Where have all the poems gone

All Bengalis are poets, as we have seen. It’s a kind of adolescent disease which rarely lingers on into adulthood. Then there are those cases of late flowering such as the retired bank managers and government officers who begin to write poetry after prostate surgery; but they are like the flowering bamboo, which dies after it flowers – the habit, not the man! The question still remains, exactly as Pete Seeger put it back in 1955: Where have all the poems gone? Young girls read them every one. When will they ever learn – that it is hyperacidity that causes heartburn and so on.

My own poems, and Bengali poems at that, all forty-four of them, you’ll find put together a bit carelessly but handsomely bound, with a lovely cover designed by some young man who doesn’t know me from Adam but hit the spirit of those poems to a ‘T’ – things fit to a ‘T’, but can you hit them to a ‘T’? Who knows. Mine didn’t, one way or the other – I mean my poems and the Bengali poetry-reading public, no fit and no hit.

This talented young man put a young girl in an old-fashioned frock on the cover, with a large, male, butted, tattered and shapeless umbrella – unfurled – floating away over her head as if in a strong wind, in front of what looks like a waterfall of colours – autumnal colours, of the European kind – whereas the girl is unmistakably a Bengali girl. The girl and the umbrella are in black, as the rest of the cover, though the girl is already drowning in that deluge of colour. The back cover is just black, there’s only that umbrella floating away and taking all the colour with it, being the only object which is in colour. In colour? No, you see a bit of the front cover through the silhouette of that umbrella – computer trick? Computer graphics? I wouldn’t know. All I know is that this young man – whom I’ve only had the opportunity to congratulate on the phone – had wrapped my poems in a poem of his own, like a greeting or a salutation from one artist to another, across generations and continents and cultures. ‘I understand,’ this young man was telling me, and I’m sure he did, though I still don’t know how.

I wish I could tell him how those poems got written. They were mostly written during a series of holidays in Poland, mostly on the Baltic coast or in the Danziger Lakeland, in tiny beach resorts and fishing villages on the banks of tiny lakes. Bits of Poland are still like Europe in a dream, like the abandoned sets of old movies about war and deportation. Usually I don’t carry my laptop with me on my holidays, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t get up with the birds and have my first cup of tea – after which I have to write. As imperative as going to the toilet for me.

So I used to sit down somewhere on the wooden verandah or the wooden steps of the bungalow and open my notebook (ordinary kind, 0.0 version) and write – poems, in Bengali, about Bengal, about my mother, about the women in my life (beginning with the girls!), about the city that we Bengalis love to hate – Kolkata. I write poems only in rhyme and with rhythm, in the traditional Bengali manner. And I write them only in places with names like Pobierowo and Spore and Wiselka, about the craziest thing a Bengali can do.

What I didn’t realise was that this was about as close as you could get to Yeats’ (actually his wife’s) automatic writing. Those poems came over a number of years and a number of holidays and I added two leftovers from my early youth like village ruins for the others to land upon – but in the end they were like a flock of birds coming together and settling down to tell each other all about the pains and pleasures of migration in loud peeps and squeaks and chirps and trills. I could hear the words, I mean the birds flap their wings and preen their feathers before they found their place in stanza and verse.

I just had to arrange those poems and out came the most perfect circle – I mean a cycle of poems relating the story of my life as only poems can. Good friend of mine – again a young woman, at least compared to a Methusalem like me – prevailed upon a publisher friend of hers in Kolkata to bring out the slim volume which appeared and disappeared like a pebble in a pond at the next Book Fair, without a ripple. Except for the critic who noted that the poems dripped, oozed and squelched in nostalgia like wet shoes in the Kolkata rains – no, even that image is mine, we should leave the poor critic in peace.

In peace? Is that why I haven’t written a Bengali poem since? Did those birds flap their wings and preen their feathers for the last time? Did the whole flock rise like dust at the approach of the combined harvester-dredger of Time and float away towards the horizon like pollen in the wind, furling and unfurling in the intricate, billowing spacetime patterns of future intergalactic migration?

Why don’t you ask my critic.

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All Bengalis are poets

Some of them only at heart, thank God. In Bengal – I can only vouch for West Bengal, India, and that too some decades back when boys used to start writing poems at around the same age that the girls started to menstruate. Writing poetry used to be a sign of male puberty – at least for a certain class and category of educated Bengalis, mostly of the middle class, I hasten to add.

In the country that I come from, there are always about a million exceptions to any statement that one might happen to make about anybody or anything. At times the rest of the nation – the silent majority – will stand up and nudge one gently and say: ‘Hey! What about us?’ And it will be similar to being nudged by an elephant, with the consequences thereof.

But ‘All Bengalis are poets’ is possibly one of those generalisations which can hold water for nearly all classes and categories of Bengalis – especially if we go back in history. This is a nation and a language which had little or no use for prose till the beginning of the nineteenth century. Before that – and for some time afterwards – even our lists of groceries or the washing used to be in rhyme. We spoke Farsi – a form of Persian – in court and used it on legal deeds and documents, until English took over. Otherwise even Bengali bawdry used to be in rhyme, women gossiping at the well or telling religious tales, ‘fighting’ poets who composed their songs ex tempore – but in rhyme – and sang them in the course of a musical debate – you name it. A nation that had learnt to live in rhyme. The Dutch missionaries of Serampore/Srirampur had to invent Bengali prose because they wanted to translate the Bible into Bengali – a task performed by William Carey in 1801.

You know when the Bengalis stopped being Bengalis and turned into the ‘baboos’ of the British empire, the rest of the less educated – because less anglophile – north Indian folk taking over all other tasks from the sepoy’s to the coolie’s? It’s when we Bengalis lost our taste as well as our capacity to rhyme. From a race of poets we turned into a race of clerks.

But we did not lose the habit. We kept writing poetry, some of it fairly passable – we’re not talking about the established poets, Tagore, or the Kallol poets, or Shakti-Sunil’s ‘hungry’ generation. We’re talking about what the average Bengali churned out under the double pressure of sexual frustration and the remnants of a Victorian morality reinforced by Hindu edicts and ideals.

Your average Bengali still churns out bad poetry by the ream. But in the Bengal that I remember, poets used to chase readers/listeners as persons of African origin pester white Caucasians to buy their worthless gewgaws on Spain’s sunny Meditteranean coast – a racist image if ever there was one, but have you noticed how all racist images are somehow heartbreaking? And we’re out here to break some hearts for poetry and the poets, if only of Bengal, in case you hadn’t noticed.

My youngest brother – who is no longer with us but is guffawing from Heaven, I’m sure – my youngest brother and I were once talking about Bengal and Bengali poets on the phone, he in Ottawa, self in Bonn. My brother was an extraordinary lover of Bengali poetry – and of Bengali literature as well, his knowledge of such things being even more extraordinary than his love, if possible.

Oh, now I remember! We were talking about my poems – at my age? ‘Isn’t it funny?’ my brother was saying: ‘Writing poetry is perhaps the most difficult form of literature, and that is why it is completely useless, completely worthless, it has no market value whatsoever.’ Which makes it a labour of love per se – I joined. You can as little put a price on a poem as you can put on a kiss – I said. I thought I was being poetic. Eh? my brother said, puzzled. ‘What are you talking about? And what’s happened to your syntax?’ The same that’s happened to my poetry – I told him.

And then the two of us came up with this image to define the Bengalis’ very special relationship with poetry. Suppose you chance upon a poetry festival in Kolkata. You’ll find a hall full of people and a scared, seedy looking person sitting on a broken chair in the middle of the dais, glancing this way and that, as if looking for some means, any means to escape the ordeal. Ah, the amateur poet! you’d say to yourself. Another case of stage fright. To have to read out his poems in front of this kind of an enthusiastic audience, intense, emaciated, unshaven, bespectacled, some of them even clutching notebooks which they seem to have brought along with themselves – maybe to note down things, names of poets and lines from the poems and so on. No wonder the poet, poor fellow, is scared – you’d be saying to yourself.

And you’d be wrong. The hall is full of poets all waiting for their turn to go up on stage and give of their best, read poem after poem until they are dragged down or shot down – as in a Western saloon. While that scared, seedy looking man sitting on the broken chair in the middle of the dais is the only listener and an unwilling listener at that, one who has either been abducted or bribed into coming to the poetry festival.

You’d slowly close the door behind you, after you, and jump into the next tram – people have been known to throw themselves under the tram after attending poetry festivals in Bengal.

I’m exaggerating, of course, but we Bengalis are poets, you forget.

Guess Who Came to Dinner

I must have seen the film in ’68, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier, all three immortals united in a single Hollywood comedy, the tremor could be felt as far away as Kolkata – Calcutta in those days. ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ is about interracial marriage, which was still illegal in 17 of the 50 states of the US as of 12 June 1967: that’s when the Supreme Court struck down the anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia, I’m not joking, the case was Loving versus Virginia, Wikipedia will tell you. Loving won, I presume.

Otherwise we Bengalis have nothing to learn from the Southern states. There’s the story of the Bengali girl returning home with a black husband from the US, who had conveniently forgotten to tell her family that her hubby was an American but black, a black American. The mother opened the door to welcome her American son-in-law, saw who was coming to dinner and fell over – dead. She’d had a heart attack. So don’t talk to us about who’s coming to dinner. But you can tell the feminist joke about the man who went to see God and came back to report: ‘To begin with, she is black.’ Must have run into our Goddess Kali.

Loving won in my case as well. I left the diplomatic service and we settled down in Germany, not without certain cultural conundrums. My wife was asking me all the time about the colour of the hair or the colour of the eyes of whichever lady I might have chanced to encounter on the street or wherever and I had to confess that I did not know, since I was not used to noticing such things. Everybody had black hair and brown eyes where I came from. The thing to notice had been the skin colour – dark to fair, ‘light dark’, ‘somewhat dim’ (the colour of the skin, not the person) and so on, the fifty shades of grey of Bengali racism. A Bengali bridegroom – or his family – always looked for a bride with a fair skin, even if the fellow was dark as sin, especially if the fellow was dark as sin. I had explained all this to my wife and my step-daughter even before they set foot in Bengal for the first time.

Imagine my chagrin when I heard the two of them laughing over our ‘colour bar’ – they did not seem to find a certain grandaunt of mine as fair (milk and lac-dye) as we (the rest of the family) did, or a certain uncle of mine as dark (the underside of a rice-pot) as we did. And then my wife let me in on their secret: apparently we Bengalis all seemed dark when seen through European eyes. More than that, these white Caucasians did not seem to care about skin colour, or about one’s class or station in life: my wife and my stepdaughter were finding a certain young maidservant of ours sweet to look at and oomphy and with a nice figure and all that – when she was dark as sin (don’t ask me why it’s a greater sin for a girl or a woman to be dark than for a boy or a man). They were even asking why I had not married somebody like her – just imagine, yours truly, a Gentoo and a gentleman, marrying a maidservant!

Which makes me feudal, apart from being a racist, I know. Serve me right that my own skin colour is nothing to write home about (why should I? Mother should know). I was made painfully aware of the fact in the black-and-white photographs an uncle of mine, the family photographer, was taking with his Rolleiflex camera. He was not getting the aperture right, my uncle was complaining. The photographs on which one could see me, my wife was overexposed, looking like a white female ghoul; the photos on which her features were discernible, I was underexposed, looking like my own silhouette.

Until they discovered colour. We’ve been all light since then, as the Chinese say – trust me to end with a racist joke!