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A journey to Kolkata, January 2008

- by Carolyn Forché

At sunrise each morning, the sound of rhythmic slapping awakens me. Beyond the open window lies the nameless lake—mirroring huts and laundry—where bed linens are struck across the water until they are thought to be clean. A prayerful singing accompanies the work, rising from the voices of invisible washer-women. When I close my eyes even now, I can hear this singing. 

My journey here had been troubled by a cancelled flight, a suitcase lost forever, a re-routed trip with a midnight stop-over in Delhi, a taxi ride through the night streets of Delhi from one airport to another, and upon my arrival, the news that the Kolkata Boi Mela had, at the very last moment, been cancelled this year “for political reasons.” So we would not join the expected two million people on the grounds of the Maidan for the largest non-trade book fair in the world, nor make our way through its warrens of book stalls and candy vendors, musicians and singers, writers and poets. It would seem to have been an inauspicious beginning. But not to fear, Goutam Datta reassured us, we would create another book fair among ourselves, a band of American poets led by Yusef Komunyakaa and the book lovers and writers of West Bengal. An alternative, smaller fair was already in progress in Salt Lake City on the outskirts of Kolkata, where we would be welcomed with garlands of marigolds and blue buttons, sprays of roses and birds of paradise, for such is the disposition of West Bengal toward poetry. 

The book fair, I learned, was held every year in Kolkata beginning on the last Wednesday of January and ending twelve days later on the first or second Sunday of February, coinciding with the Hindu festival Saraswati Puja, named for the Goddess of Learning, and on this day the people worship books and don’t touch them other than reverently. This year, American literature was to have been showcased, but that wasn’t the reason for the cancellation. It had something to do with the rising of dust caused by the footsteps of millions of readers. For years attempts had been made to find an alternative place for the fair, to prevent the rising dust from damaging Maidan and the nearby Victoria Memorial. This year, Save the Maidan protestors prevailed, or so the newspapers announced, and at the last moment, the High Court banned the 33rd Fair from being held on the Park Circus Maidan. But it wasn’t the dust, our hosts assured us, as the dust would nevertheless rise. It was politics. 

This was my first journey to India, and I had with me the poems of Rabindranath Tagore, whose residence at Shantiniketan we were to visit. The book was in my carry-on bag, and became one of my few possessions during the stay, along with the clothes I had been wearing on the flight, a moleskin notebook, a few pens, and some medicines. As the taxi wended its way from the airport to the hotel, I opened Tagore: No one will go back / as he came / on this shore of the sea / of India’s great humanity. This, from James Talarovic’s translation of the Gitanjali. Around us swarmed cycle rickshaws, oxen, hand-pulled rickshaws and taxis, three-wheeled cars and bicycles and along the roads, on the banks of the roads, people bathed themselves by pouring plastic buckets of water over their heads while beside them others cooked over small fires and long metal cook-stoves, a blue smoke rising from the whole of it—and women stirred pots larger than any I had ever seen, and every few meters, a supplicant naked but for the blanket she held around herself, reclined or sat upright, gazing as if she were elsewhere—

There were no traffic lanes and yet the procession swerved and wove without collisions, guided by a symphony of horns tooted and blasted in a music seemingly understood by all. I was later told that if my taxi driver were to accidentally strike a pedestrian, I should flee the taxi on foot and not look back. The driver would be beaten or killed on the spot, they said, and his taxi torched. One is told such things, seriously or in teasing. But this particular advice was echoed several times in West Bengal. 

Tagore would be my refuge. It is better than bringing a map with you, to bring the country’s poet. The poetry is a better guide. So he writes: May I be able to say this/ when I go:/ There is nothing to compare / with what I have seen and received. 

Our delegation included Goutman Datta, Ram Devineni and Catherine Fletcher, and while I was there, also Bob Holman, Joy Harjo, Suji Kwok Kim, Nathalie Handal, Dante Micheaux, Ed Pavlic and Yusef Komunyakaa. Others preceded us, including Bharati Mukherjee, Christopher Merrill and Idra Novey, but my visit followed theirs, and I was able to do little more than embrace them in passing. As promised, the book fair was symbolically opened by a delegation of Bengali journalists and writers on January 31st to protest the cancellation, and an improvised fair was scheduled, with “all events subject to change.” I missed the performance of Joy Harjo and Bob Holman, but arrived in time to read with Dante Micheaux and Ed Pavlic at the Bangla Akademi on the evening of the 3rd of February, and to attend the “Give Peace a Change” program at the Bengal Club the following night. The next morning, we left for Tagore’s Shantiniketan.

The station was teeming with bearers of the tea harvest, and Goutam Datta shepherded us with exemplary diplomacy toward the train, as if we were visiting from another galaxy, which in a sense, we were. And then the train slid through the cultivated fields of West Bengal on the alluvial Gangetic plain. The train was filled with people, mostly Hindu, who are people of revealed and remembered scripture, Vedas and Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and there are also Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews and Zoroastrians, and they are mostly Bengalis, but also Chinese live here, and Tamils, Napalis, Telugus, Assamese, Gujaratis, Anglo-Indians, Tibetans, Maharashtrians, Punjabis and Parsis and they are speaking Bengali, Hindi, English, Oriya and Bhojpuri, a symphony of utterance. The journey took some hours, and when we arrived, we were seated in bicycle rickshaws for the distance to our hotel, and then to the peace of Tagore’s house and the world university he founded in Shantiniketan. We were emissaries from America, a war culture, and it was relieving to walk in the gardens of Tagore’s residence, and to wander through the quiet rooms of his house: his bedroom, the “modern” bathroom he installed nearby, the library where he wrote, the kitchen where his beguni were prepared. That I was able to sit in his chair, run my hands over the century-old gleam of the desk, hold his manuscripts and drawings in my hands, leaf through his notebooks and look out at his tended gardens through his own open window was a surprising joy. But we did so. That day passed in meditative expectancy. The curator of Tagore’s life generously offered us the fruits of his collection. O my mind, Tagore wrote, steadily awaken/ in holy pilgrimage. 

A general strike kept us unexpectedly in this place. No one could travel, it seemed, anywhere in West Bengal for the following twenty-four hours. To do so would be to risk one’s life. No trains would run. Any vehicle on the roads would be attacked and burned. So we stayed, and, fortuitously, the Baul arrived and gathered to play music under a canopy in the center of the town. The Baul are here! people cried out as they hurried to the canopy. The Baul. Yusef and I sat on a blanket under the canopy in front of the riser where the Baul had gathered in their saffron alkhalla robes, with their long hair knotted and coiled around their heads, wearing basil beads and cradling their one-stringed ektara guitars. Their name comes from the Sanskrit words for madcap and restless, and they travel from town to town, living only on what they are given, singing ecstatic unwritten songs about the soul’s sojourn on earth and of the soul’s earthly distance from the spiritual world. They also sing of love, destiny, and the mystery of life. They profess no religion, but their beliefs fuse Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. They accompany themselves on ektara, the dotara, a musical instrument from the jack-fruit tree, an earthen drum, chimes and cymbals. As they gather, they greet each other, and there is a gentleness among them. One by one they rise to sing, and without knowing their language we discern from them a spiritual message that reminds us of what it is to be a human being. The Baul call themselves simply Baul. They are the very light and earth of this place, and cannot be separated from what it means to be Bengali. Yusef and I are on the blanket, and after a song, the Baul singer approaches us and takes our hands in his and pours his light over us. 

Later, because the Baul had been told that we were poets from America, we were joined by them under the stars for continued playing and singing. They wanted to accompany the poets from the other side of the world. That went on into the night. We were lifted into their world from our own.

We also visited a tribal Santhal village near Shantiniketan, where we were met by the villagers as a whole, whose daughters danced for us and with whom we danced, who played musical instruments with us, and for whom Joy Harjo played her saxophone. We had no language in common, but we held hands and embraced and sang and danced as the night fell upon us. 

The next morning we walked in darkness along the roads of Shantiniketan toward the train station. Ours was an early train, and there were no taxis. So we groped through the darkness, American poets and Bengali hosts, walking by the light of each other’s clothing, calling out to each other to keep our way on the road. We knew only that we had to walk straight down the road, and it would lead us to the train station. But when we reached the end, there seemed to be a fence and a construction site. We thought we had become lost. Then one of the poets noticed that to our right was the empty, dark station. On its platform, we gathered with a few Bengalis to await the early train. A man was playing with a monkey there. We danced and talked and told soft jokes to each other. The light came slowly just before the train arrived, then we settled in for the journey back to Kolkata. The Bauls had left us light-spirited. It didn’t matter to us if the train arrived or not. We had entered a region of poetry, light, and singing. I don’t know/ if I’ll come back or not.//I don’t know/ whom I’ll meet today.//At the landing place/ that unknown one plays his lute/ in the boat.

Toward the end of the stay, and after my return to Kolkata, it became for us important to walk along the banks of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river toward the ghats, through the streets where the poor lived. Why? It did not seem enough to read poems at the Bangla Akademi and the Club Bengal, as beautiful as those gatherings were. My clothes were filled with dust by now, my only clothes, and around us the city of Kolkata hovered, waiting be met in fullness by our hearts. No more barriers/ remained in my life./I dashed out toward the world.

Joy Harjo wanted to walk along the river, as did Suji Kwok Kim and Nathalie Handal. There were others. We hired a taxi that took us from Mahatma Gandhi Road to the Strand Bank Road and then we left it and walked toward the ghats, the funeral ghats where cremations were performed, where the ashes of the dead were passed into the river, and the bathing ghats, and beyond them, humanity, the sadhus making their way, the mendicants wrapped in blankets, the merchants and beggars and soon we were surrounded and followed but we kept walking until Joy Harjo was stopped by a persistent blackbird that perched on an incense stall and began chattering at her with great persistence. Joy kept her attention on this bird, and a conversation ensued between Joy’s gaze and the bird, which would not leave her alone. She had been singled out by this bird, and it had a message to deliver in a bird-tongue along the banks of the Hooghly. In one of her poems, some time ago, she had written: We cannot be separated in the loop of mystery between blackbirds and the memory of blackbirds. The men and women on the banks of the river braided flowers for the dead, hauled baskets of fish, lighted incense in mourning, disappeared into hunger, sold breads and images of Hindu gods, and we walked among them on the dirt roads behind slow trucks, ox carts, rickshaws and other walkers, until the whole of it surrounded us, humankind on the banks of the river, and a lone beggar chanted behind us: I have nothing. You have everything. And Tagore wrote: It is only right/ that You walk behind all, beneath all,/ among those destitute of all/ where there live/ the poorest of the poor. 

When it was time to leave Kolkata, I couldn’t bring myself to go. Now I traveled lightly, having lost my luggage forever, having spent these days washing my clothes in a basin, carrying the poet with me in his words. I was tired, and ragged I thought, and I had too much worried about my lost possessions, but the Baul were singing in my heart, and I knew that what Tagore wrote was true: Day and night and every day/ carefully gather and store these flowers/ as a garland in your consciousness—/ and consider yourself blessed.

Pictures from the Journey To Kolkata

Carolyn Forché is the author of four books of poetry: Blue Hour (2004); The Angel of History (1994), which received the Los Angeles Times Book Award; The Country Between Us (1982), which received the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, and was the Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets; and Gathering the Tribes (1976), which was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets by Stanley Kunitz. She is also the editor of Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993). Among her translations are Mahmoud Darwish's Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems with Munir Akash (2003), Claribel Alegria's Flowers from the Volcano (1983), and Robert Desnos's Selected Poetry (with William Kulik, 1991). Her honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1992, she received the Charity Randall Citation from the International Poetry Forum. She holds the Lannan Chair in Poetry at Georgetown University.
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