Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category


Rabindranath Wrap-Up

Just in time for the 150th birthday of Rabindranath Tagore, I moved all the way across the country from Kolkata–Tagore’s home–to Ahmedabad, Gujarat. This fits perfectly with my fractured relationship to the great writer.

During my five months in Kolkata, I had several conversations about Tagore’s oppressive grip on the literary heritage and imagination of Bengalis. My bookshelves are littered with translated Tagore volumes that endless aunts and cousins have gifted to me over the years, but I’ve never quite fallen into a Tagore poem (or story, or novel) and had it capture my heart and soul. Tagore has always represented my plight as a second-generation Bengali American. I feel shut out of truly understanding Tagore’s magic because of the elevated Bengali he uses in his poetry, because the translations of Tagore into English are sneered upon by any self-respecting Bengali, and because I lack the intense cultural memory of the 2000-plus Rabindra Sangeet songs that are such markers for most Bengalis.

My connection to Tagore has everything to do with my sense of Bengali-ness though. There is something that melts inside of me when, in the midst of a conversation, an elder looks off into the middle distance and starts reciting some Tagore poem in that deep, dirge-like poetry recitation voice that was in vogue in the 1940s. And though I don’t really know Rabindra Sangeet, I spent my childhood weekends learning the graceful, emotional folk dance that accompanies the music from my mother, who recently brought me to tears when she did an impromptu performance at a gathering of ladies in her hometown. The women sang and clapped and my mother, her own performer’s radiant smile wavering on her face, glided and swerved her way into a timeless moment. When I was 16, I starred as the butch Chitrangada in Tagore’s famous drama about a warrior-princess who is raised as a boy since her father did not have any sons, but then yearns for beauty and female grace when she meets Arjuna one day. It was the pinnacle of my performing arts career and I remember the rush fondly. And just before leaving Kolkata, I was mooning over Kolkata’s Tagore fetish at the Rabindra Sadan Metro Station, which is decorated by drawings and scribbled notes from Tagore’s notebooks. I rushed to copy down this fragment before the train rushed in: “The butterfly does not count years/ but moments / and therefore has enough time.”

This past week, I talked about Tagore to some 50 young people at a three-day summer camp for youth served by Manav Sadhna. I talked about Tagore’s genius, but then also told the classic Tagore ghost-story “The Hungry Stones,” which was inspired by Tagore’s four-month stint in Ahmedabad when he was 17 and staying in a old Mughal mansion not far from where our apartment is. In order to make the activity interactive and connect it to a tabla and nature lesson that Robin was doing — we assigned certain tabla bols for different elements in the story, like the train, the river, ghost footsteps and the wind. After a long day of activities and dinner, some of the younger kids fell asleep

during the story — which had to be translated from English to Gujarati — but what’s better than a ghost story right before bed at summer camp? It was especially scary at the climax of the story when all the elements rise to a crescendo.

I thought I’d do a little wrap-up of the best writing I’ve seen around the web celebrating, debunking and discussing Tagore:

• Here’s a great piece in The Guardian by Ian Jack really giving a sense of Tagore’s rise and fall in favor in the West, and a wry look into the Bengali attitude about him.

“More than anything, what Tagore stood for was a synthesis of east and west. He admired the European intellect and felt betrayed when Britain’s conduct in India let down the ideal.”

• A more personal identification from Salil Tripathi at LiveMint:

“Tagore was at home in the world. He believed in its beauty and aesthetic. And he enhanced my life, through his presence on my bookshelves in the homes I have lived in over the years. His ideas gave shape to many of my thoughts, impulses, responses and emotions. It was a Tagore poem, Ananta Prem (Unending Love) that I read out when I got married; it was to that poem that I turned nearly two decades later, at my wife’s funeral, and read aloud again, for Tagore sang “the songs of every poet past and forever”.”

• A piece by the always-hilarious Sandip Roy at the recently-launched First Post about why he just can’t get it up for Tagore.

“The Bengali diaspora has ruined Tagore. I think there should be a  moratorium on Rabindrasangeet sessions at Banga Sammelans in San Jose and Atlantic City. It’s Bengali culture by intravenous drip for the second generation.” Ouch.

• And here’s a link to “The Hungry Stones” and other stories by Tagore.

“As I sat down again, thinking it to be an illusion, I heard many footfalls, as if a large number of persons were rushing down the steps. A strange thrill of delight, slightly tinged with fear, passed through my frame, and though there was not a figure before my eyes, methought I saw a bevy of joyous maidens coming down the steps to bathe in the Susta in that summer evening. Not a sound was in the valley, in the river, or in the palace, to break the silence, but I distinctly heard the maidens’ gay and mirthful laugh, like the gurgle of a spring gushing forth in a hundred cascades, as they ran past me, in quick playful pursuit of each other, towards the river, without noticing me at all. As they were invisible to me, so I was, as it were, invisible to them. The river was perfectly calm, but I felt that its still, shallow, and clear waters were stirred suddenly by the splash of many an arm jingling with bracelets, that the girls laughed and dashed and spattered water at one another, that the feet of the fair swimmers tossed the tiny waves up in showers of pearl.”


Re-launching My Literary Life in Kolkata

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.)