Amalkanti by Nirendranath Chakravarty

Amalkanti is a friend of mine,
we were together at school.
He often came late to class
and never knew his lessons.
When asked to conjugate a verb,
he looked out of the window
in such puzzlement
that we all felt sorry for him.

Some of us wanted to be teachers,
some doctors, some lawyers.
Amalkanti didn’t want to be any of these.
He wanted to be sunlight –
the timid sunlight of late afternoon,
when it stops raining
and the crows call again,
the sunlight that clings like a smile
to the leaves of the jam and the jamrul.

Some of us have become teachers,
some doctors, some lawyers.
Amalkanti couldn’t become sunlight.
He works in a poorly lit room
for a printer
He drops in now and then to see me,
chats about this and that
over a cup of tea, then gets up to go.
I see him off at the door.

The one among us who’s a teacher
could easily have become a doctor.
If the one who’d wanted to be a doctor
had become a lawyer,
it wouldn’t have made much difference to him.
All of us got more or less what we wanted,
all except Amalkanti –
who used to think so much about sunlight
that he wanted to become sunlight.

Summary and Analysis

‘Amalkanti’ is a poem written originally in Bengali by Nirendranath Chakrabarti but made available to all non-Bengali but English knowing speakers in an English translation of the same by Sujit Mukherjee and Meenakshi Mukherjee. The poem deals with a very common situation in the lives of school-going children who often discuss what each one of them wants to be when grown-up.

Amalkanti is a friend of the speaker and the two are classmates. The speaker tells us that Amalkanti was not very bright and in fact quite dull at studies. But he had a dream unlike any other student in class. He wanted to become sunlight! While the rest of the students followed conventional paths and had common expectations in life which even got fulfilled, Amalkanti’s dream was very different. ‘He wanted to be sunlight’.

This desire is very strong in Amalkanti’s heart but the poem ends by telling us that he could not become sunlight. In fact he got a poorly paid job in a printing press and worked in a dark and dingy room. It is left to the reader to read between the lines and determine as to who are the really successful people in this poem. Is it the group of those youngsters who become doctors and lawyers without caring too deeply about it or is it Amalkanti who is content with his lot even though not at all successful in the conventional terms?

Stanza 1

The poet begins the poem by introducing us at once to the person who is going to be the focus of the whole poem. He begins by telling us that Amalkanti is a friend of his and they were together at school. When asked to do even a simple grammar exercise as ‘conjugate a verb’, he would look puzzled and would look out of the window. All his classmates felt sorry for him.

The poem begins in first person and the speaker addresses the readers directly. At this time however, we cannot be sure whether it is the poet speaking. The lines are short and the tone is conversational. The manner in which Amalkanti is introduced defines very clearly that the relationship between the speaker and this boy is neither too close nor too distant. There is a mixture of closeness and distance. He is neither his closest friend nor his best friend. But he is nevertheless a friend. The stanza progresses with a confident and amused tone and the speaker describes how Amalkanti was a weak student and he often came late to school and almost never knew his lessons. In the concluding line we have to take into account what is left unsaid. In any normal classroom situation if a student fails to provide an answer to a simple question, rest of the students often make fun of him. But here the case is different. The speaker tells us that ‘we all felt sorry for him.’ The reason for this is obviously Amalkanti. He looks lost and so confused that he invokes a response of pity rather than ridicule from his classmates. The poet coins a special word ‘puzzlement’ to convey the lost and bewildered look on Amalkanti’s face which evokes a sympathetic response from his classmates.

Stanza 2

The speaker continues in the same confident tone and tells us next about the dreams and desires of his classmates. Most of these students have conventional expectations from life — some just want to become teachers, some doctors and some lawyers. It is only Amalkanti who stands apart with his dream. He does not want to follow any of the conservative professions. Instead, he wants to become sunlight! He wants to become the kind of sunlight that we see in late afternoons when it has stopped raining and the crows start calling again. He wants to be the warm sunlight that one sees reflected on the leaves of the jaam and the jamrul trees.

The speaker’s tone is casual when he tells us the common and conservative goals of his classmates. They all wanted to take up conventional professions — so some want to be teachers, some lawyers and some doctors. The speaker does not name any particular student who would want any particular profession except Amalkanti. For the rest of them it didn’t matter what they became as long as it was one of the conventional lines of work. Amalkanti however stands out from the rest in wanting to become sunlight!

When the speaker begins describing the kind of sunlight that Amalkanti wanted to be, the tone of the poem becomes full of wonder, it becomes soft and lyrical. This should make us stop and think whether in these lines it is the speaker who has suddenly changed his attitude or whether it is the poet who has stepped in to give a different perspective on the situation. Amalkanti wants to become sunlight says the speaker, but it is the poet who tells us that he wants to become “the timid sunlight of late afternoon, when it stops raining and the crows call again, the sunlight that clings like a smile to the leaves of the jaam and the jaamrul.”

While on the one hand the above quoted lines alert us to the change in tone and perspective, on the other hand they also underline the fact that Amalkanti’s desire is to spread the happiness associated with sunlight. That is why it is described as the ‘timid sunlight of late afternoon ’that ‘clings like a smile.’ The poet has conveyed his point of view through a skillful use of the image of sunlight that he has created. Look at the careful choice of words. The adjective ‘timid’ aptly describes the softness of the sunlight. In late afternoon the sun’s intensity is on the declining side. Thus all the harshness that can be equally associated with sunlight is removed from Amalkanti’s dream. In his dream there is only softness and happiness associated with sunlight and the same is achieved through the use of the image of sunlight clinging like a smile.

In the second stanza it becomes clear that there is a difference in perspectives of the poet and the speaker of the poem and the two are not the same. The speaker has a casual attitude towards Amalkanti, even full of pity at times, but the poet’s attitude is full of wonder.

Stanza 3

In the third stanza, the speaker returns to tell us how everybody else’s dream gets fulfilled except Amalkanti’s. We are told that from that group of students, some have become teachers, some lawyers and some doctors. But Amalkanti couldn’t become sunlight. In fact, we are informed that he works in a ‘poorly lit room for a printer’. We are further told that Amalkanti still makes an effort to stay in touch with his friend, the speaker of the poem, for he drops in ‘now and then’ to see him and chats about ‘this and that’ over a cup of tea and then gets up to go and the speaker sees him off at the door.

The tense of the poem changes at this point. From past we now move into the present. The irony is obvious in the lines that tell us that the boy who wanted to become sunlight now works in a poorly lit room and is obviously engaged in a low-paying job. The speaker’s attitude towards his friend at this point is almost patronizing. You must notice that it is always Amalkanti who makes an effort to meet his school-friend. These visits are not very important for the speaker and his attitude is extremely casual. That is why he mentions that his friend drops in ‘now and then’ and chats about ‘this and that’, and then leaves.

What does this tell us about Amalkanti? Surely it indicates that he still values his friendship with the speaker and therefore makes an effort to meet his friend. He must be a warm,caring and emotional person.

At this point in the poem we as readers too feel sorry for Amalkanti. For a person who wanted to be sunlight it must be a big disappointment to be engaged in a low paying job and be working in room where there is not even enough light.

Stanza 4

The speaker tells us where the future years took these students. Some became doctors, some lawyers and some teachers. For those of them who had become doctors and lawyers, it wouldn’t have made much difference if their achievements had interchanged and the doctor had become a lawyer or vice versa. All of them got ‘more or less’ what they wanted except Amalkanti ‘who used to think so much about sunlight that he wanted to become sunlight.’

The last stanza changes the whole perspective on the situation. Once again the distinction between the speaker and the poet gets blurred. The speaker’s tone is not so confident in the concluding stanza. There is no amusement in the words now, no patronizing tone. It is only wonder at a person who can desire something so deeply that he wishes to become that thing itself. In contrast, none of the rest of the classmates is so deeply desirous of anything. In fact to them it hardly matters if they become teachers or doctors or lawyers. What is implied here is obviously that as long as the aspirant is able to join a conventionally respectable and well-paying profession it matters little what it is. On the other hand there is Amalkanti whose desire to become sunlight is so deep that he is constantly thinking about it. This is what makes Amalkanti special and very different from the rest. It is almost as though he stands out from the crowd. He may not be successful in conventional terms, he may not be rich or materially well off but he is not ready to compromise with his heart’s deepest desire and in some sense he is even able to achieve it.

There is an irony in the situation being described here. On the literal level, Amalkanti may be a failure and he may be earning very little and working in dingy surroundings. But the work he does is that of spreading the light of knowledge through books. It is mentioned that he works for a printer even though in a ‘poorly-lit’ room. He may be far from sunlight but he is engaged in a task which can be likened to that of spreading light– the light of knowledge. While we may think that Amalkanti could not achieve his heart’s desire, we would be far from the truth because in that group of boys it is probably only Amalkanti who has been able to get a little close to what he wanted from life. Far from being a failure, he is moderately successful in his own eyes even though not in conventional terms. The poem is giving us yet another perspective on success and failure. In the previous unit ‘Go, Kiss the World’, the author Subroto Bagchi had given us a number of perspectives on how to define success. In ‘Amalkanti’ the poet is giving us yet another perspective on success. Success cannot be measured by the amount of money you earn or by seeing how well-known you are. Success also means being able to get what you most desire even though in worldly terms you may appear to be a failure.

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