As I’ve mentioned, my aspirations for a literary life are flourishing here in Kolkata, whether by intention, sheer luck or just the poetic climate, I’m not sure. My first few weeks in this city were spent preparing for an amazing reading hosted by an experimental Bengali poetry magazine called Kaurab. Founded in 1970, Kaurab has been doing fascinating work–both at a language and craft level and in terms of artistic community, and has recently become transnational in the last decade. One of Kaurabs co-founders, Aryanil Mukherjee, was probably the final poet we confirmed for Indivisible, and along with being a fellow Bengali—Aryanil happens to live in 45 minutes from where I grew up in Southwest Ohio with his family. Aryanil and I had exchanged a few emails in the last few months of anthology production madness, but then I got to know him a bit better when we read together at the wonderful Bon Mot/ley Reading Series in Cincinnati, which was hosted by blogger, academic and poet Kristi Maxwell. In the Fall, Aryanil came to read at the Indivisible event at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and we got to chat for some time before having a wonderful dinner with writers Brian Roley and Cathy Wagner, along with professor Nalin Jayasena. At that time, I told Aryanil-Da I was coming to Kolkata and it would be wonderful if he could connect me to a writing community and help set up a reading for Indivisible. He said it was no problem and he would certainly connect me. I had no idea how amazingly fertile the connections would be!

PathraLekha Publishing House

Preparing for the Indivisible reading, for which I translated section 1 of “Angerfish” — a beautiful poem by Minal Hajratwala, included: the exquisite task of bending over words with a fellow poet and wrestling meaning from language; sitting in the tiny, crowded office of Patralekha Press — one of the most successful small poetry journals on the scene — as the publisher decided on cover images for some of the 50 books he will put out at the upcoming Kolkata Book Fair; drinking notoriously bad coffee in the famous Coffee House, where I was informed that reading poetry would be just too pretentious; and struggling to understand a poem read to me in Bengali, my brain grasping at the words I know, as though they were lifelines tossed from a passing boat. What a wonderful way to get to know a place. It was like healing balm for a lost writer—streets and streets and streets lined with books. Yet at the same time it is semi-torturous—like standing on the shore of a deep blue ocean that stretches towards the horizon, it’s warm waters lapping against my feet, but I cannot swim. I mentioned to Aritra, my friend and guide, that I felt like Pablo Neruda, who was obsessed with the ocean, but unable to submerge himself in the sea until much later in life. I have made a goal to read and write in Bengali before I die.

The Kaurab reading was held at Jibanananda Das Hall at The Bangla Academy at Rabindra Sadan – a major arts complex. I decided to wear an embroidered sari and a big red bindi to show off my Bengali-ness, though when I showed up the rest of the Kaurab crowd were dressed as most people dress for literary events in San Francisco—jeans and semi-nice tops. I must have looked like a little girl playing dress up to them, which is pretty accurate. The most exciting part of the night was the introduction of Indivisible by Calcutta University English Professor Santanu Majumdar. It was a first for the book, since usually it’s just ourselves talking about it and it was lovely. Here’s a video:

Indivisible South Asian Poetry Anthology as Exile Literature from Neelanjana Banerjee on Vimeo.

Afterwards, I talked about the anthology, read some poems from it and also read some of my own work—including my translation of Minal’s poem and one of the only poems I have ever written in Bengali —which even though it has the sophistication of a poem written by an 11-year-old—got a rousing round of applause. I also read my poems about Radha and Calamity Jane, a poem based on The Little Mermaid. The reading also had several amazing readings from poets like Subhro Bandhopadhyay, who writes in the voice of undocumented Bengali workers in Spain, and Shankar Lahiry, who translated some of his beautiful work into English just for me, and then Barin Ghosal—whose work I didn’t totally understand in Bengali, but who lead a great discussion afterwards about words not needing to have meaning. Then Minal read her work about beauty queens and unicorns, two mythical creatures who go surprisingly well together.

There was a dedicated discussion session for each poet so they could discuss their work! I’ve never seen such a thing and the questions I got were some of the best and most difficult questions I’ve received in all my Indivisible reading events–questions about how Indivisible fits into the larger canon of American writing, how the South Asian poets of this generation compare to the Bengali poets writing now, about which is more important expression or communication. In fact, I wanted to share one with you here – one that I answered quite badly and thought that this would be a good space to re-answer it. (Very rough Bengali subtitles.)

Kaurab Indivisible Reading: Tough Question from Neelanjana Banerjee on Vimeo.

I fumbled the answer, but have been thinking about the question ever since. The audience member intimated that my poems were dependent on legends and philosophy, but take those away and what do we have of any of the humanities? Take for instance the popular and critically acclaimed art exhibit I saw recently about the Mahabharata–this exhibit was powerful because the artist dug inside these universal characters and found his own expressions of modern anguish. I am also of Angela Carter’s work retelling not only fairy tales, but also portraits of the famous and infamous. In his introduction to her collected stories, Salman Rushdie says: “Carter wears her influences openly, for she is their deconstructionist, their saboteur. She takes what we know, and having broken it, puts it together in her own spiky, courteous way… She opens an old story for us, like an egg, and finds the new story, the now-story, we want to hear, within.” I think the possibilities for this deconstruction are even more possible within poetry, where the constrains of narrative are left behind and philosophy or legend or religion or science can be broken down to words and sounds and images. I’m not sure I attain this with my work, but it is the inspiration behind the attempt.

I get another chance to read from Indivisible on January 29th at 4 p.m., when Robin and Bansuri player Eric Fraser will accompany me at the Kolkata Book Festival in the American Center’s auditorium at the Milan Mela. Come and ask me more hard-hitting questions. (I certainly wish my co-editors Summi Kaipa and Pireeni Sundaralingam could be with me for some of these events in India. Miss you guys.)