(An edited version of this article was first published in The Hindu Business Line.)
Kolkata is a city that I think of as my heart-home. I have no familial connections there, no property to claim as mine. There is no lore tying me to that place, just a deep affinity that makes me feel loved and local when I visit. This is exactly what took me to the capital of West Bengal when I heard of Chair Poetry Evenings, an international poetry festival from 22nd to 24th November.
“Poetry is written and understood in silence. Poets are mad people. They are swimmers against the tide. They are fighters,” said Jnanpith awardee Pratibha Ray, as she inaugurated the second edition of the festival at Jorasanko Thakur Bari. The festival venue was suffused with magic for lovers of poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore because he used to live there. Surrounded by tea sellers and snack vendors, this monument continues to be a must-visit for literary pilgrims.
Chair Poetry Evenings convened a gathering of 17 poets from different places. Brian Turner from USA, Sara F Costa from Portugal, Elmar Kuiper from the Netherlands, Balázs Szőllőssy from Hungary, and Hajnal Csilla Nagy from Slovakia, were the international poets who participated. The Indian line-up included Devi Prasad Mishra, Koushiki Dasgupta, Arundhathi Subramanian, Hemant Divate, Ashutosh Dubey, Prabodh Parikh, Angshuman Kar, Yashodhara Roy Chaudhuri, Katyayani, Bina Sarkar Ellias, and Abhimanyu Mahato, and Ashwani Kumar.
“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 — Bangla, Hindi, English, Gujarati, Hungarian, 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. These are people whose work we know intimately, and have great respect for,” said Sonnet Mondal, co-director of the festival along with Tushar Dhawal Singh. Both are poets.
Among the themes that came up for conversation, protest and nostalgia were the most recurring ones. On the face of it, they seem like adversaries. While one is plotting to shake up the status quo, the other is yearning for solace in curated memories. How can both be honored for their place in literary discourse, keeping at bay the urgency for a neat resolution? This question kept resurfacing in my mind during the festival, which travelled to other venues in the city — a school, an art gallery, and a river cruise.
Ellias, who completed her college education in Kolkata, read from ‘The Book of Life’. This poem was written in memory of journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh who was murdered in Bangalore for exercising her right to freedom of speech — “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, and is identified only by the initials A.A. — “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 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.
Kupier, 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 during the Iraq War, 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 the former went in search of an empathy that goes beyond job description and protocol, the latter emphasized the value of acknowledging interconnectedness when the odds are stacked against us. Kupier’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 dehumanize.
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 mobilization. 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 romanticize 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, filmmakers 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.