Upal Deb was two people

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Upal Deb was Professor of English Literature at Bongaigaon College, Assam. He edited the historical book, Writing Language, Culture and Development: Africa vs. Asia: Volume 1 (Mwanaka Media and Publishing, 2018), with Tendai Rinos Mwanaka, writer, artist and publisher from Zimbabwe, and Wanjohi wa Makokha, a public intellectual from Kenya.

Deb has also translated poetry into Assamese and Bengali. He was known to many thanks to his ‘Sunday Poems on Facebookwhere his surprisingly broad reading of world poetry was on full display.

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I first met Upal Deb in a shabby college room where I was an undergraduate studying political science and where he initially taught English literature, in my old hometown of Assam in 1991..

I found it somewhere else and learned later that it was still, in part, somewhere else. The encounter was a little awkward, in retrospect. I knew nothing about literature, although I wanted to write poetry. He put me at ease by giving me a list of names to read: Milan Kundera, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes and García Márquez. These names sounded like new worlds to me and, indeed, they turned out to be so.

Upal Deb. Photo: Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee.

Two former Bengali professors – one from Deb’s department and the other from mine – have expressed annoyance that I meet him frequently. The English lecturer said, “Stick to political science”; the political science professor said, “Upal is too high for you.”

Their open unease was remarkable in its admission of envy and insecurity. They didn’t want me to learn from him; a memorable introduction to the world of the humanities for a boy coming out of engineering school.

Deb changed my life just by telling me who to read. Reading is the way of life and of the world. At the time, he was obsessed with two names that were radically different in their approach to philosophy: Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Derrida. He showed me the article he had written about Sartre for a daily newspaper in Assam, the title of which said a lot about Sartre, the article and Deb’s witty sarcasm: Would Nobel honor have dishonored Sartre?

It was thanks to Deb’s trust that I was encouraged to review Kundera’s novels in the Sunday section of The Sentinel. This gave me the opportunity to meet Mr. DN Bezbaruah.

After graduating, I left my hometown and moved to Delhi to pursue my Masters in Political Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Thanks to Deb’s influence, I was spending less time downstairs in the library, as my classmates did, reading curriculum essays suggested by my professors; instead, I was mostly on the fourth floor, reading translated literature.

I was more interested in discovering poets than theoreticians. In retrospect, I did the right thing. Poetry’s intuitive medium, its subjective vigilance, saves you from being cheated by the objectivist (and rationalist) trappings of theory.

I once shared an incident in Tahrir Square with Deb. It was the winter of 2011 when the world witnessed an inspiring movement against the regime of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Egyptian demonstrators occupied Cairo’s famous square from January 25, demanding an end to the constitutional monarchy. I had read the story of a man who was part of the protest, holding a cup of tea as he pushed his way through the crowd. Someone asked him where he could get it. The man handed over the cup saying he had brought it for him. It was a poignant, beautiful and inspiring moment of human encounter. Another man’s thirst made an undemanding demand on the man’s heart. His response was ethical: your thirst, first.

To this incident, Deb responded, “History is always poetry…sometimes lyrical…sometimes epic…sometimes the Waste Land or Byzantium…its lyrical moment…because the other side smells like sunshine in teacups!

He used to spell out the full meaning of something, but often cryptically, inside dotted lines. Here he mentions together the poems of TS Eliot and WB Yeats, both haunted by images of death. The story is heroic and tragic, and the poetry feeds on both motifs. In the Tahrir Square incident, there is a momentary glimpse of hope and camaraderie, hope in camaraderie, poetically summed up by Deb: “because the other side smells the sun in the cups of tea”.

This other person is the other face; the other presence; the other side of life and history. The other is separated by a distance that is both illusory and real. Distance creates space for metaphor. It also creates space for a act: in this case, of generosity. The other side will always be different, always demanding of us, without always demanding it.

In Augurs of Innocence, William Blake said it was possible to see the world in “a grain of sand” and find paradise in “a wildflower”. In other words, it is possible to squeeze our understanding and imagination of being in the world into a metaphor. Deb transformed the meaning of the man’s desire for tea amid fierce protest by producing a metaphor: a desire to drink tea was a desire to drink sunshine.

This is how Deb wrote and spoke. Even his criticisms were formulated with poetry. He left spaces in his sentences for you to imagine and fill in yourself. For a man who liked to teach, he was quite anti-pedantic in conversation.

One afternoon in 1994, traveling by pedicab through Guwahati’s Fancy Bazar, Deb mentioned Fernando Pessoa to me: “There was a poet who wrote in four names! Until then, I could conceive of a poet writing in four languages, but not in four names. The tone was humorous and we both laughed.

It was an appropriate introductory tone for a Portuguese poet who found reality oppressive. We laugh in wonder for such an ill-adjusted man. Pessoa readers should laugh on his behalf. The satirical irony in the poetry of Pessoa’s heteronyms was closer to that of a child unjustly trapped in an adult world. Pessoa’s life bears witness to his refusal to adapt to the world that only made sense to him in the poems he wrote.

Pessoa was addicted to writing. Deb was, strangely, not. He was happy to do poetry in everyday speech. In fact, he treated writing as a conversation, where language was expressed dialogically. I remember Deb when I read these lines from Alberto Caeiro’s poem, If I die young:

“I wanted nothing more than to be in the sun or in the pouring rain –

In the sun when it was sunny

And in the rain when it was raining. (Translation: David Scanlon)

Once, sitting at home on top of a hill, in a room full of books, I had asked him – partly jokingly but also seriously – if he hid his writings in a trunk like Kafka, to be discovered after his dead . He’s laughing. The rare poem he wrote on Binayak Sen, some fine translations of Assamese and Bengali poetry, and a translation of a short story by Kumar Ajit Dutta for Indian literature, The green motorcycle (December 2006), are all available on the Internet. He was the Borgesian reader who did not feel obliged to become a typewriter.

There’s one thing no one would miss about him: his busy mind. You felt he was still thinking. I want to ask Deb about her impression of death. I still speak to him with an audacity à la Pessoa: death cannot interrupt our conversation.

Upal Deb was two people; the one you met, and the one who was always somewhere else. The other Deb emerged in those poetic expressions he occasionally uttered, either to make a point or to answer yours. He was happy to tell us where he came from: his books. In this sense, he intensely lived (in) two worlds. Deb didn’t write a book, but you’ll find it in all the books he’s read and left for others to read. As her brother informed me on the phone, “155 boxes of books have been donated to the college library for students.”

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political scientist. He is the author of The city is slowly emptying: on life and culture during confinement (Headpress, Copper Coin, 2021), In search of the nation: towards another idea of ​​India (Speaking Tiger, 2018), and The tomb of Ghalib and other poems (London Magazine Editions, 2013).


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