Article 1 (7.1)


Teesta Review: A Journal of Poetry, Volume 7, Number 1. May 2024. ISSN: 2581-7094

‘As If Beckoned by a Memory[i]’: Void as ‘a Deeper Sense of Life’ in Jibanananda Das’s Poems


---   Tanmoy Bhattacharjee

[PhD Research Scholar, Department of English, West Bengal State University]

Etymologically speaking, the word ‘void’ traces its roots to a dialect variant of Old French vuide, vuit; it is related to Latin vacare meaning ‘to vacate’, the verb being partly a shortening of ‘avoid’, reinforced by Old French voider (Oxford English Reference Dictionary 1618). To figure out what it tentatively connotes, we may recall the quintessential voidness of human existence as enunciated in the Buddhist texts, especially Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika (Root Verses on the Middle Way). The Madhyamika school of Shunyavada has been described in Bharatatattva – II (Course in Indology): ‘According to this school, the world is unreal. The external and the internal objects are illusory. This is ordinarily known as nihilism or shunyavada.’[i] If, on the other hand, we look at the Occident, especially the Lockean concept of tabula rasa[ii], we cannot altogether deny the role of ‘material things’ in the shaping of our sensation and memory.  Again, the sense of void is very much an existential question in both T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Man’ (‘Shape without form, shade without colour, / Paralysed force, gesture without motion’)[iii] and the recurring refrains of the Chorus in the play The Rock (‘Waste and void. Waste and void. And darkness on the face of the deep’)[iv]. However, in certain other significant senses, void is a ‘deeper sense of life’ and, in this paper, I will zoom in upon the interface between the Bengali poet, Jibanananda Das’s (1899-1954) poems and the sense of void as a ‘a deeper sense of life’.

We cannot but agree that poetry can ‘help us understand the past and define our relation to it’[v]. If, for instance, within the ruling parameters of contemporary memory studies, we choose to examine some select poems of Jibanananda Das, the poet of post-Tagorean modernism[vi], we definitely meet an ‘unacknowledged legislator’[vii] of ‘a strange darkness’[viii]. Themes of rupture, displacement and dislocation have never been far-removed from Das’s works, especially his poems, but they have never led him to bestow upon humankind the status of ‘superiority’, which, the present-day ‘Chthulucene’ (Donna J. Haraway) summarily critiques and repudiates. In ‘The Eclipse of All Eclipse’, we see how the humanity ‘searching for meaningful success’, have forever lost ‘Heart, home, the waters of life’. Man may have ‘lasted long upon this earth’ but, due to his long-held disavowal for the non-human around, ‘he stands in the desert/ Like a tree, seemingly pointlessly’ (The Scent of Sunlight 35). The more-than-human world has pervaded Jibanananda’s poems almost always as a free-standing entity beyond the constrictions of the Anthropocene and only by introspecting into this more-than-human world, we may hope to justify void as ‘a deeper sense of life’. For him, the ‘void’ or the sense of being unoccupied is just a fresh start and there is practically no despondency about a revolution ending in smoke. Man, according to him, learns from the sense of void or that of futility and just continues only because of his profound faith in continuity. Jibanananda’s belief, thus, resonates:

Today our individual hearts, as common man,

Have learned much--- still when all the countless revolutions have

begun and ended

The men of this universe will seek and receive from mankind

Conviction and the beauty of routine:

If not, what shall become of man--- with his knowledge of doubt, experience and wisdom?                                  

                                                                                                     (A Poet Apart 184).


Of course, this optimism about the ‘Conviction and the beauty of routine’ has not ab initio been the poet’s appraisal about existence. His intense empathy for the more-than-human realties regardless of time and place has offered him a comprehensive picture of life, in which void or fullness, perishing or victory, foggy or stunning are just indistinguishable:

Those stars in the bosom of the sky that died thousands of years ago,

They, too, brought through my window countless long-dead skies last night.

Those stunning women I saw die in Egypt, Vidisha, Assyria,

Seemed last night to stand in tight formation, javelin in hand, in far-off mist

and fog upon the sky’s horizon---

To trample death underfoot?

To proclaim total victory for life?

(The Scent of Sunlight 39).

An incertitude prevails about ‘those stars’ that ‘died thousands of years ago’. The poet is not sure if under the same constellation, he came across the ‘stunning women’. He is not even sure if the stars beckoned him to cringe before death or to ‘proclaim total victory’ but his conviction about the continuity of life radiates through. He has experienced life as some uneven episodes of broken promises. The ‘pathetic, meek, homeless’ people have often turned the central images of his poetry; often life, as in the poem ‘In Fields Fertile and Fallow’, has come to him as ‘some purposeless expansion’ or as some ‘mere stacks of straw extending for two, three miles’; the divided aims and modern hurry have found the best voice in the most exquisite manifestation of what I choose to depict as void. In fact, the burnt-out earth with its ‘cracks and fissures’ brings out a glaring sense of vacuity, a sense of being deranged away:

Blinded by the brilliance of a bloody flood, this simple creature

Finds no relief as yet.

Here the earth is rugged

With its cracks and fissures of an April field.

There are no more promises

(Ibid 87).

With such ‘rugged’ discomfitures of life looming, the poet naturally wonders if and how the larger humanity derives a respite from these crises. His deeper consciousness tells him that neither ‘human pain’ nor ‘laughter’ constitutes the totality of life. The totality is, after all, an anagnorisis; it is an anagnorisis about a spatiotemporality beyond which the human ‘eyes can travel’ or ‘Pakshiraja, the King of Birds, [beats] orange wings, as he/ Rips through nighttime’s fog’ (Ibid 107). In other words, it is the non-human around that keeps the human dreams and initiatives pulsating by ‘enveloping weary sorrows of / This world’ through and through. Our ‘crude questions’, ‘tired hungers’, ‘stunned silence’ all are true but they have the relevance of their own in the due recognition of our more-than-human surroundings. Thus, in the due acknowledgement of the vitality of the grass, geese, paddy and sunshine around, we get to understand the interconnectedness between the seeming vacuity symbolized by silence and a similar fullness symbolized by sunshine:

 . . . From some mysterious mist

Wherein none is born and no one dies, from such a magical place emerge

Scarlet sunlight, autumn rice, grass and kash, the geese who keep concealed

Our crude questions, tired hungers, impending death, who leave intact our stunned

Silence. On this earth’s paths I’ve often stumbled, shed some tears. But

Those geese, that kash, paddy, sunshine, grass come and come again, erasing all

(Ibid 107).

This sonnet cycle number 7 from Das’s Bengal the Beautiful may have ended with two forcibly concluding words ‘erasing all’ but can one truly and completely erase the sense of an obdurately clinging ‘void’ from one’s memory? Jibanananda’s iconoclastic poem ‘The Hunt’[ix] might serve as a good example. A ‘handsome nut-brown buck’ has spent a whole mortal night escaping a prowling cheetah and when the soft day dawns across the river’s ‘stinging, tingling ripples’, he seems to imbibe in the day’s bounty. Now, the question is whether amid this apparently achieved bliss, the fearful memory of the last night has completely fizzled away. Commenting on the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s (1788-1860) treatise on ‘Art’, Will Durant explicates Schopenhauer in the following terms: ““The artist [according to Schopenhauer] so frees himself from personal concerns that “to artistic perception it is all one whether we see the sunset from a prison or from a palace.” “It is this blessedness of will-less perception which casts an enchanting glamour over the past and the distant, and presents them to us in so fair a light.” Even hostile objects, when we contemplate them without excitation of the will, and without immediate danger, become sublime”” (The Story of Philosophy 439-440). Significantly enough, in almost no poem of Jibanananda, we perceive this ‘will-less perception’ casting ‘an enchanting glamour over the past, thus dissociating the obviously pertinent sensibilities. The idyllic coming of dawn in the poem ‘The Hunt’ may give us this fanciful impression that ‘the past and the distant’ have just vaporized from the face of earth but memory, like a slouching predator, lurks and, if unguarded, strikes. Denying the intricate crisscrossing of memory is akin to the conduct of those walkers, “who walk among noise and/ deny the voice” in T. S. Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday (1930):

Where shall the word be found, where will the word

Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence

Not on the sea or on the islands, not

On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land


No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and

deny the voice

(T. S. Eliot 82).

In continuation, we, to our shock, find out in ‘The Hunt’ that the predator has only changed shape, not nature; it is no longer a quadruped now but a group of unforgiving bipeds. It’s like the sudden rushing back of the nasty, murky sides of life that we try to keep carefully concealed. In the dazzling boldness of the ‘blue sky’, when there is no possibility of any unpleasantness anywhere, the killing of the innocence occurs. The red venison is now tabled:

A strange sound

The river’s water scarlet like machka flower petals.

Again the fire crackled--- red venison served hot.

Many an old dew-damped yarn, while seted on a bed of grass beneath the stars.

Cigarettes smoke.

Several human heads, hair neatly parted.

Guns here and there. Icy, calm, guiltless sleep

(The Scent of Sunlight 29). 

Memory, it is true, may arise unbidden, when it is least expected and may prove unmanageably elusive, when pursued. Curiously, however, most of Das’s encounters with memory have underscored the inappropriateness of all man-centric endeavours for curbing and crushing ‘Fog flowers’, ‘gray scents of husked rice’, ‘herons calling from ashvattha’ or ‘The odor of an ancient owl’. In the poems, the wild has invariably outlived the organized:

We who’ve watched wild geese outfly the hurt of hunters’ shells

And wing their way away into soft blue moonglow of the far horizon,

(The Scent of Sunlight 5)

Thus, his memory constantly counterposes the wild with the organized, the stable with the unstable, the stout with the putrid. ‘Then why am I so alone?’ (Ibid 13) has turned out to be a catchphrase for the poet, for whom but to be attentive to the sense of rupture is to be full of self-apprehension. In fact, he questions the authority of his own senses (anthropocentric, no doubt) and insightfulness. He mulls over the sense of void that he frequently encounters in various nooks of his itinerary. This is quite discernible in Clinton B. Seely’s assessment of the war-years in Jibanananda’s life: “Desultorily, Jibanananda mulls over mankind’s sorry plight and the prospects for improvement. . . . Man, apathetic and resigned to a fate of confusion, seems headed nowhere. Social relationships turn caustic. Silence and cold set in, and man simply retreats inside--- or goes his lonely way, when his home is destroyed, living meekly, motivated by fear. Both the majestic lion and the scurrilous dog keep man at bay. Death terminates all this for the individual, but provides mankind no respite, for children and children’s children will follow their forefathers” (A Poet Apart 185).  The memory is important; its fragility, too. No sooner do we acknowledge the fragility of memory than we realize that our own selfhood is vehemently suspect. We understand that we cannot see our identity as something fixed and abiding; rather, our identity appears to be collective (la memoire collective[x]) and hence, pervasive both amid ‘the fireflies in a cordial throng’ and ‘in the morgue, in that suffocating stillness’ ((The Scent of Sunlight 61). The ‘suffocating stillness’ of the morgue is definitely evocative of a sense of void but there is no denying that it is inalienably connected with ‘a deeper sense of life’:

A deeper sense of life, I guess?

And that’s why you’ll go there to build your huts of hope.

But, no matter where you go, life itself does not change.

No matter where you build your hope-filled huts, a tale of hunger, dreams---

A tale of pain and separation shall show itself in graying hair.

So said that ashvattha tree, trembling in the darkness overhead

(Ibid 57).

[i] Bharatatattva (Course in Indology): A Study Guide Volume 2 (Kolkata: The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 2006), 161.


[ii] In the sub-chapter ‘From Locke to Kant’, Will Durant sees the Lockean tabula rasa as nothing but a completely unoccupied state of mind or, in other words, a state of being void: “The mind is at birth a clean sheet, a tabula rasa; and sense-experience writes upon it in a thousand ways, until sensation begets memory and memory begets ideas. All of which seemed to lead to the startling conclusion that since only material things can affect our sense, we know nothing but matter, and must accept a materialistic philosophy” (The Story of Philosophy 333).


[iii] Jain, T. S. Eliot, 69.


[iv] Jain, T. S. Eliot, 112.


[v] In a section called ‘Memory and the Potential of Fiction’, Julie Hansen, Associate Professor of Slavic languages at the Department of Modern Languages and research fellow at the Uppsala Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden, has elaborated on the conjugality of memory and literature (The Ashgate Research Companion 198).


[vi] Professor Clinton B. Seely is using this term, for the first time ever, to categorize ‘his [Jibanananda’s] own very idiosyncratic style’ (The Scent of Sunlight 118).


[vii] Percy Bysshe Shelley has deemed the poets as the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’ (Shelley’s Poetry and Prose Norton Critical Edition 802).


[viii] The Scent of Sunlight: Poems by Jibanananda Das p. 93.


[ix] A story of the same name written by Mahasweta Devi in the year 1993 equates the pitiful felling of the trees and the voluptuousness of the rogues who commit all sorts of crime with impunity. The theme of the story can pertinently be associated with a pervasive sense of void in moral, ethical and even ecological levels.


[x] For certain key-ideas about collective memory, one can consult the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at the New School for Social Research, Jeffrey Goldfarb’s short article entitled “Against Memory” (Routledge International Handbook 53).




Das, Jibanananda. Jibanananda Samagra. Vol-II & III. Calcutta: Pratikshan Publications Private Limited, 1985.


_______________. Kabitar Katha. Kolkata: New Script, 2013.

_______________ . Mahaprithibi. Kolkata: New Script, 2012.

______________ .Sreshtha Kabita: Selected Poems in Bengali by Jibanananda Das. Ed. Debiprasad Bandyopadhyay. Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing, 2022.


Devi, Mahasweta. Imaginary Maps. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Calcutta: Thema, 1993.


Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers. New York: Pocket Books, 1926.


Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.


Kattago, Siobhan, ed. The Ashgate Research Companion to Memory Studies. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015.

Pearsall, Judy and Bill Trumble (eds.). Oxford English Reference Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Seely, Clinton B. A Poet Apart: A Literary Biography of the Bengali Poet Jibanananda Das (1899-1954). London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1990.


____________ . The Scent of Sunlight: Poems by Jibanananda Das. NJ, USA: Parabaas, 2019.


Tota, Anna Lisa and Trever Hagen, eds. Routledge International Handbook of Memory Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 2016.




Tanmoy Bhattacharjee is a PhD Research Scholar in the Department of English, West Bengal State University, West Bengal, India. Commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the first UN Conference on Environment, he has brought out a critical edition of its own kind on the multidisciplinary facets of ecology and literature entitled Understanding Environment: An Anthology of Critical Essays (2022).


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[i] An oft-quoted hemistich from Jibanananda Das’s poem ‘Walking’ (The Scent of Sunlight: Poems by Jibanananda Das 73).