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After Death: Twenty Years by Birendra Chattopadhyay

“After Death: Twenty Years” is written by the modern Bengali poet Birendra Chattopadhyay. It was originally written in Bangla as ‘Mrityur Por: Kuri Bochor’. In this poem, Chattopadhyay addresses Rabindranath Tagore who died somewhere around 20 years down the lane at the time of writing this poem. He talks about Tagore’s humanitarian dream. His dream would prove wrong if he was alive till 1947 when India got its coveted independence and at the same time witnessed the tragic partition. Throughout this piece, Chattopadhyay ironically describes the nationwide catastrophes around 1946-47.

  • Read the full text of “After Death: Twenty Years” here along with the analysis section.
Analysis of After Death Twenty Years by Birendra Chattopadhyay


Summary

The title of the poem “After Death: Twenty Years” alludes to the death of Rabindranath Tagore in 1941. Chattopadhyay’s persona addresses Tagore and portrays the massacre in Calcutta on 19 August 1946 in the very first stanza. He says that all the catastrophes happening around this period have escaped his eyes. Bengal became a living hell where thousands of people died each day.

He did not have to see the Partition of India. More than 20 years had passed after his death, but his dream of a humanitarian nation was still a far cry. The dream Indians saw collectively had turned into nightmarish thoughts. Amidst this tremulous situation, Chattopadhyay’s voice relapsed into hopelessness. It was a moment of disillusionment for the nation.

Structure & Form

“After Death: Twenty Years” is written in free-verse. It does not have a regular rhyme scheme or meter. Chattopadhyay uses the first-person point of view in order to present his thoughts. Hence, it is an example of a lyric poem. There are a total of 29 lines in the poem that are packed into a single stanza. Chattopadhyay uses stylistic transitions between the lines to jump from one idea to the other. Besides, the overall poem is an apostrophe to the poet Rabindranath Tagore. The poet tries to evoke his spirit in this piece to show him the harsh realities of 1946-47.

Poetic Devices

In this poem, readers can find the following poetic devices.

  • Enjambment: It occurs throughout the poem in order to create an artistic transition between lines. For example, the lines “All the terrible catastrophes/ Escaped your eyes” are enjambed.
  • Allusion: In this poem, the poet alludes to his fellow poet Rabindranath Tagore as well the bloody events of 1946 and the Partition of India (especially Bengal) in 1947.
  • Metaphor: In the eighth line “living hell” is a metaphor for Bengal during partition. Chattopadhyay also uses this device in “history of sewage”.
  • Simile: It occurs in the following lines: “The ’47 Partition that was/ Worse than madness in Lumbini”, “Worse than the old hag”, and “All our dreams are like drunken jokes”.
  • Irony: The poet uses irony throughout this piece to prove Tagore’s humanitarian view on Indian society wrong.


Line-by-Line Analysis & Critical Appreciation

Lines 1-8

All the terrible catastrophes

Escaped your eyes 

You did not burn in the tortuous fire of ’46 

The famine and the epidemic 

That came through the blood 

The land where sons killed each other 

The flesh of mothers

Fueled a living hell.

The title of the poem “After Death: Twenty Years” is an allusion to the death of Tagore in 1941. In the first few lines, Chattopadhyay evokes the spirit of Tagore and addresses him in several instances. This piece can also be appreciated as an imaginary conversation between the two poets, Chattopadhyay and Tagore. Only the former speaks throughout the piece while the latter remains muted. This scheme makes this poem an ideal example of a dramatic monologue.

Chattopadhyay’s person addresses Tagore to make him aware of the happenings around 1946, just before independence. The terrible calamities happening on the streets of Calcutta around 1946 allude here. On 19 August, violence between Muslims and Hindus resulted in 3000 deaths. Not only that, 1946 was the year of the Royal Air Force Mutiny that also resulted in ferocity and bloodshed.

Tagore was not alive to witness these bloody scenes. The raging fires that tortured thousands on the streets escaped his eyes. There was an outbreak of famine and epidemic. Alongside that, the golden lands of Bengal turned into a “living hell”. Several of Bengal’s sons killed each other during the communal riots. Their mothers were also killed at the same time. In this hurly-burly, the poet ironically comments on the brutality of men that transformed the glorious land of Bengal as well as India into a hellish ground of bloodbath.

Lines 9-14

You did not have to see 

The ’47 Partition that was

Worse than madness in Lumbini. 

Contrary to these experiences, 

A light of humanity had filled your life, Poet.

We too had learnt to dream from you.

In the following section, Chattopadhyay similarly addresses Tagore. He alludes to the Partition of 1947. According to him, his fellow poet did not have to see the madness of people just after independence. It was worse than madness in Lumbini. Here, Chattopadhyay is referring to the Lumbini Park Mental Hospital.

In contrast to the scenes, Tagore dreamed of a nation where brotherhood and compassion flourished. The light of humanity was there in his thoughts. But, the worsened scenes of Partition are not what the poet dreamed of. However, at the end of this section, Chattopadhyay sadly says that he too learned the art of dreaming positively from Tagore. But, reality tells him otherwise.

Lines 15-19

These past twenty years 

A history of sewage afloat, 

Thirst, a bath, life, all inhuman. 

Worse than the old hag 

Who runs the brothels at Shonagachi.

The experiences of the past twenty years after Tagore’s death had made him rethink his dreams. Chattopadhyay describes the bloody past as the “history of sewage”. The pages of history seem to be surfacing the “sewage” of the past in his mind. The more he looks the more the haunting imagery troubles his heart.

He can visualize thirsty millions, bathed in blood. The inhumane scenes of the partition still make him fearful. He compares the history to an old hag who runs the brothels at Shonagachi. The comparison is bleak and disturbing yet it reveals the harsh fact, difficult to take in.

Lines 20-24

Ministers, leaders, teachers, writers, students, 

Dogs on heat, 

This independent land joins all together. 

All our dreams are like drunken jokes 

Played on the reeds of an oft-used harmonium.

In the 20th line, Chattopadhyay uses an anticlimax. Here, the ideas are arranged in descending order of importance. His persona refers to ministers, political leaders, teachers, writers, and students. They are all panting like “Dogs on heat”. After this tremulous journey from the partition, everyone seems to be running away from their past.

In the following line, the poet ironically says that the independent nation still joins them together. Their dreams regarding the future of India are compared to “drunken jokes”. What they dreamed of, is nothing but a recreation of the intoxicated mind. After the partition, they were all disillusioned. Their dreams are played on the reeds of an obsolete harmonium. It means their vision had become a long-lost tune of one popular rustic song.

Lines 25-29

Even in your nightmares 

You had not thought such calamity 

Would befall this free country 

You had thus remained true 

To your dreams of humanity.

In the last few lines, the poet addresses his fellow poet again. He says that Tagore might not have thought of this day in the worst of nightmares. He had not ever thought such a calamity would befall this “free” nation.

The last lines take another ironic turn. Here, the poet tells Tagore’s spirit that he had remained true to his dreams of humanity as he did not have to witness the worst side of it. Through this reference, the poet contrasts optimism with pessimism, humanity with inhumanity. After reading these lines, it becomes clear that the tragedies happening before and after independence had made Chattopadhyay disillusioned. It also made him a bit cynical regarding the future of the “free” nation.

Historical Context

The poem “After Death: Twenty Years” was written around the 1960s. Birendra Chattopadhyay who was 26 years old at the time of the Partition of India had witnessed the bloody scenes before and after the tragic event. While the revered poet Rabindranath Tagore could not encounter these events due to his death in 1941. In this poem, Chattopadhyay alludes to a number of doomed historical events including the Royal Air Force Mutiny, the August violence in Calculatta in 1946, and the Partition. He wrote this poem in the context of the 1960s. Looking back at the past events, he describes how Tagore’s dream concerning the country’s future is wrong.

This poem was originally published in Bangla as ‘Mrityur Por: Kuri Bochor’ in Shreshtho Kobita. The text was translated by Debjani Sengupta and published in Looking Back: The 1947 Partition of India, 70 Years On.

FAQs

What is “After Death: Twenty Years” about?

It is a poetic address to Tagore concerning the happenings before and after partition and the fate of the “free” nation. Birendra Chattopadhyay describes how his past dream influenced by his fellow poet’s vision proved to be wrong.

Who is being alluded to in the poem “After Death: Twenty Years”?

In this piece, Chattopadhyay alludes to Rabindranath Tagore. Through the title of the poem, the poet alludes to incidents that happened after Tagore’s death in 1941.

When was “After Death: Twenty Years” published?

The poem was originally published in Bangla in 1998 in the poetry collection Shreshtho Kobita. Later it was translated into English and published in Looking Back: The 1947 Partition of India, 70 Years On in 2019.

What is the theme of the poem?

Chattopadhyay’s poem taps on themes of partition, disillusionment, perception vs reality, and pessimism.

What type of poem is “After Death: Twenty Years”?

It is a free-verse lyric poem that is written in the form of a dramatic monologue. Chattopadhyay addresses this poem to the spirit of Tagore.


External Resources


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