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A Poet Lives by the Haldi River – Amar Mitra

Jan 15, 2021 | Fiction, Front And Center | 1 comment

Translated from the Bengali by Shamita Das Dasgupta

The poet lives in a village by the Haldi river.

They were farmers by trade. The poet’s father tilled the land. His uncle too. The poet said they’ve been farmers for seven generations. There was a time when no ledger existed; no one parceled off plots; nothing like a land-office had emerged; and none had heard of a collector whose job was to extract rent. Only land lived. Land for all. People in the village shared it according to their needs. After all, how much does one need? The rest remained intact – no one even glanced at it.

An admirer of the poet, the young bard Selim Malik, arrived from the ancient port of Tamralipta and asked, “So, what happened to the rest of the land?”

“Didn’t I just say it stayed untouched?”

“But then, wouldn’t it turn into a jungle!”

The poet said, “It did. Birds came to nest. Well, we have to make space for the birds, don’t we! We can’t burn the trees, nor can we chop them down – we have to preserve everyone.”

“Birds perch on branches, fly in the sky – what dwelled on the ground?”

“Why, deer, earthworms, frogs, snakes, reed cats, small tigers, hurals, butterflies, fireflies, and more…”

“Have you seen them?”

The poet replied, “Haven’t I! Once on a moonlit night, two deer strolled onto our yard.”

“And then?”

“They asked, ‘Where can we get some water, sir?’”

“And then?”

“I enquired, ‘Don’t you have any water-chestnut plants in the forest?’

“The deer and his mate burst out laughing – they rolled on each other in mirth. ‘Oh, Sukumar Ray – we read it in Kishalay.’ They stopped for a breath and said, ‘It hasn’t rained for a while – we came in search of water.’”

“Did you give them water?”

“Yeah, I did – in a large bowl. They quenched their thirst, and right then, the clouds rumbled.”

Selim probed, “Did it rain?”

“They weren’t really a deer couple. They were the god and goddess of the rainclouds.”

Selim prodded again, “But you said they were deer!”

“Did I? My mistake. They were black in color, like rain filled clouds. They drank the water and disappeared into the deepening gloom.

“Then the clouds yowled – a howl like a pregnant cow ready to give birth. Hear me, Selim, when you offer a drink to the thirsty, skies fill with clouds. When you feed the birds breadcrumbs and biscuits, clouds float onto the sky and the earth yields plentiful. If you see butterflies flitting from flower to flower, feasting on the nectars, let them flutter about. Know that rains have finally come after two years of drought in the distant lands of Somalia in Africa – famine has ended there.”

This is The Poet. He lives in a hut. Inside, a crude bamboo shelf holds his books. He rests on a cot of rope. A ragged quilt is his bedding and another, folded at the foot of the bed, covers him in winter and monsoon nights. He has a mat that he spreads outside to sit and write his poems on a small desk. He writes sometimes with pencil or a fountain or ball-point pen. Young poets gather and take the poems away. The poet travels with them to Kolkata, to the Poetry Conference in Haldia – there he listens to poems. But he doesn’t read his own poetry. He wanders about, as is his wish. At times, he goes to the river. He tells the boatmen that he owns an island in the ocean.

A youthful boatman asks, “In which ocean?”

“Why, the east sea, of course.”

“Where is the East Sea?”

“‘The breeze drifts in from the east sea.’ Both Rabi Thakur and Kalidas have mentioned the East Sea. The ocean here was once known as the East Sea – but that is neither here nor there. If you travel eight hours by day, rest for half an hour on the shores, and sail eight more hours by night, you will reach a large bay – Gurguri isle is right there.”

“Gurguri island – what’s that like? Never heard of such an island!” The young boatman queries his grandfather. The old boatman states casually, “There may’ve been a Gurguri island once – but not anymore.”

The poet overhears the comment and protests, “What do you mean ‘not anymore?’ It was there last night, but not today?”

Nope, not there. The old boatman, who’s at the end quarter of his lifespan, shakes his head. No longer can he hold the rudder straight or row vigorously, but his place is in the larger boat. His eyes are still sharp, and he can still fathom correctly. He is the compass. He can tell directions by checking the ocean currents, flow of the wind, and the stars above. He knows which breeze travels toward the temple of Jagannath and which one heads toward the ashram of the sage Kapil. Only this wizened grandfather can gauge the tides and tell when to shout out the name of Badar Pir and raise the anchors of the boats. He knows of islands that aren’t inhabited by people, only birds, trees and plants, snakes, frogs, and insects. He knows, there was an island named Gurguri, but no longer.

The man said Gurguri. Says it’s his island – so, it must be somewhere!

The poet says he hears from the island every single day. The Gurguri birds flew in with some vital news even last night: there’s been an abundant harvest of chilis and grapes this year. The Gurguri birds feed on grapes and the parrots eat chilis.

“That island is no longer there,” said the old boatman.

The poet smiled, “It must have gone off galivanting somewhere, but it’ll return.”

The young boatman questioned, “Does an island roam on its own?”

The island of the Gurguri birds does. Being at one place is boring.

The young one asked, “What’s the bird like?”

“Sooo big!” The poet stretched his arms wide. “You may say each one is huge like a duck.”

The old man shook his head, “Not at all. They are teeny weeny birds – smaller than a sparrow.”

“Maybe. I just spoke about a duck.”

The poet talks about the island to another young admirer, poet Avijit of Kolkata. Avijit has translated his poems into English and the book’s been published in England. The poet says, once he drifted on his Gurguri isle and reached England. In England he visited Buckingham Palace, Queen Victoria’s grandmothers, the rivers Thames and Avon, but he couldn’t meet with Shakespeare, who had survived one epidemic and then, died.

That was 400 years ago!

The poet said, that may be true. But the fact of the matter is that he hadn’t been able to meet with Shakespeare. How could it possibly have happened? For he wasn’t alive!

“Suppose you come to see me after 400 years. Can you? I’d be long gone and transformed into a Gurguri bird – floating atop the ocean waves. My island moves – you won’t be able to trace it.”

The young poet Avijit said, “Why not come to Kolkata with me.”

“Yes, I’ll go. I’ll visit Lalbazar[i]. They snatched away one of my notebooks. I’ll go to take it back.”

The poet was beaten black and blue in Lalbazar. They gave him the third degree: “Is this straight or round?”

The poet had replied, “Like an orange.”

They hit him with a cosh. “Which direction does the sun rise?”

“In Gurguri island.”

“No, in the United States.”

The poet thought, ‘The synonym for ‘police’ is ‘foolish’.’

“Where is Harilal Ray?”

“In the Bay of Bengal, in Gurguri island.”

“Where is that?”

The poet said, “Within and without the ocean.”

Harilal was a traitor. The poet was the writer and publisher of his magazine. He had torn down the state system with his poetry. How did he do that?

He had written, “My country doesn’t represent me… la… la… la… la…, pik… pik… pik…, jhim… jhim… jhim… jhim…!”

“What do these words mean?”

The words had slipped out of the poet’s lips, “The Gurguri bird knows.”

The Gurguri bird was birthed right then and there – in that cell of violence. The poet was soundly thrashed, but he didn’t reveal anything. He only said, “Harilal might be in Gurguri island.” And the island was born at that moment, in that Lalbazar cell of whippings.

He had almost whispered aloud, “Harilal lives beyond the seven seas and thirteen rivers now – in New York City, in the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.”

The poet knew Harilal had glided far by riding on his Gurguri island. After he had disembarked, the island drifted again through the Hudson river into the ocean. Otherwise, the American police would’ve arrested it. American police are nasty. Naturally, law enforcement in every nation is vile. They visibly strangle people dead on the streets; they pick up people from their homes and hide their dead bodies. American police would have slaughtered the Gurguri birds, fried them in butter, and consumed them.

The young bard Selim asked, “Do you remember Lilabati-di[ii]?”

“She lives in a faraway island. We exchange poems.”

Lilabati is a poet. The poet had fallen in love with her. Lilabati respected him. When the poet had gone underground, she had secreted him in her home for a while. During that time, Lilabati and her husband had taken good care of him. The poet would write his poems and go to sleep. Then Lilabati came in to take the poems away with her. In exchange, she left her own verses near his head. For as long as he resided there, this was how they swapped poetry.

The poet’s creations were published under Lilabati’s name and hers were printed in his. Many moons later, at the end of the emergency period[iii] and the Lalbazar episode, the poet claimed Lilabati still sent her poetry to him. But she didn’t take his. Actually, Lilabati had moved abroad with her physician spouse. In that foreign land, she stopped writing poetry. But the poet claimed that his poems were hers. No one could question his veracity. Whatever he said was the truth. As Ram had emerged in the bard’s imagination, so had the epic.

The poet didn’t write about Lilabati, but himself –

Rim rim rim – your poet is in a faraway land

In farms, hills, trees, and amid sea-sand

Wafting fragrance of a guava flower

Poet, your touch has so much power r r r r r…

R r r r r r

R r r r r r

The poet argued that since Lilabati had written about him, the poems should be published under her name.

And everything written about Lilabati saw the light of day under his name.

Lilabati’s poems were about birds, about trees and butterflies. They were about the land, the breeze, the clouds, and about the rain and sunshine. When the sky drooped low and the clouds darted casting shadows that chased them, the dark poet ran after, “Please stop… stop please…”

“You ran?”

“No, not me. My grandfather, Poet Purnachandra.”

“Was he a writer too?”

“He was. He’d spend the morning ploughing the fields, come back home to fill his belly with rice, and fall asleep. In the afternoon, he rested in the yard and spun poems in his head. At the time of the harvest, he anointed the poems with the scent of raw paddy. Those were the real poems – the poetry of Poet Purnachandra.”

Selim asked, “But Poet, who is Ream?”

The poet laughed out loud, “Twenty-four quires make a ream. I need paper to preserve my poems. My grandfather, Poet Purna, couldn’t leave any poems behind. Thousands of poems were strewn around in the gardens of the rich – Poet Purna culled many a poem from there. Actually, humans have nothing – whatever is there, belongs to the birds. Birds are the ones that write poetry and sing their lyrics in unison. For instance, I don’t write – Poet Purna compels me to transcribe. Sh… sh… sh… sh…

“Where did I get it, or where did Lilabati get it? From the birds… Whatever arose with the hoots of barn owls on a full-moon night in Poet Purnachandra’s heart… I got that… from me to Lilabati… and Lilabati reverted it back to me… the hoot of a moon-tinted barn owl… if you hear it, you’d know… shh.”

Purna used to wake up early morning – before the birds were up. He waited to chant lyrics in chorus with the birds… It was his morning prayers.

Some nights, the poet went out to drink in the moonlight. He knew that poems written by the light of the moon survived eternally. He failed in that. Lilabati’s shadow obscured his notebook. She gave without asking for anything in return. The poet couldn’t give… Lilabati bestowed on the poet.

One moonlit night, the poet started off alone for the port of Tamralipta. Skirting Bargabhima temple, he reached Selim’s house and from under his window cried out, “koob, koob, koob,” as though the Kubo bird had mistaken the gleaming night for day and was calling out to his companion. Selim woke up and found him. It was midnight for a torpid world. Selim went out and brought the poet in by his hand.

“Do you want something to eat, dada[iv]?”

“No one needs anything else after a drink of moon rays, Selim. Give me a glass of water.”

The poet gulped down the water and seemed peaceful. “One feels thirsty after a fill of moonlight. There’s only sunshine – like all poems belong to birds and Lilabati.”

“Is Lilabati a bird?” Selim asked.

“I believe so – but I don’t know. I forget. Maybe Lilabati is a bird, maybe she isn’t.”

Only the poet understood what he spoke about. He laid down by Selim and slept and called out like a bird in his sleep. The noises he made could only be bird-chirps. Selim kept waking up to check on the poet.

The poet stirred at dawn and began to read to Selim the poems Lilabati had sent him. They were various birdcalls. Words. Words are poetry. Selim was spellbound. A spate of moon rays swept the room; then, the midday sun shone clamorously. At times, bird-peeps filled the space. Lots of birds lived inside the poet.

The poet met others in the household and said that Selim is his farming partner. Both of them cultivate poetry and chilis in Gurguri island. They grow grapes. Their chilis are so fiery that they can’t sell a single one, and they have to hand out the grapes for free. The birds on the island love grapes. They have to throw the chilis up in the air in the dark of night. That’s the reason the stars are piquant.

Uncle said, “It would be better to farm watermelons.”

The poet replied, “I’ll give you two hundred acres, please go and farm on the island. Remember, the island often goes walkabouts. Makes it hard to catch. Suppose it drifts to Portugal with your watermelons? You will have to sell the fruits there, but you can’t use your Portuguese earnings here – it’ll be a total loss. Chilis are a safer bet.”

Uncle said, “Sell off the island – otherwise it’ll get mislaid someday.”

“The island is an inheritance from my grandfather, Poet Purnachandra. It’ll be a sin to hawk it – I’ll end up with a disease.

“The island is our ancestral property, I can’t sell it. The legal papers of possession were swept away in the deluge the other day. Grandpa’ said, ‘Good, let them go. No one will be able to sell off the land anymore. This land is ours. It’s wicked to sell it. It’s immoral to trade off the ancient trees. People should live in their villages and markets. They should farm and keep shops – if they leave, they’ll be lost.”

The poet enjoyed Selim’s home. He said that he’ll surely light an evening lamp under the holy basil in his yard during the Maghrib Azan. And they must call out Azan when he lights the lamp. The Azan sounds like the blowing of the conch shell to him. They also must believe that the sound of the conch is the call of Azan. The poet left after advising Selim to care for the cattle, farm mindfully, and water plants during the hot months – only then he’ll be able to write good poetry. Only then Lilabati will bequeath her poems and won’t ask for anything in return.

Lalbazar had confiscated the poet’s notebook. Its pages had Lilabati’s writings. This was his one regret – the notebook was lost. Avijit reassured him that he will search for it. He did, but to no avail. Selim had approached the Commissioner of Police. They hunted for it in their storeroom – it wasn’t there. That was 45 years ago. The Commissioner said that this has been a terribly unjust act – he’d personally go to the poet and seek his forgiveness.

When the poet heard this, he said that he’s terrified of the police. In America, they choked a man and killed all the Gurguri birds inside him. The birds had tried to get away but could not. In India, a poet has been imprisoned for a long time.

Selim asked, “What if the Police Commissioner comes to beg your pardon…?

“I’ll tell him, ‘I want to free the poet who has been jailed’…” Peculiar sounds poured out of the poet’s mouth. Selim had come to him with a petition demanding liberty for all poets, writers, and social activists.

The poet said, “Human voice doesn’t function anymore, Selim. It can’t conceive poetry – so, it can’t demand freedom. We need bird-calls.”

From then on, the poet began to protest using his bird voice – at dusk, at the time of Azan, and when conch shells resonate. The night birds fly carrying the poet’s words to faraway lands. Their message is simple – F R E E D O M – let the poets breathe. Else, all of us will lose our voices.

[i] Lalbazar is the police headquarters of West Bengal.

[ii] ‘Di’ or ‘didi’ is an honorific denoting elder sister in Bangla.

[iii] ‘Emergency Period’ in India refers to the 21 months (1975-1977), when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared a state of emergency and suspending all human and state rights.

[iv] ‘Dada’ denotes elder brother in Bangla

Amar Mitra

Amar Mitra

Brought up in the city of Kolkata, Amar Mitra has traveled extensively across West Bengal and studied the shades of rural Bengal, the land, its people. Having lived in Kolkata, he has also observed the nuances of urban living. The rural and the urban are present in equal measure in the body of his work. He has received numerous awards – Sahitya Akademi (2006) for the novel Dhruboputro, Bankim Chandra Award(2001) for the novel Ashwacharit, Katha award(1998), SharatChandra Award(2018) and many others. He was also invited as a speaker at the First Forum of Asian Writers held in 2019(Nur Sultan. Kazakhstan).

Shamita Das Dasgupta

Shamita Das Dasgupta

Shamita Das Dasgupta is a cofounder of Manavi, the first organization to focus on violence against South Asian women in the U.S. She has taught Psychology, Gender Studies, and Law at the Rutgers University and NYU, authored five books, written a bunch of academic papers and monographs, and is still conducting training for DV and SV practitioners in the U.S. and India. In her retirement, she is enjoying writing mystery stories in Bengali.

1 Comment

  1. Tapan Jyoti Mitra

    I’ve read this beautiful story of Amar Mitra in Bengali, and now I read the translation in English. Both the original story and the translation are superb and depict the eternal quest of the human mind through the poet’s action of using Bird’s voice – Freedom.

    Reply

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