Kolkata, a city in verse

Chintan Girish Modi | Updated on December 06, 2019

Poet’s note: Protest and nostalgia were the recurring themes that came up at the festival   -  SWAPNIL KARMAKAR

Kolkata’s Chair Poetry Evenings, a festival at which wordsmiths gathered from everywhere

Kolkata is a city that I think of as my heart’s home. I have no familial connections there, just a deep affinity that makes me feel loved and local when I visit. This is exactly what took me to the West Bengal capital when I heard of Chair Poetry Evenings, an annual three-day international poetry festival, held late last month.

“Poetry is written and understood in silence. Poets are mad people. They are swimmers against the tide,” said Jnanpith awardee Pratibha Ray, as she inaugurated the second edition of the annual festival at Jorasanko Thakur Bari, the ancestral home of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Surrounded by tea sellers and snack vendors, this complex continues to be a must-visit for literary pilgrims.

The festival hosted local and international poets. Brian Turner from the US, Sara F Costa from Portugal, Elmar Kuiper from the Netherlands, Balázs Szőllőssy from Hungary and Hajnal Csilla Nagy from Slovakia were the international names in attendance. The Indian line-up included Devi Prasad Mishra, Koushiki Dasgupta, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Hemant Divate, Prabodh Parikh and Ashwani Kumar, among others.

“When it comes to poetry, what matters is quality and diversity. That is why we chose to bring in poets who write in multiple languages — from Bangla and Hindi to Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish. Those who write in their mother tongue provided translations in English even as we got to hear the words in the original,” said Sonnet Mondal, co-director of the festival along with Tushar Dhawal Singh. Both are poets.

Among the themes that came up at the festival, protest and nostalgia were recurring ones. On the face of it, they seem like adversaries. While one plots to shake up the status quo, the other yearns for solace in curated memories. How can both be honoured for their place in literary discourse, keeping at bay the urgency for a neat resolution? This question kept coming to my mind during the festival, which travelled to other venues in the city — a school, an art gallery and a river cruise.

Bina Sarkar Ellias, who completed her college education in Kolkata, read from her poem The Book of Life, which was written in memory of journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh, who was gunned down in Bengaluru in 2017. “Her blood stains/ the conscience/ of they who seek justice/ her blood flows into/ the stilled veins/ of bravehearts.” Subramaniam read from Deleting the Picture, a poem dedicated to a friend who passed away not so long ago: “We’re past the brutality/ of eighteen —/ we’ve deleted/ makeshift faces/ borrowed persuasions/ stances without journeys.”

It might be tempting to tag the former poem as political, and the latter as personal, but can the core of a poem be pared down to a simplistic category of this kind? Ellias’s poem was an invitation to reflect on how public tragedies become acutely personal when they erode our cherished values. Subramaniam’s poem was a gesture to mark how we navigate the unsteady terrain of important relationships — sometimes with effort, sometimes with ease — in a world that is constantly changing.

Kuiper, who works in a facility serving people who struggle with a range of mental illnesses, read from his poem Professional — “I was trusting and held a serious conversation/ with a boy who had a passion for Nirvana/ I let him be when he dulled himself with/ blowing and put duct tape on the sockets.” Turner, who wrote many of his poems while working as a soldier in the US Army in Iraq, read from Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s poem The Diameter of the Bomb — “and the solitary man mourning her death/ at the distant shores of a country far across the sea/ includes the entire world in the circle.”

While Kuiper went in search of an empathy that goes beyond job description and protocol, Turner emphasised the value of acknowledging interconnectedness when the odds are stacked against us. Kuiper’s poem was an appeal to think about the meanings we attach to being sane, responsible and numb, while Turner’s poem was an attempt to find common ground with others who have been vulnerable in contexts of war. Their protest is quiet, perhaps even visceral — trying to reclaim the dignity of the individual crushed by systems that dehumanise.

To me, this exploration of contradictory impulses — protest and nostalgia — is befitting of Kolkata. This city has been shaped as much by its history as a colonial capital and architectural evidence of the time, as its legacy of civil resistance and political mobilisation. This is where metro stations are named after Bengali revolutionaries, and where cemeteries of dead white people occupy prime real estate. This is where tram rides, heritage walks and boat rides share space with morchas, hartals and rasta rokos. This is where those who romanticise decay are as convincing as those who abhor it.

The poets who had come down for the festival wanted to soak in the spirit of the city, so many of them drove to the famous Indian Coffee House on College Street. I went along. The ones who were not privy to the iconic stature of this place were quickly initiated into legends about writers, intellectuals, film-makers and artists who used to meet there and exchange ideas as well as gossip. For a moment, it seemed like those illustrious personalities were seated among us, laughing and arguing — immersing themselves in the endless charms of Kolkata.

Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer, educator and researcher

Published on December 06, 2019

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