I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
In my small and scattered knowledge, Shakespeare’s 130th sonnet was possibly the first to subvert the genre. The poet parodied several tropes found in sonnets, from the days of Petrarch to those of Philip Sidney, in which men described the women they loved as having eyes ‘like the sun’ and lips like coral. I don’t remember my classes very well, but I think this particular sonnet might have gone a long way in portraying a different kind of romantic relationship. Using mundane language in love songs opens up the way for many things – precise enunciation of personal emotions, staying true to one’s idiosyncrasies, and making room for heteroglossia. To this day, poets and songwriters love to say how their affection is genuine because it’s down-to-earth; to quote E. Barrett Browning, they love
‘to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light’.
Of course, this isn’t the only kind of love poem/song that exists, but it’s a fairly common trend that continues in present-day popular culture.Take Anupam Roy: in situating his speakers in the Kolkata that he loves, he endears himself to us because his images are at once familiar and everyday.
For those of you joining us from outside my hometown, Anupam Roy is one of the most famous and adored Bengali pop singers, who shot to fame in 2010 and stayed there. Virtually all of his songs are about living and loving in a world of soup, train stations, carrom, cuckoos, lakes, and amateur poetry. It goes without saying that I love him as much as the next Calcuttan. But Anupam is far from being the first or last to sing sonnet-one-thirty songs in Bangla (i.e. ‘Bengali’, in Bengali); it’s this very genre of music that I’d like to talk about right now.
Hemlock Society is a 2012 Bengali film about a woman who decides to commit suicide when she finds out her fiance is cheating on her. She’s found by someone who puts her through a very elaborate setup to teach her to love life. The film begins in a bar, in which Siddharta Roy (played by real-life pop singer Silajit, and funnily enough, he seems to be an Anupam stand-in) is singing Jawl Phoring.
Something about the song occurred to me the other day (in the shower, of course). It starts off with ‘tui’, the most familiar form of the Bengali second person pronoun. Then it goes full sonnet-one-thirty by juxtaposing ‘Aladdin’ with ‘magazines’, and so on. The song is romantic and homely, and the lady with the glass is clearly enjoying it. Then comes the chorus, roughly translated here [I don’t own this song or the film or any of its associated intellectual property]:
I can take your morning dreams
And snap your kites at dusk;
I can give you pins of light;
I can give you days of spring;
Find me a grasshopper!
It’s certainly a beautiful song, merging the imagery of the collective Bengali conscious with genuine feeling. If it hadn’t been for something completely different, I probably wouldn’t have thought of what I did.
Sometime in 2010, a few schoolboys made a video of a song they’d sung by beating benches in school. I happened to meet one of them a few years later, and eventually found the video. It’s in Bangla, and the singer tells the listener (who we gather from the lyrics is someone he’s trying to date) that he/she is his buttons, shoelaces, smelly socks, ink, clock hands, and so on. Of course, it’s not meant to be high art, but it struck me the other day that the trend of expressing amorous attachment in petty and pedestrian terms had been taken to an extreme. It was no longer subversion – it was the norm.
What’s wrong with feeling strongly? I can’t think of any human emotion that can’t be described in lofty terms. We’re people, after all. It’s because we’re capable of feeling strongly about things – books, food, sports, or other people – that we can parody our feelings in the first place. Certainly, the mood might strike to joke about serious things. Even Catholic Memes joked about Jesus telling Peter to focus his chakra on his feet. But do we have to express ourselves in trivial words? Are we really so petty that we cannot raise ourselves to the stature of monuments? Are we really so ashamed at our huge feelings and the flights of our spirits that we feel compelled to tether them with shoelaces to musty tea stalls?
I got to thinking about Jawl Phoring again. It’s petty. Read side-by-side with this song penned by schoolchildren, it doesn’t seem special at all, even though it still sounds good. The lyrics seem so hollow, so meaningless. Go ahead, weigh them against your favourite book, TV show, or song, especially from when you were younger. Is this anything like our sincerest love? I’m pretty sure we liked looking out the window when we were going home after school more than this man likes his lady.
And that’s when it hit me. If you watch the video, you’ll see the part where the protagonist’s love life is depicted. The prelude to intimacy is a joke. The entirety of this relationship that we see is something to be literally laughed at. This woman’s life wasn’t happy. Call it societal brainwashing or what you will, she must have felt that she was in a loving relationship because it conformed to her expectations of what a modern, upper-middle-class relationship should be like. Like the ‘poets’ describing their love in the paltriest terms they know, rather than the most hyperbolic, she has placed her affections in the container that she felt she ought to – by the end of the film, we are inclined to think she never felt as strongly about her fiance as she wanted to think she did, and neither did the man about her. Her suicide would have been as ridiculous as it is revealed to be in her conversation with the sex worker. She never felt strongly, and fooled herself into thinking that she did, to the point where she almost killed herself in despair.
Jawl Phoring is the outline of our diminished love lives. What appears to be a sincere love song is a farce, just as the lady’s relationship is a feeble bond made to look perfect. The opening of the film is not ironic for being happy – intentionally or not, it is ironic in its own purpose. Under the bright lights and the singing is petty, mundane misery, and the rest of the film is a journey from the underground fiesta to the real sunshine outside.