FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

A tribute to Dwijen Sharma’s life and writings

by Dipen Bhattacharya | Published: 00:05, Oct 30,2017 | Updated: 16:51, Oct 30,2017

 
 

DURING the early years of the 1980s, I was a student in Moscow in the erstwhile Soviet Union. That was when I met Dwijen Sharma, who was working as a translator at Progress Publisher, popularly known as Pragati Publisher. In this tribute, I will refer to him as Dijenda, as I used to call him over the years. I also made the acquaintance of his wife, Debi Sharma or Debidi. With other Bangladeshi students, I used to visit their home — a tidy apartment in the Kolomenskaya district of Moscow. Debidi kindly cooked for us that would remind us of home. Dijenda had a garden in front of the building, where he planted birch and maple trees, lilac, peony, lupine and hollyhock. His birch trees eventually rose to great heights above their apartment on the ninth floor.

During the mid 70s, I was a student at Notre Dame College in Dhaka. Dijenda taught botany there for a few years, but he had already left for Moscow when I enrolled. He left his imprints on the college campus through the landscape of trees that he helped plant. In Moscow, we did not talk about trees. During that time, I had a very poor understanding of ecology, but I remember discussing science fiction with him.One of our discussions centred on an anthology of Soviet science fiction called Aliens from another Planet, which had been translated by Nani Bhowmick into Bengali. The book had become extremely popular among us teenagers in post-liberation Bangladesh.

In an article dedicated to Nani Bhowmick, Dijenda lamented that talented writers like Bhowmick were wasted in the translation business. The Bengali translators who worked in Moscow in the 1960s all went back home except Nani Bhowmick. Dijenda wrote: ‘They [the translators] must have sensed the presence of Raktakarabi’s King. In the end, only he [Nani Bhowmick], presented himself to his [King’s]iron chains.’ The King of Yakshapuri in Tagore’s drama Raktakarabi crushed everything that was hopeful and beautiful. Dijenda thought Nani Bhowmick had the talent of a writer who could have earned name in the Indian subcontinent.

The first book that Dijenda translated was written by a Soviet physician named Nikolai Amasov. In English, the title of the book is The Thoughts and the Heart (1965). The fact that translators are often unsung is proven by a review of a reader from Kolkata who bought this book at a sidewalk stand. The readers of translated version were enchanted by the book and full of praise for Nikolai Amosov, but nowhere do they mention the translator’s name or the style of the language employed in the book. This omission is especially striking because the title of the book in Bengali is Anwishta Hridoy, Apachita Hridpindo that could be translated as ‘Desired Mind, Wasted Heart’ — a very poetic title that was the object of much discussion during our Moscow student days. Dwijen Sharma described his own style as affected by Sudhin Dutta, a poet renowned for his eclectic approach to poems and use of obscure words.

It is our fortune that Dijenda did not let his talent be crushed by Yakshapuri. He produced, besides his translational work, numerous essays and books that have been instrumental in our understanding of nature and man’s existence within it. In recognition of his writings, he received the Bangla Academy Award in 1987 and the Bangladesh government’s Ekushey Padak in 2015. Many of his writings bear testimony of his interest and concern in ecology. He has inspired an entire young generation with his ecological consciousness. On a personal level, he encouraged me to write. When I published my first creative work, a small anthology of science fiction, I dedicated it to Dijenda.

To appreciate Dijenda’s writing, you have to know Bengali. The words he uses seem to flow out of a fountain that has a place at the very heart of Bengal. These words fly like butterflies, reminding you of unknown birds with colours that you could only see in dreams, or a long-lost paths among small wooded hills that are now gone. During the 1930s, he grew up in a village in Sylhet in the midst of hills and waterfalls that were not contaminated by trash left by indifferent visitors. Years passed. He became interested in the welfare of people and in leftist politics.He earned a degree in botany from the University of Dhaka, taught at Brajamohan College in Barisal and Notre Dame College in Dhaka. He planted champa trees in the Central Women’s College, and varieties of trees on the Notre Dame campus. To build a garden, to build a forest and to keep a forest from harm, these enterprises are art forms that establish our connection to nature. Not everybody can do it; not everybody has the heart to do it.

Dwijen Sharma dreamed of preserving nature. He also dreamed of a perfect urban garden. Through his writings, he regularly revisited the history of humankind to bring the components of nature into urban enclaves. In this literary quest, Dijenda took us back to the works of the classical Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, whose works mention numerous flora and fauna of his time;to the words of the Baul poets whose spirituality was driven by nature; and to the exquisite beauty of the Persian-influenced Mughal gardens located across the Indian Subcontinent.

He lovingly described the work of Andre Le Notre — the man who designed the park of the Palace of Versailles for King Louis XIV, and who brought the formal French garden style to its golden age in the 17th century. Dijenda wistfully narrates the story of King Louis pushing the wheelchair of his elderly and sick royal gardener, Le Notre in the gardens of Versailles. Dijenda’s narration of the event possibly reflects a nature-lover’s wish that the state should respect nature’s custodians.

He marveled at the spaciousness of the tree-covered Moscow boulevards and the formal structures of the Russian parks influenced by the classical French style. He visited England a number of times. English landscape gardening had a profound influence on him.This style of gardening, starting from the early 18th century replaced the more formal European continental gardening with a more relaxed presentation of nature. The 18th century English gardeners like William Kent and Charles Bridgeman introduced a naturalistic landscape style that occasionally featured Greco-Roman structure invoking a long-lost romanticism.

Dijenda writes about the British endeavour to understand nature during the 18th and 19th centuries. This endeavour was represented not only by towering figures such as naturalist Charles Darwin and geologist Charles Lyell, but also by Joseph Dalton Hooker, one of the greatest botanists and explorers that world has known. During 1847-1851, Hooker traveled to Nepal, Darjeeling and Sikkim. He traveled by elephant to Sylhet and Assam. Later he became the director of the famous Kew Gardens in England, where he finished his seven-volume Flora of British India (1872). Kew Gardens was one of Dijenda’s favourite haunts, and he poignantly describes his wanderings through the Secluded Garden, Japanese Garden and Princess of Wales Conservatory. He describes the environment of the gardens as a place of ‘frozen supernatural quietude.’

It is this unexpected use of words and phrases that makes Dijenda’s writing so different. I was enchanted by his description of the haor wetlands of Sylhet:

At the beginning of winter the place turns into a green plain of durba grass. The silence of this lonely field, the undulating wave of mountains in the horizon, the transparent glassy water of scattered beels [water bodies] and the dense shade of the hijal tree copse create a peaceful serenity. Here the monotony of the plains is absent, the land rises and falls.Other than the forest-rims of hijal trees, here thrives motmotiya that smells like basil leaves, blooming wild rose, bright-purple hurhuri and shatamuli bushes. Here magpie-robins, shamas and doves flock to shade without fear; the cattle sheds are farther away, at the edge of the beel where young green shoots of the boro paddy sprout, and where thousands of ducks congregate day and night. It seems like an unknown land, ancient yet resilient. (Selected Essays, 2013)

But, the earth’s environment has come under threat. An ever-expanding population with an ever-demanding life style has depleted resources, and exploited pristine land. The absolute exploitation of the forest near his birthplace pained him. The natural forest that he knew has disappeared, gone are the animals — deer, wild boar, pangolins (bonrui), fishing cats, jungle cats, tigers, hoolock gibbons and dholes (ramkutta). Nature is under threat everywhere. The contradiction between land preservation and development supersedes any ideology. In his younger days, Dijenda put his trust in Marxian principles and dreamed of a world devoid of economic exploitation, but he discovered that the exploitation of nature spreads through all economic structures. He lamented the loss of the Aral Sea, one of the largest inland lakes on earth that is situated between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The drying up of this large lake is considered one of the worst man-made environmental disasters on the planet. Due to the intense diversion of water from rivers that fed into the Aral Sea, due to the Soviet Union’s ambitious irrigation projects, it dried up over the course of 50 years.

All this had made Dijenda question the nature of man. Is man really a wise being? We think that man has managed to extricate himself from the Darwinian selection process. There remain elements of defence that safeguard individuals and clans, which contribute to the Darwinian variation process. It is my understanding that Dijenda, albeit hesitantly, took the position of a Social Darwinist: the natural selection process is still active in human society. At some point, he even despairs when he writes, ‘It would not be illogical to say that, like nature, man is also a blind and directionless entity, because his progress is aimless and uncertain.’

He was conflicted with respect to this idea. This occupied his mind as far back as 1959 when he wrote an essay on the rise of Lysenkoism and the downfall of classical genetics in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Trofim Lysenko, an agrobiologist, rejected natural selection — the mainstay of the Darwinian evolutionary theory. Lysenko’s view was that acquired characteristics in one generation could be transferred through inheritance and he promised rising agricultural output through new revolutionary techniques. This view was popular with Stalin because the Soviet State desperately needed additional food reserves. The Soviet geneticists of that time, like Nikolai Vavilov, who were at the forefront of the science of genetics and who opposed Lysenko’s pseudo-science, soon found themselves out of jobs or even sent to the Gulags. Vavilov died in prison. As an astute student of Darwin, Dijenda pointed out the fallacy of Lysenkoism while stating that inheritance cannot be the sole parameter of success. Later Dijenda wrote some beautiful essays on Darwin in which he lamented the fact that in the last decades, the theory of natural selection was removed from the college curriculum in Bangladesh. The last few times I visited Dijenda and Debidi in their Dhaka apartment in Siddheshwari, we talked about the rising intolerance in the country with respect to knowledge, religion and politics.

Dijenda was mindful of the destruction of the eco-system and the rapid deterioration of the environment in Bangladesh. In a key-note speech given in memory of the great rationalist Araj Ali Matubbar in 2010, he cited Yudhisthira, one of the main protagonists of the Mahabharata. In reply to the question, ‘What is the greatest wonder?’ posed by Dharma who disguised himself as a crane, Yudhisthira said, ‘A man witnesses countless deaths, yet he is oblivious to his own mortality.’ Humankind is cognizant of its role in the annihilation of biodiversity and nature, yet is not ready to forego this self-destructive path. Dijenda mourns the soullessness of the Dhaka city where unplanned, vicious urbanisation has removed nature from human life. He ends that lecture with a quote from the early 17th century English poet John Donne:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent; part of the main, … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

The earth is currently in the midst of a great man-made event of the extinction of species. This is considered the sixth extinction event in the history of the earth. Without any meaningful steps from us, nature’s extinction bell is tolling for us.We find this warning embedded in his writings over the last fifty years.

Dijenda passed away in Dhaka on September 15, 2017.

Dipen Bhattacharya is an astrophysicist and a professor of physics at Riverside College, California, USA.

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