Poets of College Street
On the street that goes straight to Central Avenue from Mirzapur, where just by the very side of the University wall the pavement is redolent with old book covers and yellow pages of second-hand copies, I was initially very amused to discover a volume of poems authored by one of my illustrious contemporaries. But as I stood staring at the copy, my mind slowly got overcast with something different – maybe empathy. I felt sad for myself, for getting an unconditional pleasure at the very thought of my friend’s humiliation upon seeing a copy of his book sold off by somebody who had rejected it from his archive of valuable ones.
Later, when I raised the topic in our usual evening adda at Basanta Cabin café, the whole group burst into an excited clamour. The publisher who was sitting among us sprang up with a jovial guffaw – “Great achievement!”
The butt of the joke sat silently in a corner, lost in his teacup, frozen in the act of taking a sip.
“So! What do we have here! A celebrity! Your book is available on the footpath now! Not even the biggest house in the business can afford such an open display! My, my, isn’t this an entry pass to the history of mainstream Bengali literature!” The whole bunch of poets, like the poets in every different culture, was delighted with this precious chance of making fun of a compatriot.
The butt of the joke stayed calm the entire time, breathing softly – still undecided whether it would be proper to sip at the cup to get out of the stupor –offered nothing but a slight movement, that of raising one of his eyebrows in askance to me. A tram car outside the Basanta Cabin started with a hark and moved.
“Did you open the book?”, he asked me.
“No! Why”, I said.
I will never forget what he then proceeded to say.
“Who else could have bought that book apart from you guys! The general reader will never bother to buy what a novice writes! It means someone among you sold your copy off… I want to know who sold it.”
The reason why I never could forget this line was a pang of secret guilt. The truth is, I was alarmed at his question as I had indeed lent my copy to a friend and I couldn’t remember when. He might have sold it off. In crept a chilling fear: what if it turns out that the very book lying on the street was my copy? It would surely put my treasured friendship at stake. And I started regretting talking about this in the first place. I was angry at myself. Why did I not open the book, and shuffled the pages? Two familiar names might have been scribbled on the first page, suspending from two hooks – ‘to’ and ‘from’. I was dead sure, one day my secret heartlessness to the entire humanity would be exposed.
Since that moment I have always been haunted by a certain kind of fear lurking in every footpath. I am haunted by it in my dreams, and my wakefulness as well. What appeared miraculous was that the book was never to be seen lying on any footpath ever again, and I assume nobody, including the poet who wrote it could trace it. But, it could show up any day and draw a bloody climax between friends. Though, I could never be sure about the original owner of the particular copy. To sum up, everything about it is dangling dangerously to this very today. I feel my friendship with my contemporary poet is surviving solely on the stoic indifference of the footpath. We’ll meet over tea tomorrow again. At Basanta Cabin, again. Again a tram car will hark outside and start moving.
The paradox seething under the phrase –‘who sold it off’ has been the cause why I developed a complicated relationship with Kolkata footpath bookstalls. Why do we bump into rare books at the footpath stalls? If the books are indeed so rare, why do people sell them off? Who sells them off? If we assume, people do away with the books they do not need – we have to deal with yet another puzzling question. Why do the most sought-after books initially get into the bookcase of someone who won’t need or read them one day? On the other hand, it is also true, had everyone savoured every book, the footpath stalls would not even have existed. They thrive on one’s unwillingness to keep a text.
One evening, while I was out to take a stroll at College Street, a naïve friend joined me. We were minutely examining the footpaths, keeping track of the new arrivals, and bargains for them by students.
‘What on earth Subimal Mishra’s1 works are doing on here?’, my friend, suddenly, roared in severe discontent about the reader circle of the city, ‘Subimal! What a shame!’, his voice went down to a murmur in a trance-like state. ‘The only positive thing about it is that someone is going to get this at a low price! But, mark my words – shallow readers will decimate the tradition of our culture one day.’
He convulsed in anger, gradually and visibly going out of control. “Does a layman purchase Subimal? No! We know, someone who reads him has a standard. But if he sells it off – we know it’s doomsday. Wait for the time when you discover Shankha (Ghosh)2 babu’s ‘Journal’ lying under the bare sky!”
Sadly, we did not have to wait long before bumping on a ‘Journal’s’ copy a few yards away.
And, my friend did not waste a second in refreshing his belligerent attack on Bengali culture! ‘Look at this! Had James Joyce written in Bengali, this reading circle would have palmed his copies off too. Decay! Decay everywhere!’ His flow seemed unstoppable at the moment. I stayed calm but he, on the other hand, burst into a recital of Ranajit Das’ iconic lines3– ‘Our shy poems, keep lying on the footpath for some time/ Let the depressed ones/ Kick on your shy stomach while going to market with bags in hands…’
A few steps away from the stage of his melodrama were lying some cheap editions of ‘Ulysses’. As my friend was again verging on a nervous breakdown, I was afraid of fueling his agitation any further. Also, asking him about the credibility of the survey that shows no Dublin footpath has a single copy of any book written by Joyce appeared to forebode the possibility of a bitter fight between us. I was silent, trying to figure out the possible reason behind his outburst. Most probably, he had the copy of Subimal’s book in his collection already. That possession robbed him of the opportunity of a good bargain this evening. Otherwise, naturally, any Subimal fan would have been happy to see his favourite author reaching out to the grassroots level of the readership.
The first book I purchased from the footpath back in 2001, was neither by James Joyce nor by Shankha Ghosh nor by Ranajit Das. My first catch was the kind of book that highlights several layers of ‘pleasure’ that can be associated with ‘the text’ After finishing college, I was looking about the area and suddenly I was fatally stricken by an irresistible cover, I looked around and gave forty bucks to the stall owner hastily before smuggling the book inside my bag. Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, by John Cleland.
The pleasure of the Text
I was facing the virgin-white wall of the University of Calcutta; behind me were fast cars wheezing past Colootola street. Girls were brightly chirping around. From the heap that had cricket writings by Neville Cardus, Kanda Gyan (a collection of humorous essays) by Tarapada Roy4 and cookbook by Bela Dey I rescued the unexpurgated, foreign production of a text that fanned my primitive instincts. Printed in 1963, by Putnam, the copy, almost like our Bat Tala5 books (the British equivalent of Grub street) was, I like to imagine, lying in wait for me, throbbing in anticipation. The first thing I did back home was to cover the untamable original cover with blank white paper.
Fanny Hill can be described as the first proper pornography in English literature. A year after the first instalment of the novel came out in 1748 both the writer and the publisher were arrested. And that set the course for the convoluted history of its publication in the underground market. The plot of the novel, written in epistolary format, is wafer-thin. An innocent village belle of 15 comes to Liverpool alone to accidentally enter the murky world of the flesh trade. The novel catalogues the series of her sexual escapades and adventures. It will be extremely hard to claim that we enjoy Fanny Hill because it has a unique style of storytelling. The text parodied Samuel Richardson’s ethical novel, Pamela, in erotic content. What is interesting is that whereas Pamela with its subheading Virtue Rewarded exhorted morality in a woman in terms of puritan standards, Fanny Hill celebrates a woman’s gradual ascent from the quest of love to sensuousness with its unabashed attitude towards sexuality.
My newly acquired book turned out to be the in 2001 Spring Break for us – the sophomores of the third world. My copy was immediately hijacked by my friends who resided in the Eden Hindu Hostel. Then the book proceeded to a satisfying tour to the private chambers of every boy in our department, being ‘properly utilised’ by the victims of repression. We were completely obsessed with Fanny, and we blamed it on John Cleland.
I remember, after placing the covering the book that evening, I started leafing through its pages with my hands mildly trembling in excitement. Suddenly, a folded sheet of paper tumbled down on my lap. At first, I mistook it for a receipt; but then I realized no footpath stalls issue proper receipts. I opened the piece of paper. It was a letter, scribbled with faint handwriting. A love letter, if one may call it that. My restless mind was quickly arrested by it. It was a strange feeling, I imagine, this chilling loneliness must belong to a voyeuristic figure, who is peeping through the vortex of time into the private life of an unknown person. This added a thrill to the process of reading.
The guy was writing to a girl. It was a description of an imaginary night full of wild, ravenous sexual activities. The lover – the writer of the letter – can’t sleep at night. He craves the girl’s presence in his bed. But, these are commonplace things, what was striking was a set of strange cannibalistic images the guy used to describe his feelings for the girl. As far as I can recollect, the guy writes that the memory of that night awakens in him a desire for the girl’s flesh. Is the softness of lips, bosom tastier than her flesh and blood?
I never saw anyone proposing to a girl in such a manner. Raw hunger sounded louder than anything in that courtship. A guy is desiring a girl with his whole heart – but envisioning a stomach in the place of the heart – kept me awake night after night.
And, then the thought dawned on me! Was discovering a letter from an epistolary novel at all a coincidence? Someone put it there, in that particular book, to be read by a particular girl. Fanny Hill carried it. Probably, whatever was written in the letter defines the true nature of pleasure, something Fanny Hill could not incorporate in itself. The art of seduction the letter presents, got liberated from the sexual organs and spread across the spirit. I spent sleepless nights brooding over the single handwritten letter. I can’t remember the whole of it; but, a couple of phrases left indelible marks on my memory: ‘alien kisses’ and ‘unimagined night’.
I lost the letter, well, to be true, I did not want to keep it. I do not know, maybe I was jealous of the writer. I can’t recall the name of the girl anymore. Was it Constance? Vivienne? Or Fanny?
But I believe, that letter has never ceased being written. Somewhere, an unending night has a lot to tell about the endless combustion of passion. Who were they? From which time? Which country? These details do not matter anymore. The world is full of lives, history is full of timelines, we are nothing but the flow of thought, of desire or the occasional interruptions of them. As I look back, I see the letter arrived in my life like a fabled footnote to the erotic epistolary novel, it built an intangible bridge between sin and pleasure, it completed the experience of the novel for me.
I believe every love letter is being written to an unimagined night, about an unimagined night. Now whenever I bend over a book lying in the footpath stall, I look for the second letter inside it. I feel those kisses are printed somewhere. I can bump into them any day. A love story between two persons about whom I know nothing. What happened to them after that?
And, then I want to know who sold such a thing off.
- One of the most prominent poets of Bengali Literature. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQMRh1VuhZ0&t=1161s
Aritra Sanyal, a poet, translator, researcher, an amateur photographer and an ex-sports journalist (The Statesman) works as a teacher at school in West Bengal. He chiefly writes in Bengali and is the author five books of poetry, the latest of which, Bhanga Manusher Bhumikae (In the Role of a Broken Man) came out in 2020 . He is the recipient of Sunil Gangopadhyay Award (2018) conferred by Kabita Academy, an institution for poetry organized by the Government of West Bengal, India. He has translated and collaborated over translational and interactive projects with poets from different parts of the world. He co-edited Bridgeable Lines, a book of Bengali translation of 12 contemporary American poets in 2019. In 2021, he co-edited and published the Bengali translation of Salome, by Adeena Karasick.
Cover picture: photo by Aritra Sanyal.