Skip to content

To Dream, Perchance to Change

By Sandeep Banerjee 

On the corner of Montréal’s Marie-Anne and St Dominique streets is a boarded-up apartment that is marked by a largesse of graffiti and posters. On its wall, peeking out from behind posters about runaway cats and paid sex is a stenciled message that proclaims an escape of an altogether different kind: «un autre monde est possible». If you said that this message – “another world is possible” when rendered into English – is no more than a flight of fancy or, speaking to present contexts, a descent into fantasy, you would be quite correct. Quite correct but not entirely so – because such a take would miss the main takeaway: that the fantastic (“another world”) and the realistic (“is possible”) are intrinsically linked – the possibility of change is intimately, and directly, tied to the realm of fantasy and the labors of the imagination.

Across cultures, poetry has always been a key site for articulating the relationship between the fantastic and the transformative mediated by the shaping powers of the imagination. Any student of English literature will tell you of Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie (1595) where he elaborates on poetry and its relationship to the world. The poet, Sidney writes,

disdaining to be tied to any such subjection [to nature], lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature, in making things either better than nature brings forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demi-gods, cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like … Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden (my italics).

In Sidney’s elaboration of poetry (drawing from Aristotle’s Poetics), nature is improved upon by poets – they either make it “better” or “quite anew.” Nature’s world of bronze, he insists, is recast in a richer hue, and made golden. Poetry, in other words, is an improvement on reality – it is, by definition, transformative and fantastic. To put this another way, the poetic register could be said to perform a determinate negation on reality and posit another world in its stead.

There is perhaps no better example of the power of determinate negation than the opening lines of the patriotic lyric Vandemataram [বন্দেমাতরম] composed by Bankim Chandra Chatterji that has been so integral a part of the political milieu of colonial and postcolonial India. So entrenched is the song in the more lugubrious aspects of Indian political reality that it is easy to forget that its original context was colonial Bengal, and its original purpose was to provide a fantastic gloss to the famine ravaged reality of the Bengal countryside. Consider the opening lines of the song that is ritually sung as India’s national song, here in Julius Lipner’s resonant translation:

I revere the Mother! The Mother

Rich in waters, rich in fruit,

Cooled by the southern airs,

Verdant with the harvest fair.

বন্দে মাতরম্ |

সুজলাং সুফলাং


শস্যশ্যামলাং মাতরম্ !

The hymn opens by invoking the traditional – and transcultural – literary trope of equating womanhood, nature, and fecundity. For my purposes, however, I want to draw readers’ attention to the way it presents the Bengal landscape. We are given a sense of place that is “rich in waters, rich in fruit” besides being green from the standing crops. Vandemataram, though initially published in the journal Bongodorshon in 1875, entered public consciousness through its appearance in the novel Anandamath in 1882. The novel, readers will recall, is set in the eighteenth century with the infamous famine of 1769-73 that killed 10 million people (about 30 percent of Bengal’s population) as its backdrop (Visaria and Visaria 527). This was the first of numerous famines that would devastate India, especially Bengal, for the next 175 odd years of British colonial rule. As the historian B. M. Bhatia has noted, under the East India Company’s rule between 1765 and 1858, India experienced 12 famines and four severe scarcities. Between 1860 and 1908, under direct colonial rule, famine or scarcities prevailed in some part of the country or the other for 20 of those years.

The social reality of famine and epidemics framed the lyric’s appearance in the literary marketplace. What is crucial to note here is that the lyric’s vision of plenty contrasts starkly with this objective reality. It is a gesture of refusal of the history, and the lived experience, of famines in India (and Bengal) through the late-eighteenth to the early-twentieth centuries that was a crucial way in which Indians – and Bengalis in particular – experienced the embrace, and their positions as subjects, of colonial capitalist modernity. At its moment of emergence, Vandemataram’s appeal lay in its idealization of the space of Bengal as a divine and nurturing mother, creating a fantastic dissonance between the lyric’s imaginary and the lived reality of that space as one of distress, marked by death and devastation.

The fantastic and the transformative could be anchored in the poetic in other ways too. It could be used, as Rabindranath Tagore does, to express a message of hope and unity. Let me turn from India’s national song to another lyric whose first stanza forms India’s national anthem. The rest of the lyric, barring a few exceptions, is not sung but the stanza in question does gesture towards a utopian imagination of Indian space and community. And this imagination appears almost fantastical in light of our contemporary reality. Here is the second stanza of Jana Gana Mana [জনগণমন]:

Daily is your appeal made, hearing your welcome call

Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Parsee

Muslim, and Christian, come all

The West with the East meet

Weave love’s garland by your seat.

For you the people’s unity – glory to thee!

India’s destiny you decree

glory, glory, glory to thee![i]

অহরহ তব আহ্বান প্রচারিত, শুনি তব উদার বাণী

হিন্দু বৌদ্ধ শিখ জৈন পারসিক মুসলমান খৃস্টানী

পূরব পশ্চিম আসে তব সিংহাসন-পাশে

প্রেমহার হয় গাঁথা ।

জনগণ-ঐক্য-বিধায়ক জয় হে ভারতভাগ্যবিধাতা!

জয় হে, জয় হে, জয় হে, জয় জয় জয় জয় হে ।।

Readers will notice the enumerative protocol that structures the vision of this stanza of Jana Gana Mana. It lists the various religious identities, namely, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsees, and Christians who make up the community of Indians at large. Also noteworthy is that India in this stanza is not signified as a space of uniformity but as a variegated entity that is a unity in difference. Note also how Tagore deploys the spiritual: India is not equated with gods or deified. Rather, the poet makes, and maintains, a distinction between the divine and India. The call of this divine welcomes diverse communities – Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsees, and Christians – who meet at the throne to weave “a garland of love.” This stanza also seeks to construct an idea of the Indian community – those who belong to India do so because they have lived ties with the country and not through some primordial claim on this land. Such an imaginative gesture not only makes visible the multiple religious communities that inhabit India but also sets them up as groups who belong, and are equal claimants, to Indian space. And this is precisely where the image of India becomes hopeful and also fantastic in the context of our present.

Tagore’s idea of India, imbued as it is with a sense of hopefulness, finds expression throughout his poetic oeuvre. His sonnet from the 1901 anthology Noibedyo [নৈবেদ্য], offers readers a vision of a future for India and the world that is structured as a prayer. While the version below is more faithful to the original, readers would know the sonnet as “Where the Mind is Without Fear” in Tagore’s rendering. That is also the version that Martin Sheen recited in the climate action protest in the USA’s Capitol Hill a couple of years ago. But I digress – let us turn to the poem:

Where the mind is fearless, the head held high

And knowledge, free. Where, by day and by night,

This earth has not been kept broken

By walls. Where all that is spoken

Springs forth from the heart. Where human action,

Journeys unfettered in all direction

And across all the lands, to express

Itself in forms diverse and countless.

Where the sandbars of petty custom

Have not engorged the streams of reason,

Humankind not shattered into a hundred parts.

Where each day, you lead all pleasures, thoughts, and tasks.

Be ruthless my Lord – with your own hand strike!

Wake India up into that paradise.

চিত্ত যেথা ভয়শূন্য, উচ্চ যেথা শির,

জ্ঞান যেথা মুক্ত, যেথা গৃহের প্রাচীর

আপন প্রাঙ্গণতলে দিবসশর্বরী

বসুধারে রাখে নাই খণ্ড ক্ষুদ্র করি,

যেথা বাক্য হৃদয়ের উৎস মুখ হতে

উচ্ছ্বসিয়া উঠে, যেথা নির্বারিত স্রোতে

দেশে দেশে দিশে দিশে কর্মধারা ধায়

অজস্র সহস্রবিধ চরিতার্থতায় —

যেথা তুচ্ছ আচারের মরুবালুরাশি

বিচারের স্রোতঃপথ ফেলে নাই গ্রাসি,

পৌরুষেরে করেনি শতধা, নিত্য যেথা

তুমি সর্ব কর্ম চিন্তা আনন্দের নেতা–

নিজ হস্তে নির্দয় আঘাত করি, পিতঃ,

ভারতেরে সেই স্বর্গে করো জাগরিত॥

In this sonnet, Tagore presents India, and the world, in a state of becoming that appears to be marked by Bloch’s utopian impulse or the principle of hope. The poet’s fantastic vision locates a future India at a future time – “that paradise” – that has specific attributes. This is an idea of India where the mind is without fear, the head held high, and knowledge, free. The world is also envisioned as one, and not broken into parts by walls or boundaries. It is also a place where the heart shapes speech, and human labor moves unhindered to find expression and fulfillment across the globe, where reason has not been engulfed by habits petty custom. A fantastic list of attributes by all accounts and one that seeks to make the utopian desire for a more just world quite explicit. But there’s more – by insisting on a borderless world of which the local (India) is a part, Tagore collapses the distinction between the local and the global. The sonnet seeks to stretch India to make it more than itself, and metonym of the world. And this is another instance of the fantastic being tasked to articulate the transformative.

I say tasked not without reason. The poetic, owing to it being transformative and fantastic, is also at once rhetorical – it seeks to engage, explicitly or otherwise, in the act of public persuasion. It is thus not only the expression of the structure of being but a means of becoming. It serves a ritualistic function in society that is invested with a utopian charge and marked by what Ernst Bloch has famously called the “principle of hope.” And this aspect of the poetic is expressed, poetically, by Tagore in his 1895 poem “Return me Now” [এবার ফিরাও মোরে]

Arise, o Poet, and come, if you have the spirit
Bring it along – make that your gift!
Much sorrow, much pain – a world of suffering lies ahead
… amidst this want, o poet,
Bring from heaven, hope’s portrait!
কবি, তবে উঠে এস, যদি থাকে প্রাণ

তবে তাই লহ সাথে,—তবে তাই কর আজি দান!

বড় দুঃখ, বড় ব্যথা, —সম্মুখেতে কষ্টের সংসার

… এ দৈন্য-মাঝারে, কবি,

একবার নিয়ে এস স্বর্গ হতে বিশ্বাসের ছবি!

The poetic register, then, is the fantasy of hope marshaled against the solidity of the real; the subjunctive set up against the present tense, at once tense and imperfect. The spirit of fantasy allows us to re-enchant the disenchanted world of capitalist modernity. And in re-enchanting our ordinary existence with the stardust of hope, it whispers to us of other possible places and times, of other times and places as possibilities that we may someday inhabit. It tells us that while we may be watching the wreckage of history pile up today, tomorrow we just might, with Theocritus and our own Shailendra, sing a sweeter song.

Have faith as you are alive,
In the victory of life

If someplace a heaven is found,

Bring and lay it out on this ground.

तू ज़िन्दा है तो ज़िन्दगी की जीत में यकीन कर,

अगर कहीं है तो स्वर्ग तो उतार ला ज़मीन पर!

Painting: Kurt Seligmann, “Vanity of the Ancestors,” 1940-43.

[i] All translations, unless otherwise specified, are by Sandeep Banerjee.

Works Cited

Bhatia, B. M. Famines in India; A Study in Some Aspects of the Economic History of India,

1860–1965. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1967.

Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope, Volumes 1–3. Translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen

Plaice, and Paul Knight. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

Lipner, Julius J. “Introduction.” Anandamath or The Sacred Brotherhood, by Bankim

Chatterji, translated by Julius J. Lipner, 3–124. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Visaria, Leela, and Pravin Visaria. “Population, 1757–1947.” In Cambridge Economic

History of India, Volume 2: c.1757–1970, edited by Dharma Kumar and Meghnad Desai, 463–552. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Sandeep Banerjee
teaches English literature at McGill University.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: