The Ostrich – Based on Sudhindra Nath Dutta’s “Utpakhi”

[What follows is an English translation/transcreation of the much quoted classic Bengali poem “utpakhi” (উটপাখী, meaning ostrich), written by Sudhindranath Dutta. He published it in his collection called “krandasi” (ক্রন্দসী, meaning the Sky and the Earth) in the Bengali year 1344, which could have been 1937 approximately, according to the Western calendar.
I am putting this up on Facebook a second time, 5 July, 2014 being the date of the first posting. I was satisfied with that attempt till now. However, when I read the original poem recently, I began to doubt my interpretation of it. I put in more thought into the matter and concluded that the poem addresses severe mental depression engendered by events like the great depression of 1929. Dutta, I think, believed that compared to the great depression, the Maratha invasion of Bengal in the 1740’s was a kindergarten story. This is clear enough from a reading of the last four lines of the third stanza of the poem, which I didn’t attend to sufficiently in my 2014 version. Be that as it may, I see now that the poem acts as a bridge connecting art and economics.
Chaplin too tried a similar exercise in Modern Times, but his style was different. Dutta’s poem is humourless, when Chaplin made people laugh at their own misery. For him, the symbol of helplessness was the little man. For Dutta, it was an ostrich lost in the middle of a merciless desert. Interestingly enough, both artists end up in hope, each in his own way.

Can’t you hear my words of counsel pray?
Why in vain then burrowed lies your head?
Where to hide? How vast the desert’s sway –
Footfall squeezed, all shady nooks lie dead.
E’en a mirage today the horizon won’t display
Ruthless, silent, blue the sky will loom
To delude the hunter, seems there is no way
He’s got to snare you, else he spells his doom.
Where can you flee? Run you’ll how much more?
The sands uncaring won’t your claw-marks veil
Childhood friends, those associates of yore
Bygone all, helpless, alone your trail.

What will you reap, why sit on a cracked egg’s shell?
Even penitence will not make it whole.
Won’t boundless cravings self-destruction spell?
In a wish free void too you can’t hope to stroll.
Best that to my reasoning you pay heed
Sail your fancied ship in a sea of sand
News of oases you know well indeed
Cautious wisdom never was your brand.
A fresh new home then let us go and build
In any odd retreat, thorny bush enclosed
Salty water, at least, it will yield
Dates will fall too, gravity’s pull unopposed.

Behind a fence of mythical creepers there
We shan’t construct a zoo with iron grills
Nor call up hosts of buyers to the fair
To prune your wings of all redundant frills.
With surplus feathers scattered on the ground
Fans for a hermit’s fret-free needs we’ll weave
The dusty trail of a star extinction bound
We won’t hunt on a dark and moonless eve.
In praise of you no rattle will be heard
For mindless greed with wants to ever combine
To forestall marauders, a peaceful lullaby bird,
You’ll fail to be, in this crash of twenty-nine.

The wounds of damage, of course, must be borne
By us alone, I know, in equal share
The early ones have booked their gains and gone
It’s left for us all remaining debts to clear.
Disgusting is this game of self-amour!
Can blindness ever keep devastation on wait?
Avoiding me will swell your woes for sure
Self-deception suits not a dire strait.
Let’s get together and sign this treaty then
Helping each our opposite goals to reach
You can guide me beyond the mortal plain
And I my friend will find you a worldly niche.


(It was my good friend Dianne Shiff Thaler who taught me a possible pronunciation of the last word I used in my work. That was close to 57 years ago. However, it is never too late to thank a friend.)

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