me, I must confront myself now

It will be a busy time afterwards, the bell will sound in the palace

The carriage will appear at the door—

And within my reach then will be the time to go—just the time to go”

And yet, it was not his style to go gentle into that good night. In I Could Go, But Why Should I, he writes about death knocking at his door:

“The pyre calls to me, come

I could go / I could go either way / But why should I?

I shall kiss my child’s face

I’ll go / But not just yet / Not alone, unseasonably”

Shakti Chattopadhyay: On Moving Houses and Moving On

Short of death, moving houses is among the most stressful life events in a person’s life. This emotion has also found voice in Chattopadhyay’s poetry.

“I’m terribly afraid of moving house / To lose the ancient dingy lane I’ve known forever.”

Having recently said goodbye to a home where we made some wonderful memories in, Chattopadhyay’s words in his poem Allowed to Leave brought much comfort to me, making it my favourite poem from this collection.

“Packing everything, it seemed not everything

Can be taken, you have to leave behind

Not some household objects, but the wind

Over the house, happy memories, stains

On the wall, such things.

Now it will be whitewashed, my remembrance

Will escape secretly, it is not to be preserved”

In Conclusion

Our remembrance may be whitewashed from the houses we have called home, and eventually from this world, but thanks to Very Close to Pleasure There is a Sick Cat, Chattopadhyay’s timeless poetry is sure to live on for a long time, even if not as long as the forests, the mountains, and the oceans.

As someone who does not speak Bengali, the lyrical and rhythmic English translations of Shakti Chattopadhyay’s poetry by Arunava Sinha have opened a whole new world of Bengali poetry to me. Some poems may have spoken to me more than others, but I’m grateful to have been given access to this world, into the mind of Shakti Chattopadhyay.

Have you read this lyrical poetry collection? What do you think of it? Drop a comment below and let us know!

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Priyadarshini has studied Life sciences and Law, but none of these disciplines have revealed to her the truths about herself and the world around her the way good fiction has. So she reads.

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