|Stranger in a strange land|
you seen how people hang like bats from buses and trams here?
These lines constitute the first chapter of a novel. They tell you straightaway how the rustic boy comes to this concrete jungle and looks upon it in awe. And how, after entering this madding crowd, he realises his own loneliness. But then, loneliness is his only possession — one that brings him closer to the city. Because Calcutta has no one either, nor do many of the thousands who crowd its streets.
Khokon is the novel’s central character. Standing on the ground, he measures the gap between earth and sky and concludes that even emptiness has a quantifiable existence.
The novel never reveals where Khokon actually comes from, nor which village he belongs to. Where does he stand after abandoning his ancestral home, and is he not an outsider there? This is the question the novel begins with.
But then the novel was never written. I had planned it in Calcutta some 25 years ago, in 1976. And of course I have good reasons for not writing the novel.
The days of exile in Calcutta are so helpless and chaos-laden that Khokon feels that he has no shelter at all. His own helplessness makes him angry. "I will crush it under my feet — I’ll twist the city beyond recognition and throw it, hard…" Of course, he can’t do anything of the sort. He gets angrier. Climbs on top of the Monument one day. He wants to see the village that he’s left behind. But where is it? North? South? The east, or the west?
His vision has its limits. Gradually, dusk falls. It gets dark. Pointing himself at the Governor’s House and the state Secretariat, Khokon pisses noisily from the top of the Monument. He imagines the Governor’s residence and the Secretariat drowning in his piss, and the whole city too. The people floating, drifting, like himself.
But why does Khokon think of himself as drifting? He reasons that to be human is to be in exile, to float without direction. The chain of humanity that originated and spread from Babel had Khokon at one end as a descendant. Because to be uprooted from onehomeland was to be in exile. Those who abandoned East Bengal before Independence and came to Calcutta seeking comfort — aren’t they in exile too? The so-called refugees — in their thousands in cities and villages — are they just homeless ‘refugees’? The immigrants — haven’t they been in exile from the very beginning?
V.S. Naipaul wasn’t born in India. His forefathers had left as long as a century-and-a-half ago. His relatives are spread across the Caribbean islands. But even so, he and his contemporaries in his family consider themselves to be immigrants, the exiled. And perhaps that’s why Naipaul seeks the origins of his narratives from the Indian soil and environment.
Salman Rushdie seeks the same thing, but he has his ancestral roots firmly planted in the subcontinent. Even though he’s left London for New York now and has donned the mantle of the Global Citizen, India is still the source of his stories. And keep in mind that Rushdie’s present partner is an Indian.
What I’m trying to say here is that even though these people might be in exile, the country and its culture have become their companions. This happens in public, and sometimes even unknown to ourselves. I have many examples — only they’re not quite contemporary.
One anthology of my poems, published in 1976, was titled Ei Shaoney Parobashey (‘In Exile this Evening’). I had gone to give a copy to Bishnu Dey, an icon of modern Bengali poetry. He browsed the pages, asking, "In exile? Coming from Bangladesh to Calcutta?" I reminded him that Calcutta and Bangladesh are in different nations now. "Even you are in exile," I told him.
"And how’s that?" Well, leaving North Calcutta for its southern quarter, the difference in environment and culture, didn’t all this make him an exile just as well? Dey found it amusing: "True, there are differences in the environment and influences of these two quarters. The south is influenced by the culture of East Bengal, while the north is relatively old and traditional, yet thanks to the Marwari population, it wears cosmopolitan colours…" Wasn’t his poem Everyone’s a Stranger in Calcutta wearing those colours as well?
While in South Calcutta, Dey had written these lines:
am a stranger in this jungle of people,
When the Bangladesh government asks me to leave my country, it is dusk. May 20, 1974. Just out of prison, I am told to leave Dhaka that very evening. But my mother is sick. So I get permission to spend one night in the city.
I have no clue where to go. But I have to leave. Or else Muslim fundamentalists will kill me while the government looks the other way. Clearly, the government wants me dead too, and would use the fundamentalists as the instrument of execution. "We told you it could happen," they’d say once it was all over. No government owns up to state-facilitated assassinations.
So, to save my life, I leave my country for Calcutta on May 21, 1974. I take a Bangladesh Biman flight. It is morning. All I have with me is this bag slung over my shoulder. It contains my books of poetry, two shirts, two pairs of trousers, a pair of slippers, toothpaste and a brush. I have exactly 60 (Indian) paise in my pocket. I don’t know where I’ll stay, what I’ll eat. Sixty paise doesn’t get you even a handful of puffed rice.
Therefore, from the moment I land in Calcutta’s Dumdum Airport, I am decided — I’m in exile, what do I care? I shall live on the streets. I shall drink water supplied by the city municipality, work in a restaurant as a waiter, or maybe as a porter, or in some factory as hired labour. Or as someone’s domestic servant. But I would have to get work. And before that, I would have to go hunting and pleading for it. Even for that, one needs to eat. How could these sixty paise buy me a meal?
I notice the warm teardrops only then. I wipe my eyes, but the tears don’t stop. I have left behind my homeland, my family. Will this alien nation give me refuge?
Bangladesh Biman counter, Dumdum Airport. Manned by two employees. I introduce myself. One of them is astonished. He says he’s a fan, and rushes to get me tea. I ask him if I could make a few calls. "Sure! Make as many as you want…"
I know no one in the city. So who do I call? Suddenly I think of two names — the Bengali poets Shakti Chottopadhyay and Sunil Gangopadhyay. I had corresponded with them before my imprisonment. I know they worked for the Bengali newspaper Ananda Bazaar Patrika. I call, to be told that neither of them have reported for work — no, whether they’d turn up at all wasn’t known. What now? I must clutch at every straw before I go down. Back in Dhaka, I had written poems for Desh, a weekly magazine also published by the Ananda Bazaar Group. I call up the editor of Desh — he isn’t in either. There! Even the final glimmer of hope is gone now. Then I spot the names of Santosh Kumar Ghosh and Rupadorshi on the list of Ananda Bazaar staff. I had read Ghosh’s novel Dear Mother. And Rupadorshi’s Calcutta is a pleasure cruise, ha ha!
No, the operator says even Ghosh isn’t in.
No, he’s not here either. Maybe he’s at home…
Could you give me his residence number?
Who are you?
I’m a poet, from Bangladesh. Poet — I needed that word.
The operator gives me the number. I didn’t know back then that Rupadorshi was actually the nom-de-plume of Gour Kishore Ghosh. I call him up at home and tell him my saga. "Ananda Bazaar carried a story about you just yesterday," he says. "Come over to my place, we’ll think of something…"
So I find shelter at Gour Kishore Ghosh’s place. Thus begins my life in Calcutta, my days of exile.
Daud Haider, a revolutionary poet of Bangladesh, was jailed and forced to leave his country in the seventies. After several years in India, where his poetry flourished, he now works as a broadcast journalist in Berlin