Mandakranta Sen is a prominent voice in contemporary Bengali poetry. Her literary engagement spans various genres: she has authored 19 collections of poems, eight novels, two volumes of short fiction and a book of essays. She originally studied medicine but decided to switch tracks in the middle of her final examination and commit herself to a life in literature. Today she works, as she puts it, as a “translator, playwright, lyricist, composer, cover designer and editor of a little magazine,” and her own work has been widely translated.
Arunava Sinha (an award-winning translator of classic, modern and contemporary Bengali writing, including Sen’s poetry) writes: “The youngest winner of the ‘Ananda Purashkar’, the definitive award in Bengali arts and letters for the year's top literary achievement, at just 27, Mandakranta Sen broke new ground in poetry with her very first volume of poetry, Hriday Abadhyo Meye (The Heart's a Disobedient Girl). Her Leftist leanings combine with outspoken sensuality to carve out a unique brand of forthright and yet lyrical verse, which has set a benchmark of sorts for contemporary Bengali poetry”.
The eight poems in this feature are from Sen’s first collection. Two of these, 'Desolate' and 'The Flying Nightdress', have been translated by Sinha specifically for Poetry International. An exuberant series of paeans to freedom, there is a stout refusal to allow an outmoded script of passive victimhood to perpetuate itself. The “indelible script of fate” is erased without apology, and destiny rewritten “in the blue grammar book” with impunity and irrepressible schoolgirlish glee. Disobedience in these poems is a virtue, a credo, transmuted into a lyrical manifesto.
The tones in Sen's poetry range from the playfully erotic (“I can tell from a man’s eyes/ Whether he will ever/ Be my lover”) to more overtly political (the Arjun tree as “Aryan male,” and the Krishnachura as proud “Santhal girl”). And even acts that appear to adhere to the status quo are deceptive and throw out a flirtatious but provocative challenge: “A river will flow around your feet/ When a blue sari is unfurled/ I will toss away in the breeze/ Each of my masculine habits…/ You know how to swim, don’t you?”
The images that remain with me in these poems are those of garments thrown, quite literally, to the winds. Demure blue saris uncoil, morphing into tempestuous rivers in which hapless lovers with their outmoded worldviews might drown. Virginal, sleeping nightdresses awaken as wild, winged textiles and fly away, “wildly astray”, even as the rest of the world slumbers on – unaware of the nocturnal mutiny enacted around them. If the woman of the forest knows how to shed blood, the colonizing male must learn to shed his equally incarcerating armour.
In this bacchanal that is both a strip-tease and bonfire of dead history, Mandakranta Sen’s poems also remind us that new skins are required to replace the outworn ones hurled into oblivion:
Be reborn as an Arjun tree
Consider the Krishnachura a friend
Don't confuse me with others, upright one When I bleed, shed your bark and call me then